New ICA Youth Leadership Exchange Program aims to empower young cooperators

10 Aug 2023

Five young people from Uruguay, Mexico, Ireland, Egypt and Indonesia met in Spain for a Youth Leadership Exchange Program. The scheme forms part of a 10-day learning journey that will have two pilot editions in 2023.

As part of the program, the five young people visited several cooperatives, including the Mondragon Corporation, ERAMAN COOP. and the Mondragon University, as well as the Ministry of Labour of the Government of Spain and the Spanish Confederation of Worker Owned Cooperatives. In addition to the visits, participants took part in a range of workshops and activities designed to enable dialogue and networking.

Watch this video with testimonies of participants:

The project, which is run by the ICA Youth Executive Committee, was launched in September 2022 when Allison Demirjian from the United States travelled to Rome, Bologna, and Brussels. While there, she visited health and social cooperatives in Italy and the ICA and CECOP offices in Brussels and attended an event at the European Parliament. She spent time learning about a range of topics, from sustainability to gender equality while meeting local cooperative leaders. She shared her experience through a series of posts on her blog.

“I cannot put into words how grateful I am for the opportunity to expand my education about international cooperative organisations in the best way possible. I met the most amazing people who left me inspired. I went into this trip with minimal knowledge and am so excited to share my experiences and thoughts with as many people as possible,” she wrote, adding that she was able to learn more in the ten days than she could have ever imagined from a traditional class.

To qualify for the program, participants had to be under the age of 35 and show interest in learning more about cooperatives. They were also asked to share their experience on social media and become a cooperative media ambassador. Those entering had to also send a motivation letter and/or video explaining why they wished to participate in this program.

Participants visiting co-ops

The concept for the program was developed by ICA G20 C20 Working Group President Howard Brodsky and facilitator Danila Curcio, Head of International Institutional Relations at Confcooperative in Italy.

Mr Brodsky said: “Inequality has continued to increase throughout the world. The world is demanding more and more socially concerned businesses, the cooperative model stands out as a significant solution to many of the inequalities happening today.

"A major initiative must be to bring more youth into leadership positions for Cooperatives. The International Cooperative Alliance’s youth leadership exchange program has the potential to connect and leverage young adults' interest, and understand the strength of cooperatives in different countries.

“The exchange would enlighten youth on the impact and dimensions of cooperatives and the role they play around the world.

“This program can represent a meaningful experience in order to be able to introduce the younger generation to an inclusive business model.”

Participants visiting co-ops in Spain

This project resembles the EU’s Erasmus Programme, under which students from EU countries can receive scholarships to undertake a period of study in a university of other EU member countries. In this case, the young people who could not afford the travelling and accommodation costs were able to apply for scholarships funded by their national cooperative federations. 

While the initial focus is on the United States and Spain, this program has the capability to expand to all 100 countries under the auspices of the International Cooperative Alliance.

The President of the ICA’s Youth Network, Ana Aguirre, said: “This is the first pilot of an experiment that allows young people from all over the world to get out of their small local cooperative bubbles and get inspired by other cooperative ecosystems worldwide. The beauty is not only to visit a leading cooperative environment but to share it with peers from all over the world and share the cooperative stories creating a peer-to-peer cooperative inspiration cycle.

“This first pilot wasn't anywhere near perfect, but there is a great phrase that a colleague of mine says every time, ‘better done than perfect’, and in this case, I think it is a perfect fit. For us this first pilot to Mondragon and Madrid was the first step of a much longer journey that falls under the pillar of leadership training in the Youth Action Plan. With participants from all the four regions of the ICA we managed a program that was as intense as it was fun. Complete strangers turned into a cooperative family within six days not even allowing language to be a barrier.

“Multicultural empathy is not something one can learn in theory, it is something that one must experience in practice, together. And this is exactly the foundation for this program. Cooperators from different regions, different cultures, different languages, different cooperative realities and sectors; coming together as one to inspire, get inspired and keep working together to build the future of the cooperative movement from the ground up. Looking back to see the future. Looking far away to see up close.”

Co-op visit

Participants’ testimonies

Omar Akmal, architect at the General Authority for Housing and Construction Co-operatives, Ministry of Housing, Egypt

“I feel honoured to have participated in the first youth leadership exchange program and I feel like I have made a huge stride or step forward for myself, for my own career, for everything I've been dreaming of. I feel like I can do something, I can be influential, I can have an impact on building a better world, on having a leadership role to represent the cooperative movement, because the cooperative movement also wants to build a better world by enabling people to make their own projects on their own cooperative terms. There are no limits. I also feel like I have bigger responsibility but at the same time I'm pretty excited to represent the cooperative movement in my own country and region and tell the youth the importance of what I've seen in the Basque Country and in Spain, especially in Mondragon. And it's time for the youth to engage more with the cooperative movement to build their own projects and to contribute to building a better world with the cooperative curricula.

“I also feel like that would make me get closer to achieving my own goals because I want to specialise in computational architecture, which is about building adaptive complexes to reach a sustainable environment, so it has similar objectives to the cooperative movement. So I probably will think about making my own computational architecture cooperative, because why not? I feel honoured to have been selected for such a huge opportunity and a very valuable experience."

Cormac Ward, member, Cork Student Housing Co-op, Ireland

“My experience in the youth leadership exchange program was amazing. Getting the chance to interact with members of different cooperatives from across the globe really opened my eyes to the true scale of the cooperative movement worldwide.

“I've come back with so many new ideas to bring to my cooperative about how we can change the way we are operating, to improve our own systems, and make them more effective and more fair and equal to everyone amongst the coop.

“I learnt a lot about how different cooperatives are structured, and also a lot about the concept of social economy, which is very tied into the idea of cooperatives, but it's not a concept that is very discussed here in Ireland.

“So it was very nice to gain that knowledge and learn it from people who are so involved and experienced within it. 

“Everything was just so educational and eye opening to what the world of coops really is. The highlight for me was meeting and interacting with my fellow youth cooperators across the week, just sharing our experiences of bonds before together, the connections we made, really sold the concept of cooperation to me. It made me very hopeful for my future within the cooperative space, and also the future for cooperatives within Ireland itself.”

Anis Saadah, the Indonesian Consortium for Cooperative Innovation, Indonesia

“Participating in this program was an incredible experience that left a lasting impression on me. For seven days, I had the privilege of visiting various cooperatives [active] at the global level, engaging with government representatives and cooperative federations from several cities in Spain. The experience of engaging with the government representatives and the cooperative associations provided a valuable insight into the larger ecosystem surrounding cooperatives. We got a good understanding of the role of the policy, advocacy and support systems in fostering cooperative development, which deepened my appreciation for the importance of collaboration between cooperative and government entities. It also highlighted the need for a conducive environment that encourages the growth and sustainability of cooperatives.The most inspiring aspect of this program was visiting Mondragon city, a city where cooperative entities are established, which is an inspiration to cooperators around the world. It started from the birth of Mondragon to its current state as a world class cooperative, where almost all entities are part of Mondragon Corporation, from the Mondragon assembly, to the University, the School or Eroski, a modern retail chain and many other enterprises.

“In the Basque [Country] I saw firsthand the role of Mondragon, as an inclusive city that is able to create prosperity and with very low inequality. Overall, the cooperative values of democracy, equality and solidarity are having a positive impact, empowering individuals, supporting local communities and promoting sustainable practices. Witnessing this strengthened my belief in the cooperative business model. The experience has left a mark on me, it has ignited a passion for cooperatives and a commitment to drive positive change in my own community. With the knowledge, connection and inspiration gained from this program, I'm excited to contribute to the cooperative movement and champion its principles wherever I go. Another highlight of this program was the exchange of experience and knowledge among the participants. We engaged in group discussions, facilitating meaningful connections and friendships. We also shared our personal stories, successes and challenges working in the cooperative movement, which further fuelled our commitment to the cooperative values and principles. Overall, the cooperative leadership program provided an immersive and enlightening experience that broadened my understanding of cooperatives. I think this program is really needed. All young cooperators around the world need to have hands-on experience to broaden their horizons.”

Eugenia Ronaldo, founding member, Cooplet, Uruguay

“In Uruguay I am a founding member of a workers' cooperative called Cooplet. I joined the Youth Leadership Exchange Program to learn more about the cooperative movement and its values and principles. Personally, my expectations were exceeded because not only did I learn about cooperatives, but I also felt motivated to continue to learn and grow. I really enjoyed visiting cooperatives, from small ones to large ones, such as the Mondragon Corporation, which includes cooperatives of different sizes. I was able to witness the cooperative values and principles in all of the cooperatives we visited, irrespective of their size. What they had in common was putting people above capital. The exchange was really interesting, we all came from different countries and had different ideas. I wish all young people had the opportunity to participate in this program because it is really motivating and life-changing. It is important to continue to promote the cooperative movement, its values and principles because, I think, cooperatives build a better world.”

Elena Morgado, Caja Popular Mexicana, Mexico 

“I learnt of this program through my cooperative [Caja Popular Mexicana] which supported me a lot. Given my adventurous spirit and co-operative values, I decided to sign up. It was an amazing experience and a challenge. It was more than I expected. I learnt so many new things! At the same time, it was very easy being there. It was a beautiful retreat, with an accessible program and route. So it was really amazing and I was able to quickly feel part of this. It was very fruitful. From the first day we had an introduction into the cooperative movement in the Basque Country - where it is at its strongest in Spain. We learnt more about the Basque government's perspective and its support for the cooperative movement and Confecoop. We could also compare this with the view of the Spanish Labour Ministry, and we learnt a lot about Spanish law, particularly on the social and solidarity economy and cooperatives. I also learned more about the cooperative movement in my own country since the Spanish social and solidarity economy law drew its inspiration from the Mexican law. I learnt not just about Spanish cooperatives, but also cooperative models in other parts of the world, in the countries of fellow participants, such as Uruguay, Egypt, Ireland and Indonesia. I loved all the places and cooperatives we visited. It was very inspiring for me to see other cooperative models. We visited ERAMAN COOP, Arizmendi Ikastola, Mondragon Corporation, COCETA and CEPES. It was really inspiring to learn so much straight from the heart of things, from experience. It was inspiring and emotional. However, if I had to choose my favourite part of the program, it would be the people, from those who made this trip possible to those who were part of it - they made this experience even better because together we are stronger. That is why I am so passionate about this and grateful to have taken part in this program. I am confident and I want to be part of building a better world through cooperatives and I can now say with certainty that I have a global cooperative family.”