What being involved as young people has meant to us


The main focus of this publication is what young people are contributing to co-operatives today. We are also interested in the lasting impact of such activities, particularly the impact of international young co-operators conferences and other similar sessions.

The following contribution is by two “more experienced youths” in the UK, both of whom can trace their active involvement back to participation in ICA Youth Seminars.

The Editors

Andy Piercy

The Woodcraft Folk, along with the Co-operative College in the United Kingdom has actively promoted international work with young people; in particular our recent links with our Canadian partners. The Woodcraft Folk have also played their part in attempting to make the ICA more relevant to young co-operators through active participation in the ICA Youth Seminars.

My own involvement in the co-operative movement has come from the Woodcraft Folk’s encouragement of all members over the age of sixteen to become members of their respective co-operative society. I therefore became a member at the first opportunity. I became more active after the merger of my old society with the London Co-operative Society. I was already very active within the Woodcraft Folk, being a member of its General Council.

During the late 60’s and early 70’s, I attended several international camps in Britain, as well as Western and Eastern Europe, and in 1973 I was one of three Woodcraft Folk members to be nominated to attend the ICA Youth seminar held in Bucharest, Romania.

I became the Woodcraft Folk’s international delegate to the two children’s and youth international movements and through study visits and exchanges became familiar with the co-operative movement in Poland, Sweden and Portugal.

I became Chair of the area council of the Woodcraft Folk, a body that had both Woodcraft Folk and London Co-operative Society members. Woodcraft Folk members were quite involved in the society, particularly because they were pursuing very progressive policies in terms of peace initiatives during the Cold War period. They also helped the Woodcraft Folk organise fund raising initiatives for medical aid for Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

The Woodcraft Folk had gaps in its international contacts, and we were able to develop exchanges with Portugal, Greece and Poland thanks to Mervyn Wilson, who was then working for the London Co-operative Society. This was to become a long-standing friendship and co-operative relationship spanning several years.

The Woodcraft Folk pioneered contact between children’s organisations in Eastern Europe when these were treated with suspicion by the government of the day. We also had difficulty with some sections of the co-operative movement. We held to a vision of a world without frontiers and without divisions between East and West.

The Woodcraft Folk were very aware of the UK’s imperial past and it was important for us to develop exchanges with what became countries beyond Europe. In doing so, we came into increasing contact with co-operatives in India, Bangladesh and Latin America. All of these new contacts involved young people and it’s true to say the participants’ experiences were life changing. Our exchanges with India and Latin America, for example, certainly resulted in members choosing to study international development, international relations or Latin American studies at university.

These positive experiences sometimes contrasted with those in Britain, where the co-operative movement has treated young people as committee fodder. The Woodcraft Folk organised all activities co-operatively, making decisions at its General Council by consensus. It is a world away from dated structures and procedures that we want to change. To this end, I am working positively to encourage greater diversity and participation.

What motivates young people are the co-operative movement’s ideals and principles and the development of Fair Trade and ethically sourced products. Working with the Co-operative Group, the motivated young people in the Woodcraft Folk want to extend these concerns to all our purchases wherever possible.

Young people readily understand why we have encouraged Woodcraft Folk members to use the Co-operative Bank, buy from consumer co-operatives, worker co-operatives and socially responsible companies.

They are passionate supporters of initiatives to help develop our work with Palestine through exchanges with its fledgling co-operative movement, a fine example of what motivated me to stay involved both with the Woodcraft Folk and the Co-op.

Andy Piercy is the General Secretary of the Woodcraft Folk, the national co-operative children's and youth organisation in the United Kingdom.


Mervyn Wilson

My involvement in the co-operative movement came directly as a result of work with young people. I had been active in the student movement, shortly after I graduated and took up a post as organiser of the British delegation to the World Youth Festival, held in East Berlin in 1973. We took over 400 young people from a range of trade unions, the Labour Movement, political, faith-based and young people’s organisations.

It was through that work that I gained my contacts with the co-operative movement. It provided us with offices and administrative support, and the education and political wings of the two giant co-operative societies in London supported the project.

Shortly after the project finished, the London Co-op was recruiting an education organiser, and they invited me to apply. They were particularly keen to get someone experienced in working with young people.

About a year after I had joined the London Co-op, they offered me a place on a small British delegation attending the International Co-operative Alliance Youth Seminar in Moscow. In those days the seminars were two-part events – two or three day formal seminars with lots of discussion, in those days particularly on the role of the co-operative movement in promoting peace (remember the Vietnam War had barely ended, and the Cold War certainly had not). This was followed by a three day study visit looking at co-operatives in Byelorussia, Lithuania, and on to Leningrad (St Petersburg) in Russia. It was that combination, a chance for open debate with young people actively involved in co-operatives from all over the world, together with a chance to look at different co-operatives, which was so important.

It was during that early period working with the London Co-operative Society that I first met Andy Piercy, who had been at the previous International Co-operative Alliance Youth Conference in Romania. He was one of the dynamic young leaders in the Woodcraft Folk, the children’s and youth organisation that is supported by the co-operative movement, and which was particularly strong in the Greater London area.

One of the biggest problems we often face is that we look at co-operatives from the narrow perspective of our own direct experience. In the UK that experience is often about consumer co-operation, so having a chance to meet and talk with young people active in agricultural co-operatives, housing co-operatives, student co-operatives, and visiting such co-operatives helps you to realise what a vast international movement you are part of.

Friendships were formed from which other projects developed. In London we ran young co-operators exchanges for many years with strong involvement by young employees. It was from that that we developed work with schools, taking head teachers to study school co-operatives in Poland, years ahead of the mini-enterprise projects in the UK. The other thing that was remarkable was how many of the young people involved in those seminars not only remained in touch for many years to come, but moved in to major positions of responsibility within their movements. Gabriella Sozanski from Hungary, for example, now Head of Knowledge Management at the International Co-operative Alliance, was a delegate to the Moscow Youth Conference, and another delegate headed the International Department of Poland’s Supreme Co-operative Council for many years.

All remained highly committed to strategies involving young people in the long-term. They became passionate advocates for young co-operators and international work.

Put simply, the experiences at events such as the Co-operative Futures Forums and other international gatherings are life-changing experiences for the participants involved. That is why I remain deeply committed to them, and will ensure that the Co-operative College continues to work to promote such activities.

Mervyn Wilson is the Chief Executive and Principal of the Co-operative College in the UK, one of the key organisations in the UK that promote working with young people. The College has actively supported participation in the Co-operative Futures Programmes in Canada, and the ICA Youth Seminars, as well as supporting co-operative youth networks in the UK.


Creator - Author(s) Name and Title(s): 
Andy Piercy
Mervyn Wilson
Publication Information: 
Youth Reinventing Co-operatives: Young Perspectives on the International Co-operative Movement – (Eds.) Robin Puga, Julia Smith, and Ian MacPherson
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Publisher Information: 
New Rochdale Press, British Columbia Institute for Co-operative Studies


United Kingdom
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