Co-op organization’s ability to accommodate marginalized groups questioned
Cameron Lane-Flehinger / The Daily Cardinal

The number of residents of the Audre Lorde co-op, which can house 15 Queer and Transgender People of Color, shrank to one lone member following issues within the Madison Community Cooperative organization.

Co-op organization’s ability to accommodate marginalized groups questioned

The Audre Lorde Housing Co-op — a tall, pale green house on North Frances Street — stands like a lonely relic of its former self, now home to only one person rather than the 15 members that it holds when at full capacity.

The 11 housing co-ops that make up Madison Community Cooperative offer an affordable housing option to UW-Madison students and community members. However, in the past few months, alleged abuses and general discontent among members led to a dramatic drop in membership at the Audre Lorde co-op.

While all MCC co-ops aim to be inclusive, Audre Lorde is specifically intended to be a home for people of color, queer and transgender people. Katherine Charek Briggs, the assistant dean and director of the LGBT Campus Center, estimated that 1.9 percent of UW-Madison students identify as both people of color, queer or transgender.

Without Audre Lorde as a housing option, students who identify with these underrepresented categories have one less safe space and affordable housing option on a campus many already find unwelcoming.

A chain of events going back several years sparked Audre Lorde’s collapse, highlighting problems within the MCC organization.

In 2013, a fire at the Lothlorien co-op sparked an argument over whether MCC would make repairs or sell the property. Steve Vig, who has been MCC’s membership officer for five months, said the dispute “caused quite a schism in the organization as a whole.” In response to this unrest, many houses in MCC went on strike. They still paid rent to their respective houses, but refused to give money to MCC.

At Audre Lorde, the rent strike prompted residents to question a different organizational problem — that of MCC’s openness towards people of color. Consequently, Audre Lorde began to disengage from the overarching organization of MCC.

“MCC is a very white organization, with very few people of color. This can lead to issues of ignorance, white privilege and white liberalism,” said UW-Madison junior Betty Nen, who identifies as a woman of color. She has lived in International Cooperative House, another MCC co-op, since August of 2016.

According to Vig and Jonah Welch, an Audre Lorde alum who identifies as transgender, many members came forward with accounts of misconduct from fellow members in the house. The specific accounts could not be disclosed, but by the summer of 2017 seven people had moved out of Audre Lorde because of the incidents and tension with the organization’s handling of them.

Welch, who lived in the co-op from 2011 to 2014, said there has always been tension between Audre Lorde and MCC.

MCC doesn’t understand the accommodations these people of color, transgender and queer folks need in the face of serious systemic challenges, nor do they have the resources to properly run a house for these communities, according to Welch.

“Also, the systematic oppression we face affects our ability to solve conflicts with each other, so I think that that is really to blame here,” Welch said.

Members continued to move out of Audre Lorde during the summer of 2017, leaving only a single member remaining who currently living in the house. A one-member co-op opposes the core values of cooperative living.

According to MCC’s website, the basic idea behind a housing co-op is “people join together, share resources equally and use collective strength so each member benefits more than could be accomplished individually.”

Each member contributes their share of rent and splits household jobs like cooking, shopping, gardening, etc. Each house makes decisions for itself, but there is also a board of directors made up of house members that oversee the general state of MCC.

Social activism and a sense of community are also key characteristics of cooperative living.

“I chose to live in International House because I like living around like-minded people who are equally interested in environmental and social justice,” Nen said.

Vig, who has lived in Hypatia co-op for the past four years, gave his own definition of co-op living.

“I’ve lived in a house with a bunch of people before, and it’s very informal and you don’t have necessarily a structure to address issues … whereas in a co-op, you lay down rules by consensus,” Vig said. “It’s a small change, but it’s significant because it allows co-ops to perpetuate for years, much beyond those people just being friends.”

And MCC co-ops have persisted — the committee has been active since 1968. MCC’s affordable pricing has kept its doors open for many years — average monthly rent is $525, and that includes the cost of food and utilities, compared to an average of $1,000 per month for university housing and dining.

Vig said he is confident in the reparation of Audre Lorde, saying it should be near full capacity by May.

“The one thing that holds together what have become various sides is that we all really believe in preserving the important goal that Audre Lorde has — being a housing co-op that is a safe place for queer and transgender people and people of color,” Vig said.

Board members implemented an ad hoc committee that will help Audre Lorde get back on its feet and near full capacity. The committee was the subject of controversy because one of the core values of cooperative living is independence from institutional control. However, the committee will eventually dissolve and hand over control to Audre Lorde members once their numbers increase.

Members of the new committee must go through an involved application process and must be qualified and invested in the mission of Audre Lorde. Welch has joined the committee and is passionate about rebuilding Audre Lorde.

“It’s so important for Audre Lorde to get back on its feet because the house is an island of safety for so many people and it’s so crucial that it exists in some capacity, with its specific mission of inclusivity,” said Welch.

UPDATE Nov. 14 11:05 a.m.: This post was updated to clarify conditions of co-op members' strike from Madison Community Cooperative. 

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