In a world where individualism is often romanticized, there are still some who never doubt that groups of people can be mobilized for the common good. They know that when given the opportunity, most people want to do their part. The great leaders cultivate a belief in everyone’s capacity to contribute to a vision and get things done. Marilyn Scholl is one of those people, and now her work is being recognized by the Cooperative Development Foundation with her induction into the Cooperative Hall of Fame in May.
In over 40 years of cooperative work, her spectacular accomplishments have been built upon a foundation of collaboration. Marilyn’s career focus has been about empowering people to find their best solutions together—and in the process lifting up a food co-op sector widely recognized in the natural foods industry for its consumer and producer advocacy, and values-based approach to retailing.
Marilyn has helped many do their part and do their best, and it’s natural that people look up to Marilyn as a role model. She has her own list of role models, too. She credits her co-op mentors (and fellow Hall of Famers) Bill Gessner, Ann Hoyt, Walden Swanson, Kate Sumberg and Rod Nilsestuen for inspiration and courage. And most especially, her mom, Mary Scholl. “She spoke her mind. She was kind but clear, and wasn’t afraid to express her opinion. She was a role model for me.”
Sabine Rhyne, her wife (and general manager of the Brattleboro Food Co-op) has also been a source of encouragement and motivation since they got together in 1994 on the Co-op Atlantic Tour in New Brunswick, Canada. “We know each other through co-ops. It’s made a huge difference for both of us.” Marilyn believes that her accomplishments are much more achievable because of the support and understanding she shares with Sabine. “It’s been a real joy to share values and perspectives because of our work with cooperatives.”
Marilyn and Sabine live on 10 acres outside Putney, Vermont, where Marilyn cultivates hundreds of dahlias that bloom every fall. When they begin to blossom, the land surrounding their house is an explosion of color with the tall plants and their sturdy, nodding flower heads lolling in the sun.
Like a lot of other Hall of Fame inductees, Marilyn has done so much under the radar, humbly doing what it takes to bring people together, all the while strengthening a movement. And like a lot of people with tremendous leadership capacity, the things that informed her work showed up early in life.
Marilyn was raised on a farm in southeastern Indiana, with her three older brothers. The community she grew up in was close-knit, by choice and by necessity. People always came together to help, whether in a crisis or simply offering to pick things up for each other when they went to town. It was the ultimate upbringing for a future cooperator, one where people took pride in their self-sufficiency as well as their interdependence as a community.
“It very much influenced how I live in the world and the work I do…There was a sense that we were all in it together, a sense of community, not trying to do things by yourself.” Her mother’s and father’s active involvement in the local school and church reinforced that even more. “In my family, to be successful was not to be rich, but to be loved and contribute to the community.”
As much as she valued her family and community, there were times when she chafed against sexism. Because she was a girl, she was assigned chores her brothers were not, like cooking and cleaning. On the flip side, her parents also raised Marilyn to be an educated, independent person, something her mother insisted upon.
Sometimes, though, those aspirations collided with the social expectation that she would become a farm wife. But Marilyn recognized the skills she was taught were important to her confidence and long term personal development. “I know how to grow my own food, put up food, bake a pie, store bulbs and take care of the land I live on. All those skills came in handy.”
In college, her life began to diverge from the farm. She got involved in the women’s liberation movement and came out as lesbian. She and her friends were active in co-ops and social movements of the 1970s and 80s. In Marilyn’s “hippie phase” she dropped out of college and with her girlfriend traveled around the country in a van with shag carpeting on the walls.
They ended up in Milwaukee, Wisc., where Marilyn first encountered food co-ops. Ironically, her first experience at Outpost Natural Food Co-op was disorienting. She came from a meat and potatoes family, and a lot of the food sold there was unfamiliar to her. She saw big white buckets with lids filled with who-knew-what sitting on the floor. Next door, Gordon Park Food Co-op was a conventional grocery located in the economically and racially diverse neighborhood. Gordon Park was one of her first and great co-op loves. “It was magical how people of that community came together to meet their needs. It was so clear how important this work was.”
Over time, the people she met through Gordon Park, Outpost and the wholesaler North Farm ensured that working with food co-ops would always be challenging and rewarding. Marilyn enjoyed business and retailing too, but only if it engaged a higher purpose. When she was offered a job to work for someone as a conventional grocery manager, her real destiny became clear. She was a cooperator through-and-through, and so instead took a job as the manager of the Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin, Texas.
Before long she had become a leader in the food co-op sector. She gained a reputation as an educator and advocate for promoting co-op ownership, including creating a customer service program, Partners for Life, that highlighted the co-op difference. She worked for the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, as outreach specialist, helping to organize the Cooperative Management Institute (CMI) and the Consumer Cooperative Managers Association (CCMA) conference. Marilyn also became a co-op governance consultant, and promoted an approach based on accountability and role clarity that was widely adopted, instituting positive change in food co-op governing dynamics. As part of that process, she helped develop the Four Pillars of Cooperative Governance, a paradigm that provides governance guidance for all roles in cooperatives.
There are many other things that stand out as defining moments in her career that changed the trajectory of food co-ops. In 2004, Marilyn led the reorganization of the National Cooperative Grocers, uniting 8 regional food co-op associations into one effective member-driven organization. She helped launch the Food Co-op 500 to support the creation of new co-ops, which later became the Food Co-op Initiative, a nonprofit organization that has supported 130 new food co-ops around the country, and counting. She was also the manager of the CDS Consulting Co-op, transforming the organization from a 4-person nonprofit to a thriving 35-member shared services cooperative.
Like the dahlias Marilyn is passionate about growing, new ideas for co-op collaboration might start out as bulbs that look impossibly small for their purpose, yet with her care and attention, end up resulting in five-foot plants with strong, showy flowers that multiply every year.
Likewise, cooperative triumphs often do not start out fully formed, fully funded or with fanfare, especially at the beginning. Marilyn believes it is the day-to-day attention and focus on cultivating relationships that lead to success. “Because of how I was raised, I developed an appreciation of small moments. If you want to change the co-op sector you start with each person, each building block, each meeting that goes a little better, those add up to bigger things. Every day I try to do a little thing. I am as proud of them as the big things.”
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