Common Root: a diverse Lincoln, Neb. collective

Common Root headquarters at S. 24th St. in Lincoln.

Story and Photos by Laura Smith, NewsNetNebraska

Diversity in Lincoln

Lincoln is known for Husker football Saturday’s and surrounding fields of corn. But, if you take a deeper look at Lincoln you will find a diverse community hidden beneath its sea of red.

One example of diversity in Lincoln are its cooperatives and collectives. Cooperatives are non-profit or profit community organizations and businesses. They are owned and managed by the people who use its services. A collective is a group that shares a common issue or interest in society. A few collectives in the area are the Lincoln Bike Kitchen, Common Root and Nebraska Writer’s Collective.

“A lot of collectives are springing up in the United States and becoming more prevalent because of the affordance of network technologies,” said University Nebraska Lincoln Asst. Prof. of Communication Studies Damien Smith Pfister.

Common Root Mutual Aid Center 

Common Root Mutual Aid Center is a relative new comer to Lincoln’s collective movement. It started out as Lincoln’s Underground Network (LUNK House) in 2009. Its goal was to operate a public space for groups considered radical by mainstream Lincoln, like the Lincoln Secular Humanists and Animal Rights Advocates of Nebraska. The LUNK House featured a low-power community radio station and served as a place to cross-pollinate groups.

Lacey Losh, volunteer at Common Root, stands in front of a poster given to them by The Beehive Collective.

“The LUNK House was built to build community by having a place to invite strangers to join together and be a place to share like-minded individuals ideas,” said Lacey Losh, volunteer at Common Root.

The LUNK House is now called Common Root Mutual Aid Center. Directed by Lacey and Andrew Losh, Common Root holds weekly potluck dinners for the community and encourages anyone to come and check out what they are about.

“Common Root helped me become more aware of community events in Lincoln such as Slut Walk and Occupy Lincoln protests,” said Jacuque England, a member of Common Root.

One struggle often found with newly formed groups like Common Root is funding. The collective would like to expand, but currently doesn’t have the money to do so.

One thing collectives like Common Root can do to survive and grow, said Open Harvest General Manager Kelsi Swanson, is to keep up with trends and stay with the times. Open Harvest, a co-op in Lincoln, did just that over the past four decades by growing to a store that now averages $4 to 5 million a year in sales.

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Open Harvest

Open Harvest started out as a food-buying club in 1971. It had 10 members and operated out of a garage on 21st and Q St. Today, Open Harvest has 3,000 members in Lincoln.

“In 1975, the club opened up a store front which was 500 square feet. The store has kept slowly expanding over the years and eventually they opened the store we have now at 16th and S. St. in 1990,” said Swanson.

Open Harvest is a co-op for-profit that gets most of its equity to run the co-op from local members.

“Having members and belonging to the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) has really helped pool resources, buy as a group and help Open Harvest succeed,” said Swanson.

Swanson said changing their products to keep up with the times has really made their business go from a garage to a 9,300 square foot store. For example, they used to only carry vegetarian items but now feature organic meats. Open Harvest’s management system has also evolved.

“We have an extremely small management system- top down structure with staff and board of directors. By doing this, and changing our products as society progresses, we have really become a business,” said Swanson.

Swanson said advice such as this may be helpful for collectives such as Common Root as they look towards the future and expanding their trade.

Reaching for Non-Profit Status

Common Root has headquarters at a house on S. 24th St. where they rent out rooms to sustain the collective. The rooms are sub-leased from Toby Bartels, a volunteer who acts as treasurer for Common Root.

“Andrew and I split up the money we have at Common Root. Currently we are working with $1,000,” said Toby Bartels.

Common Root survives with fundraising and donations it receives at events they hold. It would like to expand Common Root to hold more events and recently applied for non-profit status.

“When Common Root first started, we received a lot more donations and did more fundraising. Now, we would like to get non-profit status and receive a grant in hopes to host more events and make Common Root more known in the community,” said Losh.

Common Root is currently staying afloat because of donations and fundraising.

Becoming non-profit would also allow Common Root more financial security and confidence between the members.

“If we get corporate status through being a non-profit then we could interact legally. Right now, I could get mad and just run off with my money, or decide to sub-lease the house to someone else and say that it isn’t Common Root headquarters anymore,” said Bartels.

One challenge Common Root faces is providing management structure for its members. Currently, Common Root thrives on having everyone’s input, not by having one direct leader.

“When filling out forms, we were supposed to provide a board of directors, we don’t want hierarchy, but want to become something more, we need to find a way to do that,” said Bartels.

Common Root’s community structure is what Prof. Pfister calls commonism, a new movement that is occuring because of some cultural shifts inspired by the Internet.

The new commonism movement 

Pfister said Common Root is part of the commonism movement because of what their name implies.

“Common Root suggests a deep connections that ought to be nurtured. I believe this group is evidence of  slow movement back towards a recognition of the importance of the common good,” said Pfister.

He believes this commonism movement is occurring because the Internet serves as a type of commons. People produce content, publish on the Internet and benefit others by their opinions.

“For example, reviews on the Internet provide a valuable resource for the commons and become something the public at large looks at. Common Root takes this to the logical conclusion, commonism isn’t just a philosophy of the web, it can thrive as a philosophy in more material spaces as well,” said Pfister.

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