How this project came about
From Jim Jones, the Producer:
“So when are we going to start on the co-op documentary?” My son Erik asked that seemingly innocent question as we drove to Texas for my retirement party in December, 2010. I’d mentioned the idea of a documentary about the very successful Austin cooperatives a couple of months earlier, but it was a trial balloon, and now Erik was putting me on the spot.
“Well, I guess after things settle down in the spring,” I replied.
The idea of a documentary grew on me. I soon became truly excited by the idea. While I’ve worked for more than 40 years with cooperative education, management and development, my degree is in fine arts, and I’m always looking for creative opportunities!
From Erik Jones, the Director:
"Many Hands" not only refers to the subject of our documentary, but also to the way it has come into existence.
My interest in promoting co-operative growth comes from what I have experienced my entire life. Thanks to the producer of this movie, my father, Jim Jones, my awareness of housing co-ops grew from a young age. His work with the student housing co-ops in Ann Arbor, MI, where I grew up, always excited me. When I was young, to me co-ops meant the Rochdale Principles that hung on our wall. Which, put simply, tell us our goals should be aimed at achieving a democratically controlled lifestyle. A lifestyle that is open to all, and benefits all, simply by bringing our many hands together.
As I got older, and my brother started living in the student housing co-ops while attending the University of Michigan, I would visit his purple house, and be amazed that 40+ people - almost all of whom were still in school - could function in an organized manner. These students had everything they needed: food, housing, community - all equally owned and run by people from extremely diverse backgrounds. And everyone there just seemed… so… happy. Happy to be a part of this group that could share meals, share the responsibilities of keeping a house, and most of all, share amazing experiences.
I realized, when there are 40 people constantly feeding off each other's creativity and passions, much more becomes possible. I would hear stories from my brother of the parties - transforming each room in the house to match a different theme, and taking inventiveness to a whole new level for Halloween costumes and personas. Organizing a pick-up soccer game on the spot after dinner, constructing a garden or painting a mural in a weekend became possible when a community was this close-knit.
So when I started school at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan (16,000 students surrounded by corn fields, massive uniformed student apartment complexes, and a monopolized business market) - I felt the bubble of my cooperative Ann Arbor upbringing burst, and I was suddenly exposed to what happens in a less cooperative setting. I noticed how many of the students seemed isolated and uninspired. And when I looked at our living situations, I could see why.
By law, no more than 4 of us could share a house – and our options for living came down to renting from this landlord's management company or that one's. In the end it didn’t matter at all because every single 'townhouse' looks and is laid out in the exact same way. "Do you want one bedroom on a separate floor, or two?" was essentially all we could decide about our apartment, which never felt like home only the number on the front door was different. We all went through our college years with heads down, feeling like drones - we didn't feel like we had power over any of the factors in our lives that make us happy.
The value of empowerment became clear in my mind: if people are free to direct their lives, creating strong communities for support, much more becomes possible. Freedom allows for visionaries. Community brings these visionaries together. If we are all looking ahead as a united, democratically controlled effort, how could we not create a brighter future? Many people seem obsessed with spreading democracy to other countries. I realize now that we need to first and foremost develop our own everyday democracy.
And so my intention for this project was born. I want to help as many people as possible realize the control they can have over their lives, and their communities. Nobody should have to go through their life feeling like a drone, with heads hung low. We should each be the creators of our society!
Again, Jim Jones:
As our project evolved, I realized that this would also be a great opportunity to bring together my friends from the past and the dynamic leaders of today’s Austin co-op movement. During the 1970s and 80s, I spent eight years working with the Austin cooperatives, and as a part of my job since 1999, I frequently visited the area. I met my wife through the co-ops in Austin and still had many friends in the community, which was why I was celebrating my retirement in that city rather than in my current home town of Ann Arbor.
For Erik, who was born and raised in a household where “co-op” was a daily word, it was an opportunity to enter into his dad’s world. I had the project management background and contacts, while Erik had the technical skills and interest. How could we not make use of that combination? With the help of over fifty Austin activists from the past and present, I wrote a history, and from that outline Erik developed a script to examine those elements that made the Austin cooperative community what it is today. Our film is a story of struggle and setbacks, growth and success over decades of time, always focusing on the underlying currents that helped to overcome many difficult challenges. For many who were involved, past and present, it’s really a love story.
And again, from Erik Jones:
Like any cooperative effort, "Many Hands" has become a collaborative process. While we had a goal, we had no story -- until my friends Megan Shannahan and Jamie Zimmerman informed me of their own search – a search which sounded very familiar. They had never been exposed to the cooperative lifestyles that I witnessed in Ann Arbor, and their search for a better way of living was just beginning. So I gathered a film crew to follow these two women as they explored new ideas for improving their lives and their communities.
I wanted to show that if just a few individuals are dedicated enough, bringing everyday freedom and democracy to their communities is more than possible - it is inevitable. I want everyone in the country to feel like their lives are their choices. My hope is to spread inspiration and chip away at the apathy that has taken hold of our popular culture.
Will you join us in our cause?
A short synopsis
“Many Hands” is the story of the food, housing and worker cooperatives in Austin, Texas, and about a group of young people in Michigan who hope to start their own cooperatives, learning from the Austin experience. Focusing on a road trip from Michigan to Austin to attend a reunion of founders and activists who built these cooperatives into a model for the country, this story of grass-roots effort will inspire and assist others across the country who wish to take more control of their lives.
We will examine the Austin co-op community as a new standard for sustainable, community-based living – an example to be followed. It will look at the history of the co-ops around Central Austin – how they came to be what they are today – as well as the attitudes and intentions that have brought success to the cooperative movement through the years – in other words, why it is what it is today. However, our goal is to reach out to people outside of the Austin co-op community, and stress how important it is that they apply the principals of cooperation in their own communities.
Of key importance to our subject are those individuals who prevented ideological isolation from befalling the community throughout its long history. These individuals are the 'connectors' who kept the Austin co-op community strong within itself, but also brought people and ideas together from all over the country at large. The narrative will be driven by conversations between these activists, past and present, as they reflect on how and why the Austin co-ops evolved over the years.
About money, and where we are now
We are seeking to fund our documentary through a combination of foundation grants, donations from cooperatives around the country, and individual contributions through Kickstarter. So far, we have received a grant and support for roughly 60% of our $26,000 budget, which has allowed us to complete most of the filming, but we need more to finance post-production, marketing and distribution.
Jim Jones, the Producer, is donating his time, and travel costs were donated by organizers and activists from the past who traveled to Austin from California, Connecticut, North Carolina, Georgia and Michigan for interviews. We’ve kept our expenses to the bare minimum, so that we can maximize compensation to our amazing crew.
We are still seeking another foundation grant, but even if that comes through, we will still need your help. If we can collect more than the cost of production, any remainder will go toward a film tour that will allow us to bring the film to audiences around the country! And if we collect more than our Kickstarter goal, that’s okay too – the more money we have, the more places we will be able to take our story.
We are planning to release the film this year as a part of the International Year of Cooperatives, as proclaimed by the United Nations and by Congress. With your help, we plan to complete our work in early fall and have our premier showing in Austin in October, which is “Cooperative Month” in the United States. We plan to enter other film festivals and then offer our documentary through both the internet and on some local PBS stations.
But we believe that we can best bring our message to those who need to see it through a film tour. If all goes well, that would take place in the spring of 2013. As the world recovers from the Great Recession, the time is right for new ideas and new efforts to create economic democracy!
College Houses Cooperative, a 501(c)(3) organization is sponsoring our film, and donations (less the value of associated gifts) will be tax deductible. Help us to show the world what’s possible through cooperative effort!
- (30 days)