Month 5: Choosing Cooperation Over Competition


Uncovering Commonalities

Have everyone in the group find a partner.
Facilitator: Use the following question for first partner to ask:

“What are three things you think we have in common?”

Let the first person talk for 5 minutes, then switch.

Now take 10 minutes to stand in circle and hear a few reflections from the group. Ask the question:

“What touched you or surprised you?


White Dog Café: How Judy Wicks’ Vision for a Humane and Sustainable Food System Created Business Cooperation and Community in Philadelphia

Facilitator: Next we will read today’s parable about building a business based on maximizing for relationships and connection rather than for profit.  Let the words touch you. We reflect here for these few minutes, less in a book club kind of way, and more in a savoring of a text kind of way. I will read it slowly. Note anything that touches you. When I finish reading we will go around the circle and I’ll ask everyone to share just a word or a phrase that stood out for them. Then we’ll conclude.

In the late 1990s, BALLE co-founder Judy Wicks was at home reading John Robbin’s book Diet for a New America when she learned about one of the “worst examples of animal deprivation and cruelty – the industrial production of pork.” Judy, who can very much be described as a person of action, also happened to be a restauranteur that lived above her restaurant, the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She immediately went downstairs to make the order that “all pork be taken off the menu until we can find hogs that are raised humanely”. (This was a frustration that evening given that customers had already ordered the pork and meal prep was underway.) Nevertheless, she persisted and this led to her quest to transform her restaurant’s menu to be entirely humane. She achieved that goal and eventually was able to say that their meat, poultry, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese all came from farmers who treated animals kindly. Nothing served in her restaurant came from factory farms any longer.

However, this wasn’t all. She began a series of table talks and tours – bringing in guests to talk to her customers about reclaiming democracy, gay marriage, and the inspiration of the Zapatistas. Customers boarded buses to visit parts of town that had different racial, economic, and cultural profiles to eat, dance, drink wine and build friendships with clientele of “sister restaurants”. White Dog became the first Pennsylvania restaurant to be powered by 100% wind power. Once while struggling with the concept of a “living wage” that would mean paying her employees much more than the going restaurant hourly rate in a low margin business, she walked past the kitchen and three prep chefs turned at once to look her in the eyes, and it struck her – “I know them! How could I not pay them a wage that they can live on!?” That night she met with her team to build a plan for how to re-imagine their budget in order to pay everyone a wage they could live comfortably on in Philadelphia. She began to say that she was using good food and fun to “lure innocent customers into social activism”. In fact, soon every aspect of her restaurant was best in class for “social responsibility” – and hers was the only restaurant in Philadelphia that could make that claim.

It was then that she had what she calls a moment of malevolence. (Queue evil laugh), “Ha ha! This shall be my competitive market niche! I will be famous and on the cover of magazines!”

And then came her moment of transformation. “I thought I had done what I needed to do in my restaurant, but I saw that I had to go much further – and I said to myself: Judy, if you really do care about the pigs and other farm animals that are treated so cruelly, and if you care about the small farmers who are being driven out of business by factory farms; if you care about the environment that’s being polluted by the concentration of waste and unhealthy practices; if you care about the workers in these ghastly slaughterhouses and factories; if you care about rural communities that are being destroyed; if you care about the consumers who eat meat that’s full of antibiotics and hormones, then rather than keep this as your competitive advantage, you will – yes, you will – share you knowledge with your competitors!

Up until this point I had always felt my highest calling was to model socially responsibility practices within my company, but it was no longer enough. After all, there is no such thing as one sustainable business, no matter how great our practices are; we can only be a part of a sustainable system. I had to move from a competitive mentality to one of cooperation in order to build that system – an entire local food system based on the values I upheld.”

Though Judy felt afraid of losing business, she made the decision to hire new staff to actually knock on the doors of other local restaurants and chefs – consulting with her “competitors” – teaching them the importance of the issues and connecting them to White Dog suppliers. She even created a directory for them to access her suppliers most easily. She asked her hog farmer why he didn’t sell to other restaurants and when he said it was because he didn’t have a refrigerated truck to make larger deliveries, she made him a loan to buy that truck. Then she went to her local CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution), and helped them to set up a loan fund for sustainable agriculture producers in the Philadelphia region. And this was just the beginning. 

Over time and despite her fear, she found that rather than losing her competitive niche as she shifted from “maximizing profits” to “maximizing relationships” – her business was thriving even more.

“Most of my business decisions that were important to me were made from the heart. When I signed up for 100 percent renewable electricity I didn’t do it because it was the right thing to do; I did that because I love nature. I love the world, I love life. And I want to do what I can to protect it. All of my decisions really came from a place of love. And that’s the only way we’re going to get out of the mess we’re in.”

Wrapping Up Your Circle

Facilitator: Now starting on my left, can we hear a word or phrase from each person? Something that stood out or touched you about this parable.

(Facilitator might want to model by starting first, then go around the circle.) 

Thank you. I invite and encourage you all to use these practices & parables in other settings – staff meetings, or at group gatherings with other business and community leaders. We are joining hundreds of other communities in doing this. Together, we can choose to meet these times with courage, and we can #ChooseConnection.

Share Your Stories

Have a story about how your company is defying “business as usual” or how the members of your circle develop a new tool or process to help others? Please share your stories so others may be inspired by your experience. We welcome you to email us stories, feedback, or photos at any time. On social media, use the tag #ChooseConnection so we can repost.