In My Opinion: Youth Activities Yield a Broader View of the Co-op Movement

By Kent Ford

Electric co-ops were originally developed in the communities they serve, where they remain rooted, maintaining a strong link and commitment to them. The Youth Tour and Youth Leadership Council help this commitment flourish by educating youth about the history, functions and opportunities of co-ops.

Two years ago, if asked about cooperatives, I probably would have known only the name of my local co-op, Pearl River Valley EPA, based in Columbia, Miss. If asked to identify my community, I would have described the area where I live, which is Hattiesburg.

Now, however, my responses to both questions would be very different.

This past year, I have learned why co-ops were founded and how they spread electricity across rural America. When the Youth Leadership Council (YLC) visited NRECA headquarters last July, we learned how co-ops operate today, working with their communities and one another to provide the best and most efficient services.

I saw this “cooperative” nature firsthand following Hurricane Katrina when co-ops from other states dispatched emergency crews to our community in Mississippi, before the storm even made landfall.

I also realized that co-ops are involved in exploring renewable energy, as well as other types of technology. Imagine my surprise when I learned that local co-ops contribute through NRECA’s International program to spread electricity to rural areas of Bolivia, southern Sudan, the Philippines and other countries.

Suddenly, I realized that what I thought was merely about my local community was actually part of a much larger community.

Perhaps the most important influence of the Youth Tour and YLC on me has been in my concept of community. I had the opportunity to meet students from 44 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and the friendships I made will never fade. Even though we came from different settings and lifestyles, and even though we had different accents, we each realized that we were basically the same.

At NRECA’s annual meeting in February, my fellow YLC members and I had the opportunity to work firsthand to help our co-ops, and in turn, our communities. Through our work at the Congressional Action Center, we were able to educate co-op members about congressional issues affecting cooperatives and send more than 6,000 e-mails to representatives and senators on behalf of those members.

This took what I had been learning in my American Government class to a new level, as I actually took on the role of a citizen-lobbyist.

Through the Youth Tour and YLC, I had the opportunity to see what can be accomplished by working together. I realized that we do not need to limit ourselves to what appears to be our immediate community, but our national and international communities can, and do, work together to help one another in the cooperative spirit.

The friendships and experiences, and lessons about life, leadership and even myself that I gained from the Youth Tour and Youth Leadership Council are invaluable, and it is an experience I would recommend for any young person.

Kent Ford of Hattiesburg, Miss., is the National Youth Leadership Council spokesperson.