Civic Business: Kowalski's Unique Business Identity

When you think of a grocery store, words like democracy, politics and citizenship may not seem relative. You probably associate these words with something more like "power of the people," "structured government" or "the right to vote," but at Kowalski's Markets these are some of the fundamental business principles our stakeholders use and practice every day. Kowalski's Markets is a civic business; all stakeholders are obligated to organize, educate and set policy according to democratic principles and standards. We do this in partnership with other demonstrations of the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative (MACI) to renew and sustain democracy and to create a world that is abundant and just. At Kowalski's, we're a lot more than just a grocery store. Active citizenship is part of our everyday work.

When the Kowalskis bought what was the old Red Owl grocery store on Grand Avenue and opened their very first Kowalski's Market in 1983, they began their business with a good set of values built on superior customer service and giving back to the local community they served. This solid foundation was critical as the growing company considered a larger purpose: to create an infrastructure that would be sustainable for future generations and serve a purpose that made a difference both within and outside the walls of their markets. Working with MACI has helped turn the Kowalskis' dream into a reality.

It was in 2000 when the Kowalskis received a call from Peg Michels, co-founder of MACI, who proposed to them an idea to initiate and introduce a new way of creating policy and developing active citizens in their company and local communities. The idea was that members of MACI would organize a core of leaders and set up a basis for policy making in the state of Minnesota that would renew the ideals of democracy and place the obligation to govern justly and wisely in the role we all have as citizens.

Kowalski's Active Citizenship TrainingNot long after civic business was introduced to Kowalski's and its stakeholders in 2001, company leaders were formally educated as to the principles, standards, teachings and language of civic business. They considered how these practices would be beneficial in reaching company goals while producing sustainable outcomes and developing active citizens. In 2002, Kowalski's started a three-year MACI pilot project where program leaders took a 12-week course called Civic Organizing 101, diving into the theory and practice of justice, power and politics. Establishing and educating this group of lead organizers, or civic leaders, allowed Kowalski's to effectively restate their identity and define their operating principles, while integrating democratic ideals and principles into their everyday work. One such principle requires that all stakeholders in a civic business are held responsible for taking on the role of an active citizen by helping define problems, contributing to finding sustainable solutions and striving towards the common good. Active citizens employ particular civic governing/decision-making standards and use specific and defined civic disciplines and political skills to further build their human capacity. Such concepts ensure the continual education and evolution of all Kowalski's employees.

In 30 years, Kowalski's Companies has grown into an enterprise with nine Twin Cities markets, a Cub Foods franchise in White Bear Lake Township and a Central Facility that collectively employs 28 MACI Lead Organizers, 140 Civic Leaders and approximately 1,200 stakeholders who each practice civic business in their daily work. Just over a decade in, the efforts put forth by these Kowalski's stakeholders to learn and practice civic business has helped Kowalski's create a civic climate within their company as well as the communities they serve. Today there are currently four institutional partners that belong to MACI: Kowalski's Companies [civic business], the Citizens League [civic non-profit], the Islamic Civic Society of America [renewing the public congregation] and Civic Organizing, Inc., as well as several pilot institutions, each just beginning their journey the same way Kowalski's did back in 2002. To learn more about the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative, go to

Below are some of the key principles underlying Kowalski's practice as a civic business:

Active Citizen: An active citizen is an individual who understands that they have power within our institution. They understand that the decisions they make every day impact other stakeholders, our stores and our company. They take ownership in their role; are public with concerns and suggestions; are willing to participate in planning, problem solving and policy making; and accept their obligation to contribute to the common good.

Human Capacity: Human capacity is power of an individual to know what is good, to grow in that knowledge, to govern for the common good and to be a co-producer of justice in the world. Civic leaders are obligated to organize an infrastructure to achieve desired outcomes.

Political Competence: Politics is the "work of the citizen." All stakeholders are responsible to develop the political competence to define problems, produce solutions and establish common agreements in light of civic principles and standards while achieving business goals.

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