Freak of the Week - Ben Cohen

This is really exciting!  A couple weeks back I had the opportunity to interview an old friend, an, or maybe THE icon of social responsibility, Ben Cohen, of ice cream renown.

He agreed to be Freak of the Week – so here goes, a transcription of our conversation based on the usual FOW (Freak of the Week) questions.  The first few minutes of our recorded chat were lost in cyberspace so let me just say this:

Since the company he founded, with his best friend Jerry, at the age of 26 in Vermont has taken on a life outside of Ben’s everyday, he has been working hard at getting big money out of our political system.  His mission is to amend the constitution.  Visit to learn all the details about that.

This is what we talked about:

  1.  How did you and Crispina meet?

We met through Ragamuffins and expanded into Blankets.  We appreciate each other and our work.

(Cff: I think we connected first, at a Social Venture Network Conference at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY.)

2.  Who/what has been most influential in your work?

I’m mostly focused on social issues, poverty and economic disparity.  Culture is a big influence – working to address, ah hate the idea of people getting screwed because they were born on the wrong side of some invisible line.  I’m painfully aware that there is more than enough to go around if we only spent it on the right stuff.  I am driven to try to get us to spend it on the right stuff.  The key and root cause of sssooo many misplaced laws and budget priorities is that corporations and the .01 percent essentially own the politicians.  I feel like in order to make any headway on any of the particular issues like housing or health care, education or anti poverty initiatives, we need to first get money out of politics.

3.  How far are we from accomplishing that?     How far away is an amendment?

Its pretty amazing, this movement has really only started up two years ago and already 12 states have voted in favor of passing an amendment to get money out of politics.  The last one was just last week in NH.  There are campaigns that are currently running in about 5 or 6 more states this year. There’re about 500 municipalities that have voted to pass an amendment and about 150 members of congress that have signed on to an amendment.  So it’s growing quite rapidly.  It is really encouraging.  Just recently some major national groups that have never been involved in this area, have decided to commit significant resources and time to it, which is the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the NAACP.  They realize they are never going to accomplish what they are trying to do until they get money out of politics.

A big part of that is The Stamp Stampede, which is a petition on steroids.  It is kinda economic jujitsu.  It is using money to get money out of politics.  80% of the population wants to get money out of politics if we can get 10s of thousands of people stamping a few bills each day because each bill gets passed around 800 times when it goes into circulation, the number of impressions and the presence that this will have is kinda incomprehensible.

It is sustained visual acceleration visual support unlike when you sign on a petition it is a one-off thing or if you go to a demonstration it is a one-off thing but this builds on itself.

4.  Have you ever gotten one back?

I have been getting them back, as a matter of fact, Jerry and I were at a restaurant in Burlington today and paid with stamped money and they said Oh Yeah! We’ve been getting a bunch of these!

What town are you located in?

Cff:      Pittsfield, MA.

Oh yeah!  You could become one of these towns that we’re using as an experiment to focus on this.  You know, like in Northampton, we are setting up stamping stations at various retailers.  We have just been doing it there for about a week and we already have 17 retailers who have signed up to have a little stamping station at the counter.  We set up in coffee shops, bars and bookstores to get critical mass in a few small places.  You could become a Stamp Stampede Ambassador!

Cff:      That is JUST what I want to be!  Yay!

Send me some pictures of what you set up!

5.  When and how did you know to follow the path you have chosen?

Well ah in my high school and college years I was kinda focused on the idea that I didn’t have a path in my life and I really wanted to have one.  Then I discovered pottery.  That became my life’s path when I was maybe around 19 or 20.  I worked at a residential school for disturbed teenagers as a craft teacher.  I was pretty much on that path until I was around 25 or so when I tried to make a living as a potter going to craft fairs and selling my stuff.  Nobody would buy my pottery and it was kinda the most discouraging disheartening time.  I was a failure at my chosen path and I was talking to Jerry who was trying to get into Med School who was a failure on his path cause no medical schools would accept him.  That’s when we decided to start our own business.

Cff:      So you and jerry were already friends?

Yeah, We were friends from junior high.  We met in gym class.  We were the two slowest fattest kids in the class.  We started the ice cream shop when I was 26 and we figured we were just gonna have a the ice shop for a few years and then we’d sell it and become cross country truck drivers. One thing kinda led to another, the ice cream really took off.  Not really sure when I knew when to follow the path.

What we discovered was that - What all of us had always been told - What business had told us before was that its not possible for business to have social concerns and make money at the same time.  Ben and Jerry disproved that and showed that it was possible.  Once people realized that it was possible they demanded it and people who ran businesses realized there is another option here.

6.  Aside from working, how do you spend your time?

I hang out a little with my dog.  I mix work and play.  I’m definitely working most of the time, it’s kinda like, ah, being an artist or doing crossword puzzles.  This is my hobby, what I choose to do, this is what I love and enjoy and find incredibly challenging and gives meaning to my life and it’s a creative outlet.  I just do it all the time, every once in a while I go for a bike ride, every once in a while I go for a walk in the woods. Every once in a while I kayak.  I’m going to go to New Orleans to the Jazz Heritage Festival, that’ll be fun.

7.  What is one of your fondest memories?  Why?

I have one memory of going down and visiting with a guy named Maurice Purpera, who was this old eccentric restaurateur in Brattleboro Vermont.  He was just, had so much energy and love and ah you know a real twinkle in his eye and was really creative and was doing beautiful things and I remember feeling like, I’d like to be like this guy when I am old.  He was also the guy, who, when Jerry and I realized that the business was becoming kinda a big thing and we felt like it was just becoming another cog in the economic machine that oppresses a lot of people spoils the environment, that takes advantage of its community and takes advantage of its workers, we were thinking of selling the business.  He was the guy who convinced me not to sell it and instead to do business differently.  He was saying if there is something you don’t like about business why don’t you just do it different and that hadn’t really occurred to me before.  That is what started us out on this, path.

8.  If you were able to prepare a meal for anyone – dead or alive, who would it be?  What would you want to discuss with       that person?  What would you serve?

My hero has always been Martin Luther King.  I'd want to spend a little time with him.

9.  What is your favorite color?

I like a light cantaloupe color,  and some of the new hip green colors that are comin’ around too.

10.  Do you eat ice cream?  If so what is your favorite?

I have actually been eating a little more ice cream than I probably should lately.  No, I don’t make it myself, I buy it – oh, no actually they give me as much as I want.

Well,  What IS my favorite flavor?  I guess my all time favorite is Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt.  That is the one that I tend to eat the most.  I also really like Coffee Almond Fudge, which is no longer with us; I liked Coconut Almond Fudge, also no longer with us.  I liked Mocha Walnut, also no longer with us.  Ha aha hahahah.   Well it’s Easter, maybe they’ll be reincarnated – yeah!

11. What place is your favorite travel destination?

I like San Francisco and Oakland a lot. Great consciousness there. I like Paris and I like Belize.  I don’t travel out of the country much.

12. What is a goal or focus for your next 12 months?

It is going to be a few steps to get this amendment passed.  At the moment we are about one fourth of the way there, in terms of the number of states and the number of congress people we need.  We are about to go on the Crosby Stills and Nash tour with the Stamp Stampede Amendomatic Stampede Mobile which is 12ft high by 14ft long - Rube Goldberg type money stamping machine that is mounted on the back of a flat bed van.  It is impressive.

 Thanks for your time Ben!


Let's all show Ben and his noble mission some support!  Come by 40 Melville Street on May 3 from 5-8pm!  We will be kicking off our newly renovated space with a 'Spacewalk' in collaboration with Pittsfield's First Fridays Artswalk.  Included in the evening will be our inaugural Stamp Stampede Stamping station!  Bring all your currency to stamp (and spend - hee hee!)

I will have a rack of my newest designs for sale, Judy from Berkshire Poster has a new batch brewing and Matty and Kyra of Overmeade Greenwood will be here selling the worlds best (and Berkshire's own) wooden spoons, chairs and little fan tailed birds.  CSA shares from our neighbors at Brattle Farm will also be availble, and we'll have live music and beer.