In the late 1990s, the local Winn Dixie that had served the neighborhoods around Philips Avenue for many years closed down. Winn Dixie and other large grocery chains had divided up market territory, resulting in the closing of some stores despite their profitability. The loss of this Winn Dixie turned Northeast Greensboro into a food desert.
For more than 15 years, there were many efforts to lure a new grocery store into the space. However, while the store would be profitable, it wouldn’t be profitable enough to satisfy the demands of the shareholder-based economy of a large corporation. Fed up with essentially begging for access to affordable, quality food, residents of this predominantly African-American and low-income neighborhood decided to open their own grocery store.
After learning about cooperative businesses, they decided to open a community-owned grocery store. The store would meet local residents’ needs for access to quality food and dignified, well-paid jobs. And now it’s going to happen. When the Renaissance Community Cooperative opens in 2015, it will be a conventional grocery store (like a Food Lion or Kroger) where wages start at $10 per hour.
Can cooperatives like the Renaissance Community Co-op play a role in making affordable food accessible to low-income communities? Can they provide well-paid jobs to communities that desperately need them? Can they create community wealth in some of our most blighted neighborhoods?
There are those who believe they cannot do these things because cooperatives will not work unless your community is wealthy enough, educated enough, and white enough.
But the Renaissance Community Cooperative is showing everyone that cooperatives can and will be used to solve these problems. Indeed, the struggle that Renaissance is undertaking draws on the rich history of cooperative economic development found in poor communities of color. This history has been beautifully unearthed by author Jessica Gordon Nembhard in her recent book Collective Courage.
So, while the residents in northeast Greensboro just wanted a grocery store, they are doing something much bigger and more important. They are demonstrating that communities of color, while dismissed by some as inadequate, have the power and ability to develop their own economic future.