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The Legacy and Current Growth of Black Cooperatives

Growth is in food co-ops and worker co-ops, mostly in Latino and some African immigrant communities.

Photo of Mandela Foods Cooperative, courtesy of Jessica Gordon Nembhard.

An interview with Jessica Gordon Nembhard

When I first became interested in cooperative economics, everybody, Black and white, told me that Black people just don’t engage in cooperative economics. But that didn’t seem right to me. So I started studying it, talking to people about it, and participating in the US co-op movement. I found there were hardly any Blacks involved, except when they were in agricultural cooperatives in the South. None of the mainstream co-op literature talked about Black co-ops, and yet I was sure that African-Americans must have been involved.

As a community economics specialist, I had discovered that cooperatives are an excellent strategy for real grassroots community economic development. A friend and graduate classmate of mine had studied W. E. B. Du Bois’ theory of cooperative economics. So I studied his work and found overwhelming evidence of Black involvement in cooperative business ownership. We had been involved in co-ops ofevery sort in a continuous history. It was the beginning of the journey. Slowly I found out more and more, through a snowball effect, each lead connecting me to new sources of information.

The original purpose of my mostly historical work was to show that Black people do have a history in cooperatives – a legacy – that we should be continuing. Initially, I didn’t find many current Black co-ops, but since I’ve written the book, I continue to learn of more and more groups that are doing this work. I often get emails from a Black person who’s starting a co-op or interested in doing so, or who has some historical material for me. People are learning about successful examples, seeing the need for co-ops, and sharing. I think that’s why the movement is growing now.

While the examples of using the co-op model in any setting – rural, urban or suburban – and any industry are sparse compared to what we might want to see, there are some great examples. Here are a few good current instances and trends.

In 2013, Jackson, Mississippi elected a very progressive mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, who actually had planned to create a whole cooperative economy in the city. It was very exciting. His plan was to create co-ops out of many of the businesses that the city had already privatized and to help develop other co-ops. There were going to be urban-rural co-op linkages. There was a plan to have a year-long education program to train many people in Jackson, especially unemployed ones, in co-op development so they could start a variety of them. Sadly, Lumumba died [in February 2014, after only eight months in office], but despite this, the people in his administration whom he had hired to start doing this are now moving forward with a few of the co-ops, such as a waste-management cooperative. They hosted one of the largest co-op meetings in the US [Jackson Rising, in May 2014] which attracted about 500 people, predominately Black.

What I’m noticing right now is that the growth is in food co-ops and worker co-ops, mostly in Latino and some African immigrant communities. During the Great Recession, a lot of Latino communities started utilizing worker co-ops when they couldn’t get work. This growth isn’t happening as much in the Black community, but there are some instances – and I am starting to learn of more and more groups who are interested in cooperative economics.

In the South Bronx, Cooperative Home-care Associates is a worker co-op started by Black and Latina home-care workers, which provides full-time work, living wages, and benefits in an industry that did not provide these. In addition, the women-owners receive a dividend back on their ownership share every year that the company is profitable – which has been most years.

Recently the Southern Grassroots Economies Project was established to support worker co-op development in the South, in coalition with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and other groups. We’ve had three education conferences and our plan is to raise money for a revolving loan fund, as well as to support education, policy and financing for co-ops in the South.

There’s a growing interest in Black co-op farming. Black people doing urban farming or working on food security issues are now starting either co-op farms or co-op food outlets, connecting rural and urban farming, for example in Detroit, Oakland, Boston, New York City, Washington, DC, and Jackson. In addition, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been in existence since the late 1960s, supporting rural farmers and marketing co-ops, housing co-ops, and rural co-op development, as well as Black land retention.

There also seems to be a growth right now in secondary-level co-ops, which are co-ops of groups of producers-owners that help them buy goods, process, distribute and market together. They use the co-op to back them up, as a place to market their goods or do their accounting, and share most of the costs of doing business. An example of a collective marketplace and secondary-level co-op is Ujamaa Women’s Collective, in Pittsburgh. They are a group of entrepreneurial Black women that make cosmetics, food, and sewn goods. None of the women alone could afford a storefront or a kiosk even, but together as a co-op they were able to buy a permanent space where they each sell their goods, advertise together, and practice collective business development and management.

Another group, Us Lifting Us in Atlanta, is working to create and collectively own a co-op marketplace mall and an interlocking system of co-ops in the Black community.

My research reveals a continuous thread of cooperative activity and development among African-Americans over the past two centuries, because of both need and strategy. It often happens in the face of economic and political challenges and sabotage. Black cooperators have been working together, studying together, sharing resources, creating good jobs, providing affordable goods and services, developing leaders, and building economic solidarity. They have developed successful models of every kind of co-op, from farming to catering, food production grocery retail, sewing and quilting, nursing and health care, journalism, film, music production, construction, energy and utilities, education, and financial and credit cooperatives. These co-ops have often been a tool toward the elimination of economic exploitation and the transition to a new economic and social order.

Jessica Gordon Nembhard is Professor of Community Justice & Social Economic Development at John Jay College, CUNY; and an Affiliate Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. She serves on the following boards: Grassroots Economic Organizing, the Association of Cooperative Educators , and the US Solidarity Economy Network; and is a founding member of the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Gordon Nembhard’s acclaimed new book is Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.

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