Economic democracy and the fight for racial justice
We have a chance here to teach industrial and cultural democracy to a world that bitterly needs it.
~ W.E.B. Du Bois
In the pursuit of economic equity, we have much to learn from the consistent successes that have been achieved through the use of developing cooperative business models and the utilization of strategies based in solidarity economics. Examples of the success of these systems can be seen throughout the history of African American cooperatives. These solidarity economy initiatives, going all the way back to the times of slavery, have existed and thrived both in good times and in bad. They provided economic survival and community economic development, as well as support for civil rights and political activism. A few will be described in this essay.
In 2014 one of us wrote Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, which finds that cooperative economic thought and practice were integral to many major African American movements and their leadership throughout history. Lesser-known figures such as Halena Wilson, Jacob Reddix, W.C. Matney, Ralph Paige, Estelle Witherspoon; and better known figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Ella Jo Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and John Lewis provided cooperative business education and helped to establish cooperatives in Black communities. There are lessons to be learned from the African American cooperative movement and Black cooperative models that can be applied to current and future discussions about community economic development in communities of color.
Since 2020 the world has been experiencing a devastating international pandemic that has resulted in a broadly felt economic vulnerability. Social distancing and lockdowns have led to business closures, resulting in high increases in joblessness and social isolation. The pandemic has also highlighted the lack of strong public health systems, affordable health care, and insurance. It has compounded our suffering from unchecked climate change and persistent and growing wealth inequality produced by a racialized and gendered global capitalism – a system that has not just failed people for centuries but also incessantly dehumanizes people of color and reproduces their oppression. In addition, poverty and economic injustice divert our energy and activity – we spend all our time trying to feed ourselves and find decent lodging, reducing our time and energy for family, wellness, and activism. We spend most of our waking hours at work in exploitative, oppressive, and hierarchical relationships – if we don’t practice democracy and social justice habitually, in our daily lives and in our economic activities, how can we ever learn and get better at them?
Mutual aid work and cooperative institutions have successfully addressed collective crises in the past and have proliferated during historical times of crisis. Making connections between civil rights, human rights, and economic rights in cooperative institution building has been an effective way to address social ills: health threats, political threats, and physical threats. Economic justice is essential to social and racial justice; collective action and control over the economy can provide voice and avenues to prosperity for a broader base of people than the system currently serves.
When we closely examine African American history, we find the common phenomenon that even when Blacks have struggled to find employment, or have been discriminated against and oppressed at work, they have engaged in economic cooperation and solidarity. By cooperation we mean the founding of worker and consumer cooperatives – enterprises that are owned and democratically self-managed by their own workers or by the local community of consumers, not by a detached board and shroud of faceless profit-seeking shareholders. Though little-known and under-discussed even within radical circles, the Black cooperative movement in the US is one of the oldest and most successful examples of solidarity economy practices in the country. From the times of slavery through to Reconstruction, the civil rights era, and the present day, Black people have built up a solidarity economy in order to consolidate a base of material resources that placed real economic power directly in the hands of working-class Black people. Often, then and now, these have formed the economic backbone of the Black struggle for freedom against racial oppression.
The point of economic cooperation is to create cooperative enterprises that foster economic democracy and justice. It might help to define some of these terms.
Economic democracy is a people-centered grassroots economic framework, based in solidarity and cooperation. It aims to acknowledge and counteract the hierarchy and domination that economic relations are predisposed to and seeks to give workers the most decisive voice possible in how their working conditions are shaped and in the distribution of profit.
Economic democracy includes cooperative economics, which describes the establishment of democratic forms of business ownership based on shared ownership, membership, and shared decision-making. Cooperatives are values-based enterprises, companies, or businesses owned by member-owners; the people who use and provide the services or products.1See the article “What is A Cooperative” on the International Cooperative Alliance website (ica.coop/en/cooperatives/what-is-a-cooperative). Cooperatives are democratically governed (1 person, 1 vote), are created for a particular purpose and to satisfy a collectively understood need (to provide a quality good or service at an affordable price that the market is not adequately providing), and require member-owners to share risk and profits.
Cooperatives and democratic enterprises form part of a larger solidarity economy. The solidarity economy is an alternative grassroots economic framework to that of neoliberal globalization & capitalism.2 See the article “Solidarity Economy” on the US Solidarity Economy Network website (https://ussen.org/solidarity-economy/). It is grounded in everyday solidarity relationships and cooperative economic practices, embracing values of caring, support, anti-oppression, and social horizontality. Solidarity economics promotes social and economic democracy, social equality, and sustainability. It is pluralist and organic in its approach, allowing for different forms and strategies in different contexts – formal and informal, visible and invisible.
Economic justice refers to economic exchanges and distributions that are fair and equitable; that allow the greatest number of people to benefit; that do away with exploitation and inequality, distribute abundance equitably; and which eliminate poverty, private monopoly, and dominance by businesses that seek profit at the expense of human need and human dignity. It refers to the building of economies based on human values and the real needs of people and communities in order to enable prosperity for all.
The cooperative movement allowed Black people to be independent, to engage in resistance as well as to simply feed and support their families. The creation of their own cooperative grocery and supply stores was paramount, for example, when the white-owned stores would only provide them low-quality and sub-par services and wouldn’t hire Blacks. Similarly, when banks overcharged interest on loans, wouldn’t lend to Blacks, or gave Blacks inferior financial services, Blacks have created credit exchanges and credit unions. Social and political activism was often another reason for whites to mistreat Blacks or exclude them from employment opportunities. Cooperatives and solidarity economics, however, allowed the politically active to continue to organize and earn a living.
Throughout history, the African American cooperative movement allowed Blacks to pool resources to provide and pay for services they needed but did not have access to otherwise, whether due to their masters’ control or exploitative economic systems. During enslavement, there is evidence that Blacks farmed collectively when they needed to or shared small “kitchen gardens” to maintain access to their own fresh food. Some pooled resources to help buy each other’s freedom, share land and equipment, or cover the costs of a proper burial for a loved one. African Americans acted in solidarity to facilitate escape (i.e., the Underground Railroad) and started independent schools, intentional communities, and mutual aid societies. After emancipation, these practices of mutual aid and intentional communities continued. Cooperatives were used to farm cash crops such as cotton and tobacco, to collectively buy equipment and supplies, to provide insurance and health services, and to gain access to credit and financial services. Black Americans have retained a sense of humanity and cooperative practice from their African ancestors, and created alternative economic activities that were jointly owned and democratically governed to strengthen their communities and provide for themselves as well as their families.3Please note that most of the information that follows in this essay comes from Gordon Nembhard’s Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (2014), unless otherwise cited. Full citations and primary sources for specific periods and organizations can be found in that book. As we’ll see, this model of cooperative sustainability happened in every era of US history. And our preliminary research has shown that African American cooperatives also connected with indigenous and Latinx solidarity movements at home and abroad.
A History of African American Cooperatives
As we’ve said, the Black cooperative movement is a long-term research interest of ours. Past work assembled in Collective Courage documented hundreds of Black mutual aid societies, communal towns, and examples of formal and informal economic cooperation from 1780 to 2013. Particularly from the mid-1800s to the present, Collective Courage reports on about 162 legally incorporated cooperative enterprises owned by African Americans in both rural and urban areas, in the northern and southern US. Additionally, 20 credit unions and 154 cooperatives were identified by W.E.B Du Bois in 1907. As mentioned, much of this economic development has been a result of marginalization, which forced subaltern groups such as African Americans to find alternative economic solutions.
As successful as the cooperatives were, African Americans often suffered a range of challenges and sabotages due to racial discrimination and white supremacy. For example, white banks organized to decline credit requests, insurance companies skyrocketed premiums, landlords increased rents, and white terrorists engaged in targeted attacks against Black cooperatives and cooperators. Black communities reaching success would become targets for violence and terrorism.
Challenges notwithstanding, there can be no mistaking the success of Black cooperatives. Cooperatives in general have been shown to have better longevity than traditional corporations and small businesses. For example, after the first year, only 10% of cooperatives fail compared to 60 – 80% of other business models; after five years in operation, 90% of cooperatives maintain operation compared to 3 – 5% of traditional businesses.4Richard C Williams, “History and Theory of the Cooperative Movement,” Chapter 1: 7-35; in Cooperative Movement: Globalization from Below (2007). London: Ashgate Publishing Group. In addition, evidence has shown that cooperatives survive crises better, and are more able to address the effects of crises.5 Johnston Birchall, & Lou Hammond Ketilson, “Resilience of the cooperative business model in times of crisis.”International Labour Organization Sustainable Enterprise Program (2009). Geneva: International Labour Organization. Cooperatives also address market failure as well as marginalization by using joint ownership models to address economic challenges and make businesses feasible; what’s more, they allow many members of a community to build wealth. Cooperatives anchor organizations and institutions to the community and stabilize the economy, while simultaneously recirculating resources throughout. Cooperatives provide meaningful work for members and the community. They provide education and training to those involved as well as to the community they serve. Many Black communities that started cooperatives began by organizing study groups, discussing their common problems and learning cooperative economics together. Established cooperatives provided education to other community members and engaged in deliberate cooperative economic development, education, and technical assistance, promoting the cooperative model. Because of their decision-making structure, cooperatives promote democratic participation and support leadership development and civic participation. Furthermore, cooperatives provide economic sustainability. Below I review some examples of these benefits.
This myriad of benefits has resulted in several accomplishments, particularly for African Americans. Members pool resources, saving on costs that they may otherwise have to handle on their own. Many members find their experiments in cooperation result in increased incomes, leading to an additional increase in Black economic stability, self-sufficiency, and group independence as well as self-determination. Cooperatives also help to save and create meaningful employment opportunities while developing collective agency and action in the communities within which they are situated. Cooperatives naturally provide quality goods and services, as well as access that is often culturally and geographically sensitive to the populations they serve.
Especially in the early years, Black religious organizations, fraternal organizations, and independent schools often operated Mutual Aid Societies or Beneficial Societies in order to provide joint purchasing and marketing; community-based revolving loan funds; and sickness, widow, and orphan benefits in addition to death benefits. While these solidarity practices were largely informal, they are a clear example of both the benefits of cooperative organizing, and the success of pooling resources. Many of these practices and the creation of communal towns throughout the US, contributed to the beginnings of the modern movement for community-controlled economic development.
Moreover, throughout US history the most prolific periods for Black cooperative development were also times when there were the largest number of Black organizations supporting cooperative education and development. The 1880s, the 1930s-40s, and the 1960s-70s, for example, witnessed the combination of Black organizations specifically supporting cooperative economic development, Black political activity, and the creation of a large number of Black-owned cooperatives. Examples of such organizations include but are not limited to: the Colored Farmer’s National Alliance and Cooperative Union, the Negro Cooperative Guild, the National Association of Colored Farmers, the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League, the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and – most recently – Green Worker Cooperatives and the Movement for Black Lives.
During the Great Depression the Consumers Cooperative Trading Society (CCTS) formed in Gary, Indiana. Members came together to study community problems including the lack of banks and grocery stores in their neighborhood. They chose the cooperative business model, studied cooperative economics together, and established two cooperative economics courses in the adult school curriculum at the local Black high school. Their first cooperative grocery store was established in 1935. By 1936, it was considered the largest grocery business operated by African Americans in the US. Later the CCTS established a credit union, opened a cooperative gas station, and established a second cooperative grocery store – all in the depths of the Great Depression. This was one of the most important cooperatives visited and studied by another cooperative, the Red Circle Cooperative (Richmond, VA). Several who studied the CCTS credit their education program and the strong role of Black women with the success of these interlocking cooperatives.
In the South Bronx, Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) has been employing “unskilled” Latinas and African American women since 1987. The cooperative was able to establish an extensive, high quality training program for members and now leads the industry in quality training, above-average wages and benefits, leadership training, and career ladder opportunities. This unionized worker cooperative has one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry. Members benefit from union membership in myriad ways. In addition, through policy advocacy, CHCA created city and state-wide coalitions to win increased Medicare allocations for home care workers, raising their average wages. This increased the quality of all home care work in NYC and kept the cooperatives’ wages competitive in the market. As of today, Cooperative Home Care Associates is the largest worker cooperative in the US with over 1,500 worker-owners. The cooperative also contributes to members’ asset building by providing members with a retirement plan and by paying generous dividends on each member’s equity.
The Benefits of Cooperatives: Economic Sustainability, Meaningful Work, All-Around Development, and Self-Determination
The 1880s was a particularly interesting time for the cooperative movement. Early labor union advocacy was racially integrated and focused on increasing worker control over production, which included the development of cooperatives (worker cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, and producer cooperatives). In addition, Organized Labor, the Populist Movement, the cooperative movement, women’s rights and civil rights advocates all worked together. It was both a particularly repressive time because of the backlash against the Reconstruction Era, which gave rise to white supremacist violence, the Klu Klux Klan, and apartheid (Jim Crow segregation) practices; simultaneously, it was a time of strong collective resistance to repression, and demands for progressive policies. The Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union was an example of a Black political party, labor union and cooperative development organization in the late 1880s to early 1890s whose members were both farmers and farm workers. The Alliance established cooperative stores to buy goods and supplies in bulk so as not to depend on the exploitative prices and conditions of white stores. This allowed Black cooperators to make purchases at reduced prices, share equipment, and create lending exchanges to secure loans for fair mortgages, to buy equipment, and/or to buy land for farmers and farm laborers.
Mutual aid, cooperative, and labor activities in Richmond and the state of Virginia from the 1880s to the 1940s provide wonderful examples of both the move from mutual aid to incorporated cooperative enterprises, as well as the development of social and political capital and self-determination through cooperative ownership in Black communities.
The Knights of Labor, a national labor union and cooperative development organization, promoted worker cooperatives as well as women’s rights in tandem with worker’s rights. It included women and Blacks as leaders and campaign organizers in the 1880s. The Knights used boycotts and political campaigns to spread awareness. In 1885, the Knights organized the Workingmen’s Reform Party in Richmond, VA.6For more details, see Peter Rachleff’s “Labor History for the Future,” Social Policy 42 (Fall 2012): 34-36. Despite this being a period of segregation, both the Black and white District Assemblies of the Knights of Labor in Richmond (which had to meet separately) adopted a unified platform to run candidates, and won control of the City Council. Their platform included a call to hire racially integrated and unionized local workforces, as well as to hire labor-owned construction worker cooperatives, to rebuild city hall – which otherwise would have been built using unpaid convict labor. They won the election and rebuilt the Richmond City Hall in the late 1880s with unionized integrated labor, hiring some through worker cooperatives – and all without the use of convict labor.
Richmond turns out to have an interesting Black cooperative history along with an important, long-standing local civil rights movement. Virginia was one of several states with a history of successful, active, and long-lasting Black mutual aid societies and cooperatives. Richmond’s rich history and success with Black self-help, mutual aid and cooperative organizing in the 1800s might help explain the subsequent political backlash in the mid 1890s and early 1900s. By the mid 1890s the state of Virginia started restricting the rights of African Americans to vote and enforcing segregation laws.7Eben Miller, Born Along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement (2012). Oxford University Press. In 1902, the new state constitution added provisions that severely disenfranchised the Black population, such as requiring a poll tax to be paid in advance and passing an “understanding clause” in order to register to vote.
However, mutual aid and collective economic activity continued on in Richmond and other parts of the state into the 20th century. For example, after Maggie Lena Walker became Grand Secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke in 1899 (which began as a women’s sickness and death mutual benefit association in Maryland in 1867), she built up the Richmond branch, which later became St Luke’s headquarters. In 1903 in Richmond, St. Luke’s added a bank, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, to their services, and a department store. The Independent Order of St. Luke was a major mutual aid organization with 50,000 members, and 1500 local chapters, by 1924, with assets of almost $400,000 (equivalent to about $6,355,000 today); it had 50 employees in its Richmond headquarters. The goal of the bank was to provide loans to the community. In addition, by 1920, St. Luke’s Bank owned 600 affordable homes for its members; and by 1929 had consolidated all the other Black-owned banks in Richmond into the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company (headed by a Black woman, Maggie Lena Walker).
Richmond was also the headquarters of one of the largest Black mutual insurance companies, The Grand United Order of the True Reformers of Richmond, VA which grew to have branches throughout the South and East. It began in 1881 with 100 members and $150 in capital. By 1901, the True Reformers society had over 50,000 members and held over $223,500 in assets (equivalent to about $7,144,000 today). In addition, the organization had a Rosebud children’s department serving more than 30,000 Black children.
In Ruthville (Charles City County), VA, the Odd Fellows Lodge helped to establish the Mercantile Cooperative Company in 1901. Ruthville, a predominantly Black town, had a history of fraternal organizations. The Mercantile Cooperative bought a store outside of town and moved it to the main crossroads across from the County Training School. The cooperative co-existed alongside a white‑owned store across the street. By 1923 there were 28 shareholders of the store; in addition, the cooperative bought trucks and hired three employees. The cooperative society also founded the Intellectual and Industrial Union which raised money to build a new school. The cooperative store was a mainstay of the community for almost 20 years; and the members used other cooperative and economic solidarity strategies to raise their standards of living and increase home and farm ownership. John M. Craig reveals, in his 1987 study of the Mercantile Cooperative for the journal Phylon,8Phylon, incidentally, was founded by WEB Du Bois in 1940 and publishes social-scientific research from a Black perspective. Today it’s associated with two historically Black institutions of higher learning, the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUCC) and Clark Atlanta University. –Eds “the degree to which community cooperation [in Charles City County] during the early years of the twentieth century helped move local farmers away from economic dependence on whites,” and contributed to their later success achieving voting rights and other civil rights.9John M. Craig, “Community Cooperation in Ruthville, Virginia 1900-1930.”Phylon 48:2 (1987): pp. 132-140. This is an example of how a cooperative created longlasting economic stability and prosperity in a community, which increased not only the standards of living of Blacks in that community but also their political efficacy.
Back in Richmond in the late 1930s there was another cooperative success. Red Circle Cooperative Association was started in 1937 after the Richmond Urban League executive secretary mentioned the Consumer Cooperative Trading Company of Gary, Indiana in a speech. A group of Blacks then got together to form their own cooperative and organized a membership drive and education drive; before long they were holding monthly meetings. They started with 35 members paying $1 each to join. This grew to 125 members, each with equity of $1,200 by the end of their first year in 1937. Members went on study tours around the country to learn more about cooperatives. In 1938, the cooperative society opened a grocery cooperative retail store, in old Jackson Ward across the street from a branch of the largest grocery chain in the US at that time, which had refused to hire Black clerks. Red Circle Cooperative competed well against the chain store, which tried to gain favor by hiring their first Black employee. This was too little too late. By 1939 the cooperative served 100,000 people; and in 1940 had 400 members, 4 employees, and revenues $700/week (equivalent to $13,585 today or annual revenues of about $706,420 in today’s dollars) – surpassing the white supermarket chain. The cooperative even paid annual dividends to members of 1% of their purchases.
Other major cities in the USA had similar mutual aid and cooperative activities in Black neighborhoods, but they were not always as well reported or known. Some cities that have seen Black cooperatives in the past and present include New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago, Jackson, Atlanta, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Many Black cooperatives (farm cooperatives, marketing cooperatives, credit unions, artists cooperatives, etc.) were also found in rural areas.
The Freedom Quilting Bee is another example of African Americans using cooperatives to address gaps and discrimination in their communities and to establish stability and economic independence. In 1967, sharecropping women organized a sewing cooperative to sell their quilts for additional income. In a few years, the cooperative purchased 23 acres of land and built a sewing factory. Working outside their homes and owning a building and land enabled them to develop services to address their own needs and contribute to the community. These services included a childcare center, as well as after school programming for youths. The cooperative was also able to help other sharecroppers own their own land, an important need during this time as they could be evicted for simply registering to vote. By 1992, the Quilting Bee was the largest employer in town. Freedom Quilting Bee was also one of the founding members of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1967.
Now over fifty years old, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FSC/LAF) is an organization of Black cooperatives and state cooperative associations that promote cooperative development among low-income families and people of color as well as Black land retention throughout the southern US. They also provide technical assistance in the Caribbean and Africa. The FSC was established in 1967 after a meeting between the major civil rights organizations at that time, several Black cooperative developers, and 22 Black cooperatives. The group agreed that there needed to be a substantial regional Black cooperative development organization in the South, and raised the money to establish the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. In 1985 the FSC merged with the Emergency Land Fund to become the FSC/LAF, and has continued to support cooperative development and sustainable agriculture throughout the South; as well as to impact state and federal legislation to support Black farmers, Black land retention, and cooperative development.
Cooperation as a Political Strategy
The Black Panther Party, an “inter-communalist” organization, began in 1966 in Oakland, CA, to combat police brutality. The Panthers realized early on that self-defense did not just mean armed defense, but also required economic and social “survival programs pending revolution” to combat state violence, maintain public safety, and prepare people for a socialist economy.
The Panthers engaged in community organizing to manage and provide myriad services to their communities. Notable successes include distribution of free shoes, clothing, health care, and food that was often produced through cooperatives and collective activity. The Party provided free health clinics to support health care initiatives and engaged in a series of other necessary local services including plumbing and other handy-work, pest control, transportation for the older adult population,10John Curl, History of Worker Cooperation in America (1980), Homeward Press. For a more updated version of this history, see Curl’s For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America (2009) from PM Press. as well as the more famous free breakfast program for children. More specific to the cooperative movement, the Black Panther Party supported communal and cooperative housing, cooperative bakeries, and a collectively run and produced newspaper. These collective and cooperative ventures enabled them to find affordable ways to build community economies, provide needed goods and services to their communities, and provide income to members. They also countered the repressive and oppressive economic and social practices with more humane, community-controlled practices. Solidarity and cooperative economic activity allowed them to walk their talk and provide viable alternatives.
Many movements today are building on the model of the Black Panther Party. The Movement for Black Lives Platform is a key example, working to include economic justice in their platform and their fight against police brutality and the Prison Industrial Complex. Specifically, their 2016 Platform supports the development of cooperative or social economy networks, demands economic justice for all, and calls for the economy to be reconstructed, ensuring that Black communities have collective ownership.11Specifically, the “Economic Justice” section of the Platform supports state subsidy for a Black cooperative sector in Plank 7 (“Through tax incentives, loans and other government directed resources, support the development of cooperative or social economy networks to help facilitate trade across and in Black communities globally. All aid in the form of grants, loans or contracts to help facilitate this must go to Black led or Black supported networks and organizations as defined by the communities”) and Plank 8 (“Financial support of Black alternative institutions including policy that subsidizes and offers low-interest, interest-free or federally guaranteed low-interest loans to promote the development of cooperatives (food, residential, etc.), land trusts and culturally responsive health infrastructures that serve the collective needs of our communities”). It can be found at https://m4bl.org/policy-platforms/economic-justice/. Additionally, they stress the need for financial support of Black alternative institutions, including cooperatives as well as land trusts, and culturally responsive health infrastructures that serve the communities’ needs. They contend that everyone has a right to restored land, clean air and water, housing, and ask for an end to the exploitative privatization of natural resources.
Looking towards the future, preliminary research supports the hypothesis that cooperative business ownership provides dignified work and ownership benefits as well as develops social capital and more control over one’s life for incarcerated and previously incarcerated people. Cooperatives in Italy, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Ethiopia, for example, include social cooperatives whose employee-owners are social service providers in the criminal justice system, as well as craft, agricultural and other producer and worker cooperatives owned at least in part if not entirely by incarcerated or previously incarcerated people. Cooperativa de Servicios ARIGOS in Guayama Penitentiary in Puerto Rico is a worker cooperative of artists. It provides an example of the impacts and benefits gained from cooperatives owned by incarcerated people. Among all the benefits, cooperative business ownership provides more control over one’s working conditions, decent humanized work, actual rehabilitation, and reduces recidivism.
It was the incarcerated artists themselves, in Guayama Penitentiary, who demanded cooperative business education and the right to own their own cooperatives. They were also the ones who petitioned for a change in the state law, and then founded Cooperativa ARIGOS. Their sense of comradery, connectedness, and productivity allowed them to grow and transcend the inhumanity in prison. Creating their own dignified work environments, controlling their own businesses together with other inmates, and earning enough money to help support their families, made a huge difference in every aspect of their lives.12Jessica Gordon Nembhard, “How Prisoner Co-ops Reduce Recidivism: Lessons from Puerto Rico and Beyond” in Nonprofit Quarterly (19 May 2020).
Lessons Learned from Black Cooperative History
The African American cooperative movement has been a mostly silent partner of the Long Civil Rights Movement in the US – throughout the struggle for Black liberation, activism for political, legal, and social rights was supported by demands for economic justice and cooperative economic practices. Early on African Americans realized that without economic justice – without equality, independence, stability, and prosperity for all – social and political rights were hollow, or not even achievable at all. In an editorial in 1933, W.E.B. Du Bois summed up the power of a cooperative economy for a subaltern population:
…we can by consumers and producers’ cooperation…establish a progressively self-supporting economy that will weld the majority of our people into an impregnable, economic phalanx.13W.E.B. Dubois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940). New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. Reprinted in: W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings (1986), ed. Nathan Huggins, 549-801. New York: The Library of America.
Seen in light of its real historical significance, the African American cooperative experience has a number of lessons for us today. These include:
The importance of education, study groups and training – learning from each other, informal study, formal study and specific training.
The significance of organizations and organizing – getting the word out, technical assistance for cooperative economics education; and establishing power in numbers.
The significance of community support, and a sense of solidarity between cooperative members and the community. Community support includes community involvement, in study groups, in starting the cooperative, donating to the cooperatives, and defending the cooperatives in a variety of ways.
The necessity of pooling resources and leveraging resources, sharing risks and resources, and sharing the benefits and profits.
Developing and maintaining democratic participation, internal solidarity and trust.
Recognizing and supporting the strong role of women, and participation of youth.
Democratic economic participation and joint decision making develop social capital and leadership skills.
We are still in a time when economic democracy and justice are imperative if we want political, social, and racial justice. Cooperative solidarity economies continue to be an important and essential strategy toward those goals.
Jessica Gordon-Nembhard is author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Thought and Practice; Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development in the Department of Africana Studies, John Jay College, City University of New York. A political economist, mother and grandmother, she specializes in community economic development, solidarity and cooperative economics, Black Political Economy, racial wealth inequality, and community-based approaches to justice.
Susan Nembhard is a criminologist specialized in victimology and victimization. Her research focuses on understanding community-informed approaches to justice and safety, particularly focused on understanding the effects structural violence and lack of resources have on the community. She additionally works in areas understanding the perceptions of safety and how different approaches to crime impact those perceptions.