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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Unsung Cooperative Hero Award & Ella Jo Baker

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April 20, 2023
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Everything Co-op continues its recognition of the 2022 Cooperative Hall of Fame Inductees. Vernon interviews Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, Ph.D., Professor at John Jay College, and Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, Co Editor at Grassroots Economic Organizing. Both are also economic social justice advocates. Vernon and his guests will discuss the Unsung Cooperative Hero Award, and its first recipient Ella Jo Baker.

Author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (2014)1 , and 2016 inductee into the U.S. Cooperative Hall of Fame, Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, Ph.D., is a Professor at John Jay College, City University of NY. She is a political economist specializing in cooperative economics, community economic development, racial wealth inequality, Black Political Economy. She is a member of the Cooperative Economics Council of NCBA/CLUSA; the ICA Committee on Co-operative Research; an affiliate scholar with the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskatchewan; and past board member of Association of Cooperative Educators.

Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo is passionate about cooperatives as a community economic development tool and lifestyle strategy. She has an MBA and a Masters in Community Economic Development, and also earned a degree in Mass Media Arts from the University of the District of Columbia. She is a co-founder of the Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community Cooperative, an affordable housing cooperative in Washington, DC, and was a founding board member of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Ajowa has a wide range of experiences on various boards and is a long-time member of the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. She also has a passion for working around internalized superiority/inferiority issues, and the role of love and spirituality in changing the world.



Announcer: Welcome to everything Co-op, bringing you information on how cooperatives can help improve your quality of life. This show is being sponsored by the National Co-op Bank (NCB) The NCB is dedicated to strengthening communities nationwide for the delivery of banking and financial services for the nations cooperatives, their members, and other socially responsible organizations. For more information on the power of community ownership, visit Now stay tuned for your host Vernon Oakes.

Vernon Oakes: Good morning, everybody. This is Vernon Oakes. Welcome to everything Co-op. This morning we have the pleasure of talking to Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, and Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo. We are going to talk about the unsung heroes. Let me just start off by saying good morning to you guys. How are you doing?

Ajowa Ifateyo: Very well.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: I'm fine. Thanks so much.

Vernon Oakes: All right. And Dr. Nembhard- can I call you Jessica?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Yes.

Vernon Oakes: Okay, so let's start with Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard to tell us what is the Co-op Heroes and the Unsung Hero.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: So the National Cooperative Business Association and the Co-op Development Foundation created this honor, the highest honor in the U.S. co-op movement called the Co-op Hall of Fame. And about, what, four or five people a year are and inducted as co-op heroes. And basically, it's recognition of a lifetime of service, dedication and accomplishment in the co-op world, either as a co-op educator, or in a specific industry like credit unions, or co-op education, or electric co-ops, or food co-ops. And so recognizing people who have done above and beyond just being a good movement member, but also making a real difference in their communities - continual lifetime difference in their communities.

Vernon Oakes: And do you know anybody that's been a hero- a Co-op Hero?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: [laughing] The way you ask that question. Yes, I was inducted in 2016.

I know lots of heroes. Carmen Huertas-Noble, another colleague of mine at CUNY who's a co-op law professor and community law professor, Ralph Page from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and several of his staff and colleagues have been honored. So I do know some people, and of course I've participated in some of the events. So I've met people over the years who have been inducted. So there's what, about three or four a year? It started in 1974. It's almost 30 years now, right? And that there's probably about 120 people inducted, maybe a little less. There's a plaque- there's a whole wall in the CLUSA building in D.C., that has the plaques. And then the nominating group gets a plaque, and then the the honorees get actually get a glass sculpture of Twin Pines, the honoree, the Co-op Hero.

Vernon Oakes: So your contribution was what? Why were you inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: I was inducted as a co-op researcher, especially my contribution to our knowledge about the history of African-American cooperatives from my book and research. My book is called Collective Courage A History of African-American Cooperative Economics and Practice. And the research I did there, and also actually, I was nominated by the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops, because a lot of my work and a lot of my co-op activism has focused on worker co-ops: understanding their benefits to communities, being able to measure their accomplishments, as well as I'm a co-founder of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a co-founder of the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. And so I've done a lot of activism around worker co-op development in addition to the research I do.

Vernon Oakes: When I really look at your resume, I would think you were about either 100 years old or 200 years old, because you just contributed a lot. And I am so pleased to know you, and had the opportunity of talking to you. So Ajowa, how did you get involved in this co-op world?

Ajowa Ifateyo: You know, I got involved through Jessica. Jessica was enabling me to go to the first Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. She helped to organize that. That was in College Park in 2001 or 2002.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: 2002. It's our 20th anniversary this year.

Ajowa Ifateyo: Yes, yes. So I went there. I was just so amazed at all of the people and all the ideas and the co-ops - the older people, the younger people, it was just fascinating. And I came away thinking, I can do that? And so I got two friends together and we actually tried to start a co-op in D.C. around that time. And then Jessica also invited me to work with Grassroots Economic Organizing. And so that publication covers co-ops, advocates for co-ops and alternative economic solutions. And so we Jessica and I, at one point, we're the only two black people in the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops, and doing this work, that we knew of, what, 20 years or something? Or maybe not 20, but most of the time- yeah, for a long time. And Jessica was doing her research for the book because the whole thing was people thought that co-ops was something white people did. And Jessica brought a whole new understanding to that, which she did. Work on her book really showed that that was the way black people survived. But I don't want to steal her-

Vernon Oakes: So Jessica told us on the air that people thought it was white hippie people - tofu-eating hippie people - that were into co-ops and did not know the whole history that blacks were in it, and farmers were in it, and credit unions, etc. There's so much besides food co-ops, which the hippies were into. But you mentioned something I like to keep talking about Ajowa, is why did blacks use it to survive - this co-op model?

Ajowa Ifateyo: That was the only thing that we had. We were excluded from society, and so Black people set up mutual aid societies, that Jessica talks about in Collective Courage. Mutual aid societies to give services that were denied to us after slavery, and then, DuBois starting co-ops. And it was just the way that we could handle our business. But Jessica is the expert on that.

Vernon Oakes: She is. And it seems to be just common sense almost, that if we don't have very much, if we pooled our pennies, our nickels, our dollars - whatever we have - we can get so much more done. And for me, that's the whole Black church. The whole Black church, they started Black universities and etc. It's just pooling what resources we had in terms of dollars, but also skill sets and working together. And too often, in my experience, we don't give ourselves Black folks, don't give ourselves enough credit for that. How we did so much with so little. Jessica?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: And we know that a lot of the early mutual aid societies, and a lot of the early co-ops started in churches, or with church congregations, or in religious institutions. So there's a whole connection between that collective tithing and working together, and then sort of doing it spiritually, a little bit economically, through the religious organizations, and then taking it totally into the business model, as they see it working and as they're comfortable doing it. So it's actually the very earliest mutual aid and co-ops started through churches and religious institutions, and then through Black schools. Those are the first two institutions that really ended up supporting co-op development the most.

Vernon Oakes: Okay. And why do we need an unsung hero category in the Hall of Fame, Jessica?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Well, if you look at the Hall of Fame winners, I mentioned some of the people I know, but I mentioned mostly people of color. But we're a very tiny group out of that whole group. Whatever I said, 120 or whatever, when we started looking at it, there are only about 11 women. Most of the heroes were white men. And even of the 11 women that we found had been honored, I think it was seven of them were honored with their husbands. So only four women were honored individually for themselves.

There were, what, about maybe another 5 to 7 black folks? I don't think there were any Latinx people honored, until Carmen Huertas-Nobel. And so we realized that there was, from 1974 when it was started, there was a whole missing segment, and then from the past right? And actually, it was Margaret Lund who came to me and said, "You know, you uncovered all these heroes from the past. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way that the Co-op Hall of Fame could recognize some of them, too?" In addition to starting to rewrite the history - that other people of color, women were- so that the heroes weren't dominated by men being honored.

And so she and I put a proposal together to the Cooperative Development Fund, and had long talks with them and the board. And everybody thought it was a great idea. So we were able to get a new category last year for this year's winners. We actually had a separate selection process because it was after the original selection process. We also realized that there was more research that needed to be done, and so the CDF was able to use some of their education grant funding to fund the research for three nominations. And so we're willing to continue to do that. So there's a fund out there every year to do research, to do the Unsung Hero applications as thoroughly as possible.

Vernon Oakes: So CDF is [Cooperative] Development Fund...[Cooperative] Development Foundation.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: I don't know, I keep calling it both.

Vernon Oakes: Okay. So go there to find out all about this Cooperative Hall of Fame. And this is their main annual fundraiser.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Isn't there

Vernon Oakes: Yes, it's And by the way Jessica, I just put my arithmetic hat on - 1974 to 2024 would be 50 years, times four would be 200. So approximately 200 people.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Sometimes are only three winners, but yeah. So more than we were thinking. But anyway, they were dominated by white men and we realized part of the reason was that the contributions of other people - that are normally marginalized in our society - hadn't been raised, and we needed a way to do that.

Vernon Oakes: And this first Unsung Hero is who?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Ella Jo Baker. So one of mine, and actually Ajowa's sheroes, and Ajowa talk more about her because Ajowa was the one who did the research for the nomination. But, you know, she figures very prominently in my book because really, even though she's not known for it - she's known for her civil rights activities in the fifties and sixties - she, in the thirties, was one of the co-founders, and was the national director, of the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which was a very important organization throughout the Depression, that focused black folks, especially black youth. On cooperative development.

Vernon Oakes: We'll be right back. We're going to talk more about Ella Jo Baker and the National Cooperative Negro League right after this break. Please don't touch that dial.

Welcome back, everybody. This is Vernon Oakes and the program is Everything Co-op. We have Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nemhard on the show. She is the author of Collective Courage, and she is a winner of the Cooperative Hall of Fame. And we're here talking today with Dr. Gordon-Nembhard and Ajowa Ifateyo about the first recipient of the Unsung Heroes. And the heroes this year will be inducted into the Co-op Hall of Fame on October 6th. So it's right around the corner. And that first inductee is Ella Jo Baker. So, Ajowa how did you find out about Ella Jo Baker? Because you were part of creating a co-op, the Ella Jo Baker Housing Co-op- and I don't know the whole name.

Ajowa Ifateyo: Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community Cooperative. I found out from Linda Meeks, who was a housing organizer in DC. She saw the gentrification that was happening at the time and she had already set up several co-ops herself - like 15 or 16 of them - and she wanted to save housing for organizers, so that we could continue to live in DC. So we found five or six houses in Columbia Heights, and Linda said, "We have to name this after Ella Joe Baker, because she was into cooperatives and she was a proponent of grassroots leadership - bottom up leadership - which is what we believe in, that we as individual people had the smarts, the knowledge, the passion to figure out what we wanted; and had the skills or could develop the skills to do it. And so we organized Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community. Her middle name is Josephine and she was affectionately called Ella Joe, and so that's how we named our co-op. And so yes, we all have a love for Ella Jo Baker, so when it came time to do the research, of course I wanted to do research on Ella Jo.

Vernon Oakes: Yeah, okay. Dr. Nembhard, you said that she's prominent in your book? What struck you most about Ella Jo Baker when you were doing your research for your book; which I understand from you it took you about 15 years to do that research.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Yeah, it was very hard to get all that research together, and for me to feel like I was ready for it to be a book, because there's so little documentation. There was fragmented information, and it took a long time. But one of the things - and I actually don't remember who told me that Ella Jo Baker was involved in co-ops - but somebody tipped me off. I was able to go to the Schomburg Center for Research in New York City, part of the New York City Public Library - it's a Black research center - because that's where the Archives for the Young Negroes Cooperative League is.

And so as I started to read through her archives, the part about her cooperative work and the Young Negroes Cooperative League, I found out what a force she was in co-op education. So her job as the national director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League was to help local chapters to form, and to start cooperatives. And they focused first on consumer cooperatives, but their notion was consumer cooperatives would be the thing that could drive worker co-ops, and factories, and credit unions, etc.

So they had a whole five year plan, that first you would get a few people together to do a buying club, to address their food needs. And then as they got together and learned how to cooperate, they would form coalitions, and then create a local credit union, and then other local co-op stores and things. And then those stores would collect together into regional councils, and the regional councils would all then have representatives in the national group.

They had national conferences. I actually got the inspiration for the name of my book, Collective Courage, from something she wrote in one of the first newsletters. She did monthly newsletters to the members, in addition to traveling around the country, to all the chapters to talk about how to start a buying club, how to start a credit union, and how to be a cooperators, what it means to be a cooperator. And one of her newsletter entries was, you know, "It takes courage. Don't think this is going to be a fast fix. Don't worry if the first effort doesn't work. It takes courage and endurance persistence to do this co-op work."

And if we look at the history of other groups having done co-ops, you can see that, right? It didn't happen overnight. We have to retrain ourselves, etc. And so I thought, oh, you know what that's a fascinating way to look at this whole history, because I was also finding in the history - and this is another story - but how much sabotage and white supremacist violence was happening against the blacks and against the black co-ops. And so this notion that it took collective courage throughout our history to even engage in the movement, to even start these co-op businesses, really for me encapsulated what I was finding. And it was from her- it was her inspirational words that gave me that title.

And then, as a black woman, her very first speech at the very first conference of the Young Negroes Cooperative League was the role of black women in the co-op movement. And that also just struck me, because I was finding throughout history that black women actually had a stronger role in the co-op movement than any other group of women in the U.S., when I was trying to study women's roles in co-ops. And that was also fascinating, especially because I'm a black woman, but I was fascinated by that energy, and the way even the black male cooperators talked about how important the black women, and the black women's guilds were to all the co-ops I was finding out about.

Vernon Oakes: So it's interesting, when I thought about black women, it was compared to {undechipherable} working with housing co-ops, that most of the board members were black women - most of the board presidents in the Washington, D.C. area - as opposed to black men. I never thought about it, as you just said, that all women - the black women - are more involved in cooperation. That's very, very interesting. Do you have any sense of why that was so?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: You know, I was trying to figure it out, and the best way I could figure it out was in the black community, unfortunately, black men have been totally emasculated by white capitalism and white society, right? I hate to say it that way, but in many ways, black men were targeted more when they tried to do things. Sometimes, like in the black churches and stuff, they were kind of the face of things, but it was the women who really did this stuff. And then in co-ops, you know, the black co-op movement really, totally grew out of the mutual aid movement and the mutual aid movement, was mostly black women, because again, I think black women were the ones who were doing educating, right? There were educators, they were nurses. So they were doing the health, the education, the community work, the caring work.

They were afforded the ability to do it when men weren't really either recognized or encouraged to do caring work. And so I think that whole combination of their status in society, even though their status is lower than black men, the things they were allowed to do were the kinds of things that mutual aid and co-ops we're trying to do. And so they were able to kind of fit in there, take over.

I also have a colleague, a black woman economist, who talks about the ways that black women- the caring work and the community work, even though our regular society and economics counts as volunteer work, was really solid labor. And we have to understand black women's labor contribution, not just as the labor they did to bring in income, but also the labor they did what we call social reproduction to reproduce our families, our world, to reproduce our societies, right?

So all that caring work, all the community activism, we really have to count that as labor and recognize it. And again, black women are the ones at the forefront of that. So I think all that connects to why they were more leaders; had more leadership and stronger roles in the co-ops. And also I found they had strong roles in the greater co-op movement. Ella Baker was involved in some of that. The other nominees: Nannie Helen Burrows, was actually recognized through CLUSA D.C. chapter for all the co-op work she did in the 1930s; Halena Wilson was doing all kinds of co-op work, and recognized in Chicago by the greater co-op movement for her leadership. And in fact, whenever they did any new co-op projects between labor and the co-op world, they invited her because she understood both.

So lots of the black women were also able to, what do you call it, "bridge two worlds," right? Connect to the white co-op movement and things like that, and were recognized as a force, and somebody who could bring people out, who could keep things going, who knew the importance of co-op education, and continued to educate people, encourage people to keep going. Even when it looked- when it was hard going, that kind of thing.

Vernon Oakes: And I like Fannie Lou Hamer, by the way, too. I'm from West Virginia. See that Southern accent, and we always don't sound like there's much going on upstairs, and when she opened her mouth, just brilliance came out. It's phenomenal to listen to her story.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: But also that holistic view of all the things that a community should do, right? Because Fannie Lou with Freedom Farm and everything, it was farming so that there was food security. They did childcare - worker co-op, childcare - they were doing affordable housing and housing co-ops. She said all this has to be collectively owned.

Vernon Oakes: And we're going to take our second break. And when we come back, we're going to get more into Fannie Lou Hamer's life and what she what she accomplished, and Ajowa, we'll be interested in your research and what you found out. We'll be right back. Please don't touch that dail.

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Vernon Oakes: Welcome back, everybody. We're going to talk now- Ajowa, so what did you find out about Ella Jo Baker in your research? What was the most striking thing about her life that you found?

Ajowa Ifateyo: Well, one of the most striking things is that her whole community, her way of living prepared her for her work in the cooperative movement. She was born in Norfolk, where her father had moved to find a job. She was born in 1903, only 38 years after slavery had ended. And so her father went to Norfolk to find a job; he is from Warrington, North Carolina.

And in 1910 - you know, Ella was born in 1903 - and 1910, there was a race riot after Jack Johnson beat James Jeffries in a boxing match. And white people rioted all over the country, because I guess in their way this proved the supremacy of black people, and they were trying to keep us in line. So two people were killed in the shipyard in Norfolk, and Ella Jo's mother, Georgiana Ross Baker decided it was too dangerous, because she was working on a ship and it was gone for days at a time. And as they riot, she was like, "let me go back home to my folks."

And so she moved back to Warren County. And there, you know, there was a very close knit community. Black people owned the stores there, the ice cream shop, the corner store; all kinds of ways that they help each other, and patronize each other. In fact, her family - Ella's father - was able to buy land, and donate land to build a school - the first school for black people - and also took out loans to help black people survive. They were more middle class, but they were very conscious of helping poorer black people.

In fact, her mother was in the black club movement and they had the philosophy of "lift as you climb." And they did this in the church as well, so there was a whole understanding about taking care of those less fortunate, and working together as a community. So Ella grew up in that kind of community. It was such that farmers might, if one had large equipment, they would use that equipment, and everybody else who had farms would use that equipment.

So she came from a background where people were cooperating already. They probably wouldn't call it co-op or those kinds of things, but that was how black people survive. And it really reminded me of my own life growing up in southern Florida. That was how our community was. Everybody looked out for everybody.

And so Ella went to school, and at 15 she went to Shaw Academy and University and she became a leader there. Because she was she was outspoken - she played baseball when girls weren't playing baseball. Her grandfather, who was a preacher, basically built up her self-esteem, so she became a spokeswoman for all the students. And so she showed leadership potential there. But when she saw that teachers had to do whatever other people said, she decided she didn't want that life. So once she got her degree, she moved to New York City where she had a cousin. And she just decided as a woman she didn't want that. And she went to a strange city and struck out on her own.

Vernon Oakes: About what year was it that she went to New York?

Ajowa Ifateyo: She moved to New York, I believe, in 1927- or she was 27 years old. Let me check.

Vernon Oakes: So that would be 1930. She's 27 in 1930. So the Harlem Renaissance is going on.

Ajowa Ifateyo: That's right. And then she met George Schuyler there. You know, that's another thing I love about her: she was a waitress, she did a factory job, she did all kinds of stuff to survive. Even though she had a degree, she just was determined she wasn't going to be oppressed, and she did whatever she had to do to start a new life. She was writing articles and she met George Schuyler, who was a publisher, and he was the one that had the idea of building co-ops, and he enlisted Ella Jo Baker to help.

And they put out a call in 1930 for young negroes, because the feeling was that older negroes had sold out. They were too into the religious thing, or they didn't care about the poor black people, or cared about pleasing white people. And so they wanted to get younger black people who were more militant. And you have to remember, this was in the midst of the depression as well. The Great Depression was raging, and so they really wanted to find ways to help black people to survive during that depression. And so Schuyler put out this call to organize young negroes. And I believe they had- what was it, 600 people, Jessica, at that first conference?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: They had 25 chapters who sent delegates. And then 600 young black people actually attended the conference in Pittsburgh at the end of 1930, in December of 1930. So, the Great Depression, but 600 people traveled to Pittsburgh because they wanted to talk about co-op development and black co-op development; so really incredible.

Ajowa Ifateyo: The whole thing about calling it-

Vernon Oakes: In reading Jessica's book,- Oh, you go ahead: "The whole thing about calling it..."

Ajowa Ifateyo: I believe came from Ella, because she had already decided she was not going to be like the other women. And she saw thorugh her own family and her community, the role that women were playing it. So she saw that as a powerful force, and she wanted to tap into that force, and let women know that they could stand up and be a part of this new movement, the Young Negroes Cooperative League. And she made a specific call for them, and also tried to organize women who were housewives to be a part of it. {indecipherable}

Vernon Oakes: So somewhere I read - I think it may have been your book, Jessica - that she also won a scholarship from CLUSA, the Cooperative League of the USA, to do some training- to get some training about organizing co-ops. Is that.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Actually, Ajowa found that.

Vernon Oakes: Ajowa? Okay.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Ajowa found it, yeah.

Ajowa Ifateyo: Yes. CLUSA recognized her her leadership. They saw her working in New York, they heard about Young Negroes Cooperative League, and they offered her a scholarship to come study at the Brookwood Labor College where they were organizing cooperative institutes. And at those institutions, they taught you all about the co-op movement, and how it worked and everything.

And that's another thing: Ella had all of that those details, and so she was able to take that information and use it to to help with the Young Negroes Cooperative League organizing. But interestingly, they made a point of not joining with CLUSA, but supporting it. So they were really keen on being independent, and making this something that black people led, but also believe in having allies. They believed in a black organization, but having white allies and other allies of color.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: The other important thing Ella did during those first years was she actually compiled - I guess she made it into a memo, but to me, it was like a white paper report on all the black co-ops that she knew of or that she was learning about in the 1930s. And I depended heavily on that report from her archives. She never published it anywhere, but luckily it was in her archives. And I found out- I think there were eight or ten black co-ops during that period that I found out about because of the research she had done, and the report that she created for the Young Negroes Cooperative League.

Vernon Oakes: So the Young Negroes Cooperative League and the Cooperative League of the USA - I just found interesting the "Cooperative League" within both of those names.

Ajowa Ifateyo: Very good point.

Vernon Oakes: Yeah. And so I was trying to figure out which one started which, or whether she did the training at the Cooperative League of USA first, before she started. But as you talk Ajowa, it looks like she started that before she took the training. She started the Young Negro Cooperative League.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: It started in 1906 or something. So CLUSA - Cooperative League of the USA - the name was started much earlier.

Vernon Oakes: Okay. And Ajowa you started to say something.

Ajowa Ifateyo: There was just a few months between her training and the Young Negroes Cooperative League Conference.

Vernon Oakes: Okay. So she did the training first and then the Conference of the Young Negroes Cooperative League a few months.

Ajowa Ifateyo: I believe.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Yes, but that organization started about a year or nine months before the conference. So I think it was all kind of happening within the same year. She and Schuyler were putting together this organization, and getting people from around the country to start chapters, she was taking the course, and then they had the conference.

Vernon Oakes: Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm wondering, with all the work that she did and the foundation she put, what happened that it didn't continue?

Ajowa Ifateyo: Well, there was a lot of things. One, you have to remember this was the depression, and a lot of people didn't have the money. Another analysis was that Schuyler was very - he attacked the black middle class a lot, particularly preachers - there was one analysis that that had something to do with the movement not catching on as well as it could have. And I find it interesting, since Ella's grandfather was a preacher and she grew up in the church, and I really wondered if she agreed with all of that stuff that he was doing.

And then just the same point about money. They didn't have a lot of money to keep the organization going, even though they had a lot of successes. In New York they had a co-op store that was earning $650 a week. And they had another successful one in Philadelphia. And they had groups that had their chapters and were doing co-op work. But I think just in the end the financial stuff overwhelmed them. And interestingly, Shuyler took off but Ella stayed when there was no money to be paid, not even having an office. And she did all of the work to keep a lot of those co-ops going, and speaking to people.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Yeah, I think the Depression was one of the biggest issues. And also there wasn't money for the national organization. I think people what money they did have, they put into the local co-ops. But I also think you're right, they had trouble raising money because Schuyler was just- he was a weird person, right? He was sort of a part anarchist. You know, he actually becomes a conservative by the 1930s. He was also very contentious. He wrote some novel about - what was it - about some guy passing as white or something and.

Ajowa Ifateyo: Black No More.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Right, Black No More, and giving up being black. So Schuyler was weird. It's clear from the archives that I found that early on he kind of left everything to Baker. He was good at starting things, but not really good at keeping things going, and Baker did her best, as most women do, to keep this stuff going. And so she did: she kept it going for about five years, she operated out of her own apartment after a while. .

She had a whole plan that she thought the national black organizations could help them with fundraising, but they didn't. So one of her plans was that every time in the first three months of every year, when there were a lot of black stuff going on, that blacks should add an extra penny to whatever they paid for to celebrate black history - it was a week in those days - in February, but there was also Frederick Douglass's birthday, DuBois's birthday, they used to celebrate Emancipation Day on January 1st. So she thought all that stuff that was happening between January and March, if every black person who did pay anything to be involved in any of that stuff, put in an extra penny toward the Young Negroes Cooperative League, that they could raise enough money. But people weren't willing to do that.

Vernon Oakes: We're gonna take a break. We'll come back and talk more about her life. But we really want to talk about what's happening for the future. We'll be right back.

This is WOL, news talk 1450AM and 95.9FM.

Welcome back. We're talking to Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and Ajowa Ifateyo about the life of Ella Jo Baker, and she's being inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame as an Unsung Hero. This program is nine years - this October, we celebrate our ninth year and national corporate bank has been our sponsor for those nine years. National Co-op Bank was created in the eighties to support co-ops and their members by providing financial services - innovative financial services - particularly to low income communities, which includes brown, black and native communities, indigenous people, communities. They've been a great, great supporter, both financially, and our number one cheerleader.

And I wanted to talk a little bit more about Ella Jo Baker's contributions, because we're talking about her in the co-op world, but it seemed like she was best known for her civil rights work. Either one of you want to talk about her civil rights work?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Let me jump in, because my contention - and I put it in the book - is that the successes that Ella Baker had as a civil rights leader - and she worked actually first for the WPA to do consumer education, and she moved into the NAACP, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - and WPA was the Works Progress Association under the FDR administration.

Anyway, then she went and became a field organizer for the NAACP and as a field organizer she also was considered one of their best. Because, again, all the things that Ajowa already talked about, all her skills and personality, she was just a terrific organizer. But she also got known for her work with snappy young people again, even though she was older by then, in the early sixties, because she believed that young people should really take the lead in civil rights and transformation, etc.

And the other piece that she was known for was this grassroots leadership, this notion that the leadership shouldn't come from these elite men. The people who are most impacted should be arguing for themselves, should be organizing for themselves. And I argue, where'd you get that notion? Well, she got it because of the co-op movement, right? She spent all those years in the thirties doing mutual aid and cooperative development. And co-ops are all about economic democracy and grassroots, people who are in it owning and running their own businesses. So she understood that whole grassroots notion - the broad, "small d" democracy - she understood that before she even became a civil rights activist, she learned it from the co-op movement and from her work with co-ops.

So I've been arguing that all the things she's known and celebrated for, especially when we talk about her role with SNCC and grassroots leadership development, is because of her training in the co-op movement and her early work as a cooperator.

Ajowa Ifateyo: And at that time the men were taking all of the prestige, and the speaking engagements, and the newspaper articles, and Ella was behind the scenes doing the day-to-day hard work. Putting out the fliers, knocking on doors, organizing the fish frys, and making sure that the stuff that the leaders - the males - were talking about happened. They got the people out, they did the hard work - the women.

And so Ella never really wanted that kind of publicity. She was just more involved in making sure people got organized. So that's why we don't know about Ella, because she never sought the limelight, and the other guys did. And I think it's no coincidence that she organized SNCC because it was her idea. It happened at Shaw University. It's a straight line from young Negroes, to young civil rights activist. She knew where the power was, and so she went to organize them specifically.

Vernon Oakes: So I find it very, very interesting, this straight line from cooperative development to the civil rights movement activism. And I've also heard, in these nine years we've been on, that a lot of cooperators learn this democracy - and Jessica, I call it "the Big D" because it's out there working and getting people involved, big D democracy, and they go into boards of education, or city council, they learn how important voting is and how important this grassroots involvement is. And that's what Jessica - not Jessica Gordon-Nembhard - that's what Ella Jo Baker learned [laughing]. And maybe Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and Ajowa Ifateyo, and Vernon Oakes learned is that this co-op movement really helps people to get out and do the the work, do the grassroots work.

So in the last five or 6 minutes that we have, let's talk about the future a little bit. And Ajowa, with your research with Ella Jo Baker, where do you see the black community going as it relates to this co-op movement?

Ajowa Ifateyo: Well, I think as we learn the lessons from Ella Jo Baker that we will take ourselves far. You know, she showed us that this work could be done in ways where - like she advocated education. It was very important to talk about the importance of the consumer movement. And she taught us little ways where we could raise money. That penny-a-day campaign that she had - you don't have to have a lot of money, you just have to be committed. And Jessica referred to that courage, that we need to have that courage. So I really think if we just incorporated these ideas, that would help us to deal with some of the problems that we're having today.

Vernon Oakes: Okay. Jessica, you have anything to add to that?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: I'm really excited about this period of time that we're in, because we're in another period of time where people are turning to mutual aid and cooperation, and cooperative ownership to solve problems that seem insolvable; but when you do it in a cooperative collective solidarity economics way, they are solvable. And so, in my book I talked about three prolific periods for especially black co-ops, but I think probably all co-ops: the 1880s, 1930s and 40s, and 1960s and 70s. And I'm about to add 2020s because I'm seeing it again.

And for me the Young Negroes Cooperative League, Ella Baker's example, are just additional ways to inspire people and to have people understand the power of working together, the power of collective ownership to solve both personal, family, and community problems. And I see people seeing that there's more interest than ever in understanding this history, and understanding where it can take us and what we can learn from it to move forward. There's more and more activities, more and more groups are having meetings, and conferences, and webinars, about this information, and sharing the information. And so I'm very excited. I feel like we're going to have a proliferation of all kinds of cooperative activity by people who really have become knowledgeable - not just committed, but knowledgeable - about best practices and things like that.

Vernon Oakes: Where would you suggest people that are listening to this program or don't know anything about this co-op world? To get the training and the knowledge, where would you suggest that they get started?

Ajowa Ifateyo: Well, one place and go is to Grassroots Economic Organizing: We have a search function, you can go in there and search for how to start worker co-ops and other co-ops. And we have a back load of information on all types of co-ops around the world. We've done articles for 30 something years about how to organize economic democratic workplaces and cooperatives and other alternative economic strategy. So that's one place I would start. Jessica?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Yeah, I was going to say, GEO also.

Vernon Oakes: G-E-O dot c-o-o-p.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: Yeah. I was also going to say we also help to run a site called, a co-op education site that GOE and the Association of Cooperative Educators runs. That's another sort of clearinghouse. You can just put in the keywords that you're trying to start a co-op. Do you want to know more about a worker co-op? Do you want to know more about food co-ops? And then we link to all the other resources online about those things. You know, so that's another thing. Of course, you can go to, right? That's the National Co-op Business Association, which is CLUSA. But they changed their name and now I think they're NCBA exclusive, but their website is still And so those are the simplest ways. There's actually a lot of information out there. Even the USDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has a site about how to start co-ops, but they focus more on rural and ag co-ops, but they still have it. The Canadians have a bunch of sites if you're interested in work worker co-ops, the US Federation of Worker Co-ops. Their website is So lots of things.

Vernon Oakes: In the last minute - and Jessica, I'd like for you to close us out - if somebody had the name of somebody to be an Unsung Hero, what would you suggest they do? Like, I would like to see Marion Barry's name be put in there. What would you suggest I do, or anybody else out there?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: So the other piece, I think I mentioned it early on, when we created this Unsung Hero category, we also we got CDF to agree to allocate a little bit of funding for the research. So when the next call comes out for the Hall of Fame, which I think will be in the spring, there will also be a call for nominations for Unsung Heroes, and you can then apply to one of the Education Fund- the education's pot of money in the CDF funds, to do the background research to make your application stronger. It's focused on young people and young people of color to do the research, but anybody can apply.

Vernon Oakes: Thank you all to everybody. We'll see you next Thursday.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.


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