An Interview with Professor Jessica Gordon Nembhard
March 14, 2014 – Washington, DC
[Author’s note: In this interview we use “Black” to denote “race.” This identification question is a complicated issue, and there’s usually disagreement among Black people about what we call and how we define ourselves. The Urban Dictionary uses “Black” to encompasses all people of color as a race. To simplify matters, GEO capitalized Black in this interview and used it interchangeably with African American.]
[Editors note: Collective Courage can be purchased online from PSU Press here. Use the code JGN14 at checkout to recieve a 20% discount. Please encourage your local libraries and co-ops to purchase a copy of this important resource. This is history that deserves to be shared.]
AJOWA: Finally! This very important and much needed work is finished. I see it as a very important work because it is the only book to chronicle the Black cooperative experience in the U.S. since W.E.B. Du Bois1’ study in 1907. Without being modest, Jessica, what do you see as the value of your work and the book specifically?
JESSICA: I was smiling when you said “finally” because I have been working on this a long time. I started out thinking it would be a two- or three-year project and now it’s actually like 14 or 15 years. I have been able to both compile and chronicle the major activities of African Americans in the United States who have been involved in some form of cooperative business development or collective economics. And, why is that important? Because when I first got interested in using cooperative models for community economic development, particularly in Black communities, everywhere I went people kept telling me that black people don’t do co-ops.
And every time I went to a co-op meeting there was almost nobody else of color, particularly not African American, except sometimes there were the people from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives who were supporting mostly farm and agricultural co-ops in the South. So I wanted to promote the model because I had already been convinced that it was an important community development model, but I didn’t know how to get people on board, to get people excited about it. So thought, “Okay, we know that W.E.B. Du Bois promoted economic cooperation. We know that he was an editor of the NAACP‘s magazine for 25 or 30 years, so he must have said something in his magazine about co-ops” -- even though nobody really knows much about Du Bois’ work on co-ops. They know Du Bois for a million other reasons.
JESSICA: Luckily, at that point I was in position to have a graduate research assistant (TJ Lerman), and I said to him, “go look at every issue of The Crisis magazine, and every time there’s any mention of the word ‘co-op’, make me a copy.” And he did, faithfully. And I suddenly found out that over a period of about 25 years, starting around 1918, there were at least seven different articles about Black cooperatives or cooperative economics.
DU BOIS PUSHED “ ECONOMIC COOPERATION” BECAUSE CAPITALISM FAILED US
These articles mentioned actual cooperatives like one in Memphis, TN. He highlighted some co-ops. He talked about a meeting that he had that turned out to be the Negro Cooperative Guild that he started in 1918. Some of the articles were about how important it was to use economic cooperation. For example, Du Bois has the president of the Cooperative League of America (later becomes the Cooperative League of the USA and then known as the National Cooperative Business League), James Warbasse to write an article in The Crisis called “The Theory of Cooperation” where he explains that because Negroes are so exploited, cooperatives are an important strategy to pursue.
AJOWA: Would you briefly summarize what Du Bois’ position was on cooperatives?
JESSICA: Du Bois’ position was that African Americans were discriminated against economically, that we were trying to become capitalists and gain individual wealth just like other Americans, however it wasn’t working because of racism and discrimination. He said that we should voluntarily form a group economy based on a sense of solidarity and use producer and consumer cooperatives to position ourselves to serve our economic needs separately from the white economy. This way we could control our own goods and services and gain income and wealth - stabilize ourselves and our communities. Then if we wanted to join the mainstream economy, we could join from a position of strength.
Du Bois said this in various ways from about 1897 until the end of his life. Aside from doing the full study in 1907, he actually held a conference at Atlanta University that same year. He was holding annual conferences about African Americans during that period at Atlanta University, and in 1907 the conference topic was “Negro Businesses and Cooperatives.” Du Bois was among the speakers at that conference and he had other people talk about cooperative activity among Negroes. He said in one of my favorite speeches that “we unwittingly stand at the crossroads—should we go the way of capitalism and try to become individually rich as capitalists, or should we go the way of cooperatives and economic cooperation where we and our whole community could be rich together?” He was afraid that we were choosing the wrong path – individualism.
AJOWA: Wow. Did you get a sense of what people’s reactions were at that time to what he was saying?
JESSICA: He got the people who were at the conference to sign a resolution saying just that, but I never found out how many people actually attended that conference. It doesn’t seem to have been very well-publicized or remembered. In those days everyone was still making a big deal about what he said in 1903 which was “the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line.” So that was what everybody talked about. But four years after that he was saying the problem is that Black people are at a crossroad and we have to make a choice. If we make the wrong choice, it will mean that a few of us will get some wealth for ourselves, but would leave the whole rest of the group behind. And that’s exactly what happened.
AJOWA: Yes, that’s interesting. It is also interesting that after he made that announcement that the “color line” was the problem, he came up with a solution.
JESSICA: Right. And nobody talked about the solution. They all focused on the other pronouncement about the problem. And to this day that’s mostly all we teach about Du Bois -- that he said that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line -- and that he focused on the race problem. But people do not talk about what he said about the economy and capitalism – or that the solution is cooperative economics!
The whole  study gave examples of what Du Bois called “economic cooperation.” It wasn’t just official, formal cooperatives, but any kind of economic cooperation. It is actually from his Economic Cooperation among Negro Americans book (1907) that I started learning about “mutual aid societies,” which I also discuss heavily in the early part of my book. I explain that those are precursors to cooperatives. They have a very similar structure and the same purpose. Mutual aid societies were also the precursors to mutual insurance companies which were really the first cooperatives. We have a long history of mutual aid societies, particularly coming out of fraternal and religious groups and benevolent societies. Those were the early co-ops. As soon as co-ops were officially recognized in Europe, after 1844, the U.S. started to embrace co-ops, and African Americans did too. We started using formal co-ops with some of the early integrated labor unions in the 1880s, and we created our own Colored Farmers Alliance and Cooperative Union in 1886, which also promoted cooperatives and credit unions.
AJOWA: Now, this is interesting. I just want to make sure that we are clear on this. So you’re saying that before co-ops became the thing in Europe, that African people in America had co-ops?
JESSICA: Before and after. In Europe when the Rochdale Pioneers codified what was considered the first official co-op in 1844, and then the International Cooperative Alliance started in 1896, the co-op movement came to the U.S. and Blacks were starting to do it too.
But before that, Blacks were involved in co-op-like companies, through their mutual aid societies. Even though the European cooperative movement labels everything as having started in 1844, almost any society that we look at shows people being involved in some level of economic cooperation, some kind of use of the Commons and strict rules about shared resources.
African Americans, like all other groups, were involved early on in cooperative and collective economic activity. Even when we were enslaved and didn’t own anything, not even our own bodies, we were saving up money, made on the side say from selling a crop that we planted in the back of the slave quarters or from outside work some of the skilled artisans performed, to buy our freedom. We also pooled our savings to help each other.
So once you bought your freedom, you would save up money to help buy your Mom, or your Dad, or your sister or your brother or your wife. So we were using pooling mechanisms from the very beginning. And then slowly making it more formal through churches and fraternal societies, the mutual aid societies, and then through unions so that by the time that Du Bois did his study in 1907 he had identified 154 co-ops.
AJOWA: Actual co-ops or cooperative societies?
JESSICA: He called those co-op businesses and not mutual aid societies. So in addition to the thousands of mutual aid societies, he noted these 154 co-ops. Some of them were credit co-ops. Some of them were transportation co-ops, which I think was everybody buying a tractor together kind of thing. Some of them were what they called “exchanges” which were basically co-op stores, so they are what we would think of as co-ops, but maybe loosely. They might not all have been formally structured.
IT TOOK COURAGE FOR BLACKS TO ORGANIZE ECONOMIC COOPERATION
Yes 154, even though it was nationwide, it was still a lot considering, as I said, that most people thought that we did not do any of this at all, and that it was difficult to pull off establishing alternative economic practices. The fact is that it was very dangerous to create any kind of alternative economics. Yes, because white supremacists and white competitors did not want Blacks to have independence. They did not want Blacks to buy from their own stores, to find a way to buy from a store that wasn’t the white-owned store. So that when Blacks did form these co-ops they got attacked. Sometimes they got beaten; sometimes they got shot at and killed; sometimes the place got burned down. Sometimes all of the white merchants would join together and demand that banks not give the Black co-op a loan. So they tried all kinds of sabotage.
So that’s actually where the name for the book, Collective Courage, comes from – because of how dangerous it was to actually practice cooperative economics for American Americans. When they were working with an integrated union, the Knights of Labor in the south in the 1880s, the Black leaders actually couldn’t be identified as leaders of the union or the co-ops because it was so dangerous. They would be shot or killed or lynched or run out of town. Even the Black branches of labor unions had to have white leaders and the Blacks did all of the work underground.
But also it takes the courage of fortitude and persistence to practice alternative economics – it takes deliberate action and re-education, both which could also be difficult.
AJOWA: So I’ve heard you say in personal conversation -- and certainly this leads there -- that the cooperative movement had not been fully appreciated by Black historians or scholars who study Black history. Tell us how important co-ops were to what we know about Black history and our advancement? You’ve made some points, but is there anything else you would want to say about that?
JESSICA: Yes, I can talk about that some more. I’m not an historian; I’m actually a political economist. I had to become an historian -- of course historians would say you can’t become an historian just because you did historical work -- but I had to become an historian; I had to become an archivist because there wasn’t one place where one could find all the co-op information, and obviously I wouldn’t have written the book if there had already been a book. Even Du Bois’ book didn’t have enough of the information that I was looking for, and of course stopped in 1907. I have a bachelor’s degree in African American studies which means that I studied African American history. I’m a professor of African American studies and I’ve been teaching African American history for 10 years. Most of the histories don’t talk about African American co-op activity. They somehow seem to think it’s even more marginal than the other things that have been marginalized in African American history.
BLACK LEADERS ARE NOT KNOWN FOR THEIR CO-OP ACTIVISM
No one besides me seemed to think co-op practices were important when writing about Black movements or leaders. I started reading autobiographies of people who I heard had something to do with co-ops. And I found enough to include them in the book, but usually it was just a quick reference. Dorothy Height, 2 for example, I read her autobiography and there’s a sentence about once when she was young she went to a Black co-op restaurant in Harlem. In another section it mentions more fully that Height also helped Fannie Lou Hamer3 to start Freedom Farm by having the National Council of Negro Women fund the first 20 pigs for the pig banking effort that grows into Freedom Farm in Mississippi in the 1970s. So if I hadn’t known to read the autobiography, I would not have learned some of these things.
In the case of Ella Jo Baker, both her biographers do mention that one of her jobs was executive director of the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League in the 1930s, and I did get good information about her activity with the YNCL (and references to her papers at the Schomburg which I then read myself). However, that information is a small section of the major biographies about her, and hardly mentioned in any shorter bio of her. I argue that Baker got her early exposure to grassroots democratic participation and leadership from her early work in the cooperative movement. This early training was essential to the Baker that we come to know in the 1960s.
I looked through John Lewis’4 autobiography because I knew that SNCC5 had something to do with doing co-op development in the South. Now you have to read really carefully to find that he talks about when he was young in the 1960s that one of his first jobs was a co-op developer. But again, it is just a few paragraphs and you have to know to look for it.
Even though SNCC actually was a supporter of co-ops, it was not the major point of the organization. Also in the 1960s it was still dangerous to talk too much about cooperatives because of red-baiting. Even though a lot of the same people were practicing cooperatives like a John Lewis, they weren’t talking about it because again it was too dangerous. You’d be labeled as a communist. It was also controversial in the Black community because some Black people didn’t want us to be doing alternative economics; they wanted us to get a piece of the regular pie. And so during the Civil Rights Movement they didn’t want all that controversy. They wanted everybody on the same page. “We’re getting our voting rights; we’re making sure that laws apply equally to Blacks,” but if we got into economics there is no agreement about what models to pursue. Back to that crossroad Du Bois had said 60 years earlier, one of those crossroads that people don’t want to recognize. We weren’t talking about co-ops, the movement was being pragmatic – what can we win, what won’t divide us. It was dangerous enough to talk about political rights.
AJOWA: You know it’s interesting too when you talk about that, when you think about economic development, I remember reading a book called The Covenant with Black America where key Black thinkers addressed the subject areas of Black advancement and social upliftment. In the chapter on Economics, there was not a single reference to co-ops; there was a discussion of Black capitalism, but nothing about co-ops. I was so disappointed. It seems like from what you’re saying that co-ops were a critical part of our survival in the past -- Du Bois had come up with this analysis about the economic crossroads being a critical point in our history. Even today we have not clearly understood or recognized what he was saying and moved in that direction. It seems like it is as key and relevant today to our advancement because we have such economic issues.
JESSICA: That is one of the reasons that I wrote the book, because I think it is crucial for any of us who care about economic inequality, about poverty, about community-based economic development, about economic justice -- that we understand how co-ops can be an important viable economic strategy. And why is it that so many people who need co-ops the most either don’t know about them or afraid to try them or use them? A lot of it is because of the hegemony of capitalist ideology. Even as kids we’re taught about the Horatio Alger6 myth -- that we just have to work really hard and then we can own our own business or get a great job and become millionaires. We’re not taught about how the millionaires even needed government, and needed other people to help them, and that they didn’t do it on their own. We’re just taught you do it on your own, you work hard and then you’re done.
WE ARE TAUGHT TO FEAR JOINT OWNERSHIP AND COOPERATION
We’re taught to fear ideas about joint ownership because 1) we’re taught that it’s communist or socialist, and of course that’s horrible. We don’t want to be labeled that, or be thinking about that; 2) we’re taught it’s too hard because we’re really all greedy and we don’t like to share and it’s too hard – it’s unnatural – to get people to share. And then we’re not shown how to do it, we’re not taught how to cooperate or to make decisions collectively, or to share ideas about money. In fact, we’re taught the opposite – how to hoard and how to “get ours” and forget everybody else.
I have argued before that families teach our children about morality in terms of how to treat one another, except when we enter the workforce. When we enter the workplace or into economic exchanges, we’re told to leave all of our morality at the door. And then when we go into the economic sphere, it is all “dog-eat-dog,” - don’t care about your neighbor, don’t help anybody – just get yours. That makes no sense. That’s anti-human. So meanwhile, we’re not supposed to hit the kid on the playground, but as soon as you get into the work arena, smash ‘em down as much as you can and step over ‘em to get to the top. What kind of sense can that make? And how can you do community development under those circumstances?
Also for Blacks, I found that we have this “blind spot.” Part of it is because Black people have been burned by some of these schemes. Not all of them were co-op schemes. Some Black banks sometimes lost everyone’s deposits; and Black businesses go under. Usually it was mismanagement often by white directors, or sabotage, but somehow the memory that it didn’t work gets lodged in people’s minds. All that they can think about is the failure, that Black people can’t manage or own successful businesses. We become risk-averse. But too often we don’t really know the whole story and often don’t know about the sabotage that was behind the whole story. Everyone just thinks black people can’t do it. We tried and we can’t do something. And with co-ops there is the added ignorance about how people can make joint decisions effectively about business and finance.
When I started talking about this co-op history, most people were skeptical at first and then end up coming up to me later and saying “Oh yeah, I remember my aunt, my uncle, my grandparents did such and such – that was a co-op wasn’t it?” And yes, it was usually some type of collective or co-op solution. It wasn’t until I almost gave them “permission” to resurrect a memory of successful collective economics, or to even think about the possibility, that they suddenly would realize that that’s what it was and that it wasn’t bad. Then people started giving me examples and sending me information!
AJOWA: Right. And it was an integral part of who we are and our survival. So let’s talk a little about who all was involved in the co-op thing. We’ve talked about Ella [Jo Baker] and Du Bois, who else in Black history was involved in co-ops?
THE” LONG” CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT PARALLELED A MOVEMENT FOR COOPERATIVE ECONOMICS
JESSICA: I really found – and actually this also surprised me and it took me a couple of years to figure it out, but I found parallel movements in what I call “the long civil rights movement” – meaning the efforts of Blacks for independence, for liberation from since we were put on the boat in Africa, all the things that we’ve done since 1600, 1700, 1800 for civil rights, that long civil rights movement -- has run parallel with the cooperative economics movement. Most of the same people who were fighting for our rights and freedom, and saying that things were wrong, were often also talking about that we should do co-ops or some kind of collective economics and trying to organize them.
A lot of the early trade union guys were not only trying to make “work” better, but were also trying to develop alternatives to keep resources circulating in workers’ hands and with their families; and to help people to buy their own land and get mortgages. They were using co-ops and lending co-ops (credit unions) to do that.
At the turn of the century we have Du Bois and some of his “gang” who were people who joined his Negro Cooperative League. Even though it only met once, the participants went back home and started cooperatives in the early 1900s.
THE BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS AND THEIR WIVES PROMOTED CO-OPS
You have A. Phillip Randolph, another one of our great heroes. Everybody knows him because of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Well, earlier than that he actually was the editor of a magazine called The Messenger. In 1918 he was writing articles about how we need to use co-ops to develop ourselves. And then he developed and was head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He worked with the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to do co-op education. The Ladies Auxiliary actually started study groups about consumer education and cooperative economics. When you joined the Ladies Auxiliary you got a whole list of co-op magazines to subscribe to and books that you should be reading. Their point was that it wasn’t good enough to just have a labor union, you also had to keep money circulating among Black workers, and the way to keep money circulating among Black workers was through co-ops. So even if you were working, and so your family was perhaps “middle class,” you still needed economic solidarity to maintain a standard of living and to help the community.
Now that the sleeping car porters were unionized, for example, they actually had decent and stable employment. Then the question was “now we have this money; what do we do with it?” The answer: “We should be buying our stuff through co-ops because then the money would circulate among the Black community and help other people, and keep Black laborers’ hard earned money in the community.”
AJOWA: That’s very good.
JESSICA: For 30 years the Brotherhood was promoting co-op development along with their labor union. And a name that nobody knows is the head of the Ladies Auxiliary for those 30 years, a woman named Halena Wilson. Mindy Chateauvert, who wrote a book about the Ladies Auxiliary, introduced me to this information about Wilson. Also before Wilson became head of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood, she ran a mutual aid society in Chicago. So again, the training ground for these local collective activities was in the mutual aid societies. Wilson also wrote articles about cooperatives in the Negro Worker, which was the Brotherhood’s newspaper. She started studying co-ops in Sweden and Europe and was writing columns about them and summarizing the books about co-ops that she was reading for her fellow labor people. And she got invited by white labor organizations to speak at conferences. She got invited by the white Labor Society in Chicago to join with them to start a co-op eye clinic. The connections then get really incredible also in terms of connecting the Blacks, who then connected with the white labor union, that kind of thing. Anyway, if I keep going I’ll tell you the whole book.
NANNY HELEN BURROUGHS STARTS CO-OP BROOM BUSINESS AND FARM
Nanny Helen Burroughs, another woman who is not as well known for her co-op activity, but who is more well-known than Halena Wilson, is known, if she is known, because she founded – was the first secretary general -- of the Progressive Baptist Women’s Convention. And she founded the Black Women’s training school in Washington, DC. DC people know her better because she lived in Deanwood [neighborhood] and they have a street and a school named after her.
JESSICA: But guess what else she did? While she was president of the training school she also started Cooperative Industries of D.C. The school lent some of their classrooms for the group to meet, and to do some of their production. They started out producing brooms and mattresses. This is in the 1930s, and she got grant money from the Federal government because under the New Deal there was a Self Help Cooperative Division of the Department of Commerce, I think it was. They gave grants for groups to work with unemployed and homeless people, especially women during the Great Depression, to start co-ops. It took her three years to get the federal grant, but she finally got the money. Meanwhile they had actually started the co-op without the grant and when they finally got the money, it allowed them to buy a farm out in Maryland. So in addition to doing the brooms and the mattresses, they were also employing DC residents on the farm and selling the farm produce in the city [DC] so people could get fresh produce from the farm.
AJOWA: That’s amazing! That’s an amazing example right there.
JESSICA: I was looking at her papers in the archives of the Library of Congress, and there are letters from the federal certifiers who would go every year and certify that the farm was clean, was using the right farm practices, that kind of thing. She had letters from people in Baltimore and other places who were saying that they wanted to support the co-op and asking how much the brooms cost - and could they be mailed to Baltimore, did they have to come and pick them up in person, etc.
JESSICA: And she has letters from the Cooperative League of USA (now the National Cooperative Business Association) asking her to come to their meetings and speak about co-ops to other people. So she was known in the white co-op movement also.
PAN-AFRICANIST MARCUS GARVEY PROMOTED JOINT STOCK OWNERSHIP
So then we have – this is actually controversial – some people think that Marcus Garvey7 was also promoting co-ops. He was certainly promoting joint stock ownership and Black economic development. And some people think that his real vision was actual co-ops, real democratic ownership, not just joint ownership. I’m not totally convinced of that but I’m willing to put him in the group because some people actually say that his real vision was democratic economics between Blacks in the U.S. and Blacks in Africa. His organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, started the Black Star Line and bought three ships. He was trying to send people who wanted to move back to Africa back there, and also establish permanent trade between Blacks in the US, Caribbean and Africa. The UNIA had also started The Negro Factories, which was also a joint stock ownership company to produce clothing and other commodities. Basically, he sold stock for $5 a share so that any Black person could own a share of these businesses. Unfortunately, he was a poor businessman but also he was targeted by the government and charged with mail fraud and deported back to Jamaica in the 1920s - another kind of sabotage. So the businesses did not survive.
The other interesting sideline to that story is that Du Bois, who had actually been a critic of Garvey because he thought that he was getting people’s hopes up and did not have the business expertise, Du Bois writes to the Secretary of Treasury after Garvey was deported, and says that the federal government should actually return that UNIA stock money to Black people so that Blacks could create a real co-op. He argued that it is a shame that all of those people, who put their $5 in to own a business and support their own development, should have to lose all of their money in the venture. Du Bois suggested that the government was missing a point that all these Blacks were trying to invest in business. By not restoring the stock money the government was missing an opportunity to give the money back so Blacks could do something constructive with that money.
AJOWA: And it seems to me that it’s just speculation that that would be a point that the government would miss. They definitely would not have liked that to happen.
JESSICA: Well, people didn’t get the money back.
AJOWA: What year was that?
JESSICA: The mid-1920s.
THE YOUNG NEGROES’ COOPERATIVE LEAGUE
So then you get to the 1930s, and Ella Jo Baker. Basically one of her first jobs out of college is to run the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League -- she and a guy named George Schuyler, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, and earlier was the assistant editor to A. Phillip Randolph on The Messenger. I’ve never figured out how he learned about co-ops, actually I never figured out how Ella Baker learned about co-ops, but anyway, they joined together in New York City and formed the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League. Schuyler writes a column in the Pittsburgh Courier, “A Call to Young Negroes to Save the Race By Coming Together, Joining the Young Negroes Cooperative League.” He stated that we had tried everything else, that the old fogeys8 were still trying capitalism, and that the duty of the young Negroes was to come together and do cooperative economics and show the world and everybody that we could take charge of our own economy.
AJOWA: Wow! That’s very powerful. I had heard that story before but not framed in this way: That the old fogeys were still pursuing capitalism and it hadn’t worked.
JESSICA: Yes, he said that we couldn’t leave it to them, that young people had to take over.
AJOWA: And that could apply to today too.
JESSICA: Yep. They had their first conference in Pittsburgh and 600 people attended, and 25 official delegates. That’s where they actually elected Schuyler as president and Ella Jo Baker as executive director. They had been acting in that capacity before. Schuyler writes a column about that conference and it’s published in The Crisis, Du Bois’ magazine.
AJOWA: Oh. Amazing connection.
JESSICA: So even though it is not clear how well they all knew each other, and at this point Du Bois would’ve been considered an old fogey because he is in his forties by then, Du Bois does publish the article in The Crisis.
And the Young Negroes Cooperative League lasts about four or five years. They end up with about 400 members nationwide. They have a second conference the next year at Howard [University] in DC, and they get some famous faculty to sponsor and support the conference. Also at the first conference, Ella Baker makes the closing speech on the role of women in the co-op movement and how important women are to the co-op movement. When the YNCL can no longer afford its office space in Harlem, Baker works from home, and the NYC Urban League allows the YNCL to hold their meetings in the Urban League’s offices.
AJOWA: What year was that?
AJOWA: Definitely before her time.
JESSICA: Before she is known for anything else. She is not really well known for this at all. I actually think that this is the beginning of her becoming a grassroots leadership development person. Those ideas she is known for I think she got them from her work in the co-op movement. Her biographers say it too - I just don’t think that they say it enough. It should the center point of anybody trying to understand Ella Baker.
AJOWA: Right. You have to understand her in the context of her community, and not just as a personality.
JESSICA: And those four years with the YNCL, Baker really works hard. I have seen her papers at the Schomburg Library Archives (part of the New York Public Library System). And really, Baker never left the co-op movement. You look at her papers and she was still trying to do some co-op stuff in 1975 in Harlem. She was running the co-op education committee in one of the co-ops in Harlem in the 1940s. She never really gave up on co-ops but again, we don’t know her for her co-op work.
AJOWA: And Fannie Lou [Hamer] is probably known somewhat for co-op work?
FANNIE LOU HAMER ENVISIONED INDEPENDENCE THROUGH CO-OPS
JESSICA: Yes, but Fannie Lou Hamer is mostly known as a voting rights activist in the 1960s-early 1970s. She is one of the co-founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She is the one who testified at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964 and explained how they beat her so badly just for registering to vote and giving voter registration workshops, that she lost a kidney, was disabled and continuously suffered from bad headaches for the rest of her life. She lost a kidney just because she signed up to register to vote and was going to voter training and trying to teach other people how to register to vote. So she is really known for that -- and she was a member of SNCC.
But after all that, she then said, “Guess what? We can’t win the political struggle until we have economic independence. And how can we have economic independence? We have to own our own land, control our own food production - and we have to do it through co-ops.” She argues that until we do that we can never stand up for our political rights because they can always get us economically. Just like she and her husband – they were sharecroppers – the minute they signed up to vote, they were thrown off the property, evicted. They came home from registering to vote and all their stuff was out on the street, and they couldn’t sharecrop anymore.
AJOWA: Again, it is an important lesson for today.
JESSICA: Right. So she said first, actually we did it the wrong way. We shouldn’t have been trying for political rights first. We need economic independence because then they can’t undermine us -- they can’t punish us by evicting us from our farms, or firing us from our jobs, or denying us loans from the bank. If we control our own economics, the whites against us can’t punish us economically for what we do politically.
AJOWA: So when we look at this we see that getting some kind of economic relief and independence was critical, even today. These are lessons that these people taught us, but we haven’t fully internalized that.
AJOWA: Do you feel that your book would hopefully be an important part of that?
JESSICA: I hope that it is part of that dialogue. I hope Collective Courage shows a couple of things:
That we have viable models, that we pursued and succeeded with viable cooperatives.
I also tried to show that even when a specific enterprise “failed” – like when the business went under – it wasn’t a total failure because there was so much that went into having a business and so much gets learned and applied. Even if you are not in that one co-op anymore, many things are learned and other things get created. The whole model has not failed. You might create some other co-ops. You might go into some other kinds of business ventures. You get leadership development. There’s so many things because of how co-ops operate and in order to run a democratic company – you have to have all kinds of training, you have to understand the industry that you’re in, you have to understand how to be a democratic participant, you have to learn how to read an income and expense statement, and you develop leadership. Just because that one company might’ve gone under, you don’t forget that stuff, you apply it to the next effort and other community activities.
AJOWA: We were talking about how ironic it is that we kept running into people who thought that the co-op movement was a white hippy movement, and so it seems like all that history of Black involvement in co-ops was not only not passed down to Black people, but also to any other people.
LONG, STRONG AND HIDDEN HISTORY
JESSICA: I call it a long, strong, but hidden history. I really don’t know why the Black co-op movement is so badly remembered or known, except as I said it was dangerous for Blacks to be involved and to talk about it from a number of different perspectives. Sometimes it was dangerous for your life. Sometimes it was politically dangerous. I don’t know why we didn’t whisper more about it behind closed doors, but I think we also kind of gave up or kind of felt like we had to go with capitalism or not try to do anything out of the mainstream – especially something that is as marginal as we already are. One of the reasons why I am so excited about the book is now, hopefully, I’m “unhiding” this history and practice. I’m even trying to name names. Of course most of the people’s names that I’ve named are dead, but I’m still trying to name names, or name names of people who put it in their biographies or autobiographies. Like John Lewis, I’m not saying anything he didn’t say in his autobiography.
AJOWA: But a lot of us don’t know that.
JESSICA: Yes, I had to find it – in a few little sentences in the middle of the book. So I figure not everybody is going to read it that carefully or even recognize what its significance is and what it meant. Even the little section of Dorothy Height’s autobiography, it’s just funny that she says when she was a girl, her 4-H club took her to New York and they stopped at a Black co-op restaurant that the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America had started. And then it turns out that in a document that Ella Jo Baker wrote around 1932, also talks about how the same group promoted co-ops in Harlem. They actually had a committee on co-ops, or Blacks and co-ops, and they invited a famous cooperator from Japan, Kagawa, to come to Harlem to talk about co-ops in 1935.
FEDERAL COUNCIL OF THE CHURCHES OF CHRIST IN AMERICA ENGAGED IN CO-OP DEVELOPMENT
And then just a couple of years ago I actually learned some of the rest of the story because I found an article in the Journal of Negro Education written in 1939, while looking for more references to Nannie Helen Burroughs and co-ops. The JNE article talked about the whole history of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America doing co-op development in the 1930s. And paying for a team to go to Antigonish in Nova Scotia to study the co-op movement with Father Coady.9 That trip, 39 people went on, and I think it was a six-week trip. 19 of those were Black, in 1938. I mean it’s just incredible. Almost half of the people were Black who went on this co-op tour to Canada together with these white people from the U.S. -- during the Depression, at the height of Jim Crow. And the funny thing is that I had read in a history of Black co-ops in North Carolina that one of the principals from an independent Black school in North Carolina had gone on the tour, but at that time I couldn’t figure out what program it was. That reference said it was through Columbia University. And then recently I read the JNE article and find out that it was the Columbia summer program that sponsored the Antigonish tour. So I am finally able to connect a couple of dots, and find out about the Federal Council of Church’s efforts in Harlem, and also solve the mystery about that principal’s co-op training. He was part of the group, these 19 Blacks with the other 20 whites who went on that co-op study tour. Also the president of Coppin State [College] 10 was there. He did an interview with Father Coady about the Antigonish co-op education model, which was also published in the Journal of Negro Education in 1939.
AJOWA: So these are fascinating facts. Do you think if more of us knew the rich history of cooperative history in this country, of Black participation in co-ops that we would be using some of these same tactics – churches starting co-op restaurants, schools teaching about co-ops?
JESSICA: It certainly would have been different if we had done more of it and stopped shying away from talking about it. Now that I’ve resurrected it, I would hope that we would start using all of these tactics. And we would be able to convince even government entities, especially our local governments, that important economic successes can be leveraged with this. They should be able to get a great bang for their buck to support some of these kinds of activities. Also the churches should be more involved. It would seem like it’s a great way to really support Black community development that could be meaningful because it’s going to touch a lot of people. Cooperatives re-circulate resources through the community instead of resources going out all the time. Not only is it a good investment but it also an investment that will keep multiplying in the community that you invest in and not just have a one-time effect. So we should have a lot of people who should want to be supportive, and a lot of people who should want to do this.
AJOWA: Is that a hope for your book?
JESSICA: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the reasons that I was studying this so I could figure out what to tell people about this as a viable option -- to not be afraid and not to feel like they are so out in left field that there is no point in trying to pursue something like this. I wanted people to see that we have a history, that we’ve done this before, that we’ve succeeded on some level. That there is no reason to be afraid.
AJOWA: What do you think are some of the differences that people today might have to cope with today, for Black people in particular, getting co-ops started? Do we have more issues or fewer issues to overcome?
JESSICA: We should have fewer issues to face today, but we probably still have the same or similar issues. Capitalization is still a huge issue, especially if we are talking about promoting co-ops among low income people. They don’t have financial resources to connect to a co-op, and one of the important things about a co-op is that everybody brings something, or more than one thing to the co-op. So if they don’t have actual money to bring to the co-op, what else can they bring? Again, that’s why I love the model. You could bring your sweat equity. You could bring your social energy, your enthusiasm, ideals, leadership. You can figure out how to leverage resources, even if you don’t have money yourself. There are also co-ops that are built on a variety of resources, not just financial resources. And then we should be able to have ways to convince investors, and governments or whatever that these are great strategies that have multiple benefits and they are worth investing in or putting money into.
EVERY BLACK CO-OP STARTED WITH A STUDY GROUP
The first thing is to get people to understand and know the models, so you really can’t get around the education piece. In fact, just about every Black co-op that I have learned about on this journey started with a study group, so you can’t skimp on that. And you need to study a variety of things. You need to understand your local economy. You need to understand the co-op model. You need to understand the industry and business that you want to go into. You need to understand how to operate democratically, run a good meeting, use open book accounting, have everybody understand how to read a spreadsheet and income-expense statements. I mean there are a million things to learn, which is why co-ops are so great because people get trained in all these areas and can use it in every other part of their lives. And also you learn by doing, so it is not so daunting.
AJOWA: These are things that apply to all co-ops, and where do you see as a potential for some unity, some alliances with other people who might be doing co-ops or seeing that the world needs to change right now because it is not serving the majority of us?
JESSICA: I am sympathetic and probably a proponent of the Du Bois model which is to start with your own group. Some solidarity – it doesn’t always have to be a racial group – in my case that’s what I studied: race. I do believe that races and ethnicities and women can start with people they are comfortable with, with cultures that they are used to, with people they have an affinity to. In fact, we do know co-ops often work better with groups that already have some kind of affinity with each other. And I also think for African Americans, since we still are marginalized economically that coming together-- voluntary economic segregation to create our own co-ops -- is an important first step. And I think that we should develop co-ops where we can have leadership and we can create co-ops that serve our needs. That’s what co-ops do; they serve people’s needs. But then there are three or four other steps after that.
If we really want to transform society, we should be working with other groups who are doing the same thing in their groups. Then we should be interlocking our co-ops, we should be buying from each other; we should be supporting each other, we should all be coming together to support local, state and national laws that would promote more cooperatives. We should be promoting a whole solidarity economy which would mean any kind of non-exploitative, collective cooperative grassroots economic activity, so it doesn’t always have to just be a co-op. We should be creating and surrounding ourselves with this kind of solidarity economy that could be multi-racial. Once each group is coming to the party with some of its own strength and stability so nobody’s coming as the needy one or the mule or the worker, we’re all coming with the same strengths, with some stability, all with some income and wealth under our control, then we can be multicultural too. And we can figure out how that works. That’s my ideal.
In fact, when I started, I’d planned to spend a couple of years looking at what Blacks had done and I wanted to look at what Native Americans had done, and what Latinos had done because I believe it is the same pattern of what subaltern groups can do with cooperatives. But I haven’t had a chance to get past the African American experience, it is so rich I keep finding more information.
AJOWA: What kind of groups?
JESSICA: Subaltern – groups who are not in the mainstream, who are not the dominant culture or power. They can and have used co-op development to get that independence and economic stabilization that they can’t get being an oppressed group.
AJOWA: I think it’s important that point you made about each group bringing something to the table because often we find that – at least in the 1960s – it appeared that there was a liberal white movement to help the poor Black people who could not help themselves kind of thing, and that wasn’t the case, but sometimes that was the way it was perceived. So this brings a whole different model where everybody brings something.
JESSICA: And the 1960s and 1970s was the period I found with the second most cooperative activity among Blacks, so it wasn’t just whites helping Blacks. We were helping ourselves and each other. We’ve already strengthened ourselves. There are so many different things that we learn and strengths that we develop by being a part of a co-op. If we start from a place of security within a group that we feel secure in, by the time that we’ve done that we not only might have some economic security and economic strength, but we also have all these skills and experiences that we can then bring to the next level.
AJOWA: Do you see a major obstacle to Black people building more co-ops? Did we discuss that?
JESSICA: We sort of and we sort of didn’t. I guess the shorthand is there are still obstacles. First, there’s education. As a group we don’t even know about the model. And when we hear about it, we’re skeptical of it. So we need more education. We need more enabling legislation. We need better access to financing and capitalization because it still does cost money to do these things.
AJOWA: Do you have any historical models that you’ve found that helped us, besides the Federation of Southern Cooperatives? Are there any examples of alliances that you’ve uncovered?
BLACK-WHITE COOPERATIVE ALLIANCE IN HISTORY
JESSICA: That North Carolina example where they created a Black statewide co-op and credit union association but then allied with the white state-wide association, and were able to get resources from the larger organization, and still focus on Black development of co-ops. There are probably other examples like that, but nobody else has done a statewide study and I haven’t been able to find as much about that kind of information from any other state, so I’m beginning to think that North Carolina was the only state with that Black co-op history. However, it’s hard to believe that it’s the only state that did that.
I guess the only examples are really the ones we’ve already talked about with Black organizations that took on co-op development as one of its strategies. So having the Young Negroes Cooperative League focused on it. Having a group like The Brotherhood focused on it. Having some schools teaching cooperative economics. There was a study in the 1940s about Black junior colleges, colleges and universities in the South teaching consumer economics and cooperative economics. There were a majority of schools with at least one session on co-ops, and some schools had co-op businesses associated with them. The study doesn’t actually say why these institutions were teaching cooperative economics but it is important that such a study was done and shows that cooperative education was going on.
One of the frustrations with this work is a lot of what I know is very “snap-shotty.” I only have one picture of it from one article, or one mention of it in somebody’s papers, or something, and I don’t always know details. Often I don’t know how long a co-op even lasted. I don’t know who knew each other. Every now and then I have some co-ops that write about visiting another co-op to learn about co-ops before they started their co-op, but I don’t always know who knew what. I don’t even know who the 12 people were who were at Du Bois’ meeting in 1918 for the Negro Cooperative Guild. I know who three of the people were. So I know what those three people did, but I don’t know anything about the other nine people. Some of them could have been the same ones who end up doing co-op education somewhere, but I don’t know for sure.
We know that The Young Negroes’ Cooperative League eventually had 400 members. I have names of the delegates from each chapter. So, for example, I know there was a delegate from Buffalo, New York, and some of what he did in Buffalo. I wasn’t really able to find out what most of the other delegates did, or who the women were, because there were both men and women. For the Antigonish tour in the 1930s, I only know the names of three people who went on that tour. I don’t know who the other 16 Blacks were. But I know the guy from North Carolina. I know what he did when he came back from the tour. That’s how he started training people in cooperative economics.
I have not therefore been able to provide a continuous story. So that’s the frustration about it. Often I don’t know why these things happen. I know they happen. But it seems like being connected to other people who are talking about it, or wanting more education, like those people who went on the tour, or took courses – these are the connections.
AJOWA: Another lesson is for those of us who are in this work or people who start the work, to keep good notes.
JESSICA: Right. And if anybody knows about anybody else …if they know their uncle or aunt or grandmother went to Antigonish in 1938, then tell me. Email me and tell me so that I know who it is.
AJOWA: This is such a rich history and I’m really glad that you wrote this book.
JESSICA: I almost didn’t finish the book because I kept thinking ‘oh there are so many holes.” I was feeling bad because …that’s where I guess I’m not a historian. Maybe an historian would be able to fill the holes more, but I also had never planned to fill all the holes. I really was just trying to say that we do have some history – “c’mon people, we can do this.” And then I kept finding more and more information so I couldn’t really stop. But then at some point I knew I had to stop because I needed to get the book out even though I can’t tell everybody the whole story about all this stuff.
AJOWA: I think that an important difference with you as a writer-researcher is that you were -- are -- a scholar-activist, so you come to this work from a different perspective, as one who has actually been involved in forming the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy and helping other groups who were doing co-ops. You bring a whole different experience level to your research and writing.
JESSICA: And a lot of what I think or hope that I’m researching is stuff that I learned by being in the movement - of what we need to understand those of us who are co-op developers and in the cooperative movement. What do we need to know? What do we need to understand? That’s actually how I got into trying to measure and understand the impacts of cooperatives on communities because I realized that that’s what we need to know. And that we didn’t have enough people studying it who understood those things. And also, a lot of this, like my understanding of the importance of education, didn’t just come from reading about how all of these groups started with a study circle, but also from my work with worker co-ops and seeing how essential education and training are to the functioning of those co-ops, and that the best-run co-ops are actually the ones that have the best orientation and training programs.
MY WORK WAS FROM THE LENS OF A PARTICIPANT
A lot of even how I was able to analyze and understand the importance of certain things in what I was seeing in history was because of what I was observing being a participant, doing participatory action research on the ground. All of those connections too that I have in the US and Canadian cooperative movements are really helpful. And then I actually have learned so much from being out there talking to people, and observing. In addition, I have inspired some people to do their own research and send me information, finding archives for me that I couldn’t do myself. So actually the whole book has been a collective process -- lots of peoples’ input and support and information.
AJOWA: How would you like to see this book be used? Have you thought about that? Any hopes for the book which must feel like giving birth?
JESSICA: Yes, I have a lot of hopes for the book which are probably just like any birth. You had asked me about the birth analogy – just like any birth you have these high hopes. It’s not clear that they’ll all be realized - and then there are lots of things that come out that you didn’t expect. So I want it to be a document that’s helpful to the co-op community and for communities who need alternative economic strategies to increase wellbeing. As I said, I wrote Collective Courage because I wanted – particularly Black people – but any subaltern group and anybody interested in helping subaltern groups, to understand that we can do it: own our own companies and run them democratically and equitably. And that we have done it, and we will do it.
I also wanted to show the more professional community that they’ve missed understanding cooperatives as a community economic development strategy. Developers and Small Business Associations need to know about this model. Even people we know now that are creating co-op readers and other information for the co-op community don’t usually include information about Black co-ops or any Black person that wrote about co-ops. So I need them to know that there is rich material that they could be using and that they should be using. And then even academics, again I want to show this, a hidden history that has been missed. We academics think we know so much, and yet just change the focus a bit, and there is a whole parallel economic alternatives movement that’s been going on at the same time. There are other histories that people have been ignoring and don’t know how to analyze.
So I am hoping that the book will be widely read, that it’s going to be useful for all those different kinds of audiences: For people who want to understand community economic development and grassroots economics better. For people who want to understand why and how economic alternatives can operate, and why we should be supporting economic alternatives. For students and youth, for community organizers and activists; for academics, for practitioners, for policy makers. There is and should be a huge audience.
NEW YORK IS A PLACE WHERE CO-OPS ARE TAKING OFF
AJOWA: You’re teaching at John Jay College now, and New York is the place where a lot of co-op activity is happening. Can you talk some about that?
JESSICSA: Yes, if I was really egocentric, I would say since I moved to New York City there’s been all of this activity, especially in the worker cooperative movement! But, I don’t think I can really take the credit, as much as I might like to. Especially the worker co-op movement has really taken off, with the establishment of the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives (NYC NoWC), and Solidarity NY. We luckily have a confluence of lawyers who are running community development clinics who are interested in co-op development, non-profit lawyers who are interested in co-op development; we have social service agencies that realize that the best way to help their clients especially with employment is to talk with them about co-ops; and people who need and want to be involved in worker cooperatives, as well as food cooperatives and housing cooperatives (which were already pretty well established in NYC). All of these groups have come together in New York City. There was need, energy, organization, and now it looks like money may be allocated.
NYC NoWC has been spearheading a lot of this. We have many people who have been “resonating” to worker co-ops. City Council people have now been thinking about cooperatives, along with academics and social service providers. That actually seems to be where it is really taking off. So in that sense again, that need, right? You have social service providers who find that they can best help their clients by helping them to think about maybe starting a co-op.
AJOWA: Talk some about the immigrant co-ops because they probably have some …
JESSICA: That’s the growing group, at least in New York City, and maybe around the country, the ones who are really starting to use co-ops more. For many immigrants, they think they are coming to a “promise land,” and then find out that they’re coming to a place, maybe not as bad as where they left, but certainly not as good as what they hoped for. When they come to their social service agency, it’s hard to find job placements especially without documentation, or good English skills. You could try to start your own business but that’s also very risky and precarious, and if you don’t have resources, you need help with that too. The cooperative model can address many of these issues. You can come together with other people who are in a similar position as you are, and figure out what kind of strengths you have, what kind of work you want to do. You can then pool a variety of your group’s resources, combine it with some available resources that the social service agency is finding for you and then start a co-op.
Most people want to work. Most people do work. Most people are working even in things that we don’t value and don’t consider work. Most people are working for poverty wages, which also makes no sense. How can we say ‘you’re lazy and don’t want to work,’ and people are working and are not making enough money to feed their families? At least with co-ops, you can use people’s energy, people’s hard work, and see where it’s going and have control over what your time and energy is going for. Co-ops help people leverage that pooling of resources, put in energy and enthusiasm, give that effort and make something happen with it. With a co-op, people control what’s happening to it, and what decisions get made economically; and then benefit proportionally. So we see how co-ops are a viable strategy exactly because of how they help groups of like-minded people in similar situations to collectively help themselves and each other.
AJOWA: Talk some about how middle class people can use co-ops.
CO-OPS AND THE MIDDLE CLASS
JESSICA: Middle class people have all along used co-ops. They actually have some resources to pool so they start out with an even larger equity share. So in some ways, co-ops are actually made for the middle class because they are structures that allow people with some traditional resources to pool them in order to maximize their options, position themselves better in the market and/or to get more resources. Sometimes you have some resources, but you can’t really get them to work for you, until you do it together. Or you have some resources but your product needs processing, and the processing is too expensive to do by yourself - that kind of thing. So farmers, for example, who need a co-op to do the processing and distribution, or who need the co-op to help them buy cheaper supplies, that is very important. Even credit unions work really well with middle class people, because credit unions can do more, the more deposits that they have. So if you have more money to deposit in a credit union then the credit union has more money to lend out to somebody else, or to your neighbor who’s a member, or to the community. Credit unions with only low-income members leverage those resources and get them matched, so are still able to serve their members, but do not have as large a self-financed base.
The co-op strategy is a strategy that middle class people have used throughout history, but my research also shows that people of the lowest status – even those who did not own their own bodies - also have made good use of cooperatives. And cooperatives can serve mixed groups as well.
Republicans as well as Democrats support co-ops because they see them as still private enterprise - private ownership; you’re just helping to maximize private ownership and they like the idea of helping the small farmer, and the middle class. So at this point, cooperatives really are a non-partisan strategy as long as you don’t try to start connecting it to the Solidarity Economy11 and changing the whole world system, or that kind of thing. As long as you see it as being compatible with capitalism and other kinds of private enterprise, it’s hard for anybody to say no to that.
AJOWA: Let’s look at that a little bit. How could that work where some people use cooperatives to make themselves richer, and other people do it for “survival.” How do you see those two things working out?
COOPERATION AMONG CO-OPS
JESSICA: These two motives can co-exist because the people who are doing it for survival also eventually want to increase their income and wealth, and they can use the products of the other cooperatives. I see it as all about increasing wellbeing and collective wealth. The 7th principle of cooperatives is cooperation among cooperatives. It doesn’t matter if some of the cooperatives might’ve been formed for different needs. Part of what make co-ops viable is that they serve one another. Think about the cooperative commonwealth concept. This is the notion that you start with consumers who need certain goods, and start their own consumer cooperative. Then the members of the consumer co-op either create or patronize producer co-ops and worker co-ops that are making and selling the things that they need. This comes back full circle with the people who need stuff, connecting with the people who need the good jobs or who are trying to produce the stuff but who need buyers. And if you do it all through co-ops, then everybody is balancing need and quality, and you get production throughout the system…an interlocking system and supply chain.
So in some ways it doesn’t even matter what the “ulterior” motives are of some of the members. Also I still believe that the process of being involved in a co-op provides important experiences that change people; it can make people think differently. So that even if you have some people in a co-op who are self-interested, once they are involved in a co-op and then thinking about those linkages to where you find your clientele, where you find your other people to link with, where you want to live, where you borrow money, etc. -- by the time that you get in the middle of that process and to the end of that process you have transformed into a cooperator. Especially when you see how much more productive that you can be and how the interlocking system works, you may end up much less self-interested.
AJOWA: Seems like there has been a movement of different kinds of people who are looking for co-ops and other alternatives to have more exciting work or productive work or to change the world kind of thing, what’s your take on that?
JESSICA: I think that that is how we’re getting young people in. They see it as a different kind of work experience. That they can have more say or be more innovative or have more interesting work, to maybe get paid a little better. Some of them do see it as then they’re part of a larger movement without having to be a big activist. And some see the interactions in the co-op as important. The other thing that is interesting about all of this is if you actually look at business practices, most standard business practices are becoming much more co-op-like in terms of instituting quality circles and management-labor committees and other ways that employees have much more input in decision making and are encouraged to be more innovative. A lot of businesses are finding that the more democratic they are, the more responsibilities that they give their employees, the more decisions that are jointly made, the stronger the company and the more productive the workforce. I was reading about companies that actually let their workers decide which kind of health plan they want, instead of choosing one and jamming it down their throat. They report that their workers are happier, the workers are more productive. It’s a win-win, for almost all sides. Especially if we stop with the labels and ideology about what it is and what it isn’t, and just think about what it does, what it accomplishes and what the process is.
AJOWA: Talk some more about how we get caught up in labels and possibly “getting stuck” because I know that there are some people who don’t want to think of the co-op movement as a “big tent.”
CO-OP LABEL FEAR TODAY
JESSICA: Yes, they get scared. Some people just want a good job and to do a good job. So people get stuck I think one, just in that ideology of “Are co-ops really communism, socialism, or whatever.” Even though I don’t have any problems with those labels, I know that a lot of people do -- and it gets in the way. What matters are the principles and processes, and whether it makes sense, and whether people can do something with it.
I think the other reason that people get upset about the labels though is because our society is so ideological, especially politically ideological. People are worried that they won’t get their money to start up, or they won’t get customers to buy from them if they subscribe to the label. Then there are some people who honestly think there’s something wrong with too much economic democracy so even though they like it on some level, they get stymied because if they think about themselves as being a part of a process of economic democracy12, then suddenly think “oh, but that can’t work, right?”
So that’s the other reason why I say if we can just forget about the labels, we might stop thinking that economic democracy can’t work but more about what it takes to make it work. Making everybody more productive and happier and enabling them to connect better with their family life so they’re not so stressed, is worth it. So forget about what the label is, if you think about what the process and the outcome is – if that’s something that makes sense to you, or if you want to live that way, then you should not have to worry about the rest.
AJOWA: That’s great.
JESSICA: I guess I sound like PollyAnna, but I am trying to be realistic about this stuff.
AJOWA: It sounds excellent; it sounds like a way for the majority of us to come together and really change the world.
JESSICA: Right. Actually, in a grassroots, co-op by co-op, workplace by workplace kind of way -- and on our own terms. That’s another problem with labels. You always feel like if it’s a label, then you have to do it a certain way, you have to be part of this or whatever. But the other thing that is so great about co-ops is that you can do things on many of your own terms, according to what works for your group, and your community.
AJOWA: In DC we’ve had a significant change in population-- in numbers of people, different types of people, those with higher figures of income—and the housing crisis. While we have some co-ops here there is still a crisis with people who can’t afford to live in apartments costing $2,000 a month. It just raises the question of the possibility of people coming together who have different interests for common need, like housing. What do you think?
CO-OPS MAY BE ABLE TO SOLVE AFFORDABLE HOUSING ISSUES
JESSICA: It’s a good question. Obviously DC needs more affordable housing. You and I have both worked in different ways to make that happen, especially through ONE DC [Organizing Neighborhood Equity]. It’s frustrating because of the economic situation. Everybody uses that to say that we can’t afford to have affordable housing, which of course makes no sense, but of course that’s what the politicians say and what the developers say. That does mean that the coalition between the newcomers and the long-term residents for affordable housing has to actually be made, that we’re not going to get affordable housing without that kind of a coalition. And again, co-ops are enterprises that develop because of common needs. People find common needs and come together to meet those needs. So I think that it’s a good way to think about trying to push forward on affordable housing. For a time DC helped tenants to buy their apartment buildings and convert them to cooperatives, but that money has dried up.
I do worry though that even this notion of affordable housing has to be defended properly. Some people think affordable for working class people as opposed to affordable to very low income, unemployed and elderly people on a fixed income. The current definition from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is based on area median income (AMI), which combines suburban income levels and urban levels. Affordable housing in cities then gets measured based on regional averages, which disadvantages the urban poor. Co-op housing can address this more holistically. Especially with limited equity housing cooperatives and land trusts.
We also need to connect housing to employment. We need to recognize and pay people what they are worth, valuing the kinds of work that people do in their communities and their families, and paying people for that. Again, economic cooperatives, business cooperatives, not just housing cooperatives are needed to address affordability. The solidarity economy where people are involved in all different kinds of economics, whether it gives an actual wage or also includes barter and other kinds of exchanges, helps to build wellbeing in a community and recognizes a variety of people’s abilities, skills, values and energy, as well as needs, and allows us to build economic systems that address all that. So even when trying to address affordable housing, we need to think broader about what are the other pieces and then how can co-ops and other alternative economic models solve those challenges and fit all the pieces together.
One of the stories I love is about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Tenants Association, I think that this was in the 1970s. They created a worker-owned security co-op with help from the Nation of Islam. It was a public housing complex. The residents needed work. The complex needed security. They could pay their young men, their young people, to do the work. A co-op would give the residents control over the business, and the money would stay in the community. The people who knew the community would actually be the ones policing it in that sense, and earning an income, etc.
AJOWA: Where were they?
JESSICA: In Brooklyn.
There is a similar example in Alabama, a housing co-op that the Federation of Southern Cooperatives started, realized that they needed a store. They created a co-op food store that some of the members could work in and all the housing members could own it. So again, combining needs. This reduces the pressure for one economic activity to solve everything. So, a variety of different co-ops in the system helps address the multiple needs in a way that becomes a holistic solution.
AJOWA: So talk a little bit about yourself, what you’ve done, what you were doing while you were writing the book. We’ve touched on some of it a little bit, but give us a short bio of who Jessica is?
ADVOCATING FOR CHILDREN LEAD TO CO-OP INTEREST
JESSICA: I’m a political economist who actually started out in literature. My BA degree is a double major in Literature and African American Studies. I then became interested in education so I got a Master’s in education. I thought that I might want to be an elementary school teacher but it turned out that I wasn’t very good at that, so I went back to being a researcher, and a child advocate. I became interested in economics and community economic development through my child advocacy work at the Children’s Defense Fund in the 1980s.
One of the things that I actually learned from Marian Wright Edelman, founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund, was how important financing, funding and the proper funding were. We were child advocates. We were advocating for the right policies to support child development and policies that would particularly support Black children. But Marian always said that it is not enough for us to get the policy passed if we didn’t get a budget allocation to implement the policy, and to implement it properly. That made me start thinking more about economics, and what are the economics that go along with the kind of social policies that we say we need and why.
After I completed my Ph.D. in Political Economics in the 1990s, Marian had initiated the Black Community Crusade For Children which was to get the Black Community to galvanize around protecting children and getting the right policies for Black children. But then the question was: what kind of economy do we want that would support Black families? I was rehired at the Children’s Defense Fund as economic development analyst for the Black Community Crusade for Children. Those questions drove me to co-ops because co-ops actually have all the values that connect with supporting families. When you’re thinking about what should Black communities do, or any community that wants economic activity that’s inclusive and supportive of family life, what economic strategies would one use? Those have to be co-op policies, right, because the Walmarts -- and the strategies to bring these big companies in -- that money always funnels right out. They don’t take good enough care of workers, especially not to take care of families, and most of the money does not re-circulate into and around the community. It’s gone.
So this started me thinking more about what alternatives we have. One of my graduate school classmates, Curtis Haynes, Jr., had written his dissertation on Black economic development theory and Du Bois’ theory of cooperative economics. I contacted him and asked him more about it. I read Curtis’ thesis. We wrote an article together on why cooperatives would be a good economic development strategy (Curtis had already written a bit about this). I decided to delve more into Du Bois’ writings on this. I started thinking more and more about cooperatives as a strategy, and then I started thinking, “If it’s such a good strategy, have we tried it before?” That got me looking at the history.
Meanwhile, I was a single mother raising two children. I eventually decided to try to become a university professor, not just a researcher, so I ended up first at the University of Maryland, and then at John Jay College, and I slowly just kept researching the history of cooperatives and Black participation, going to co-op conferences, and talking to people about Black co-ops. I was lucky to have some research assistants and some friends who also helped me do the research. I read more and researched more and followed the leads. Things started to congeal and snowball. Legacies and a long history started to emerge. Curtis had also told me about GEO [Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter] which I subscribed to, then started contributing to, and then joined GEO’s collective editorial board.
AJOWA: That’s very good, very interesting because it shows that if you’re trying to solve a real problem, you end of creating something of value to a lot of people, and developing an outlook that is inclusive of many people.
CHANGE COMES WITH CO-OPS
JESSICA: Well I hope so. That’s actually why I like co-ops because I feel that it is a comprehensive inclusive strategy. It solves so many problems in one ….It addresses multiple issues with one strategy. The histories that I’ve uncovered really show that; that the co-op strategy wasn’t a narrow strategy; that lots of different things get connected to it and caught up in it. And again, back to that multiple outcomes from people who get involved in that process because it is such a process. It’s not a finite thing; it’s a process. People have to learn and change in order to be involved in the co-op. There’s no way you can be involved in a co-op and not learn and change.
AJOWA: What was the most difficult moment or time you had writing the book.
JESSICA: I guess there are two things. One was just not giving myself enough time to write; and I kept finding more and more information which created more and more gaps. I am passionate about being a scholar activist, but it doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing. On the other hand it gives more motivation for completing the book. It also gives me motivation for wanting “lay people” – community residents, practitioners, activists, young people- to be able to read it, but also wanting it to be an academic book because I don’t want there to be any question about the scholarship, and the accuracy of the research. I wasn’t shoddy about doing any of that. I was very serious as a scholar to make sure the research was right, to have impeccable research and analysis. I went with an academic press, and I am very happy with Pennsylvania State University Press. I am thinking now about also writing a high school-level version of the book, with pictures. So hopefully I will have time and opportunity to do that. And you and I have talked about a study guide to go with this book.
SO MUCH INFORMATION MADE CHOOSING DIFFICULT
I had to cut the first manuscript about three times. The cutting was very difficult because it’s really hard to figure out what to cut. Once you have a notion of what the book is and you lay it all out and actually write the whole thing, then to have to say “ok, you have to give this up, give that up.” The only thing that made it possible was saying “ok I’m going to write another book and I’ll put all of this in the other book.” That’s what I kept telling myself.
So I’m still thinking about another academic volume also, volume 2, but the other option is still to continue to publish other information as articles. So that was the hardest…letting go of some of the information to create a version which is probably better.
AJOWA: You have a daughter who is involved in co-op housing. Is that a legacy?
JESSICA: I guess so, yeah. It’s wonderful. Susan is the [now immediate past] president and a co-founder of Cooperative Housing at University of Maryland. I’m very proud of her. Actually both my kids have started to embrace co-ops. I guess they couldn’t possibly help but get the bug. I have been working on this for most of their lives!
AJOWA: What’s your son doing?
JESSICA: Stephen is a social worker. He and I recently co-wrote a short chapter with my nephew about using co-ops for neighborhood development. My nephew also got pulled in with George Schuyler’s Call to Young Negroes from the 1930s that I had shown my son and he shared with his cousin. I am proud of them both and very excited that their generation is interested in this. And my grandson Stephon, my son’s son, watched my GRITtv interview and said he wants to read the book. I am so proud of him and his father.
AJOWA: Where are people going to be able to get the book? And how can people get in touch with you?
JESSICA: Ok, you can actually order it from Penn State Press, and other book stores such as Red Emma’s cooperative in Baltimore, and online book sellers like amazon.com and powells.com. There are usually copies available at book events where I am speaking. I have been posting notices of my speaking events on the Facebook page I made for the book: Collective Courage. I can be reached by email at email@example.com, or call me at my office 646-557-4658.
AJOWA: Thank you Jessica. I know I really grilled you!
JESSICA: Thank you. I love talking about co-ops. This is a growing and exciting economic development strategy. Everyone should be thinking about and discussing co-ops!
1 William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) is considered one of the most influential intellectuals in America. He was a civil rights activist, peace activist, Pan Africanist, anti-imperialist, co-founder of the NAACP, author and editor. He worked for black empowerment and against discrimination, Jim Crow laws, and lynching. He may be best known as the editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis and for writing the books, The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America. [ANI]
2 She was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, leading work around unemployment, literacy and voting rights.
3 Mississippi voting rights activist and civil rights leader and vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, who was savagely beaten in 1963 after registering to vote.
4 Current U.S. Congressman from Georgia who was active in the Civil Rights Movement.
5 Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee which led the sit-ins that led to integration of establishments in the south.
6 A 19th century American author who wrote novels for young people about boys who achieve middle class success with hard work and determination. [ANI]
7 Marcus Garvey was founder and president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which sought to repatriate blacks to Africa. [ANI]
8 Conservative and old-fashioned in thought and mannerism. [ANI]
9 Moses Coady was a Roman Catholic priest who used adult education to teach people about cooperatives in English-speaking Canada. He is credited with started dozens of credit unions and organizing fishermen in Antigonish into cooperatives which became known as the Antiginoish Movement in the 1930s but spread in the 1940s and 1950s to Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. [ANI]
10 Coppin State is a black university in Baltimore that practices shared government among students, faculty, staff and administrators. [ANI]
11 The Solidarity Economy is organized alternative economic and social activities such as cooperatives, bartering, time dollars, volunteer efforts, pooling of resources and other activities designed to meet the unmet needs of people and communities to achieve economic justice, ecological sustainability, less alienation, democracy and cooperation.
12 A movement and belief that those who work should share in the organization and proceeds of that work so that people and communities are not oppressed by the concentration of wealthy and power. [ANI]
Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo (2014). Black Co-ops Were A Method of Economic Survival: An Interview with Professor Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/black-co-ops-were-method-economic-survival
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