Skip to main content

Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Promoting Cooperative Economics Education and Practice through Kwanzaa

Article type
December 26, 2018
Body paragraph

orginally published December, 2011.

This initiative is an attempt to focus the attention of African Americans, and especially community builders and organizers, on the potential value of the practice of the Nguzo Saba or the Seven Principles of the holiday of Kwanzaa as social and economic community development tools. These principles or values may be used to free us from oppression in this country as well as offer another model of economic development that meets people’s needs, develop worker ownership and control in their place of work, and builds the capacity of the citizenry to participate collectively and democratically in running the organizations and institutions that have an impact on their lives. The Nguzo Saba or the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa offer us the opportunity to practice them through cooperatives as economic and social development organizations. We have put forward a number of suggested topics that you may use for each day of Kwanzaa, so as to highlight their communalistic elements and relevance to our need for economic and social empowerment. A list of resources for cooperative education and development is also provided.


Economic and Social Context of Underdevelopment

African Americans are marginal players in the economic affairs of this society as owners of productive assets, as well as decision-makers over employment and, the production and the distribution of goods and services. This community is generally seen as consumers of goods and services as opposed to producers of said goods and services. It is estimated that African Americans spend a mere seven cents of each dollar with businesses that we own. According to the Survey of Consumer Finance of 2001, African Americans made up 13% of the population and owned 3% of the assets. Homeownership is one of the main ways to build household wealth. In this regard the African Americans are not on the path to wealth building. In 2001, 47% of African American families were homeowners as opposed to 74% white families [currently 41.7% and 73.1%, respectively, according to the US Census Bureau -ed.]. The typical white family had more than six times as much wealth as the typical African American family ($120,000 compared with $19,000) [as of 2016, those numbers are $162,770 and $16,300, respectively, according to the Federal Reserve -ed.].

In the United States, non-Anglo ethnic businesses are more likely to, or predominantly employ people from their respective communities. If more African Americans participate in the economy as owners, it could put a dent in the level of unemployment that we experience. Historically, the African American unemployment rate in the United States is usually about twice that of the general population.

The promotion of cooperative entrepreneurship could help us move from under the jackboot of discriminatory employment practices, and governmental neglect of the communities in which we live. According to an edition of the USA Today publication, (November 16, 2004, 4B), “African Americans’ spending clout is due to hit $723 billion this year [2004].” [now $1.2 trillion, according to Nielsen -ed.]  Therefore, the foundation exists (especially with the reality of residential segregation) for us to engage in a group economy approach to economic development. In the 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois put forward the idea of a self-enclosed cooperative economy as a way to overcome racist oppression and exclusion, as well as provide a non-capitalist model of economic development. Today we are faced with similar Depression-era social and economic problems, which beg for collective action and solution.  The economic model of “Black capitalism” that was advanced by the Nixon administration in the 1970s (and by others since that time) has not shown itself capable of changing the adverse socio-economic condition of the majority of African people in America.


What is a Cooperative?

A cooperative, according to the International Cooperative Alliance, is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.

Cooperatives may be used to organize the provision of goods and services in any sector of the economy. In the United States, this member-owned economic and social organization is used to operate day care centers, housing communities, supermarkets or grocery stores, hardware businesses, worker-owned and controlled companies, processing plants for agricultural produce and commodities, and financial institutions (credit unions, insurance companies). Cooperative economics is truly a transformative ideal, which asserts that the primary reason for starting a business is to meet the needs of its members or the community, and not just to make profit. Cooperatives strive to make a surplus or profit, but it is done to provide more services and benefits to their members. Each member’s share in the surplus or profits from the operation of the cooperative is in direct proportion to your participation. It may be measured by the number of hours worked or the dollar value of her or his purchase of goods or services from the cooperative. This is the hope and promise of a better tomorrow that cooperatives represent to humanity today, and for those of us who practice cooperative economics.

The following values are part of the international cooperative belief system: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity.

There are seven principles that comprise our cooperative identity as cooperators: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for the community. These principles are very much consistent with those that are celebrated as a part of the holiday of Kwanzaa.


Enter Kwanzaa as Community Development Catalyst

The holiday of Kwanzaa was created by African American Studies professor, Maulana Karenga, in 1966. It is a holiday that is now practised by about 28 million Africans throughout the world from December 26th to January 1st.  Kwanzaa promotes seven principles which are its core, and is known as the Nguzo Saba: Umoja (Unity), Kuchigulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). It is our desire to work with Kwanzaa organizing committees across the country to facilitate the education of the African American community about how cooperatives are an expression of our cultural traditions, and social and economic history. Furthermore, we would like to highlight the long history of our involvement in cooperative lifestyles and economic organizations from Africa to the United States.  Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Eastern Conference of Democratic Workplaces board member and University of Maryland Economics and African American Studies professor, has prepared a slide show presentation on the role of African Americans in the formation of cooperatives in this country in the 1800s and throughout the 1900s. Our experience of cooperatives would be valuable educational and inspirational resource in reminding the community about how cooperatives were important survival tools in the past (as well as today in rural Southern communities).

We believe the Kwanzaa holiday would be a prime time opportunity to introduce worker and other types of cooperatives, and to push them as viable alternatives to the way capitalism has economically enslaved us, in the past and today.  By organizing an educational campaign around Ujamaa and the other principles during the Kwanzaa celebrations, this initiative would help to plant the seeds that may germinate into the viable and successful cooperatives of various types. 

We have the chance to move from a celebratory approach to Kwanzaa as a holiday to one that integrates its essence, values or principles in organizing the economic development of the community. Ujamaa or cooperative economics is usually advanced by some celebrants of Kwanzaa as the way to African American economic empowerment. However, it is our contention that the ideas behind this principle are little understood by those promoting it. For many Kwanzaa practitioners, it is the mere buying of goods and services from African American-owned companies. This practice does not speak to the ownership and governance structures of the enterprises that are patronized. Wealth from economic production is a collective endeavor, as it is virtually impossible for the individual to create it single-handedly. Under the dominant economic system of the day, the people (the workers) who create wealth are generally not the ones who own and enjoy the use of it. Furthermore, the popular perception of the Ujamaa principle does not have a dialogue with the notion of “shared social wealth”, and the economic model that would best manifest this idea and practice.

We believe it is time for African Americans and all those who want a better economic life in this country to promote the knowledge of cooperatives as organizational models and tools for economic and social development. Cooperative education is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for its adoption by the community. It must be put on display and experienced, as a practical way to meet the material and self-actualizing needs of the people. In order to disseminate the information about cooperatives, we should utilize the public forums that are used to celebrate the holiday as educational instruments. We may use each principle to highlight particular and relevant aspects of the structure and operation of cooperatives. In the community organizing phase of our educational effort we should experiment with different spaces (living room meetings, public meetings, street corner, places of worship, etc.) to reach the people.


Goal and Objectives of this Initiative

Goal 1: To facilitate the knowledge of cooperatives as an economic development tool, and the history of its use among African Americans.

Objective 1a: To get as least 20 Kwanzaa organizing committees to include cooperative education sessions in their celebration of Kwanzaa. 

Objective 1b: To provide a list of cooperative development educators, resource people, and cooperative educational materials to Kwanzaa organizing committees.

Objective 1c: To provide an outline of the topics or subjects that may be addressed in educational or informational sessions about the principles, efficacy, structure, and operation of cooperatives.


Putting the Idea into Practice

At each Kwanzaa forum, for those organizations carrying out multiple-day activities, it would be advisable to include an introductory presentation on cooperatives. The suggested topics under each principle below cannot be fully explained in one day, but they give an indication of the possibilities. However, the following topics may be used in the cooperative education program for Kwanzaa 2004:

Umoja (Unity): Umoja is all about the community achieving strategic and operational unity in its quest for freedom, justice and empowerment. The following cooperative themes related to unity may be addressed on this day:

  1. The values, ethics and principles of the cooperative movement
  2. Democratic structure of the cooperative – one member, one vote, participation basis on which members share in the surplus or profit, control and governance by members, challenges of management in a member-owned organization, etc.
  3. Role and responsibilities of the board of directors and the management
  4. Role and responsibilities of members
  5. Conflict management
  6. Education for member participation
  7. Democratic decision-making models
  8. Promotion of cooperation over conflict and competition
  9. Unity, cooperation and diversity: The role of the federated cooperative association

Kujichagulia (Self-determination): The first act of a free people is to shape the world in their own image and interest – Maulana Karenga, creator of Kwanzaa

  1. Participatory democracy and accountable leadership in the community
  2. Cooperatives and capitalist firms compared
  3. Worker cooperatives and humanity dignity: Workplace democracy and self-determination
  4. Community control of its economic resources – the cooperative way
  5. Cooperatives and fair and equitable global trade: People-to-people pan-African trading
  6. Credit unions and other financial institutions: Controlling our financial destiny
  7. Cooperative and Pan-African people-to-people trading relations
  8. Participatory research and the generation of community knowledge and skills

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

  1. The challenge and benefits of teamwork
  2. Learning to work in teams
  3. Cooperation: The life blood of economic and social progress
  4. Conflict management in the cooperative
  5. Democracy in the workplace: Cooperative solution
  6. Can’t we get along?: A cooperative approach
  7. Member participation and organizational democracy
  8. Rewarding member participation: the basis for cooperative economics

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): The people ought to collectively own, govern, and control the economic institutions in the society or community.

  1. Organizing cooperatives around our basic needs
  2. The different types of cooperatives
  3. Identifying sources for the financing of cooperative and/or community economic development projects
  4. Designing a community organizing and economic education project
  5. African American cooperative history
  6. Cooperation in traditional African societies
  7. W.E.B. DuBois and Ella Baker’s thoughts on cooperative economics
  8. Identifying economic opportunities in your community
  9. Business planning and the business plan
  10. Organizational strategic planning and the strategic plan
  11. Successful examples of cooperatives economics throughout the world
  12. Exploring the idea of “shared social wealth” and cooperative economics

Nia (Purpose): The creation of a just, free, and equitable society as the central goal of individual and collective vocation represents the highest ideal of human development

  1. Examine the socio-economic condition of African Americans
  2. The context for movement building among African Americans
  3. The fallacy of Black Capitalism as an economic development model
  4. Cooperative entrepreneurship and youth development
  5. Gendered reality: Sisters in cooperative and community development
  6. Becoming drum majors for cooperative economic development
  7. Educating and transforming students into catalysts and partners for community development
  8. Figuring out who am I?; am I really who I am and am I all I ought to be?
  9. Cooperative and religious values: A union made in heaven
  10. Cooperatives in action: The proof of the pie is in the taste

Kuumba (Creativity)

  1. Creativity, risk-taking and innovation: The vitamin A of a cooperative entrepreneurial culture
  2. Making something out of nothing: A history of entrepreneurship among African Americans
  3. Thinking creatively! Thinking African: Creative workable organizational structures
  4. African American creativity and its impact on America’s economy
  5. Charity begins at home: Making our creativity work for the community
  6. Cultural creativity and economic development: Artistes as entrepreneurs
  7. Understanding and applying creativity to cooperative and other business opportunities

Faith (Imani): This principle is the foundation of any human endeavor. Without the belief in the ability of a particular course of action to produce its intended outcome, the necessary commitment to and faith in the project may not be forthcoming. Its absence is usually a surefire recipe for failure, underachievement, or inaction.

  1. Why is the other person’s ice colder?: Towards an understanding of our lack of faith in each other
  2. The limits of an oral culture: Written agreements and cooperative economics (bylaws, marketing agreements, and membership agreements)
  3. Cooperative and religious values: A marriage made in heaven
  4. Can’t we get along: The cooperative as a unifier
  5. Cooperatives and community cooperation: Goodbye to the crab in the barrel mentality


Resources for Cooperative Education and Development


Adams, F. T., and Hansen, G. B. (1992). Putting Democracy to Work: A Practical Guide for Starting and Managing Worker-owned Businesses – Revised Edition. San Francisco: Berett-Koehler.

Butler, J. S. (1991). Entrepreneurship and Self-Help among Black Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Cheney, G., (1999). Values at Work: Employee Participation Meets Market Pressure at Mondragon; updated edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Craig, J. G. (1993). The Nature of Cooperation. Montreal, Quebec: Black Rose.

Gastil, J. (1993). Democracy in Small Groups: Participation, Decision Making and Communication. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.  

Jones, B. (1990). Neighborhood Planning: A Guide for Citizens and Planners. Chicago: Planners Press.

Kaner, S. Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Philadelphia, PA: New Society.

Karenga, M. (1989). The African American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Los Angeles: Sankore.

Krimerman, L., Lindenfeld, F., Karty, Carol, and Benello, J., Eds. (1992). From the Ground up: Essays on Grassroots and Workplace Democracy by George Benello. Boston: South End.

Macleod, G. (1997). From Mondragon to America: Experiments in Community Economic Development. Sydney, Nova Scotia: University College of Cape Breton.

Mariotti, S. (1996). The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business. New York: Times Books.

Morrison, R. (1991). We Build the Road as We Travel. Philadelphia, PA: New Society.

Nadeau, E.G., and Thompson, D. J. (1996). Cooperation Works!: How people are using cooperative action to rebuild communities and revitalize the economy. Rochester, MN: Lone Oak.

Temali, M. (2002). The Community Economic Development Handbook: Strategies and Tools to Revitalize Your Neighborhood. St. Paul, MN: Wilder Publishing Center.

Walstad, W. B., and Kourilsky, M. L. (1999). Seeds of Success: Entrepreneurship and Youth. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.

Wilson, A. N. (1998). Blueprint for Black Power: A Moral, Political and Economic Imperative for Twenty-First Century. Brooklyn, NY: Afrikan World InfoSystem.

Whyte, W. F., and  Whyte, K. K. (1991). Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University.

Zeuli, K. A., and Cropp, R. (2004). Cooperatives: Principles and Practices in the 21st Century. Madison, WI: Cooperative Extension Publishing (University of Wisconsin- Madison).


The Spirit of Cooperation: The story of cooperatives and how Americans use them to improve their lives and communities – narrated by James Earl Jones

Worker Owned: In Their Own Words

Democracy in the Workplace: Three Worker-Owned Businesses; Off Center Video – 510-486-8010 or


The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund – P.O. Box 95; Epes, AL 35460 -205-652-9676

Parent Cooperative Preschools International; 1401 New York Ave, NW; Washington, DC 20005; -1-800-636-6222

The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives; 2129 Franklin Avenue East; Minneapolis, MN 55404; 415-775-0124; e-mail –

National Cooperative Business Association; 1401 New York Ave, NW; Suite 1100; Washington, DC 20005; 202-383-5442

National Association of Federal Credit Unions; P.O. Box 3769; Washington, DC 20007; 703-522-4770

National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions; 120 Wall Street, 10th floor; New York, NY 10005; 212-809-1850

National Credit Union Association; P.O. Box 431; Madison, WI 53701; 800-356-9655; 

National Association of Housing Cooperatives; 1707 H Street, NW; Suite 201; Washington, DC 20006; 202-737-0797

The Cooperative Development Foundation – 1401 New York Ave, NW; Suite 1100; Washington, DC 20005; 202-383-5445

National Cooperative Bank/NCB Development Corporation; 1725 Eye Street, NW, Suite 600; Washington, DC 20005; 1-800-955-9622

National Cooperative Grocers Association; 19 Main Street SE; Suite 500; Minneapolis, MN 55414; 612-331-9103

Global Communities; 8601 Georgia Avenue, Suite 300 Silver Spring, MD 20910; 301-587-4700


Go to the GEO front page

Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo got her start in the worker cooperative movement in 2003 when she was elected to fill a vacancy on the Eastern Coordinating Council, the board of the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy, eastern regional worker cooperative organization, where she served for nine years.  A year after joining the ECC, Ajowa went on to become a founding board member of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives in 2004 where she participated for eight years. She has also served as Chair of the Democracy at Work Institute and trained with the Democracy at Work Network.  She has also served on the boards of NASCO and NASCO Development Services, and the Ujamaa Collective in Pittsburgh.  She had cofounded the Ella Jo Baker Intentionally Community Cooperative in Washington DC in 2002 and lived in that community for eight years, serving as its Secretary and Treasurer for most of her stay. Ajowa joined GEO in 2005 as a co-editor. She has a master's degree in Business Administration and in Community Economic Development, both from Southern New Hampshire University.  She also earned a degree in Mass Media Arts from the University of the District of Columbia.  She traveled to Mondragon in 2011 and continues to do cooperative organizing in the Washington, D.C. area where she is based. She has a particular interest in internalized superiority and inferiority, and the role of love and spirituality in changing the world.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA This question is to verify that you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam.

What does the G in GEO stand for?