Collective Courage: Jessica Gordon Nembhard on Black Economic Solidarity

Worker cooperatives and other cooperative enterprises can spur neighborhood revitalization and equitable, sustainable growth. That's because they create meaningful jobs and build community wealth while grooming local leaders and inspiring democratic participation. So argues scholar and activist Jessica Gordon Nembhard, whose new book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, reveals the rich, hidden history of African American cooperatives. The 30,000 co-ops in the United States today have helped create 2.1 million jobs and contributed more than $150 billion to our total income, according to a study from the University of Wisconsin. In an interview with America's Tomorrow, Gordon Nembhard explains how the lessons of the past can foster an even stronger, more inclusive cooperative movement.

Let's start with basics: what is a cooperative?

It's an enterprise, a business model, based on a set of values and principles that are grounded in economic democratic participation. It's about supplying and supporting economic activity based on need, not based on profit, and about building assets that will stay in the community, because it is owned by the community.

How can co-ops advance community revitalization and build a stronger economy?

Cooperatives address problems created by market failures, discrimination, and underdevelopment. They help people collectively to get the goods and services they need that they can't get anywhere else or that they can get only under inferior conditions. For example, many African Americans started credit unions because banks wouldn't serve them or charged unfairly high interest rates. Co-ops are a way for groups that have faced discrimination to gain some amount of economic stability, and from there you are in a much stronger position to gain political and civil rights. Fannie Lou Hammer said you can't have civil rights if you don't have economic independence, and that's still true today.

The biggest problem is that people don't know enough about this model. We're all brought up to operate as individuals and to compete individually. But the problems we face are too big to solve individually. Cooperatives are a way for people to come together, to pool together what they do have to get something for their community, for themselves and their families. You get all these interlocking benefits, more dignity of work, more connection to the community, social and human capital development, in addition to a viable business that is stabilizing a community.

How far back can African American co-ops be traced?

I began my research by reading W.E.B Du Bois. He wrote a book in 1907, Economic Cooperation among Negro Americans. He starts reporting about enslaved people working together to save enough money to buy somebody out of slavery, or to do a community garden so that they all can get some extra vegetables and fresh food to eat. And the roots of collective action and pooling of resources go back even further. Every society, every group in the world through history has used some form of economic cooperation. To say it came only from a European tradition, which I sometimes hear, is unfair and untrue.

But what is true is that this work — actually doing alternative economics in black and other communities — was always very dangerous work, which is why I titled this book "Collective Courage." I've documented how there was physical violence and many times there was economic sabotage against these businesses. I often found instances of people getting killed, co-ops being burned down, commercial banks not lending or providing financial services to these businesses.

You describe hundreds of fascinating examples of African American cooperative activity through the centuries.

Right. I thought this book would take two years and I'd find maybe 10 examples. Fifteen years and hundreds of examples later, I'm still finding new information. I didn't expect that I would find such a rich history of African American cooperatives and cooperative activity, from slavery times to today. And I found that in each of these periods, there were black organizations that were deliberately promoting co-ops. So in the 1880s it was integrated unions, like the Knights of Labor, and black organizations like the Colored Farmers' National Alliance and Co-operative Union. In the 1930s and 40s it was the Young Negroes Cooperative League — which had Ella Jo Baker as the executive director — and the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by Halena Wilson, with support from A. Philip Randolph. And then in the 1960s and 70s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party started cooperatives; and the major civil rights organizations created the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which is still around today promoting cooperative development in the South.

In each of these periods, having strong black organizations that were deliberately doing co-ops seems to have really made a difference. And today, we have a resurgence of cooperatives, especially worker cooperatives, among immigrant communities, young people, and people of color. And again, this is being led by strong organizations, like the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, which I helped to start 10 years ago. People also start cooperatives during bad economic times, such as during the Great Depression and during the Great Recession.

What surprised you the most in doing this research?

One of the biggest surprises for me was how many black leaders were actually talking about and creating co-ops, but that's not what they were famous for. W.E.B Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, Ella Jo Baker, and others all spoke or wrote about, and were involved in black cooperatives and democratic ownership. African American cooperatives grew side by side with the European American cooperative movement, and grew side by side with the long civil rights movement.

Ten years ago, I'd go to co-op gatherings and find very few black people in the room. Urban African Americans felt like the co-op movement had nothing to offer them and was not relevant to them. I still get people who tell me that blacks don't have this tradition, that this is not an indigenous model. Part of my work is to remind African Americans of our long and strong history of cooperative economic activity. And once they hear some of the examples I've researched, people start to realize that this is in their own family history, and start sending me stories of their aunts or grandparents who were involved in a co-op.

Tell us about a cooperative that's around today.

One of my favorite examples is about a 25-year-old co-op, Cooperative Home Care Associates in the South Bronx. It was started by a nonprofit with the purpose of giving low-skilled women, mostly black and Latina women, much better jobs. There are over 1,000 worker-owners today, and they provide themselves with health care, good pay, a matched savings programs, and annual dividends. They really galvanized the home care industry throughout the city to get better wages for everybody and to provide better training and job-ladder support.

What's needed to advance cooperative development?

First is education. We really need more people to just understand the option, understand the model. We need to be teaching it to kids in middle school and high school. Second, we need more financing, especially if we want to do co-ops with low-income people. We need bridge loans, start-up funds, and grants; we have to educate and interest the funding community, whether it's foundations or municipalities or workforce development programs. Third, what we need is strong, uniform co-op laws. Some states have great co-op laws. Some states have none. For example, you can't license a worker co-op through Mississippi state law. We need to fix that.

What's next for you?

My book came out less than a month ago, but I have many more stories and materials that didn't fit in the first volume, and I am learning more every day. So I'm working on volume two.

To learn more about starting or supporting cooperatives in your community, go to the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives , the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter.

Read the rest of the May 7, 2014 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.