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I see it as a very important work because it is the only book to chronicle the Black cooperative experience in the U.S. 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. 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. 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. 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 talked about a meeting that he had that turned out to be the Negro Cooperative Guild that he started in 1918. 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.
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.
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 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 [1907] 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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? 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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!
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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 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. I actually think that this is the beginning of her becoming a grassroots leadership development person. I have seen her papers at the Schomburg Library Archives (part of the New York Public Library System). 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 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.
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.
Even if you are not in that one co-op anymore, many things are learned and other things get created. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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 DEVELOPMENTAnd 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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? 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. That’s how he started training people in cooperative economics.I have not therefore been able to provide a continuous story.
And if anybody knows about anybody else …if they know their uncle or aunt or grandmother went to Antigonish in 1938, then tell me.
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. 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 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? 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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!
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. There was need, energy, organization, and now it looks like money may be allocated.NYC NoWC has been spearheading a lot of this. City Council people have now been thinking about cooperatives, along with academics and social service providers. 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. 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. 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. They actually have some resources to pool so they start out with an even larger equity share. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. Actually, in a grassroots, co-op by co-op, workplace by workplace kind of way -- and on our own terms. 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. 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. You and I have both worked in different ways to make that happen, especially through ONE DC [Organizing Neighborhood Equity].
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. 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.



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