Interview: Jessica Gordon-Nembhard on past lessons for economic empowerment

‘We just need a lot more time, energy and money, to keep that momentum up’

Addressing injustice and economic inequality was a key driver behind the development of co-operative movements across the world. From the Rochdale Pioneers in Britain to the Mondragon movement in the Basque Country, the model has been used as a tool to empower disadvantaged communities. This has also been the case in the USA, where black communities started setting up co-ops in the 1930s to empower themselves.

In his speech in 1934, sociologist and civil rights activist William E.B. du Bois called on black communities across the US to develop an economic nation within a nation. He was a lifelong advocate of economic co-operation to enable African Americans to shape their own economic destiny.

His concept of “racial economic co-operation” is well documented in the work of Dr Jessica Gordon- Nembhard, author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, which explores the tradition of black co-operative economic development in the context of the long struggle for civil rights. A political economist specialising in community economics, black political economy and popular economic literacy, Dr Gordon-Nembhard is a professor of community justice and social economic development at John Jay College, NYC.

W E B Du Bois

Her interest in co-operative economics developed while working for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington DC in the 1990s, where she explored family friendly community-based strategies.

With anti-racist protests taking place around the world, could the co-op model help to address some of the barriers faced by black communities? “I think there is a lot we can learn from the past,” says Dr Gordon-Nembhard.

She believes the co-op model can be a powerful tool to empower subaltern groups struggling with economic inequality and discrimination. Her research looked at why black communities have set up co-operatives across the country.

“At the beginning, the co-ops were a response to marginality and crisis,” she says. “Often it was because they weren’t provided with the kind of burial they wanted for their families, or they couldn’t get access to quality food, healthcare or banking. So they created their own businesses.

“That connection between surviving oppression and marginality through co-operative economics was very powerful. And then people went even
further and started saying: ‘if we can use this to help us just survive, imagine if we used this strategy even more, how much we could prosper from it’.

“Even though the survival strategy is the one that most of the co-ops followed, you can also find a vibrant strain of African American economic thought about using co-operatives to develop a group solidarity economy.”

But co-ops set up by black communities faced a number of challenges – including sabotage and violence, “especially when groups tried to do more on a larger scale”, says Dr Gordon-Nembhard. “There was huge opposition both in the form of financial sabotage and violence, like lynching or burning down a co-op store.”

Related: Click here for more stories on how co-ops can help the world Build Back Better

The most successful co-ops were developed by communities who spent time studying together before opening the first business. This learning experience enabled them to not only familiarise themselves with the model, but also build solidarity in their communities. These early connections also helped them to secure the community’s support for their projects.

The first black co-ops to be set up in the US looked internationally for inspiration. Dr Gordon- Nembhard says they exchanged information with other co-operative movements.

“I have evidence from the 1930s that blacks went and visited the Antigonish movement in Canada. In 1935 they invited Japanese co-operator Kagawa to Harlem in to talk to blacks about forming consumer co-ops. And so there was this interesting international dynamic that we don’t even think about.

“As I was studying the examples of black co-ops in the US, I found out they were also studying each other. There was a co-op that started in the 1930s in Gary, Indiana, and a Chicago group went and studied what Gary had done – then a group in Richmond also went and studied what Gary had done. So there were also inter-US learning journey going on.

“The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which is a Southern regional development group for African Americans that started in the late 1960s, actually sent some members back to Nova Scotia to study the Antigonish movement again. And the Puerto Rican co-ops talk about how Father Moses Coady from the Antigonish movement came and gave a speech in Puerto Rico and that helped to spearhead their movement, which is a very strong one now.”

More recently, US worker co-ops have looked to Mondragon in Basque Spain for inspiration. Named after the founder of Mondragon, the Arizmendi Bakery in California now operates bakeries in San Francisco, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Rafael and Oakland.

Even within the US, there was discussion taking place between black and white co-op movements – “not as much integration as we would have wanted, but definitely connections, and definitely people agreeing that we need to learn from each other”, says Dr Gordon-Nembhard. “In 1918 the head the Cooperative League of the United States (Clusa), which later became the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), James P. Warbasse, wrote an article in a black magazine about why co-ops would be good for African Americans.”

But often black communities that had ventured on co-operative journeys were not connected with the wider movement. 

“Wherever there was segregation, it was very hard for African Americans to join the white co-ops, though sometimes one or two joined. It was what I would call tokenism. If there were small numbers of blacks, it seemed like people might be more willing to allow one of two to join, but if there was a large number it was much, much harder.”

She adds: “Most of it was not legal segregation, it was more cultural segregation, it was more a matter of the co-ops not attracting blacks, and not making them feel comfortable. They didn’t connect with their culture and so most blacks wouldn’t have thought about joining. Often, it wasn’t even that they were turned away if they tried to join, but that there was no marketing, no cultural sensitivity, no invitation to join. And then there were some very specific issues of whether blacks were legally allowed to join or not. Especially before the 1950s, there were laws about blacks and whites not being able to be in the same room together, so it was very difficult to be in a co-op together. In practice, integration didn’t often happen. The legal and social gains made in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s resulted in more integration and more co-ops set up by black communities.” 

Dr Martin Luther King at the march on Washington, 1963. Dr King believed in using co-operatives to empower black communities. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Dr Gordon-Nembhard warns that while progress has been achieved, co-ops still need to work on ways to attract members from black communities, make them feel comfortable and support their progress to leadership roles. There is evidence that African Americans can still feel isolated or uncomfortable in co-ops that are not mostly made up of people of colour.

“There’s still sometimes not enough of a cultural appreciation or cultural sensitivity to blacks in the mainstream US co-op movement. 

“I don’t think inclusion is strong enough. I think equity is the issue. It’s not just about whether you have the numbers, but what happens to African Americans after they join. Some people use this analogy: inclusion is being invited to the party, but equity is being asked to dance at the party.”

She adds: “The fact that so many people of colour in the US are allocated to the worst jobs impacts how much they can save, how they can use the credit union, or what they can do in the co-op.  Sometimes the volunteer labour requirement in a co-op is a lot for somebody who’s got two or three jobs or other struggles. Sometimes a healthcare co-op is insensitive to the health issues they might face. So moving from inclusion to equity, I think, is the biggest challenge.”

Despite a faction of white supremacists “who are gaining ground again”, most people accept inclusion, says Dr Gordon-Nembhard, but “it’s harder to combat the micro aggressions, misinformation, and the stereotypes – to really get to the equity […] You can’t do inclusiveness without being sensitive to all the other hard work that everybody has to do to make sure that we get to equity.”

NCBA-Clusa, the national federation for US co-ops, is working to address the issue. Its annual conference in October will explore how diversity, equity and inclusion practices can provide a competitive advantage for co-ops. 

Dr Gordon-Nembhard signs a book at the Mandela Grocery Coop in West Oakland (Photo: Dr Jessica Gordon-Nembhard)

Dr Gordon-Nembhard, who will be one of the keynote speakers, thinks training on micro aggressions and anti-oppression and adopting an intersectional perspective is something all co-ops should consider. “It’s not just the boards that need that kind of training. I think all the members are going to need that kind of training. We need to figure out how to really listen to people so that we can understand all the complexities of people’s lives. We also need to look at how our co-ops in the past might have been discriminatory or not very welcoming towards people of colour, and how that history has created some kind of culture as well as a reluctance on the part of African Americans to try again. So there is a lot of homework and collective learning that we need to do.”

The movement should be wary of becoming complacent, she adds. “When I started in the movement, over 20 years ago now, when you would bring up racism and micro aggressions in the co-op movement to call people out, they were horrified. They thought of themselves as liberals and were horrified to hear that they weren’t being politically correct, that they weren’t adopting the right attitude. At first, there was a lot of resistance just because they thought they were already liberal enough. There was a lot of denial.

“As recent as 10 years ago, I had a graduate student call me from a well respected university in the United States, who told me she had wanted to write her master’s thesis on racism in co-ops. The three professors she wanted to work with all told her that was a non-issue, that co-ops didn’t have racism … She emailed me saying – Can you help me? She finally found a professor who was willing to work with her on that issue. That is the kind of denial I mean.”

The movement also needs to engage with local schools and introduce young people to co-ops, says Dr Gordon-Nembhard. Another barrier is the lack of federal legislation. “Every state has a different law about how to incorporate a co-op. In New York state we’ve been able to get the state-wide Small Business Administration to accept the model and start teaching it along with other models when they help people to set up small businesses. So we’ve made some inroads, which shows it can be done. We just need a lot more time, energy and money, keep that momentum up.”

Worker co-ops have been booming over the last couple of years. Dr Gordon-Nembhard puts this down to the creation in 2006 of the US Federation of Worker Co-ops, which has been able to do a lot of work in terms of education, connecting co-ops, collecting data, engaging with local authorities, and organising conferences.

A second factor, she says, was the 2008 crash. With immigrant communities locked out of good jobs and steady employment, they explored the co-op alternative. And now Covid-19 threatens another financial crisis. “Recessions are always a challenge for any business,” says Dr Gordon-Nembhard, “but we also know worldwide and through history that recessions and depressions have actually been the time when more people have created co-ops. My research confirmed that to be the case with African American co-operatives. The 1930s is one of the periods where I was able to find the most number black co-ops. So the crises can hurt some businesses and make it hard to start businesses but you see more proliferation of co-op businesses; probably because of the ability of co-ops to address market failure and take very meagre resources and use pooled resources to leverage more. And to use people’s social energy and sweat equity.”

Long-term co-op sustainability requires professional support, orientation and training for members, state and federal government support and a steady supply of loan funds and grants, she says. “Covid-19 has shown the weakness in our health system as well as in the employment and unemployment systems and co-ops can help solve these problems. The fact that in the US we don’t have universal healthcare has meant that we’ve had to do more co-operative healthcare and rely on mutual aid. So I think people see the importance of continuing with this approach. 

“Credit unions also have been able to stay firm and stay strong. There was a huge credit union movement after the financial collapses in 2007 and 2008. People realised they weren’t playing footloose and fancy free with their money, and were not overcharging them – and were stable. These crises do show off the benefits of co-ops.”

Dr Gordon-Nembhard believes this momentum could bring real change. “It doesn’t have to be just a crisis model, it can and should be a long-term model. We have enough examples of co-ops that have lasted decades for people to see the benefits and hopefully the activity that they’re involved in now will give them more momentum and more courage to keep the model going. I try not to sound too overly optimistic but I am very hopeful because I do believe the model has delivered and has so much potential to deliver more.”