A composition of Culture organizers against a pink background of New Orleans, with white flowers.
Image credit: Composition by Gabby Henrie

This is the second article in NPQ’s series titled Solidarity Economies: Building Community Power. Coproduced with the New Economy Coalition—a coalition of over 100 organizations building the solidarity economy in the United States—this series highlights case studies of solidarity economy ecosystems that are returning wealth and building grassroots power in cities across the country.

Spanish language version, translated by María Luisa Rosal and edited by Lila Arnaud, members of the BanchaLenguas Language Justice Collective is available here. (Versión en español, traducido por María Luisa Rosal y editado por Lila Arnaud, integrantes de la Colectiva de justicia de lenguaje BanchaLenguas, está acesible aquí).

Culture change is slow, but it is central to us as a movement that we are intentionally creating together.

Over the last decade, the seeds of a solidarity economy rooted in cooperatives have been reemerging in New Orleans. Many efforts are still nascent, but we are inspired by how far we have come. Among the 15 local cooperative businesses and democratic collectives we count in our ecosystem, many focus on arts and cultural strategies to strengthen our solidarity economy. These include BanchaLenguas, a language justice cooperative; the worker-owned film production house Studio Lalala; and Civic Studio Design Cooperative. Cooperation New Orleans, founded in 2019, provides an umbrella of support to these cooperative projects by and for artists, culture bearers, and healers through education and outreach, technical assistance, and financing—all with a focus on relationships.

Cooperativism, we contend, is inherent to our humanity. It’s about designing our local economy with care for each other in mind. Of course, building a solidarity economy one cooperative at a time requires a long-term perspective. Culture change is slow, but it is central to us as a movement that we are intentionally creating together. To be effective, we need to get to know one another, center our humanity, and create accessible pathways for all of us to engage. 

Fittingly, this article was created in collaboration: authored by Latona Giwa, cofounder of New Orleans’s birth justice cooperative Birthmark Doula Collective, grounded in conversations with four local cultural cooperative organizers, and with editorial and visioning support by Cooperation New Orleans founding member Susan Sakash. 

We see arts and culture organizing as an effective strategy to help us build a robust cooperative ecosystem to build community wealth and meet our community’s needs. Below we share some of the stories from our network that illustrate how community members, through a range of distinct culturally focused cooperative businesses, are converting this vision into reality. 

New, Old Ways: One Co-op Organizer’s Story

“I’ve been doing this work my whole life, only I didn’t have a name for it.” 

That’s how Nicholas Holmes describes his entry into cooperative organizing back in 2020. Over the last decade, New Orleans arts and culture organizers like Holmes have been asking how do we regenerate our cooperative wisdoms and practices to reclaim the caring solidarity economy that is our birthright? We have found the answers to this question in collaboration with one another, through overlapping and intersecting efforts, that slowly evolved into an umbrella organization—Cooperation New Orleans.  

For his part, Holmes joined the city’s co-op network as a member of the newly formed Civic Studio Design Cooperative, though he already had many years of experience in community engagement and cultural preservation. In his previous roles organizing against gun violence and planning festivals, he had seen how in New Orleans, “we have such a vibrant culture that has the power and influence to bring people together.” When Holmes learned about Civic Studio’s efforts to bring together designers, urban planners, artists, and architects as a community-centered design cooperative, he recalls, “Well, that just immediately made sense to me.” 

Holmes is not the only cultural organizer to describe this type of intuitive pull toward cooperativism. Within the Cooperation New Orleans ecosystem, several cooperators shared their own journey of realizing that this approach had always been innately within them—not just as individuals but within the fabric of their cultures, creative practices, and communities. Particularly for Black and Indigenous communities, there are endless examples of cooperative community structures and practices throughout history to today. For Holmes—born, raised, and now organizing in Central City, a Black New Orleans neighborhood with a rich cultural history—core to inspiring his cooperative work has been realizing he had “this knowledge and skill already within me, and in my lineage.” This realization, he added, was “liberating.” 

Mapping a Just Cooperative Ecosystem

In 2019, Tamah Yisrael helped found Cooperation New Orleans while she was board president of the local New Orleans Food Co-op. “In the summer of 2019, we began to meet at my community center weekly,” Yisrael says, “with the goal of understanding what community needs could be met through worker ownership; where cooperativism was already showing up in the community; and what co-ops needed to thrive locally.” 

Through these conversations, organizers came up with Cooperation New Orleans’ central mission: to develop worker-owned cooperatives and the structures to support them, with a focus on poor and working-class Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. We chose to focus on building cooperative economies, and specifically worker-owned businesses, because we wanted to create opportunities for New Orleans workers most marginalized by mainstream extractive economies to take control of their economic lives and to create businesses that meet their own needs.

In December 2019, we organized an all-day community convening that brought together workers, advocates, and cooperators to learn together and map out a vision for a more cooperative community ecosystem. With very few existing cooperative businesses in New Orleans at that time, we looked to the larger solidarity economy to find partners. Early collaborators were doing mutual aid, language justice, healing, and community-based arts and culture work, using cultural change strategies and organizing with collective principles. These were the people already doing the work, and together they gave birth to the network of cooperative projects that today is Cooperation New Orleans.

Yudith Azareth Nieto was one of the attendees at that gathering. Nieto came to co-op and solidarity economy organizing by way of environmental and immigration justice work, including efforts to provide refuge and support to LGBTQ+ people arriving in New Orleans from migrant caravans. “I was writing letters of support to get people out of detention, and then that led to identifying ways to get folks housed and forming work opportunities,” explains Nieto. She and her colleagues began to look for solutions “outside of the capitalist economy.” Nieto heard about Cooperation New Orleans and attended the meeting as a solidarity interpreter. 

Language justice training hosted by BanchaLenguas, October 2022. Photo courtesy of Cooperation New Orleans.

Soon, Nieto became a member of the first cohort of cooperative trainees. She described the equitable exchange of knowledge that developed between her language justice collective and the Cooperation New Orleans project. “We were growing and learning these old, new ways alongside each other.” Nieto and others brought a language justice framework to the cooperative. And she carried many of the cooperative principles she learned from the training to her fellow members of the language justice collective called BanchaLenguas. The collective, which had organically grown out of solidarity practices in 2017, now provides interpretation and translation services for social justice groups in New Orleans and beyond. 

As Cooperation New Orleans leaders filled in the details on their map of cooperative projects in New Orleans, patterns began to emerge. Many in our group were artists and culture bearers, but even more were utilizing arts and culture as a strategy to engage, commune, galvanize, or heal. BanchaLenguas collective member and visual artist Karla Rosas described how early participants had to reconcile and clarify the organization’s mission across the wide diversity of justice frameworks and backgrounds of our members: “Even us integrating together from different perspectives on justice work—immigrant, LGBTQ+, environmental, art, and economic justice—[we realized] that all of that coming together was culture change work.” Cooperation New Orleans founders began to clarify their strategies and focus. Founding members like Yisrael realized that “we [already] demonstrated a clear commitment to social and economic transformation rooted in culture.”

Cooperation Gumbo: Linking Co-op Businesses with Local Arts and Culture

During early community mapping exercises and conversations, organizers began to draw connections between growing a local solidarity economy and arts and culture organizing. We noted how New Orleans’ extractive tourism economy produces a large working class of low-wage service industry workers, many of whom are culture bearers themselves. The system marginalizes local communities from ownership and control of their own labor and creativity for the profits and pleasure of privileged outsiders. Armed with this understanding, Cooperation New Orleans began to direct its collective orientation toward arts and culture by targeting the economic and structural support to New Orleans culture bearers. 

Holmes became a central voice in Cooperation New Orleans’ efforts to develop cultural engagement strategies. He described the challenge of connecting the dots within his predominantly Black community by comparing it to the New Orleans school system. “We have teachers that are culturally disconnected from their students, so they can’t truly make a relevant connection; they may not connect to the cultural significance of gumbo or red beans on a Monday for our community in a way that is sufficient to successfully hand knowledge to the next person.” 

Cooperation Gumbo is constructed around the belief that humans have an innate desire to commune, and that coming together is powerful.

Cooperation Gumbo, an arts and research project started in 2022, was born from that spirit of building cultural connections between Cooperation New Orleans organizers and native Black New Orleanians. Part locally grounded cooperative history research project and part art exhibition, Cooperation Gumbo engages residents and cultural leaders in learning about cooperative practices through art exhibits and walking tours focused on the history of Black cooperative economies, art and music festivals, and free water distributions to Mardi Gras Indians and second liners at cultural events across the city. 

Cooperation Gumbo’s Hydration Station initiative, Lila Arnaud of BanchaLenguas and Nick Holmes of Civic Studio, March 19, 2023. Photo courtesy of Cooperation New Orleans.

Cooperation Gumbo is constructed around the belief that humans have an innate desire to commune, and that coming together is powerful. Holmes reminds me that “as Indigenous people, we have always used communing with each other as a form of healing.” Congo Square serves as a local example, a public space just outside New Orleans’ French Quarter where in the 19th century Black enslaved people were permitted to gather for trade, music, dance, and fellowship on Sundays. It is still active as a cultural gathering and healing space today.

Cooperation Gumbo aims to leverage this healing power of arts and culture in fellowship with contemporary New Orleanians to connect them to their shared cooperative histories and inspire current-day renditions. The collaboration’s cultural strategies and events create opportunities to connect local culture bearers with the resources and organizers of the local cooperative economy. 

Flipping the Script through a Film Co-op: From Margins to Center

“Part of the work cooperatives are doing [is to] make sure our language is …connecting to and conscious of the languages people speak culturally.”Another early contributor was Maya Pen, a special-effects artist, member-owner of the newly formed Studio Lalala film production cooperative, and Cooperation New Orleans steering committee member. Studio Lalala earns revenue through production services, studio rental, and workshops. 

Pen had been supporting relief efforts for migrant families before and during the pandemic. She got connected to Cooperation New Orleans at a meeting about community mutual aid efforts. Soon Pen was deeply engaged in Cooperation New Orleans’ “slow, intentional process of…[sharing and learning] about each other.” As a filmmaker, she aptly describes this human-centered cultural work as “flipping the script on racial capitalism.” 

For Cooperation New Orleans members, simply doing arts and culture work is not enough. “We have been intentionally engaged in challenging the default understandings of whose culture, whose practices, and whose voices are centered in [this] work,” says Pen. Each of the organizers we spoke with was quick to remind us that cooperative wisdoms and practices are ancestral and native to Indigenous communities across the globe.

When Pen first entered cooperative spaces outside of New Orleans, she says, “I felt alienated because I didn’t know [the terminology] and I didn’t go to business school [or] know about business structures.” But she followed that intuitive pull into cooperativism, and like Holmes, Yisrael, Nieto, and Rosas—she came to understand that cooperative practices came naturally to her. “Part of the work cooperatives are doing [is to] make sure our language is not alienating [people] but connecting to and conscious of the languages people speak culturally, in terms of education and experience,” Pen says. 

As a filmmaker, Pen says that centering representation and direction from marginalized artists has been foundational to the employment practices and filmmaking projects Studio Lalala undertakes: “We are employing other queer artists of color in our community…we are teaching each other, [and we are creating studio spaces] where the voices in our community can be heard in the same quality with the same resources as work that we were seeing come out of predominantly White male [spaces].” Though small, this four-member cooperative business is one of many seeds being planted in our growing solidarity economy and serves as a model to other New Orleans culture bearers of how artists can own their labor and build caring local economies that center their own experiences].

Opening the Door, Expanding the Movement

The work only grows. Since 2019, Cooperation New Orleans has served as a movement space to support the growth of a local cooperative ecosystem, launched a Black Liberation Cooperative Academy, and hosted visioning sessions around the cooperative future of the city. Our nonextractive loan fund directly supports the creation of new worker-owned businesses. It has one full-time staff member and four part-time staff members, backed by a steering committee of 14 members. With each new collaboration, we further deconstruct the assumptions of cooperative practices, expand language accessibility, develop tighter alignment in our vision of healing through cultural connection, and deepen our networks of interdependence to strengthen the local solidarity economy.

We now support the transformative work of 15 cooperative projects in New Orleans. In addition to the ones mentioned above, we can now count several food industry co-ops, a technology repair business, a multi-stakeholder cooperative that will sell cultural materials and offer wrap-around services for Mardi Gras Indians and other culture-bearers, a birth doula co-op that in 2023 won a $35,000 national grant competition award, and more transformative organizing projects. Of these, 12 are operational for-profit businesses employing a total of over 70 workers. Additionally, we work with three nonprofits in our network that are restructuring themselves to be collectively run (also known as worker self-directed) nonprofits.

As it expands, Cooperation New Orleans stays “committed to social and economic transformation rooted in culture.” Whether it’s Rosas reclaiming early traumatic experiences of interpreting to own and value her own labor in a language justice collective, Pen recentering her community’s stories in film, or Holmes spotlighting the cooperative economic history of his neighborhood, each new member has brought a new entry point into the conversation, a new strategy for connection. 

“The things people know inherently about cooperatives are enough and [we need to create] whatever words or [strategies]…to make that wisdom accessible,” says Pen. Through reclaiming Indigenous arts and culture organizing that centers the margins, she states, Cooperation New Orleans is “opening the door and making sure the people who want to be there can go inside.”