A letterboard sign reading, “You didn’t come this far to only come this far.”
Image credit: Drew Beamer on Unsplash

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Steve Dubb: Could you begin by talking about why you moved from California to organize the solidarity economy in Mississippi?

Kali Akuno: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, but my connection to Mississippi runs fairly deep on my maternal side. That side of the family goes back to being in the Natchez area since its founding. There are still folks from the family that are there.

How I came in part to this [the solidarity economy] was partly through that family connection but also through a political connection that runs throughout my family. On both sides of my family, there are generations of political activists. My parents were both very active in the Black power movement. They were part of a particular tendency within the Black liberation movement called the New Afrikan Independence movement. That movement had a particular focus on the South.

So, I grew up with this kind of focus and emphasis on concentrating on activism in the South. It heavily influenced me through my teenage years to an understanding that I wasn’t going to stay in Los Angeles, that I was going to eventually move South.

SD: What led you to adopt cooperatives in particular as a strategy? 

KA: I had a good education in that movement about cooperatives. It was more rhetorical in many respects than real, but the rhetoric was there. How do we do development? How do we take care of our economic needs in non-exploitative ways? That was kind of always the function. 

And folks drew on the knowledge of cooperatives in the Black community going back to the 19th century. That was always floating around. 

And I also grew up with cooperative practices. My mom was part of what we’d now call a CSA (community-supported agriculture). When we were growing up, she would put in a little labor, put in a little money, and we would get groceries, a hefty amount, once a month. But it was through this kind of collective association, largely of women, in Los Angeles that we got fresh produce. Particularly when my mom was a single parent, it was hard to come by income to be able to take care of three growing boys. That co-op, that CSA, was a lifesaver for us. It was something that I knew existed, but I didn’t know how dependent I was on it until I got to college and started to pay my own food bills. 

SD: You have spoken before about your experience working in public education prior to moving to Mississippi. How did that experience affect your thinking?   

KA: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was really concentrated on doing education work. I was a teacher, a public high school teacher, working in the Oakland Unified School District. And eventually, I was able to help create…the New Small Autonomous Schools policy. 

Rather than waiting in a generalized sense for the market to “create jobs,” we had to create the means of taking care of our basic sustenance on our own.It was…borrowed from New York, which had a similar policy at that time. They don’t have it anymore, unfortunately.…This was, I believe, in 1999. And then, over the course of the next couple of years, I was able to move out of the policy creation side into policy implementation and worked on creating a new small autonomous school called the School of Social Justice and Community Development. 

It was in the context of doing that work that I had one of the worst kind of panic attacks of my life. On the eve of the school opening—after I had done all this work on curriculum designing, working with staff, recruiting staff, recruiting students, recruiting families—I just woke up in the middle of the night.

The school was designed to be college prep. It was working with students who were largely on some form of parole or probation. We were very confident that we could get them to be able to go to college, but then it hit me: Where are the jobs? Where is the employment? Where is the quality employment once they leave college? And I had no answer. It really created a deep panic within me and a quest to find an answer. 

Over the next four years, the Oakland Unified School District wound up going into debt and had to restructure and, as part of that, closed a number of schools, ours being one of them….It was in that context that I came back to cooperative economics and a cooperative orientation and this notion that rather than waiting in a generalized sense for the market to “create jobs,” we had to create the means of taking care of our basic sustenance on our own. 

SD: Is there anything else in your background that has informed solidarity economy work in Jackson? 

KA: In the decade between when I left Oakland and when I started working in Jackson, I worked in New Orleans and Atlanta. From New Orleans, I learned how to go about constructing a community land trust. In Atlanta, working with the US Human Rights Network, I got deeply ingrained in the economic cultural social rights framework and what that would add to both the vision and practicality and also how to frame policy in and around economic justice. So, I learned a lot that winded up being incorporated in

from the get-go. 

The final piece: it was in the context of doing what we were calling Just Reconstruction work in New Orleans in the Gulf area after Hurricane Katrina. That’s where the impetus to create and push for the creation of the Jackson-Kush Plan, a version that is now available to the public, which I wrote, and we released in 2012.

Within that, we identified three priorities. First, broad democratic decision-making bodies through People’s Assemblies; second, pushing a radical agenda through electoral politics by electing candidates that would come from the community and the assemblies, so independent electoral politics; and third, transforming the base of the economy in and around a solidarity economy, around economic democracy. Cooperation Jackson was explicitly born to be a tool of this strategy.

SD: What led to the formation of Cooperation Jackson in 2014? Was it created after the heart attack of former Jackson mayor Chokwe Lumumba? Is that correct?

KA: From the beginning, before Chokwe was elected mayor, we were already working a vehicle that would become something like Cooperation Jackson. 

What we were trying to do in the context of him becoming mayor was actually to create the kind of material and political conditions within the municipality which would enable something like Cooperation Jackson to not only be born but to thrive.  

One of the things…that I was tasked very specifically to work on by working in his office…was a loan fund that would support cooperatives. We had come up with a notion that we would try to get city council to put up some money and we would try to match that with funds from credit unions in particular. 

We got $3 million pledged from the city, and we were going to try to match it with an additional $3 million from various credit unions in the town. And that almost succeeded. It was set to be agreed upon the very day that Chokwe died. 

We were going to change procurement and contracting to make them more favorable to local businesses. We got the city council to sign off on doing local sourcing to the greatest extent possible. That would have enabled more cooperatives to emerge or small businesses in the community to meet the various inventory needs of the city. 

We were going to create within the planning department a division that was going to focus on providing some basic education for cooperatives, including how to start them and where to go about getting resources to initiate them. 

We wanted to situate our co-ops as an instrument of working-class organization.So, we were trying to embed this and create these broad conditions to help something like Cooperation Jackson thrive before Cooperation Jackson took off. 

In order to bring this about, there was the policy side and the political side. On the political side, we wanted to launch an education campaign and a development campaign in the community. We were envisioning…a series of conferences through this network we were calling Jackson Rising. The first Jackson Rising conference was announced while Chokwe was alive in October 2013 and was scheduled to take place May 2014. 

Unfortunately Chokwe passed in February, so he wasn’t able to participate and attend in the conference that we had in May. But we had it. It was in [this] context that we officially launched and gave birth to Cooperation Jackson. 

Its official launch day was May Day. That was chosen intentionally to be a direct tie for International Workers’ Day. We wanted to situate our co-ops as an instrument of working-class organization. We wanted to bridge that gap that exists in the United States between co-ops and the trade unions very intentionally.

SD: How would Cooperation Jackson look different if you had launched as originally intended with public support and how did you have to adjust given that you didn’t have that public support?

KA: That is a book unto itself. It is safe to say that it would be profoundly different….Had Chokwe lived and secured those resources and [been] able to keep up the Jackson Rising conferences as a broad educational tool that we would do once a year to do ongoing education, mobilization, and more importantly training around it, I think we would have been able to work at the scale of the entire municipality, as opposed to the scale that Cooperation Jackson has. 

We’re known throughout the city, but our work is really concentrated in one neighborhood, one section of West Jackson. Some of our businesses, like the Green Team, operate throughout the city. But it is not the same thing as us being able to scale up in the way that we had intended.

We were talking about a level of scale of community public ventures, [like an] engineering corps, to help us with the city’s dredging problems, to be able to develop the engineering capacity to tackle some of the water problems. 

We were talking about creating a municipal app to be able to do public transportation to take on Uber and Lyft—to really displace them. We were already pursuing alliances with Barcelona en Comú and others to pursue a set of policies that would limit some of these apps being able to come in and raise the price of housing and create cooperative apps. We had big scalable visions of what we thought we could execute by having a solid level of support in a municipality. 

And I want folks to know, having Chokwe [as mayor] was one thing. But we also had a majority at that time on city council—a clear majority. Chokwe’s role was enlarged because we have a strong mayor type of government. Most of the execution comes through that office. But city council approves the budget. 

The executive is really important but having both in tow behind this kind of vision, you don’t find that kind of political synergy at the municipal level too often without it being some kind of gross dictatorship, which was not what this was. These were folks that we moved towards these politics; they didn’t all come from the people’s assemblies or from our political organization. Some of them had been city council people—two of them by that time already for 20 years. We had to move them and convince them to go in this direction….I think most of them would have stuck to that program. Would they have supported every single thing? Probably not. But the majority of things that we were trying to push? They were really gung-ho about it. It would have been profoundly different. A totally different orientation to government. 

When we put in the Jackson-Kush Plan…we thought we could be the Mondragón of the US, the Mondragón of the South, we meant that literally. Because of the level of support that…we had marshaled. 

The base of our work in many respects is the community land trust.

Now, unfortunately, this ended up being a Humpty Dumpty tale. Once Humpty Dumpty fell and cracked, it was hard to put it back together again. 

We were hoping that some components of it would kind of regroup when Chokwe Antar [Chokwe Lumumba’s son] ran a second time, when he won, but by that time, a different set of political alignments were already in place that did not share this particular vision, unfortunately.

SD: What are the primary elements of Cooperation Jackson today?

KA: The base of our work in many respects is the community land trust. When we started, the first thing we concentrated on was acquiring…land that we could use for urban farming, for training, for community education, but also for a level of business operation (like doing a cafe or catering co-op) and some of the initial business enterprises.  

The first co-op I personally worked on was when I was at college in the Davis-Sacramento area. We did a little co-op experiment called the Thomas Moss Memorial co-op. Tom Moss was one of the key people who started people’s groceries in 1890s in Memphis, TN, just across the border from Mississippi, that wound up being burned down. Several members of the co-ops ended up being lynched. His story [was] immortalized by his friend, Ida B. Wells. This was how Ida B. Wells started her anti-lynching campaign. This was the first major journalism around lynching that she did, and it was in defense of her friend. 

Anyhow, with the co-op, the first year or two years, we didn’t really know what we were doing. By the time we figured how to actually make it sustainable, with a little cafe and some catering for events, the landlord started upping our rent every six months. It got to a point that we were not working for ourselves and the community—we were just working to pay the rent. 

The lesson drawn from that was never rent anything again. We really wanted to concentrate on acquiring…land, decommodifying it, taking it off the speculative market. We wanted to create venues where the co-ops we develop could operate…at a very reduced rate. 

A lot of businesses go out of business because they just cannot make the rent. So, we wanted to remove that from the equation as much as possible, but we had to acquire the land and the facilities to be able to do that. 

So, if the CLT is the anchor, then cooperative development is, I think, the second tier. Then the third tier of our work is trying to create supporting institutions and practices that enable greater mutual aid and support. It is these three components—the land trust, the co-ops, and the solidarity support institutions that make up the core practice of what we do. 

Underneath all of that is constant technical and political education, because our model is really premised on a broader political vision and having folks grounded in that. 

SD: How would you describe Cooperation Jackson’s cooperative development philosophy?

KA: Our particular model is very different in some respects from others. Ours is very oriented to fulfilling certain needs that come out of…people’s assemblies. We have tried to do that very intentionally. It has its positives and negatives. 

For example, out of those assemblies, one deep commitment involves trying to make Jackson not only a food-secure community but to have it be as autonomous and sovereign in food production as possible. 

We have built an urban farming co-op to try to meet that goal, with the understanding that one farm, one cooperative, is not going to meet that objective in and of itself. It’s going to have to network and do a broader level of education and stimulation of other growers throughout the city to kind of meet that aim and objective. 

But the trick—and this is kind of the downside of doing this kind of directed co-ops—is that it removes one part of the equation of having people start co-ops about something that they love, that is dear to their heart. So, what we have is kind of a rotational system. 

I call it the 24-month window. We’ve had 24 folks that we’ve seen in 10 years. Farming is not how they view themselves in the long term. That’s fine. But we now know that to keep this political commitment it requires a lot of rotational labor, which means you are kind of starting over every two or three years with another crew. 

This is a limitation about our model that we have learned. We are trying to adjust and figure out how we shift this out in a particular way. We are in a different place to deal with this challenge because of the community land trust. If we were renting somebody’s land and the yield was variable from year to year, more than likely it wouldn’t survive. Because it is collectively owned, we can make it and do these types of adjustments where many others cannot. 

We think the benefits of our orientation and model outweigh some of the limitations. We would encourage others in their communities to try to take on these three components of land trusts, worker co-ops, and then developing solidarity institutions to all reinforce each other. We think it is a potent mix.

SD: What is the scale of Cooperation Jackson at present?

KA: That is more challenging because of…the pandemic. The labor in almost all the co-ops has become more flexible in order for things to make it. So you have a lot more part-time work for everything now. 

We have literally become a seasonal rotational employer in some respects. Like right now, until February, the Green Team co-op, it’s not going to be doing much….At best they are cleaning up yards with leaves and stuff like that and…helping [the] Zero Waste [co-op] with compost….They are in some dialogue with each other about co-work, sharing each other’s work to make ends meet. Between the two, that’s roughly the equivalent of 10 full time jobs, but about 16 people doing all that labor.

SD: How much land is in the land trust?

KA: We have over 40 properties in the city itself. It is well over 20 acres of land. If you add up what we have access to in nearby Canton, we have over 100 acres of land, but that is a more rural area. That’s designated for larger farming projects that we are doing. A certain portion of that is dedicated to a [medical] cannabis initiative that we are taking on….But within the city, it’s 20 acres.

SD: What would you take as Cooperation Jackson’s main successes, its main challenges, and its main goals going forward?

KA: We are nearing the conclusion of what we consider Phase 2 of our development, which will culminate in a business center that we call the Ida B. Wells Plaza. Eversville Design & Print Shop is one of the businesses that will be there in 2024. Chief Farms, which will be the medical cannabis growing site, will be there. And, in the long term, hopefully by the end of 2024, we will have everything completed to be able to finally open the People’s Grocery. 

The grocery store marks a shift into what we’re calling Phase 3. To date, we’ve been able to do land acquisition and all the startup co-ops without any of our entities taking on one penny of debt. 

That phase, we think, is over. With People’s Grocery, there is no way that we are going to not take on some level of debt. Phase 3 is going to be a major scale-up for us. Around that, we really want to get an ecovillage off the ground. We’ve been talking about it for 10 years. 

We have now entered into a few relationships that are going to help us with some seed funding to do that. But we are going to have to take, we project, between $6 and $10 million to fully execute the vision we have laid out. 

The critical thing there, what’s going to be an adjustment for us, is that part of that involves a live-in component. We want to make it as affordable as possible, but we have to find out what is going to be the debt ratio we can live with to be able to pull this off in alignment with our vision and our principles. The third phase is going to be a major challenge for us, but I am really looking forward to it.

SD: What do you view as Cooperation Jackson’s position in the broader state of the solidarity economy movement in the United States and internationally?

KA: I think, judging by the level of requests that we get, we play a very important role in the modern solidarity economy. People are getting a deeper understanding of the challenges that exist in our context of operating in a hard-core neofascist ultra-conservative regime in the state of Mississippi. I think folks are learning that even under these adverse conditions, various forms of self-organization are both possible and necessary.