Photo by Nils Nedel on Unsplash

Black cooperatives have been having a moment in the spotlight since protests following the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery two years ago forced a racial reckoning in the United States. By mid-2020, corporations en masse had pledged their love for Black people, and Black-led nonprofits, collectives, and mutual aid groups received record-breaking donations and increased media attention.

While most crisis-inspired funding has since waned, it inspired the birth of new funds aimed at channeling support directly to Black cooperatives and Black-led co-op organizing. New initiatives like the New Economy Coalition’s Black Solidarity Economy Fund and the Partnership Fund’s Collective Courage Fund are just two examples. Media mentions of Black co-ops have also been on the rise with hashtags like #blackcoops, #blackcooperatives, and #blackcoopsmatter. And then there are the recent conferences of Black cooperatives convened by the Baltimore-based Network for Developing Conscious Communities and Oakland-based Repaired Nations. To the untrained eye this is all brand new, a spillover effect of Black rage and white guilt. But below the surface lies a different story, one that highlights the power of Black-led organizing, Black storytelling, and an emergent Black cooperative ecosystem.

Cooperatives have long been on the Black liberation checklist. By now, anyone who has read anything on cooperatives has come across the research of Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and her seminal 2014 book, Collective Courage. In it, she unearths the long line of Black co-op organizing in the US going as far back as the Underground Railroad, weaving together a cooperative “Who’s Who” of the Black civil rights pantheon in the process.

It would seem that the popularization of the cooperative side of Black luminaries like Ella Baker, WEB DuBois, and Fannie Lou Hamer would challenge the misguided view that Black folks have little experience with cooperatives. However, the depths of anti-Black stereotypes around the world make this history hard for many to believe. Black folks are not supposed to be entrepreneurial or cooperative, no matter where we’re from in the African diaspora. Throughout the Americas, public narratives of Black life generally depict Black people as either lazy (a nicer way to put it is, always ready for a good time) or violent. Such narratives justified the social control needed to drive every plantation economy from the United States to Chile and Argentina. We are seen as either a drain or a danger—both traits that would doom any cooperative enterprise—making it difficult for most to see what should be obvious, namely, that Black people in the United States, throughout the Americas, and on the African continent have a deep and long history of pooling meager resources to meet collective needs. We cannot see what our minds will not allow us to see, even when it’s right before our very eyes.

I’ve been helping to launch Black cooperatives for almost 20 years, since 2003, when I founded Green Worker Cooperatives, the oldest Black-led worker cooperative development organization in the US. At the time, I didn’t know much about co-ops other than what I’d picked up in my organizing circles as a teen in the early nineties. The stories I heard captivated my imagination. Handed down to me from older Black organizers, they were about the survival programs and intercommunal philosophy of the Black Panther Party; the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund’s fight to keep Black land in the hands of Black farmers; and the squatter movements that took over abandoned buildings and vacant lots in the South Bronx, converting them to housing co-ops and community gardens. I’d also heard about the dreams of cooperative economics in many newly independent African and Caribbean nations like Ghana, Kenya, and the Co-operative Republic of Guyana (Guyana’s official name).

Most of those dreams were checked by the greedy wrath and massive weight of global finance and neoliberal orthodoxy (backed of course by military might). Led by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, advocates of neoliberalism were on a mission to uproot alternatives to capitalism under the mantra, “There Is No Alternative.” Domestically and internationally, they used state-sanctioned violence to check Black self-determination everywhere from the Americas to Africa.

Despite this history of repression, the dreams remained and inspired others. Many of these dreamers were the torchbearers for Black cooperatives. Their work informed my view of co-ops as a tool for Black self-determination. Similarly, some Black co-op organizers today were directly influenced by previous Black co-op efforts like the New Afrikan People’s Organization; the Poor People’s Development Foundation in Washington, DC; The East in Brooklyn; or Peggy Powell’s role in co-founding Cooperative Home Care Associates. These and many other efforts from the seventies to the nineties embodied what community control could look like.

Today’s rising tide of Black co-ops is a direct outcome of even more recent Black-led co-op organizing efforts, from the co-op education and development work of Green Worker Cooperatives in the Bronx (founded in 2003), to the example of Mandela Grocery, a worker-run food co-op in Oakland, California (founded in 2009), and from the unapologetically Black political base-building and movement solidarity work of Cooperation Jackson (founded in 2014, the same year Collective Courage was published), to the investment innovations of the Boston Ujima Project (launched just one year later) and the ecosystem building work of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (also founded in 2015). These initiatives were themselves inspired by those that came before.

Last fall, I interviewed over 30 other Black co-op developers and co-op members to learn about the needs and challenges that we face collectively in our efforts to build Black co-ops. Although many interviewees were relatively new to cooperatives, they encountered similar challenges, mirroring many of my own experiences and sentiments. All of them expressed feeling isolated, alone, and frustrated with navigating predominantly white spaces in search of support. All wished for more co-op resources and media that centered Black experiences. And all wished for Black co-op support networks.

I know from my own experience that these wishes are not merely about wanting to see yourself reflected. They’re about creating spaces free of the racialized jabs and skepticism that have come to be known as microaggressions (but whose impacts are anything but micro). They’re also about intentionally building power within Black communities, leaving us better able to challenge white supremacy and racialized capitalism.

I have felt skepticism from white co-op developers and funders who doubt the ability of working-class people of color to lead their own cooperatives without white saviors. I faced it constantly over the years upon developing the Co-op Academy as a new approach to cooperative development. A cooperative business accelerator that gave agency to teams of people of color who had their own cooperative startup ideas was at the time unheard of. A major innovation in how cooperatives are developed, the approach became a major contributing force to coop development in New York City, which today has the highest concentration of worker co-ops in the US. Co-op accelerators are now being replicated all over the country.

Despite the successes of such accelerators, foundations tend to judge bottom-up approaches centering BIPOC cooperative entrepreneurs as too risky. I’ve been asked by funders whether low-income, BIPOC entrepreneurs could even build a successful business; whether such a focus could lead to anything more than house cleaners and dogwalkers; and how many more of these could there be before they saturated the market. Some of those funders were white, but others were people of color, Black folks included. Rare were the white co-op developers who voiced such skepticism out loud. Instead, they would share their critiques with their white peers, including funders (who would then reference those comments when speaking to me).

Of course, their skepticism was based on a legitimate observation. Access to capital and contacts are two major constraints that make it difficult to launch and grow successful Black co-ops. These are challenges that every business faces, but they take on heightened dimensions for Black folks doing this work because of the entrenched nature of racialized capitalism.

Capital is a fundamental requirement for any business. All businesses struggle in the beginning to find a business model that works, understand what their customers want, and find the best way to deliver that value. Most run out of money before they figure it out. Those that survive were able to mobilize enough capital to last them through their early growing pains. The more capital a startup has, the longer their runway for takeoff, and the better their odds of success. According to a 2019 report by the Institute for Policy Studies, white families have 41 times more wealth than Black families. With that kind of runway, it’s no surprise that Black cooperatives and Black-led support organizations are notoriously low in number and limited in size and revenue.

Contacts are another fundamental need for any successful business, including cooperatives. Those with a wealth of networks, especially industry contacts, can tap into a bigger knowledge base and identify opportunities, whether it’s how to reach new customers, how to build capacity, or where to get additional capital.

In the world of economic development, there is a hidden assumption that the capital and contacts needed for any business to thrive will never come from a Black community, at least not in any reasonable timeframe. This leads naturally to a bias for white leadership as whiteness signals access to capital and contacts, in other words…success. This outcome is evident in every economic sector, from capitalist enterprises to nonprofits and cooperatives. This is how we get white leadership (including white Latine leadership) of Black and Indigenous co-ops and co-op support organizations. On this paternalistic path of the white savior, Black people are viewed as inherently deficient, and hope and salvation are placed outside of the community. As a result, what some community members may have once recognized as a tool for self-determination goes no further than creating jobs or increasing access to consumer goods.

An alternative to the search for a white savior is cultivating a community of Black leaders. This kind of approach centers capacity building, leadership development, and strong networks. And this approach requires trust. Civil Rights movement icons Septima Clark and Ella Baker were masters of this. Today, this alternative lives on in the strategies used by many of the Black co-op organizers noted above and by others such as Nexus Community Partners, Cooperation New Orleans, Ujamaa Collective, Brooklyn Movement Center, and the Cross Atlantic Chocolate Collective.

In the cooperative tradition of pooling resources and going farther together, Black cooperators and co-op developers are coming together nationally and internationally to build capacity and share resources. The most recent Conference on the Black Cooperative Agenda convened by the Network for Developing Conscious Communities has generated a series of convenings aimed at launching a national association of Black cooperatives.

At the same time, a number of us who are Black co-op developers and cooperative members from across the African Diaspora have come together to launch Collective Diaspora, a new, secondary cooperative—that is a cooperative that focuses its work on supporting cooperatives engaged in direct business with customers—of Black co-ops and Black-led co-op support organizations. Cooperation Jackson, Solar Uptown Now Services, the Cross Atlantic Chocolate Collective, Nexus Community Partners, and the Women’s Multicultural Resource and Counselling Centre are but just a few. Together, we are weaving a global, Black cooperative support ecosystem to challenge Black isolation and the extraction of Black wealth that has been ongoing since the transatlantic slave trade.

It is just that kind of Black cooperative ecosystem that has always sustained Black co-ops in the face of white supremacist and capitalist violence. Today’s rise in Black co-ops is a direct result of the attention given to nurturing that ecosystem. Their future growth depends on how much that ecosystem continues to be nurtured right now.