Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: In your book Collective Courage, which explores African American co-operative economic thought and practice, you argue that, “co-operatives are not just economic enterprises... they are associates of people who come to together to address a common need or want.” This solidarity dynamic was present within the housing co-ops under the “debt peonage of Jim Crow” and the co-operative-led regeneration after Hurricane Katrina. Could you talk about other examples of co-operatives as forms of solidarity?
Jessica Gordon Nembard: One of my favourite co-ops was established in the 1960s—Freedom Quilting Bee. This was a group of women quilters who were part of sharecropping families, in Alabama in the US South. Sharecropping is usually a debt peonage situation, where you have to start renting before you have a harvest (income). So the rent is on credit, in fact, you have to buy everything you need on credit and you’re buying it all from the same landowner you’re renting from—and you’re selling your harvest to the same landowner. So by the time you’re done, the landowner gets to decide the price of the harvest, gets to decide how much you owed from all the supplies advanced, and adds that to how much rent you owe for the land. Each year you get deeper and deeper into debt. And these landowners are the descendants of the plantation masters from the time of slavery, so sharecropping is a similar situation.
The women who started Freedom Quilting Bee got encouraged because a local minister saw some of their quilts and said, “I can sell these up North.” Took them North, sold them, and brought back the money to the women. They got so excited they created a co-op to augment the sharecropping living. It turned out the co-op ended up being able to do much more than that, one because it was a women’s co-op a bunch of things followed after they started making enough money to buy land and build an actual sewing factory. So now they’re leaving the home to sew, and they need childcare. So they built up childcare and after school programmes to create family friendly and children’s services. They were making enough money that some of them were able to help their families get out of sharecropping and buy their own property. It’s also the 1960s and they’re getting very involved in Civil Rights, in particular just registering to vote, which is already a very difficult thing to do. At this time, African Americans who registered to vote in their area, such as Alabama, were being evicted by white landowners. They hadn’t even voted yet, they were just going to the courthouse to register. Often, when they returned home they would find their belongings out on the street and were barred from returning to their homes.
The co-op had made enough money to buy 23 acres of land, to put up a factory, to run day care and an after school programme and with the extra acres, as the factory only occupied one or two acres, they were able to sell them to people who got evicted from their sharecropping land, or to loan them the land so they could farm for a little while on good terms and then go off on their own. So the co-op not only provided this augmented income for a small group of women, it then provided a stable economic income generating, asset generating collectively owned economic project that helped to do a lot of other things—in particular it gave them the independence they needed to fight for their civil rights and the economic stability they needed to take care of their families. So it’s a really exciting programme. At their height, in 1992, Freedom Quilting Bee co-operative was actually the largest employer in their town because they had all these projects. So that I would say was one thing. Of course you had to be a member of the co-op to be one of the owners-quilters, but you didn’t have to be a member to reap the benefits of all the things they were able to do in the town, and all the economic stability they were able to provide. So that would be one of my best examples of the ways co-ops create solidarity and benefit their communities.
Another example of solidarity was actually not one co-op but the creation of a regional co-op development centre. At the same time as the Freedom Quilting Bee started in 1967, the Federation of Southern Co-operatives was created, and they were founding members. That project was supported by the major traditional civil rights organisations of the 1960s [the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the National Urban League, and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee)]. These traditional civil rights groups were fighting for political rights and were not really talking about economic rights for pragmatic reasons. However, they realised the need to support co-op development at the grassroots. What they did was they came to together to write a proposal to the Ford Foundation to get a large grant to set up a meeting to talk about creating a regional Black co-op development centre. That money paid for the first meeting, which then founded the Federation of Southern Co-operatives (FSC)—a southern regional co-op development organisation formed by about 23 Black co-ops and the research group. At one point the FSC was helping to support about 100 co-ops through six state organisations, with the regional headquarters in Atlanta. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund still exist—last year was their 50th anniversary.
So again, even the groups that were not explicitly thinking about economic transformation, had the notion about having to support economic justice and co-operative ownership among Blacks in terms of full liberation. They tried to create economic stability so they could continue their political activity.
JGF: The process from economic independence to political advocacy is a theme that recurs throughout the book. You talk about education within co-ops—that participating in workplace democracy gives you the ability and confidence to take other roles in public and civic life.
JGN: Exactly. Within a co-operative you are a democratic member-owner and have to understand both how the business works and how economic democracy and participatory democracy work. Most co-ops have what is called Open Book Management where everybody sees the budget and the expenses—economic inclusion creates financial transparency. All those things teach you how to conduct participatory budgeting and engage in democratic economic participation, and how to look for it in other places. So then you can become active in almost anything else as you’ve gained these skills. We’re also finding that co-ops develop leadership internally, which you can then take to other arenas. Some co-op women, for example, start being more active on their children’s PTAs at school. Other co-op members run for public office, take on leadership in other organisations, or even create new organisations. So it does give capacity building on the leadership side, it gives capacity building on a bunch of soft and hard skills for people. It gives them a place where they can learn in a safe environment with other like-minded people, but then they can go out and do other things. That’s another thing we’ve found, pretty much from the beginning, even when co-ops were more mutual aid societies, not official co-ops (before co-op law existed), these skills were developed. That was interesting for me to see that from the mutual aid societies to the co-ops we had a lot of the same characteristics and elements of building capacity and building leaders at the same time you’re building economic stability.