Are Co-Ops The Way?

Scholars and community activists called for more research on cooperatives in response to a Department of Agriculture hearing in September, beseeching officials to study urban and worker-owned co-ops among different racial groups. Such research could lead to better information on the number, type, and growth of black-owned and managed co-ops.

According to the National Black Business Trade Association, African Americans spend about 93% of their income outside of their communities. Many say this situation could be remedied by creating more black-owned and operated co-ops.

Just how could cooperatives accomplish this? “Co-ops are an economic model that includes ownership from more than one person,” says Angela Dawson, communications director for Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund in Minneapolis. “In the capitalistic model, there’s one boss. But in the cooperative model, there are many. Accountability and equity, as well as risk and reward, are spread out a lot more.

“The co-op model is so attractive because it’s sustainable by the community,” Dawson continues. “Everyone owns it, and it’s perpetual. It doesn’t depend on just one person and recycles back into the community.”

“Cooperatives can enable African Americans to have more control of their income, wealth creation, and work situation — particularly if it’s a worker-owned co-op,” says Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a member of the BLACK ENTERPRISE Board of Economists and professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Co-ops can also give workers more control over their finances and industrial labor.”

There are many different kinds of co-ops, including consumer-owned and worker-owned. Co-ops also exist in a variety of industries, including food, housing, healthcare, credit, farming, utilities, telecommunications, and transportation.

The most successful group of black co-ops is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund, which is a “network of rural cooperatives, credit unions, and state associations of cooperatives and cooperative development centers in the southern United States,” says Nembhard. Since 1967, the federation has helped save black ownership of $87.5 million worth of land, mobilized $50 million in resources for support of member credit unions and co-ops (particularly in sustainable agriculture), and assisted more than 700 families with $26 million worth of affordable housing units.

“Specifically for minority communities and economically disadvantaged communities, co-ops are a very powerful idea because they allow us to have access,” says Antonio Rosell, an urban planner at Community Design Group in Minnesota. “Together, we can do many more things than we would be able to do by ourselves.”