By John Duda, The Democracy Collaborative
Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a member of ONE-DC’s shared leadership team, offered two area talks to mark the release of her long-awaited book Collective Courage: African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. Dr. Nembhard, who is also an Associate Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development in the Department of Africana Studies at CUNY’s John Jay College, and a member of the Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective, was the featured speaker in an evening program exploring the intersections of economic and racial justice at the new Impact Hub DC space on June 3rd, and spoke in Baltimore the next night at Red Emma’s, a worker cooperative bookstore and coffeehouse.
At the event on the 3rd, which was sponsored by The Democracy Collaborative, Impact Hub DC, and ONE-DC, Dr. Nembhard was joined by local cooperative development advocate and fellow GEO collective member Ajowa Ifateyo for a conversation on the history of African-American cooperatives uncovered in the long years of research that went into the book, as well as the way this history informs attempts to organize cooperative economic institutions in communities of color today. According to Nembhard, our understanding of cooperatives as primarily something that get created in relatively privileged white communities is by and large a total mistake.
In part, this mistaken impression is due to the consequences of the need to keep cooperative organizing in African-American communities clandestine due to fear of racist retaliation—because co-ops were kept quiet, they also were kept out of the historical record. Despite facing this challenge along with many others, an extensive and vital tradition of African American cooperative activity nevertheless provided a key economic base of support and an indispensible site of leadership training during the long civil rights movement. The hope expressed in the conversation was that this important and formerly unknown history can help guide and inspire today’s movements working to use cooperatives to empower marginalized communities.
Indeed, as the updates the audience in DC heard—on ONE DC's Black Worker's Center, Impact Hub DC's new worker cooperative incubator, Community Farming Alliance's DC-based farm cooperative for people of color and women, and on Black Belt Justice Center's efforts to expand African American community ownership of land—amply demonstrated, the struggle for economic self-determination so wonderfully chronicled in Dr. Nembhard’s Collective Courage is very much alive and well today.