Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference Highlights Cooperatives as Alternative Economic Model

May 23, 2014

The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement hosted the conference in Jackson, Mississippi for activists organizing for economic democracy, and also honored the legacy of activist and late Mayor of Jackson Chokwe Lumumba

The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement hosted the conference in Jackson, Mississippi for activists organizing for economic democracy, and also honored the legacy of activist and late Mayor of Jackson Chokwe Lumumba



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Story Transcript

RAY BAKER, PRODUCER: Hundreds came to Jackson, Mississippi, for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement conference called Jackson Rising. The focus of the gathering was to examine economic alternatives to capitalism, particularly co-ops. The event brought a wide range of people who came for a host of reasons.

MICHAEL EASTERLING, CITIZENS INVESTING LOCALLY: I’m back here now both for a professional and a personal reason: to learn about cooperatives, to see what’s going on in the region and the country. But also I’m here helping to develop a project right now that at its core is about citizens coming back together and reinvesting in our local community.

BRUCE DIXON, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: If your business model and your success is based on keeping other people poor, then why should we be looking up to you? That’s why we need the kind of stories that this is making. That’s why we need collective [incompr.] that’s why we need co-ops, not billionaires doing their individual thing.

DARA COOPER, DIR., NYC FOOD AND FITNESS PARTNERSHIP: Capitalism as we know it is not working for us. An exploitation-based system, right, that’s based on extraction–extraction of resources, extraction of labor, extraction of, you know, our hearts and souls, right–that’s not working for us and it’s not a sustainable model. So we really need to be thinking about what’s a much more sustainable way of being, of coexisting with each other. And then, especially for those of us who are hit the hardest in the community, specifically black and brown folks, right, how can we think differently about a system that is just not working for us, and what can we do to remedy that and to stand up and to create something else? And so that’s where this conversation, I think, is so critical.

BAKER: Co-ops, however, aren’t new to the black community, as black leaders have long married the struggle for human rights with economic dignity.

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PROF. JESSICA GORDON NEMBHARD, JOHN JAY COLLEGE, CUNY: The first thing is that it exists.

The second thing is that I also found out not only does it exist, but almost every black leader that people know well also dabbled some way, dabbled or sometimes not even dabbled, but even more seriously, in the co-op movement, either promoting co-ops, being in the co-op movement themselves, learning about co-ops, promoting the use of co-ops as a tool for economic empowerment, that kind of thing. So that would be the second real significance is that we’ve been using and talking about this strategy for 150 years or more.

And then I guess the third thing is I think how much black women were involved in the co-op movement, both in the general U.S. co-op movement, but also particularly in the African-American cooperative movement. Black women, I found a really strong and long history from even before there were co-ops.

BAKER: And as we approach the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, maybe you could give us some examples of some of those, like, legendary black leaders and women who have been involved in co-operatives.

GORDON NEMBHARD: Sure. There’s really a long list. So let’s see what might be the best examples.

BAKER: Maybe someone, like, from the civil rights movement.

GORDON NEMBHARD: From the civil rights movement there’s Fannie Lou Hamer, who actually started Freedom Farm here in Mississippi. There was also Ella Jo Baker, who everyone knows from SNCC as an adviser and organizer for SNCC. But she actually was the executive director of the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League in the 1930s, one of her first jobs. Also a woman named Nannie Helen Burroughs, who some people know because she was active in both black women training movement and the Southern Baptist Convention. She also ran a co-op in Washington, D.C., in the ’30s.

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BAKER: Mississippi State Representative James Evans’ presence showed the conference and co-ops as an economic model had political support in the state.

JAMES “JIM” EVANS, MS STATE REPRESENTATIVE (D-70): I support other types of capitalism, and co-operatives as well. Co-operatives have been a niche that has been letting people into the co-operative world where they have not been able to get in in the corporate [incompr.] but they’ve gotten in through co-operatives. It’s just another way to get in, to get business done, and get product to consumers. And both of them are good.

BAKER: The Lundemos run a co-op in Jackson and highlight why co-operatives are so effective for the workers in their community.

LUKE LUNDEMO, RAINBOW NATURAL GROCERY CO-OP: The advantages of a co-op in that regard is that because the ownership is right in the community, the business is not going to be up and moved to some low-wage country or other part of the country; it’s going to stay right in the community. So the jobs are much more stable. And if the business goes through hard times, then everybody shares in the belt-tightening, and when it’s more profitable everybody benefits together too. So workers have a stake in the betterment of the business, and that really helps the business out.

BAKER: Not to be forgotten during the conference was the untimely death of Jackson’s mayor and a leading revolutionary figure in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Chokwe Lumumba, activist, including Lumumba’s son Antar, who lost a runoff election to fill his fatheer’s seat, mourned the loss of one of their own, but agreed that a sympathetic mayoral administration, though helpful, was just the beginning of their movement.

CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA, HUMAR RIGHTS ATTORNEY: We’ve been trying [incompr.] people is the understanding that in order for true economic development to be sustainable in the City of Jackson, that it has to be something that we empower the people with. You know, the office of the mayor was just a means to an end to communicate that message to people. That wasn’t the ultimate end. If your goal in trying to establish economic stability and power for the community is only based in the public office you hold, then you’re always beholden to, you know, staying in office. That’s a difficult strategy, you know, on a number of [incompr.]

Now, we think that the office does provide some ability to communicate that message, but we have to do it in other ways, in other grassroots methods, in order to communicate that to people effectively.

KALI AKUNO, ORGANIZER, MALCOLM X GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT: The main thing that we really have to start with is organizing those communities, you know, on a block-by-block basis. The one project that you see and the one initiative, I think, that’s taken a lead [incompr.] respects, particularly in that community, the [incompr.] community of New West Jackson. And that’s a model that we’re going to have to replicate. We’re taking the skills that people already possess in the community. There’s a lot of skill in that community [incompr.] that they have. What’s missing often is capital, you know, the kind of–have enough money to buy the equipment, have enough money to, you know, pay workers where work [needs to get?] paid. We can kind of circumvent that through the cooperative organizing, the democratic organizing of the workers, where we’re pulling our resources together and using a lot of the old techniques that we use in, you know, black communities and other impoverished communities long before.

What’s changed most importantly is not having an administration in office that’s favorable, that had this vision, and that was willing to start structuring the policies and crafting policies around how contracts are structured in the city, the city’s procurement policies, different types of incentives that they could kind of [incompr.] that has changed, and changed for the worse in some regards [incompr.] But in terms of meeting the demands and organizing the people, I’m not going to say that wouldn’t have been easier had Chokwe survived, and it definitely would have been easier had Antar won, but it’s still a challenge no matter who’s in office.

BAKER: Reporting from Jackson, Mississippi, with reporting from Anton Woronczuk, I’m Ray Baker for The Real News Network.

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