Today, cooperatives(coops) may be viewed as an alternate or unconventional way of running a business but coops are not a marginal phenomenon. Coops — whether worker co-ops, consumer co-ops or producer coops — have long been a way for under-resourced communities to come together, and pool knowledge and resources to provide essential services for themselves and their communities during times of economic hardship and lack of access to opportunity. But, unlike a non-profit or a charity, a cooperative combines community empowerment with economic independence, and enables people to turn local initiatives into viable community-owned enterprises which are managed on the basis of shared community values.
The first food economies were cooperative economies
Though the first official cooperative society was established in England in the mid-19th century, Indigenous and tribal societies across the world have been working among themselves and with neighboring communities on a cooperative and collaborative basis for centuries before documentation. The principles of cooperation and reciprocity on which most Indigenous economies are based are also reflected in the grounding characteristics of co-ops today.
Prior to colonization in the 1400s, Indigenous economies flourished in what is now known as the United States and Canada. Indigenous economies typically included a range of small-scale, land based activities and were centered around the sustenance of individuals, families, the community and the ecological environment, rather than an exchange of goods for profit. Collaboration and reciprocity, with each other and mother nature, were central to economic and social relationships.
The first cooperatives were a result of producer and labor organizing
By some accounts, the early cooperative societies in England were formed in response to issues that arose at the peak of the industrial revolution in England where large-scale producers were rapidly mass-producing goods in factories under exploitative working conditions. Joining together and working cooperatively enabled smaller businesses to create an alternative economy, where they could retain traditional modes of production while actively providing economic security for individual producers, and dignified employment for members of the community. During this time the Rochdale Principles, a widely used set of guidelines for cooperatives, were also outlined. Worker cooperatives continue to create dignified employment, build community wealth and provide opportunities for education and growth while producer cooperatives enable farmers to remain independent, improve their market access and access resources.
Throughout history, cooperation has been a vehicle for BIPOC communities in the US to survive and thrive in the face of exploitation and displacement
From the moment they were forcibly brought to the Americas, enslaved African people realized that their survival depended on working together and sharing resources, reflecting practices from their home countries. For example, it was common to share small kitchen gardens to grow fruits and vegetables, and those who could earn money would often pool their earnings to buy another’s freedom. The first official Black mutual aid organization, Free African Union Society(1780), was established along with other similar, grassroots initiatives.
Cooperation and mutual aid were important parts of the support ecosystem for immigrants who face many barriers to accessing services in a new country.. For Asian Americans, this took the form of rotating credit practices or family associations. There are also recorded instances of Asian Americans pooling resources to help each other out in the face of limited access to mainstream banking and financial services. Coops also flourished among the larger Asian community as exclusionary laws made it more difficult for them to participate in the mainstream economy of the time.
During the Civil War(1861-1865), a group of African American women in South Carolina joined together to grow cotton on abandoned farms, eventually becoming an independent community of several hundred women known as the Combahee River Colony. In the years following the Civil War, as emancipated folks began to work together to build a life and provide for themselves and their families, both producer and consumer cooperatives began to sprout up. In 1886, a group of Black farmers formed the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union in Houston County, Texas which sponsored cooperative stores, published newspapers, conducted technical education for farmers and raised money to fund segregated schools. By 1981, they had about 1.2 million members.
The Jim Crow laws in the South and the decades of discrimination and violence that followed along made it imperative for Black farmers to join together to survive discrimination and violence.
The Civil Rights movement recognized the power of cooperatives in their fight for liberation
In Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, which chronicles the history of Black cooperatives in the United States, we learn that many Black leaders, including scholar W.E.B. Du Bois viewed cooperative economics as a promising way to counter racial inequity. According to his research there were 154 African American-owned cooperative businesses of which 14 were producer cooperatives, 3 were transportation cooperatives, 103 were distribution or consumer cooperatives and 34 were real estate and credit cooperatives.
The civil rights movement(1950s-1960s) embraced cooperatives as a way to support independent black farmers in the South, and the movement emboldened many Black farmers to come together to pushback against discrimination by white-owned businesses — despite the fact that Black people were not given the right to form coops or unions at the time. Leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, who founded Freedom Farms Cooperative in Mississippi in1969, saw cooperatives not just as a means for economic development of the community, but also as a political organizing tool.
The Credjafawn Food Coop established in the 1940s in the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, MN was one of the first food coops in the state and started because Black community members decided to take control of food access in their communities. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC) organized by representatives from 22 cooperatives across the South was also founded in 1967. Till date, the FSC, organizes for Black farmers in the South and across the country.
These cooperatives embodied the spirit of the Civil Rights movement and were critical to increasing economic independence of Black communities, and opportunity for Black farmers and helping them retain their land in the face of predatory credit practices. In this way, cooperatives, both formal and informal, helped promote an independent Black farming community.
Cooperatives play an important role in promoting and retaining Black land ownership, and supporting independent farmers
Land ownership and retention was always a pressing issue for independent Black farmers. In response to this, churches and other organizers, often with the support of FSC and the Southern Cooperative Development Program (SCDP) would join together and purchase small tracts of land for subsistence farming or market production.
One such group was the Panola Land Buyers Association(PLBA). In 1966, a group of about 100 Sumter County, Alabama tenant farmers won a lawsuit against three plantation owners for their share of USDA price support payments. The tenants were evicted for it and while some of them moved away to cities, others stayed on in Sumter County and founded the PLBA. With support from groups throughout the country, PLBA and FCS bought a 1,164-acre tract of land on which they build homes for PLBA members, a training center and a demonstration farm. In 1971, the Emergency Land Fund was established to provide legal, tax and estate planning advice to enable Black farmers to retain their land.
While many producer cooperatives today are geared towards fixing the fundamental barrier of land ownership and retention for independent Black farmers, cooperatives are increasingly beginning to provide other benefits to their members such as access to packing facilities, marketing assistance and training and education. Some have also started providing training programs for a younger generation of farmers and encouraging young people to take up farming!
Cooperatives can play a role in tackling food apartheid and income inequity in historically under invested communities
Across the country, BIPOC communities are continuing to solve system problems of food in-access and income equality through cooperatives. Immigrant-owned coops have emerged as a channel through which immigrant communities can access resources and job opportunities, build community and transform the economic landscape for immigrant communities. For example, Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland, CA is a worker-owned grocery store that provides affordable healthy food options in a community that has been historically underserved in grocery retail. It also sources from local producers, and creates employment and co-ownership opportunities for local residents.
Today, there are over 3 million cooperatives across the world, and coops provide jobs to at least 10% of the world’s employed population. However, though all of them are grounded in common principles of cooperation and community care in theory, there are several bad actors in the cooperative space. For instance, Land O’ Lakes, one of the largest agricultural cooperatives in the country has a long history of undermining cooperative principles and colluding with other diary giants to influence milk prices and promote harmful practices for the sake of profit.