This year marks 10 years since HEAL member CoFED has been working with young people across the country to build knowledge, inspire action and realize our shared dreams for a community controlled food system. CoFED has been a member of HEAL since early 2019, and this month, as we reflect on the fourth plank of HEAL’s Platform for Real Food — Resilient Regional Economies, we caught up with farmer, land steward, and CoFED’s Director of Communications and Content, Dallas Robinson about what they’ve learned from working with cooperatives across the country, and CoFED’s vision for a resilient, regional food economy that’s stewarded by communities. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
CoFED has been partnering and mentoring coops across the country for about a decade. What does it take for Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and people of color communities to run a successful food co-op that truly upholds the values of equitable food access, meaningful work, and community stewardship of our ecological environment?
While having a financial plan and understanding regional legal requirements is critical, the most important facet of a successful co-op are the people. The people you are looking to work with are the foundation — that’s the point of cooperation. We connect folks with other co-ops in our network and entrepreneurs who can mentor and advise them, and also build a trusting environment in which we can dismantle white supremacy work culture together. This relational work is very tangible and very valuable. Honest communication is similarly important, especially when talking about money and often for young folks building their cooperative visions. We can often get uncomfortable with money, especially those who have a racialized, traumatic relationship to capitalism, but our co-ops are still functioning in capitalism so we need to talk about that. We need to have honest conversations about what people need in order to live, and pay yourself and pay people what they need.
White supremacy culture often shows up in our work even though we are in a room filled with people who look like us — my most difficult farm experiences have been with Black elders. The co-ops that we work with face similar challenges. And that’s a problem because it goes beyond worker morale, it’s about treating people right. We’re in a stage of healing and dealing with things. No one needs to be an expert. It comes down to honesty and building a world where people are held accountable in non-carceral ways. We can’t afford to do it any other way.
Do community-led co-ops have positive ripple effects apart from creating economic autonomy and improving local food access?
Yes, and these ripple effects are relational too. We partner with a co-op made up of formerly incarcerated folks in Chicago. In under 6 months, they’ve gone from being incubated in a small kitchen to buying their own building and cooperatively running a kitchen that now feeds 100s of people. They are all excited and proud of what they’re doing and their success has resonated with their families and the larger community — considering that for Black people in places like Chicago, where incarceration and the prison industrial complex ruins lives, they were able to come out and own a business that serves their community. That’s powerful. Co-ops are an amazing way for immigrants to own business, and access capital that would otherwise be beyond a systemic reach — many immigrants also come from a more cooperative culture so being able to reclaim a cooperative mindset is powerful.
This is very much a profit driven government, locally as well. The rapper Big Mike, says it better: ‘Bully the Politicians’ – they don’t serve us, they protect the empire. Local government is blocking progress by being able to be bought out, by prioritizing hotels and pharmaceutical companies over communities. When it comes to local government, there is also a racialized, marginalized dynamic to what Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and people of color-led co-ops are able to do, especially in how they’re able to access capital. White-led coops attract more capital, and are more sustainable as a result. The whiter the context, the easier it is to get a co-op started, funded, and sustained. Whereas, as history shows, when our communities create and build co-ops, there is this violent uproar about it.
What’s needed is a whole new system that’s invested in people and the planet. People being able to take care of themselves, whoever, and wherever they are might not be a thing we need to ask the government, our public servants for. It’s a simultaneous need to shift culture through education, and educate through culture shift. That would lead to a better economy, one that is regenerative and kind to people and the planet.
What does success look like for a QTBILPOC-led cooperative?
Success needs to be decided by the people. What do we value? What matters to us? It could be that we can afford what we want, or that our water and our mountains are protected.