Cooperatives as Ancestral Technology

The article below is the fourth in Nonprofit Quarterly‘s series—“Remember the Future: Culture and Systems Change,” co-produced by Art.coop and NPQ. In this series, queer, trans, and BIPOC artists and cultural bearers reflect upon the unique role that culture has played and can play in activating and enacting structural change—and in building a solidarity economy.

 

 

Through my study and experiences, I’ve come to think and speak of cooperatives themselves as ancestral technology, the ancient sankofa energy of looking to our past to innovate for our futures. This is because the cooperative practices of group work, pooled resources, shared responsibility and reward, and collective decision making in pursuit of shared goals to benefit the individual and the collective are evident in the traditional practices and values of Indigenous communities around the world, and throughout the African continent. My story is just one person’s cooperative journey, but it forms part of a much wider movement that connects art, culture, African history, and cooperatives.

 

My Visit to Dahomey

In the Kingdom of Dahomey, currently known as the West African country of Benin, a relief mural runs along the route from the ancient slave market to the Point of No Return in Ouidah, depicting the plight of the millions of Africans captured and sold into enslavement.

Called the Zomachi Memorial, with Zomachi translating loosely into “fire that never goes out,” the many panels display rows of chained Africans marching in circles around trees in a ritual meant to make them forget their homeland, and canoes carrying them from their shores—for the last time—to ships that would be packed like cans of sardines, but with living human cargo. The suffering these enslaved people endured in foreign lands would drive the growth of the global colonial economy.

The final panel in this mural, though, celebrates the resilient spirit that survived through tradition and manifested in Haiti’s slave rebellion of 1791, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The memorial tells the story of violence, theft, and racism—but also survival; it offers a history and an invitation to live the futures we want.

You wouldn’t know it just by looking, but according to the guide leading the tour that I took during my three-month West African residency with Magic and Melanin at the end of 2020, this panel also nods to the role of voodoo in the success of the Haitian Revolution. The direct lines of connection between the voodoo traditions of Benin and those of the African diaspora struck me.

At the time, I was newly exploring the practice of magick—and approaching my true calling—in my personal and spiritual life. I deeply felt the impact of being displaced from my homeland and culture as an adoptee. My visit to West Africa made vivid for me the historic defiance of enslaved Africans against erasure of their cultural identity, reminding me that where we come from has everything to do with where we’re going, and that our purpose, path, and power as a people is embedded in our DNA. Knowledge of this purpose can be unlocked through our cultures, traditions, and connection to our ancestors.

 

My Introduction to Cooperatives

Returning to the United States after my three months in Africa, my understanding of the ways our ancestors live through us today and the relationship between those ancestral values and modern-day cooperatives had deepened.

While the co-op world reveres Mondragón, the famed worker co-op network that employs 80,000 people worldwide, my initial study of cooperatives was framed by the history of Black American cooperation, as researched and recounted by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard in Collective Courage. Her book found me around the spring of 2018 in South Central Los Angeles, 18 months into starting my pet-care business in hopes of disrupting the socioeconomic systems Michelle Alexander describes in The New Jim Crow and creating opportunities for economic empowerment and prosperity, specifically for formerly incarcerated Black folks.

I first was exposed to Dr. Nembhard’s work by chance, when I clicked onto a Youtube video of Dr. Nembhard, the renowned Black political economist, speaking with other Black women cooperative leaders on a panel on how cooperation benefits Black folk. After watching the video, my mind was off to the races, imagining what a cooperative pet-care business that was not just a personal business, but one owned and operated by system-impacted Black folks, could mean for my community.

I immediately went to Eso Won Books in Leimert Park, one of the last Black-owned bookstores in Los Angeles, and ordered a copy of Collective Courage. Here, I learned about the inspiring Black mutual aid societies that arose to meet the needs of newly freed Black folks and evolved into mutual insurance companies; about W.E.B. Dubois’ and Fannie Lou Hamer’s equally inspiring devotion to cooperation as a tool for Black liberation; and the Coleman Manufacturing Company in North Carolina, “the only cotton mill in the world owned, conducted and operated by the Negro race.”

I saw so much of myself in the spirit of these ancestors. My discovery of and resonance with cooperation seemed to me a clear example of my connection to those who came before me.

I saw so much of myself in the spirit of these ancestors. My discovery of and resonance with cooperation seemed to me a clear example of my connection to those who came before me. My dreams of a singular co-op evolved, and I became invested in cooperative culture—in what we now know as the solidarity economy—and in how Dr. Nembhard invites us through her call to build on our ancestral cooperative traditions to remember the future.

 

Putting the “I” in “Collective”—My Personal Journey

I latched onto cooperatives’ potential to transform the lived experience of contemporary Black folks, as well as other marginalized and under-resourced groups, like the LGBTQ+ community—and decided to transition my sole-proprietorship into a worker-owned cooperative. Once I had settled on this path, the resources to support my goals came to me with ease and speed—undoubtedly facilitated by my ancestors.

I asked my friend, Ade, founder of Leimert Park’s Ride On! Bike Co-op, about his process of forming a worker-owned cooperative and was introduced to the L.A. Co-op Lab and invited to cooperative classes, parties, and conferences that accelerated my cooperative education and development. I assembled a squad of friends, lovers, and friends-of-lovers. We leveraged our resources and dove into the work of learning, unlearning, and building the infrastructure necessary to create LA’s first (and only) pet-care cooperative.

At the beginning of 2020, we completed our bylaws with the support of the Sustainable Economies Law Center. Then the pandemic hit. We decided to incorporate our cooperative anyway, celebrating that accomplishment in June. People always say not to go into business with your friends and, indeed, the traumas of the global health and economic crises and the worldwide racial reckoning, the stress they induced, and the strain they put on our squad’s relationships would be our undoing. To Be Loved Pet Care Co-op dissolved less than a year after incorporation, but the culture of cooperation remains in my life.

The pandemic also led me to tenant organizing, arising from a need, shared by millions of others, to sustain our housing despite losing our income. I shared a home, the Altar House, as it was known in our community, with seven other Black and Brown, queer and trans, working-class, and creative folks—DJs, musicians, sex workers, and healing, creative, and erotic artists.

The house provided affordable housing, collective living, and a safe space for QTBIPOC for years before I got there. We supported each other’s shows; bought each other’s art; and created, ate, played, conjured, struggled, and resisted together (and sometimes against each other). During this time, I remembered Dr. Nembhard’s call to ancestry and cooperative culture—and looked to my own histories to find ways that we heal and hold ourselves steady while organizing amid compounding crises.

I had to reckon with the gap between cooperative theory and the praxis that lives in the nuances of our relationships to our own and each other’s trauma.

At the Altar, I learned ancestral reverence as a spiritual practice, and I learned to own my power and hone my magick. I also learned what it was like to cultivate community in one moment—and mourn its loss in the next. Ultimately, the Altar would come down, as one by one my housemates moved out to find safety and stability with family or seek new opportunities. I left for my West African residency during an attempt by our landlord to evict those of us left.

While I was away, I felt my stories and experiences encircle each other.

 

Finding My Way: Learning from Co-op Failure

I had been inspired by Dr. Nembhard and cofounded a co-op. I had spent three months in Africa. But there is no sugarcoating the fact that when I came back to Los Angeles, I returned to an empty Altar House and a pet-care co-op nearing collapse. I had to reckon with the gap between cooperative theory and the praxis that lives in the nuances of our relationships to our own and each other’s trauma and how we engage our conflicts, our shadows. Failure is hard.

So, I left Los Angeles and the Altar for my mother’s home in Louisiana to regroup and lick my wounds. Months later, a friend of mine shared an opportunity to join the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative as a project manager. I felt my ancestors at work once again; the job description and the organization’s mission were too aligned with my experience, values, and dreams to be mere coincidence.

One of the things about that job description that inspired me was the opportunity to participate in the revitalization of Esther’s Orbit Room, a cultural revival project named after Esther Mabry, an Oakland-based Black woman, who owned and operated a blues and jazz club by that name starting in 1959. In the 1960s, major acts played at the club, including BB King, T-Bone Walker, and Ike and Tina Turner. The club would operate until 2011, one year after Mabry passed away at the age of 90.

Efforts to revive the space emerged out of a series of community conversations focused on creating cooperatives and small businesses along the historic 7th Street Corridor, an area in West Oakland that was once known as the “Harlem of the West.” Using a community-led planning model, the project aims to meet the needs of current residents, respect neighborhood character, and build on the historic district’s legacy of Black businesses.

[Our] vision includes a café; bar; performance, healing, and movement art space; a community garden; and affordable housing for artists and worker-owners of the commercial spaces.

For me, the project demonstrated the transformative and liberatory impact of cooperatives on distressed communities—and on Black people in particular. For descendants of enslaved Africans, stewarding (in contrast to personal ownership) and building equity from land breaks generational curses. It is a full circle moment.

The vision for Esther’s is revolutionary—and especially personal for our West Oakland-born and bred executive director, Noni Damali Session, whose father, Major Session, owned a local grocery store in the area and often took her to Esther’s for treats and to buy supplies for their fishing trips. This vision includes a café; bar; performance, healing, and movement art space; a community garden; and affordable housing for artists and worker-owners of the commercial spaces—all cooperatively owned and democratically governed. We invite our community to co-develop with staff through community-design happy hours and regular community owner circles.

For me, the project demonstrated the transformative and liberatory impact of cooperatives on distressed communities—and on Black people in particular. For descendants of enslaved Africans, stewarding (in contrast to personal ownership) and building equity from land breaks generational curses. It is a full circle moment.

Esther’s is not our only project, however. On the other side of town, in East Oakland, my team’s anti-displacement work recalls traditions of radical Black organizing and political education and applies these traditions to the specific cultural contexts of the area. A partner in the Better Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors initiative, our team is on the ground, door knocking and meeting our neighbors where they’re at and connecting long-time, legacy residents to resources to keep them rooted and #here2stay. EB PREC also offers bridge capital and long-term impact investments and have supported a unique community-centered direct public offering to raise funds (349 people have invested $1,000 or more so far and the number of investors is regularly rising).

I love the heart- and liberation-centered work of our small but mighty team, rooted in ancestral culture and a practice of radical cooperation, with transformation at its core.

 

Manifesting the Vision

Just like the OGs [original gangsters] from the Rollin 40s keep pouring one out for their dead homies, we keep saying Esther’s name during the revitalization of Esther’s Orbit Room. The spirit in us—the descendants of Africans struggling to see us live the greatness we’re meant for, recalling the nature of our people—is the fire that never dies.

Our ancestors are always near, guiding and supporting us. The Zomachi trail may be thousands of miles away, depicting a horror that occurred hundreds of years ago, but my entrance into EB PREC was effortless, fitting. My whole body and soul found what it had been doing for centuries prior—burning like an everlasting fire, fuel to fulfill a destiny. The future is bright. It is our own history to make.

 

Going Further:

 

About the Lead Author

B. Vanessa Coleman
B. Vanessa Colemanhttps://www.linkedin.com/in/b-vanessa-coleman-b20a3a60/
B. Vanessa Coleman: “Bee” prefers they/them pronouns and is your (sometimes) friendly neighborhood non-binary, queer, magical Black radical, alchemist, anti-capitalist, abolitionist, dream chaser, shape shifter, and shift shaper. They are committed to Black liberation and joy, by every means available. From the lineage of the Filipino sex trade and the European slave trade, through a legacy of resistance and resilience, Bee brings their devotion to liberation and talent for manifestation to their greater role as generational curse breaker—and organizes with East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC).

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