“We need to reinvent the co-op”

Originally published by Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice in a series on “Cooperatives and Religious Communities.”

When I discovered that the hardware company my grandfather ran at the end of his career was a cooperative, my uncle sent me an email with a single image: the New York Times photo of President-elect Donald Trump marching through the Carrier factory, flanked by Mike Pence, executives, and, in the distance, workers. This was the mental image he had of his father’s business milieu, co-op or not: a world whose sole protagonists were White men, acting tough and doing stuff.

My grandfather’s co-op was far from the only one that looks like this. This is what I’ve seen, by and large, in rooms populated by leaders of the major credit unions, electric co-ops, and purchasing co-ops. (The worker co-op scene today is quite different, but it also holds vastly less wealth.) Even in diverse communities, the co-ops often have all-White co-op boards. Much of the institutional heft that the cooperative commonwealth has achieved is not crossing the United States’s brutal racial wealth gap—or is outright widening it.

In 2018, YES! Magazine executive editor Zenobia Jeffries Warfield argued that, despite her publication’s history of promoting cooperative efforts, “co-ops and community farms can’t close the racial wealth gap”—even if their leadership were more inclusive. Since these institutions are based on pooling and sharing community wealth, communities that have experienced systematic deprivation will wind up with less wealth in their co-ops, and less land for their gardens, than other communities do. As Warfield puts it, “Capital can’t concentrate in areas where capital doesn’t exist.” For those of us in some kind of love with the co-op movement and working to support it, as I have been, this is a problem.

I keep being haunted by a passage from the writings of Fr. Albert McKnight, a Catholic priest and Pan-Africanist who helped found many Black-led cooperatives in the South: “What we need to do is reinvent the cooperative idea,” he wrote before his death in 2016. “If ever the cooperative approach was needed, it is today. It’s still a disgrace to Black folks that no place in the country do Blacks control economically.”

Fr. McKnight doesn’t offer a blueprint, but his provocation poses challenges enough. Cooperators love their cooperative principles—which, by the way, have changed quite a lot over the years—and their cooperative mythologies. But as a recent report on Indigenous cooperative development points out, the usual founding mythology about a group of 19th-century factory workers near Manchester effaces the generations of cooperative traditions in other societies. The cooperative idea has survived reinvention again and again.

My first ambition here is simply to let that provocation be heard again: If it is going to be of use in confronting our deepest fissures, the cooperative movement must reinvent itself.

My other ambition is a distant second: I would like to begin exploring some avenues for reinvention, some cooperative principles that may be ready for rewriting.

The first cooperative principle is “Voluntary and Open Membership.” In the 1840s, this meant that you couldn’t turn away Catholics or Protestants or Quakers. But a lot of young cooperators today go beyond that. For them, openness is less important than fostering safe, brave, anti-oppressive communities. Here in Colorado, Satya Yoga Cooperative calls itself “the first ever POC (People of Color) member-owned yoga cooperative.” A central part of its mission is helping people heal from the collective trauma of racism. In that light, openness to all comers doesn’t compute. Membership is a matter of intention and care.

The third principle is “Member Economic Participation,” which expects that members capitalize the co-op with their own resources. Where does this leave those communities with less to contribute? In the past, as W. Ralph Eubanks beautifully recalls, co-ops have been a means for channeling public resources to Black Americans—but not nearly enough. Perhaps we need to give up on the attachment to bootstraps and self-sufficiency so that cooperatives might be receptacles for massive wealth transfers, which have been long since owed to survivors of slavery, genocide, and segregation.

The seventh and final co-op principle is “Concern for Community.” It would be hard to imagine a weaker way to phrase that sentiment. The most common expression of it is through the tax-deductible donations that a co-op makes to nearby nonprofits—which might mean subsidizing the entertainment of the local elite by underwriting the symphony or outsourcing aid to the poorest by funding a homeless shelter. But what if this principle had teeth? What if it meant accountability to the community, such as by reserving board seats for the homeless or the street musicians? Community well-being should be built into the business, not an afterthought.

I think I still love the cooperative model, and I know I still love the cooperative movement. The reinventions I suggest are not mine, really, so much as they come from years of documenting the hopes that many new cooperators are already inscribing into the cooperative idea with their practice. Their example is a prophecy and demand upon the movement that needs them to inherit it.

Wrote Fr. McKnight, “If we risk nothing, we gain nothing. We’re lost. We need to reinvent the co-op.” And then he turned it into a prayer: “May we have the wisdom, the faith to reinvent the co-op.”