Racial Equity in Co-ops: 6 Key Challenges and How to Meet Them

by Jessica Gordon Nembhard at nonprofitquarterly.org

The following is based on an October 7th keynote address given at the 4th annual Co-op Impact conference of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), originally titled “The Challenge of Achieving Racial Equity in Co-ops.”

 I want to start by acknowledging the original stewards of the land, and my ancestors– those who were enslaved, those who toil without just compensation, those fallen and killed by police brutality, and other forms of anti-Blackness. And I stand on the shoulders of those who use solidarity cooperative economics for liberation.

Let’s begin by exploding a myth: Co-ops can’t be racist, right?

Our first principle is about open membership. We believe in and practice democracy. But co-ops exist in a racist society, especially here in the US. This is one of the countries that constructed and perpetuated notions of racial inferiority of some groups and racial superiority of people of European heritage in order to justify and strengthen our hierarchical economic system. We are the country that maintained chattel slavery based on African ancestry longer than any other country, and then codified anti-Black racism into our political and economic system in subtle as well as overt ways for centuries. Structural and institutional racism have cumulative effects and are woven into the fabric of our society. They manifest in our preferences, attitudes, psyches, and economic relationships, as well as our social and political relationships. It’s insidious.

So, co-ops can’t automatically be anti-racist. We have to deliberately promote and practice racial equity—and deliberately unlearn racist attitudes and stereotypes.