Saturday, March 7, the day before International Women’s Day and on the cusp between Black History Month and Women’s History Month, CDI took the opportunity to celebrate the impressive history and contemporary vitality of Black women’s leadership in cooperative thought and practice. In partnership with CDI Board Member Tanya Fields’ BLK ProjeK and with the co-sponsorship of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, we presented “Celebrating Collective Courage“, the ending celebration of our month-long interactive exhibit on arts and culture, cooperation, and African diaspora history.
A Rich History
Drawing on the scholarship by Prof. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, PhD in her book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, we put together a slide show highlighting several outstanding and largely unrecognized African American women cooperators, including:
- Maggie Lena Walker, founder of the Luke Penny Savings Bank
- Ella Jo Baker, first Executive Director of the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League
- Nannie Helen Burroughs, co-founder of the Northeast Self-Help Cooperative (later Cooperative Industries of Washington, D.C.)
- Halena Wilson, first president of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and co-founder of a consumer cooperative buying club and cooperative union eye care center
- Fannie Lou Hamer, founder of Freedom Farm and the Pig Bank
- Estelle Witherspoon, co-founder of the Freedom Quilting Bee
- Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of the New Communities Land Trust and the first Black woman inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame
- Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, co-founder of the Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community Cooperative
- Cooperative Home Care Associates, the largest worker-owned co-op in the U.S., whose workforce of about 2,000 is made up largely of women of color.
It’s easy to see from this list that economic survival, on the one hand, and civic freedom, on the other, were strong driving factors in African American women’s efforts to cooperate throughout history.
The Role of Arts and Culture
Less obvious is the connection between cooperation and arts and culture. We often think of artists working in isolation, but for practical and emotional reasons many artists and artisans in fact work collectively or in concert with a community. “Celebrating Collective Courage” drew out this connection by highlighting, among others, the work of:
- Harriet Powers, born into slavery and emancipated at the end of the Civil War, probably a member of one of the many religious or fraternal organizations that proliferated at the time, and creator of many beautiful quilts
- The Progressive Club, a consumer co-op and mutual aid association founded on John’s Island off the coast of South Carolina, home to the unique Gullah people who have maintained a rich African cultural heritage, and birthplace of the “Citizen Schools” that swept through the South during the Civil Rights Movement
- Ujamaa Collective, a shared-services cooperative serving Africana women entrepreneurs with a boutique, an open-air market, agricultural incubator, and cooperative business support
- Climbing PoeTree, the combined force of Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman, who combine poetry, hip-hop, and mixed media to educate, organize, and transform in the service of social and environmental justice.
We opened the program with a video performance by Climbing PoeTree of their work Awakening, and then heard from three outstanding Black women co-operators in NYC:
- Rafiah Vitalis is the co-founder of Diaspora Destinations, a Black woman-owned worker co-op travel planning company that creates cultural exchange experiences throughout the African diaspora
- Janvieve Williams is the co-founder of Ginger Moon, a mother-owned worker co-op specializing in serving the nutritional and emotional needs of expectant and new mothers as “food doulas”
- Tanya Fields is the founder and executive director of the BLK ProjeK, which is working to bring a fully-functional mobile market to the South Bronx to sell and distribute healthy food, as well as creating Libertad Urban Farm.
Our guest of honor was Jessica Gordon Nembhard, PhD, a political economist and professor of African American studies at the John Jay College of CUNY. She shared with us her own journey of discovery of the rich, forgotten history of African American cooperation and her conviction that she can continue to study this topic for many years to come, as there is a great deal more to learn. As she said after the event,
Ladies,I so enjoyed this event. Thanks everyone for all you do… We should do it every year!