It seems that back in the day, our grandparents had a better and more sensible approach to managing their money and resources. They did things like save plastic bags, cooking oil and aluminum foil, and mend torn or worn clothing instead of just tossing it. My recently deceased great-grandmother, whose 98 years on earth has seen her through some tough economic times, used to be very fond of her women’s auxiliary club, which would meet on a weekly basis, rotating house to house, to knit and sew clothing that they would either wear themselves, sell or give away to the poor at the church. She once told me that the group not only provided her a way to make some extra money but also gave her the opportunity to work beside some of her dearest friends.
What I learn from watching my grand parents generation is that when times are tough the best thing we can do is pull our resources together. And with black unemployment at record levels not seen in 27 years, it certainly seems like the time is now for us as a community to begin pulling from those conventional wisdoms of the past in order to help folks get by – but not just get by, but become more self-reliant and gain control over their economic lives. In the spirit of W.E.B Dubois, the use of economic cooperation might be the best strategy for African Americans to become the masters of our own economic destinies.
Today there are a number of small black-owned and inner city cooperatives, which exist in a variety of sectors. Through the concept of shared financial responsibility and production of product, these groups have been able to provide decent wages and benefits while also filling a need in a service or other resource. Food co-ops are the majority of these cooperatives and sometimes take the form of buying clubs, which enables its members to buy fresh, sometimes organic foods, straight from the farm. But probably the greatest asset of these food co-ops is its ability to act as Fair Trade in which food growers and other producers of products, which have been marginalized or left out of more mainstream marketplaces, can now find a dedicated venue for their products and services.
A perfect example of this would be the formation of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund, which acts as a network of rural farms in the southern United States. Since 1967, the federation has helped save black ownership of $87.5 million worth of land, mobilized $50 million in resources for support of member credit unions and co-ops and assisted more than 700 families with $26 million worth of affordable housing units. This service became essential during the time when black farmers had found themselves routinely victims of racial discrimination.
It is wildly known that African American economic conditions continue to lag behind other racial groups, particularly White Americans, even during relatively prosperous times. A disproportionate number of Blacks are impoverished and have a median net worth that is 20 percent lower than that of their white counterparts. The limitations of our current economic model is that it is best suited to addresses the needs of individuals at the top as opposed to the needs of the collective workforce. And if we are ever going to be able to go beyond indulging in the myth of the black buying power to become masters of our own economic destinies, than we will have to begin pulling resources, producing product and most importantly working together. Even if it is something as small as grandma’s sewing group.
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.