Addressing Race and Power in Worker Cooperatives

By Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, GEO

For worker cooperatives to be effective, member-owners should look at power relationships within and peform a "critical self-examination" of themselves and their co-op. That was one of the suggestions of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond to worker-owners at the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives at the third biennial conference in New Orleans.

The remarks were made by Ronald Chisolm at the first meeting of the U.S. Federation's Inclusivness Circle, a committee instituted to help the U.S. Federation educate its members about race and power and to tackle these issues from within as well as in the larger society.
Chisom said that every organization must peform a power analysis - a look at the power arrangements in the group. That analysis should look at race and power, and race and wealth.

"Co-ops will not be effective if they do not deal with racism, culture, history, leadership, networking and accountability. " said Chisom. "You can't fight an institution that thrives off of racism without anti-racist organizing. To be inclusive, set up equity. You can't be democratic without equity."

The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), is a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators who lead workshops on building an effective movement for social transformation. Co-faciliataing with Chislm was Kimberly Richards.

Both Richards and Chisolm talked about the need for individuals to "undo racism," and recognize the powerful impact of internalized oppression which not only creates an inferiority complex in blacks and others of color, but also has indoctrinated whites to believe that they are superior. Both attitudes need to be deconstructed so that they do not lead to fragmentation in the organizations and in society in general.

"We believe racism dehumanizes everybody,"Richardson said." Anti-racist organizing principles lift oppression and brings more humanity to the work. We need to look at how can we be fully human."

Worker-owners who participated talked about wanting the work to include the following:

  • working on the personal in particular
  • looking at their co-op's customer base and making decisions based on that
  • starting co-ops in communities not served by them
  • getting help at work where privilege and race always comes up but doesn't result in concrete change
  • getting ideas for how co-ops can be a part of the anti-oppression movement

The Inclusivness Circle 's goals are to spur discussion, educate membership, create an atmosphere that promotes leadership among members of marginalized communities, building businesses and making good business decisions and movement-building by supporting economic justice in the larger movement.

The committee will be blogging privately initally to discuss issues. A way to share information with the U.S. Federation and/or larger movement will also be developed. One goal is to fundraise for a day-long workshop on "undoing racism" at the next Federation conference.

Some got more inspired to deepen work already started.

"We've decided to make it one of our three major goals for this year, and it's a tough subject but there's lots of enthusiasm around it," said Lisa Russell, who is part of Equal Exchange's Worker Owner Cabinet which assists the Worker Owner Coordinator in setting meetings and agendas.

"Our hopes are to put things in place that happen automatically throughout the years going forward - alternative ways of teaching/learning/sharing, trainings and curriculum...We want to make this ongoing learning a permanent part of our co-op!"

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, from Other Avenues Co-op in San Francisco, said the discussions of racial and gender issues within cooperatives were "the most memorable discussions" at the conference.

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Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, a former USFWC board member, helped to organize the Inclusiveness Circle, along with Melissa Hoover.

 

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