The shooting of Philando Castile resonates well beyond his death. The tragedy brought renewed awareness to the racial component of police traffic stops, protest demonstrations and multiple arrests, prolonged investigations, and even a scholarship fund in Castile’s name.
His name was invoked recently by Amber Jones, a local activist and staff member of AchieveMpls, a career and college readiness organization. At a panel discussion at Fair State Brewery Cooperative on Feb. 22, Jones said, ”Especially in the wake of his death, we are embarking on a mission to address the economic disparities in our community; to have another layer of armor in our toolkit; as we look at the idea of white supremacy in our community, this amazing journey to create the financial institution of a credit union but also to look for a cooperative-based model for it, which is what brought us here tonight.”
In 2016, several Twin Cities residents formed Blexit, which, according to its website, aims “to cultivate the practice of economic civil resistance.” The non-profit put their focus on black banking, and created the Association for Black Economic Power (ABEP). ABEP plans to open a black-led, cooperative-style credit union, tentatively titled Village Trust Financial Cooperative, in North Minneapolis by 2019.
Jones began the forum by saying, “A cooperative is not just a legal entity or a tech category. You can also think of it as a set of feasible practices under the democratic control of members: They include having visionary ownership, being autonomous and independent, having a genuine and authentic connection to the community.”
She then introduced the four panelists, and posed the question: is it possible to apply the concept of existing cooperatives to other areas, whether it’s banking or other organizations? And how can individuals and leaders help?
Shiranthi Goonathilaka, benefits and communications manager, ABEP: “ABEP’s mission is to open a black-led financial cooperative, as a tool to disrupt systems such as capitalism, which has profited off of black pain.”
First Ward City Council Member Kevin Reich: “To the question of can it work in other areas, it absolutely can and it absolutely does. I know, because Minneapolis is so rich in food cooperatives. Just down the block, we have cooperatives as coffee shops, mountain climbing, grocery stores, you name it. There is no business that cannot be supported by cooperative models. I would even take that tenet to other models, in other business sectors. In some cases, in some communities, it is the only model.
When we in North Minneapolis tried to open a coop to have natural, healthy food, no private-sector company would step up to provide support. Zero. We asked. They said ‘We looked at our charts and your market is too weak. We cannot come here. You do not get fresh vegetables. Sorry, North Minneapolis.’ Well, we decided to band together and start our own store [Wirth Cooperative Grocery], and we now have those fresh vegetables. Sorry, corporate world – we actually built it on our own, on our own terms. I’m so proud of North Minneapolis and what you’re trying to do, and when you have your own bank, you can support other businesses and the local economy.
Fourth Ward City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison: “I agree that it’s sort of embedded in us to do cooperation. When I first started learning about the cooperative model, I was getting ready to run for office, and trying to wrap my head around the economic development in North Minneapolis. I’m not an expert in co-ops, but I started to realize that I might be an expert in collaboration, and that’s the first step in figuring out how to dive into a model of cooperative economics. In North Minneapolis there are economic developments where the market is just not viable. Some economic models say that the local market is not strong enough for a Chipotle, for example. But we know that neighbors will take economic risks in their neighborhoods. So let’s put money in the pockets of folks who actually want to be here.”
Jones posed a second question: How can people who are in organizations or companies that are only profit- or market-based work to change that? How do we foster a space for innovation and cooperation?
Fair State Brewery Cooperative CEO Evan Sallee: “The notion that we’re only self-actuating people is questionable; Milton Friedman was wrong about the goal of all business being the maximizing shareholder value. We can believe in benign self-interest, but we don’t just stop there. We say the ’I’ and the ‘we’ are one; and once you get that right, other things follow. The notion that cooperatives cooperate isn’t just a principle, it’s a logical extension of the notion that you have more than one bottom line. You have to pay to keeps the lights on and the doors open, but you have to say, ‘We can have a positive influence, and what are we doing about that?’ That bottom line matters, too. There’s no co-op I know that doesn’t ask what our positive impact is on our community and on each other. We should talk about the stereotypical co-op, a grocery store, and why that’s not the only possible co-op model. What about co-ops as not just non-profits, but as ‘social enterprises’? ”
Ellison: “I would add that storytelling has a lot to do with how we live our lives. People make their decisions on what they believe, and people believe what they believe based on stories they’ve internalized. The notion that people are self-actualized is a story that we’ve been pitched, one of individualism. I don’t think people want to hear about the solitary; I think they hunger for stories about collaboration, of diversity, of working together for accomplishing an end.
Goonathilaka: “When I hear that stereotype, I realize that there needs to be a different image of a co-op. We need to be reminded that because co-ops are member-owned, every member has a financial stake.”
Reich: “My earliest memories of the term co-op was when my family visited my grandparents’ farm and I saw the words ‘Farmers’ Co-op’ on the grain elevators. The reason they formed coops was, I think the technical term my grandfather used was, ‘They were being screwed.’ Often farmers were at the whim of the delivery mechanisms, like railroads and speculators. Co-ops didn’t mean the farmers were taking over, but they put farmers ‘into the game,’ in a real economically powerful way. Whether you’re a bank, a brewery, or a grain elevator, cooperatives will put you in the game.”
Ellison: “I’m going to show my bias here, but I really think that everything is about 90 percent story, and when I hear ‘co-op,’ there are a lot of images that come up, like the white grocery shopper paying $25 for leaf lettuce. But who benefits?
“Propping up the story of what co-ops actually are can help get more buy-in from the community. What Northside folks lack in wealth, they make up in numbers, and in numbers there is power.
“A lot of people on the North side don’t know co-ops exist. I represent the poorest ward, the youngest ward, the most diverse ward. There’s a lot of work to be done, because the number of people who can actually afford ‘affordable’ housing is going down. But I think we have a lot of folks on the ground ready to help.”
Below: First photo is Jeremial Ellison, Evan Sallee, Kevin Reich, Siranthi Goonalhizaka, Amber Jones, second photo is Evan Sallee, Kevin Reich, Siranthi Goonalhizaka, Amber Jones at Fair State. (Photos by Mark Peterson)