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See co-operatives in a new light

Unity is power: Jessica Gordon-Nembhard will speak about co-operatives at a Bermuda Economic Development Corporation seminar on Saturday (Photograph supplied)

Born into a family of social activists, Jessica Gordon-Nembhard quickly learnt how to use her skills to try and make the world a better place.

Her parents were both professionals and academics: her paediatrician mother was an associate professor at Columbia University; her father was a developmental and educational psychologist, who also held endowed chairs at Columbia Teachers College and Yale University.

They were also committed to change. “They were both involved in the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and antiwar movements,” Dr Gordon-Nembhard said. “They held leadership positions within local civil rights organisations and were community leaders who would regularly take us to meetings and demonstrations.

“They also supported us when we were involved in our own school activities to reduce racial inequality or gender inequality. They had activists to dinner at our home and included us children at the dinner table for the discussions.”

To those who knew her, it came as no surprise when Dr Gordon-Nembhard decided to become a political economist with a goal of justice and economic development in the African American community.

She will speak here on Saturday, invited by the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation.

“We will explore why a place such as Bermuda might want to increase the number of co-operatives and also look at the types of economic co-operation which are possible to engage in,” Dr Gordon-Nembhard said.

“I’m hopeful there will be a great turnout and know from past experience that the more people who attend, the more ideas we will have to glean from. It will also result in a higher number of people who are ready to take the next step to work together and better their community.”

In her book, Collective Courage, Dr Gordon-Nembhard describes the “long, rich history” of African American co-operatives.

When stock markets failed and racial discrimination created barriers to success, people used them as a way to access goods and services.

Dr Gordon-Nembhard said she’d seen similar success in the New York City suburbs where she grew up.

“There were only four black families including my own and no Latino families until the 1970s, but it was a very liberal community and operated as a co-operative, in terms of providing a neighbourhood camp for the children some summers,” she said. “We also had family days and other social activities, and many of the members of the community went to the same antiwar and civil rights protests.”

By her twenties she had shopped in food co-ops and had seen how agricultural and housing co-ops worked.

On joining the Children’s Defence Fund in Washington DC in the 1990s, Dr Gordon-Nembhard decided to learn more. “At that time I was an economic development analyst for the Black Community Crusade for Children at the Children’s Defence Fund, and was supposed to develop community economic development strategies that supported children and family wellbeing and a sense of community among the African-American population,” she said.

“During my study of community economic development, I began to see co-operatives in a totally new light.

“The more I learnt about co-operatives, especially in urban areas, I realised not only had my PhD in economics not taught me anything about co-operative economics and business development, but also that many community economic development strategies did not include co-operatives and that few co-op practitioners in the US knew much about urban co-operatives and worker co-ops in particular.”

Even fewer people knew anything about the African-American co-operative movement. “I took up the challenge to prove that such a co-operative system did exist,” she said. “I had become an economist in order to help solve problems of racial economic inequality, poverty and unequal economic development.

“I went to graduate school to earn a PhD in economics so that I could better understand the barriers and focus on solutions.”

From then on, every job she held including her current post as professor of community justice and social economic development at City University of New York, was focused on community-based economic development and co-operative economics.

It enabled her to learn about groups like Freedom Quilting Bees, a 1996 co-operative in Alabama that enabled sharecropping families to buy 23 acres of land and put some of it to use for their children. A 1992 programme saw students in Los Angeles sell the crops from their high school garden to make money for college scholarships.

Dr Gordon-Nembhard believes establishing similar schemes here could help Bermuda take control of its economic development, keep local resources within the community, create jobs with profit sharing and enable more worker and community decision-making.

Hear Jessica Gordon-Nembhard speak on Saturday at 6pm at St Paul Centennial Hall. Tickets, $20, are available at www.bedc.bm or admin1@bedc.bm