Start.coop
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Start.coop

Black co-ops matter.

Those of us in white-led and majority-white organizations have an obligation to step up and advocate for structural changes to make business ownership more accessible to Black and Brown founders, workers, and communities. And we must center Black and Brown entrepreneurs as we work together to build a new, anti-racist economy.

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

A long overdue reckoning about systemic racism in the United States is finally seeping into the national conscience. It dangles the promise of a more just and equitable society right in front of us and yet just out of reach. The work that lies ahead to transform this moment from promise to reality falls on all of us, but most particularly it falls on the shoulders of white people. It is ours to own and deal with.

Co-ops, and the co-operative community at-large have an important role to play in repairing centuries of oppression and marginalization of Black and Brown individuals and communities. First, we have to acknowledge and uplift the historic role of Black people in cooperatives. As we know from the work of Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Mehrsa Baradaran, Leon Prieto, Simone Phipps and Malik Yakini among others, the Black community has used cooperative ownership as a means of survival on the margins of white society for a long time. We need to build on this legacy, centering the struggles of the Black and Brown communities as purpose and inspiration for our work.

“What we need to do is reinvent the cooperative idea. If ever the cooperative approach was needed, it is today. It’s still a disgrace to Black folks that no place in the country do Blacks control economically.” — Fr. Albert J. McKnight

Today, co-ops continue to be vehicles for economic development in Black communities. Indeed, co-ops, particularly in sectors where we have high participation from Black and other workers of color, can help these workers build economic stability and resiliency to better weather social and economic upheaval and help them build wealth for themselves and their families. However, only a tiny fraction of the 30,000 co-ops in the United States are Black-owned. We need to acknowledge and actively work to dismantle the white supremacy that is so pervasive in business culture, the economy at-large, and yes, even in co-ops.

It is easy for white people within the co-op community to think we are inherently on the right side of history by espousing democratic principles and shared ownership, but that far from enough. While 33% of our teams in the Start.coop 2020 class have a Black founder, our all-white leadership and our majority white teaching staff are symptoms of more deeply rooted issues and we recognize that we have a lot of work to do to acknowledge our complicity in white supremacy, confront it within our own organization, and better serve and uplift Black and Brown entrepreneurs.

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

Those of us in white-led and majority-white organizations have an obligation to step up and advocate for structural changes to make business ownership more accessible to Black and Brown founders. But it is also incumbent upon us to proactively build a co-op ecosystem in which uplifts the true diversity of the co-op community, shifts power and voice to Black and Brown co-ops (both leaders and workers), and in which Black and Brown people can thrive and build wealth. We must center Black and Brown entrepreneurs as we work together to build a new, anti-racist economy.

There are a number of Black-led organizations within the co-op community who have invested in marginalized communities, promoting and supporting Black ownership and viewing their work through a racial and economic justice lens: Federation Of Southern Cooperatives, Cooperation Jackson, the US Federation of Worker co-ops, the Fund for Democratic Communities, and Green Worker Cooperatives, among others. There are also many white-led organizations who are explicitly applying a racial equity lens to their work: Shared Capital, Seed Commons, Project Equity and Cooperative Development Institute amongst many others. At Start.coop, we recognize the need for our organization to step up and more explicitly join our peers in this anti-racist work. We intend to hold ourselves accountable to addressing systemic racism and the root causes of inequity internally and externally.

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination,” says Ibram X. Kendi. Ending systemic oppression requires a long-term commitment and we are committed to continuously reexamining our organizational culture and internal policies to address the ways that racism and oppression show up in our work. Inspired by Awake to Woke to Work from Equity in the Center, we commit to beginning this work by:

  • Prioritizing continuous improvement in our race equity work by including it as one of our core strategies at the Board and organizational levels
  • Investing in training to help our Board and staff build race equity into our organizational DNA and make explicit our shared values, assumptions and beliefs as they relate to race equity
  • Reviewing and revising our recruitment and admissions process to improve the percentage of Black and Brown-led start-ups accepted in our accelerator and also the number of Black and Brown-led start-ups that apply as a percentage of the total applicants
  • Ensuring Black and Brown perspectives are represented and valued in all aspects of our accelerator, including among the teaching staff, mentors, coaches, recommended service providers and also in the materials that support the accelerator programming (our case studies, videos, and more)
  • Increasing the extent to which our accelerator programing is culturally responsive and explicit about race, racism, and race equity
  • Challenging our investors to consider how racism shows up in their investment decisions and how they might partner with us to make more equitable investments (both in terms of who receives funds and the structure of the deals) as well as encouraging them to sign on to the Racial Justice Investing statement
  • Disaggregating the evaluation data we collect about our program and the success of our graduates during and after the program by race in order to better understand and address inequities
  • Welcoming Black and Brown leaders to our Board over the coming months with the goal of building a majority-POC board by December 2021

While none of these elements alone is sufficient, we believe that they are fundamentally necessary as first steps. We ask that you hold us accountable to the organizational commitments we are making.

Both as an organization and as a member of the co-op community, we believe we have an important role to play in reversing the centuries of marginalization and exclusion from business ownership created by the policies and practices of a country founded on systemic racism and repairing the social and economic fabric of this country. Standing together as a co-op community, we need to do the work to ensure that cooperativism truly lives up to its promise, and does so for all Americans, but most particularly for Black and Brown Americans who have been marginalized and oppressed by this country’s social, economic, and legal systems for far too long.

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Jessica Mason

Jessica Mason

Impact entrepreneur and strategist. National Co-Director at Start.coop, Founder & CEO at The Social Impact Studio, Faculty at Foster America.