by Peter Frank (PACA Co-founder & Co-op Business Developer)
Over the past 5 years, co-op development in the US has significantly advanced and shifted, changing who is served and how the work is done. In Philadelphia, we’ve seen large increases in demand for co-op development from Black and Latinx communities. That has been coupled with an increase in interest from organizers of social justice movements, who are looking to the cooperative model as a tool for poverty reduction, anti-gentrification and displacement, and a radical alternative for workers in exploitative industries.
The majority of Philadelphia co-ops forming between 2011 and 2016 were nearly all white-owned with support from mostly white co-op developers. A major shift has occurred recently, where interest in co-ops has been most significant from Latinx immigrants and Black entrepreneurs. In 2018, 67% of co-ops in development in Philadelphia were majority-owned by Black or Latinx co-op entrepreneurs. This can be attributed to a growing awareness of the benefits of co-ops to aid marginalized communities of color. It’s also a reflection of PACA actively spreading awareness that co-ops can be part of the solution to problems that, in particular, are rooted in classism, racism, and xenophobia. In response to this shift, we’ve had to adapt our approach to co-op development.
PACA intentionally shifted who is doing professional co-op development work by training and hiring co-op developers from marginalized communities. Beyond who is leading Philadelphia’s co-op development work, we adapted our overall strategy for co-op development. We’re not just sitting back and waiting for entrepreneurs to find us, although we love it when they do (please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need help with your co-op). We’re planning to go deeper and actively engage with and participate in social justice movements.
As a provider of support for co-op development within organizations and/or as a coalition member, PACA has been involved with anti-gentrification efforts, land access and urban farming, immigrant rights, and other justice and equity movements. We show up in these organized spaces as humble participants in their work, but also to educate others involved about the power and potential of cooperatives. Co-op development ideas have and continue to emerge in movement-building spaces and PACA’s work is to ensure that appropriate support is available to them. One of the many strengths is that emerging co-ops in movement-building spaces have built-in support and a captive audience that can support their arduous trek to becoming a successful cooperative. We see this as a distinct co-op development strategy because it intersects practices of community organizing, cooperative economics, and business development.
We see incredible potential in this approach, but by no means have we perfected it or fully implemented it and we certainly aren’t the only co-op organization with this kind of perspective. Staff from the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives speaking at the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy recently articulated a similar strategy at the national level. PACA and much of the broader cooperative movement are still early in the process of embracing strategies to work in partnership with other movements toward a higher purpose of justice, equity, and human rights. A shift does appear to have been happening though. This shift requires more from those of us doing the work – asking us to be organizers, co-op experts, and business developers. That job description can seem daunting, but I think it’s quite natural for many people who were involved in years of work on broader social justice issues before coming to cooperatives. We’ll keep learning and experimenting, with successes and failures along the way, but I believe we’ll be stronger as a movement among movements.