Why Co-ops and Community Farms Can’t Close the Racial Wealth Gap

Residents of one Detroit historic neighborhood have been looking forward to next year’s opening of a food co-op. It will help bring to market produce from a community farm and is part of a larger community development project that will include a health food cafe, an incubator kitchen for food entrepreneurs, and space for events. The project expects to employ 20 people from the mostly low- to moderate-income area.

Twenty jobs may not seem like a lot when unemployment in the approximately 80 percent Black city is 8.7 percent, twice that of state and national rates. But this is what economic progress generally looks like in many Black communities: cooperative ventures such as grocery stores and community farms. More than 150 years ago, Black people emerging from slavery formed cooperatives to grow, sell, and distribute food together because their very survival depended on it.

“Black people have a long history of using co-ops as a way of navigating through an economic system that has been intentionally aimed to disinvest in our communities and prevent any kind of parity,” says Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which is spearheading the project. “So, this is us latching onto a historical strategy that Black people have used in this country to try to build collective wealth.”

Yakini believes in the cooperative strategy, and has made it his life’s work of 40-plus years. When he was a college student at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, he and a group of colleagues started the Ujamaa Co-op Buying Club. “We would come to Detroit on Saturdays, buy in bulk, and bring it back to campus,” Yakini says. “Members—students and faculty—would [then] pick up their baskets.”

He also understands what cooperatives don’t fix.

Cooperatives are a $500 billion industry, so clearly they have capacity to build…

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