Three years ago, we were participants in a workshop designed to raise awareness of racial bias, particularly in progressive organizations. As part of that Training for Change session in Minneapolis in 2014, everyone was asked what we would like to do as next steps. Part of our professional work as consultants is to bring a variety of people together in co-ops to better govern, educate and promote cooperation. Yet as we looked around the food co-op sector, most of the people in the room, and in many places in our co-ops, were white.
We decided that this was something we wanted to investigate. Why are food co-ops—which aspire to inclusivity—so white? Answering that question was motivation for our “next steps” after the workshop, but it was also a question that’s been a long time coming. A lot of our new wave food cooperatives have reached 40-year anniversaries, in business for over a generation, so why don’t they reflect greater diversity on their boards or within their membership? Was it because some of them are in racially segregated population areas? Was it because food co-ops aren’t valued by certain groups of people? Or was it because there was something preventing the participation of everyone who might benefit from the food co-ops?
The project (originally titled “How We Became White”) arose, in part, because of Jade’s co-op experiences. “At the time, I was frustrated by the numerous conversations I’d had with cooperators who assumed that people of color didn’t shop at their co-ops because they were poor and ate unhealthy food. I knew that many white people also ate unhealthy food and that poverty impacted people of all races, so I suspected that racism (conscious or not) might have had a role in food co-ops’ current demographics. I thought that our project would explore that.”
As a writing team of women, white and black-American, who are deeply influenced by both history and contemporary storytelling, we believed the answers to our questions could come directly from people who had experienced food co-ops at different points in time. We wanted to inquire of our elders and contemporaries, people of different racial backgrounds, who have made contributions to our movement. Each of us has interviewed a number of people to help us think about the racial makeup of food co-ops today. It is from their experiences, personal narratives, and ideas for the future, that we believe we can gain a better understanding of the past in order to make change in the present.
What we’ve been offered by the participants is a tremendous gift. Even though some of the people we interviewed have not been involved in co-ops for a decade or two, the generosity of each interviewee has been personally rewarding and at times very moving. Everyone involved in our interview and narrative project has been enormously forthcoming, even when conversation was difficult. We are proud to have the trust of such talented individuals. We are currently in the process of writing these narratives to share with the co-op sector, which will be published in the Columinate library this fall of 2017 thanks to the financial support from National Cooperative Grocers, Cooperative Development Foundation, Columinate and 20 food co-ops.
What We Have Learned So Far
Attempting to have meaningful and real conversations about race in food co-ops is challenging. Each conversation we had offered an opportunity to lift a burden, or unwittingly reinforce oppression. Nobody we talked to from any racial group wanted to do or say anything that would hurt another person—everyone wanted to be heard and understood, and we sought foremost to listen, and to eventually synthesize.
From Pat’s experience with this project, white people often have a tough time examining race and talking about it. Whiteness is the norm in our culture—from the stories told in educational settings to images in the media—our lives are saturated with dominant culture messages. Being able to “see” outside of dominant culture requires a personal dedication to understanding how white supremacy works as a system that keeps people divided and oppressed.
For Jade, the biggest surprise was learning, again, that there are always many sides to every story. She realized, for example, that from her viewpoint as a black person, she had never seriously considered the chilling impact fear of censure could have on white people’s willingness to have meaningful conversations about race.
Time and again people would start their interviews by saying a variation of the same thing: I am uncomfortable with this, I don’t want to say anything stupid. Admitting racial bias exists can feel like an accusation. Yet what people told us about what they experienced about race in our culture has exposed a separation amongst people, even within our food co-ops. That experience has to be acknowledged.
Racial bias is something people we interviewed thought could be addressed in the food co-op sector. We are all bound together by our common humanity. As challenging as it might feel initially, talking about race is a skill that can grow and develop. Conversations about race may never get easy, but they can be facilitated to be honest and forthright, instead of guided by guilt, fear and misperceptions. This was the hope our interviewees shared, and what we also experienced as we continued to talk to people. There is a lot of untapped possibility in having honest conversations about race.
We also learned how much the stories of black American cooperation in America have been ignored. One of our interviewees was Jessica Gordon Nembhard, the author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. Dr. Nembhard and each black American cooperator we interviewed added their own stories of cooperative practice, inspiring us with their tales of strength, resilience, thoughtfulness and compassion despite often being faced with daunting challenges.
We attended the Cooperatives and People of Color conference in Indianapolis, Indiana in October last year (the first year it was launched by the Indiana Cooperative Development Center). One thing that really struck us was how traditionally white, black and Latino co-ops have been operating for years on parallel tracks in the food, housing and credit union sectors—without much interaction. We wondered, what resources and synergies have been ignored or wasted all these years by not creating cooperative partnerships and pathways for all of our co-ops? What has been lost by not working more closely together?
Another theme that emerged from the interviews was the necessity for commitment. If food cooperators want their co-ops to be more inclusive, this will require soul-searching work and an expectation of change by everyone in the organization, most especially its leaders. We were cautioned by the people we talked to that this work is not like launching a new program or reading a handbook.
It requires a deep evaluation of practice, attitudes and organizational belief structures that act as a barrier to full participation. Generations of institutional racism, personal prejudice and unconscious bias won’t miraculously go away just by stating that they are unacceptable. People need to care and they need to act. We believe that transforming racial oppression needs to be a core part of our work. Not doing so is immoral. Additionally, if we don’t appeal to more people in more communities, and communicate the impact and values of cooperatives so that co-ops are truly welcoming to everyone, our growth will remain limited. There are a lot of resources and experts available to help organizations unlearn bias; finding those people in local communities is a good first step.