Scholarship for the Common Good: Professor Gordon-Nembhard Inducted into Co-op Hall of Fame

Scholarship for the Common Good: Professor Gordon-Nembhard Inducted into Co-op Hall of Fame

Scholarship for the Common Good: Professor Gordon-Nembhard Inducted into Co-op Hall of Fame

Professor Jessica Gordon-Nembhard has been a scholar of cooperative economics for some time, but she was nonetheless surprised when the National Cooperative Business Association made the decision to induct her into its prestigious Co-op Hall of Fame.

The ceremony, which took place on May 4 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., is a result of Nembhard’s lifelong commitment to the co-op movement, but follows closely on the heels of the groundbreaking scholarship that resulted from her 2014 book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (Pennsylvania State University Press).

The co-op business model has a long history, and can take many different forms. Most co-ops are business enterprises created by a group of individuals to serve a specific community need.  Those individuals consider themselves members rather than owners, with each member having an equal say in decision-making. One familiar example is the food co-op, in which individuals join to purchase in bulk, with the savings distributed throughout the community.

A political economist in John Jay’s Department of Africana Studies, Gordon-Nembhard was intrigued by this idea of community. “The more I learned, the more I understood that co-ops could be a great economic revitalization tool, particularly in urban and low-income communities,” she said.

When she began writing Collective Courage nearly 15 years ago, Gordon-Nembhard expected to write a chapter for each individual community she encountered. Upon researching the first chapter on African-American communities, however, she found that the wealth of material ran so deep, and was so closely tied to the fight for civil rights and social justice, that the chapter soon became a book.

“Everywhere I went, people told me that there were no blacks in the co-op movement,” she explained. “The black community had very little information about its role.” Through her research, however, Gordon-Nembhard discovered that there was in fact a continuous history of black-run co-ops in the U.S., from the early days of slavery right up to the present.

“The first co-ops began as a means of survival,” said Gordon-Nembhard. “What do you do if you are enslaved, with no money to feed your family or bury your dead? You pool your money together and combine resources.” Burial societies were some of the very first African-American co-ops, and soon expanded into mutual aid societies that provided support for widows, orphans, the sick, and others in need. By the 20th century, the co-op evolved beyond community welfare to become one of the primary ways for blacks to control their own labor. It was a way to fight back against racial violence and Jim Crow laws, which allowed blacks to be thrown off of their land or fired from their jobs arbitrarily. By purchasing their own land and agricultural supplies, they could safeguard themselves against retaliation, and continue the fight for racial justice.

The idea of economic independence for African Americans was so closely linked to cooperative economics that in the 1960’s, some of the most influential civil rights organizations began as co-ops. Yet despite its storied role in American history, the co-op is still not considered a major strain of economic thought, and remains outside of mainstream academia. “We were brought up to learn individualism,” said Gordon-Nembhard. “We were not taught to share money, or to collaborate, so there is a lot of skepticism with the model. That means that people who are interested need to be proactive and learn about it.”

Gordon-Nembhard hopes to effect such a change. One of her current projects is a collaborative effort with Tuskegee University in Alabama to develop a co-op curriculum, the first of its kind at a major university. “Co-ops are really about solidarity, like-mindedness, and common good,” she said. “It’s not just about having a business — it’s about making your community better.”