(Philadelphia, PA) Philadelphia Assembled hosted a teach-in led by Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA) Executive Director Jamila Medley on cooperatives and their role in developing economic sovereignty. The goal of the meeting was to inform the Philadelphia community about what, exactly, cooperatives are and the way their democratic process business model is changing the way companies do business.
Philadelphia Assembled describes itself as an “expansive project that tells a story of radical community building and active resistance through the personal and collective narratives that make up Philadelphia’s changing urban fabric.” Together with a broad range of individuals and organizations, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Assembled poses the question: how can we collectively shape our futures?
The project is divided into five “atmospheres,” each reflecting a value and mission for the organization: futures, reconstruction, sovereignty, sanctuary, and movement. Organized by Russell Hicks, Philadelphia Assembled’s associate director, Medley’s presentation on cooperatives fell under the sovereignty heading.
Economic sovereignty, then, is each owner “having his own cow and sharing the byproduct” with the larger community, as opposed to prioritizing oneself over another as the oppressor did. Cooperatives, which operate on principles of democratic control and shared ownership, seek to engender economic sovereignty in the community by fostering cooperation and mutual aid.
PACA is, to use Medley’s term, a “co-op of co-ops.” Founded in 2011 and a non-profit since 2013, they are dedicated to improving the livelihood of the Philadelphia populace by “supporting democratically organized businesses, promoting the principles of the international cooperative movement, and growing the cooperative economy.”
PCA provides “technical assistance” to existing cooperatives rather than advising throughout the process. They are however connected to other groups, such as the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives and Cooperative Development Services, who help guide owners in the process of creating a cooperative.
Why cooperatives? Medley chalks it up to humanity’s inherent socialness: “human beings need to do stuff together,” she said. Often hyperlocal, cooperatives form when a community identifies a need. They are commonly formed by those left out of mainstream development. Cooperatives, and especially black cooperatives as outlined in Jessica Nembherd’s book “Collective Courage,” date back to when slavery was still legal in the United States and enslaved individuals would pool their resources to buy each other’s freedom.
Cooperatives are built on the principle of equity, the idea of one person, one vote rather than the largest shareholders having the most sway. While a cooperative can be worker-owned, consumer-owned, or a mix of the two, every participant has a share in the company, ensuring everyone reaps the benefits and takes the falls together.
The entrepreneur’s wish to be their own boss is echoed in the autonomy granted by cooperatives. It may seem counter-intuitive, as cooperatives foster community and are collectively owned and operated, but as Medley explained, cooperatives demand a level of respect and accountability from all individuals involved. “I think a lot of us are also interested in cultivating good relationships with the people that we work with that help them feel valued,” she said.
Since stakeholders win and lose as a collective rather than as individuals, cooperatives create an environment of mutual aid. The shared responsibility allows each owner to play to their strengths while drawing from a large pool of ideas and resources. This in turn strengthens a community’s economy as a whole in addition to individual livelihoods.
Philadelphia Assembled’s current sovereignty events are preparation for a large public “Sovereignty Marketplace” in June on 52 Street celebrating the street’s history as a center for black-owned businesses. Hicks hopes the event will serve as a “springboard to sustainable economic development” in Philadelphia and beyond.