This week, Chicago will host its first summit on issues of cooperative economics. Cooperatives—often called “co-ops”—are organizations that are mutually owned or operated by all those involved; decisions are reached together and resources are shared amongst those in the organization.
The idea for the summit was born out of a Solidarity Economy 101 workshop held by the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America several months ago. Since then, the number of cooperative groups involved in the summit (whether participating in a panel or tabling during the event) has grown to more than twenty organizations. Throughout the day on Saturday, the summit will host panels featuring leaders in housing, food, and utility co-ops in Chicago, as well as breakout groups on food systems, participatory budgeting, and more.
In three separate conversations, I sat down with Dr. Amara Enyia, Mike Strode, and Termaine Davis, three individuals involved with planning the summit. Enyia—a public policy consultant and founder of the Institute of Cooperative Economics and Economic Innovation who recently announced her candidacy for mayor—approaches her work from a policy lens. Strode is the founder of the Kola Nut Collaborative, a “time banking” system where community members can post what resources or labor they need or have and exchange time and skills with others in the community without a dependence on financial capital. Informed by his previous work in the capitalist startup ecosystem, Davis founded Together Systems as a way to test market methods for forming and sustaining cooperatives. Each has a slightly different perspective on what collaboration could look like, but they all see the expansion of cooperatives in Chicago as a stepping stone to economic empowerment on the South and West Sides. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Why is the Cooperative Economy Summit something that needs to happen now?
Enyia: I think it should have happened a long time ago. When we look at some of the biggest issues that are affecting communities around the world, it’s really income inequality. For me, I always focus on, ‘What is the alternative that we can build, what is the solution, and how do we create that?’ There is a better way that our workforce can be structured. There is a democratic ownership mechanism that we can actually create that is an alternative to, for example, the [median] CEO-to-employee pay ratio of about 350 to 1 [in consumer discretionary businesses; 140 to 1 among all surveyed industries]. People can work forty hours a week and still have to have multiple jobs and still may need to be on public assistance to support their families. These are conditions that are unacceptable, but instead of just complaining about it, it’s about, okay, here’s how we construct the alternative.
Strode: Since February of last year, when I launched the Kola Nut Collaborative, it became very difficult to explain time banking outside of the context of this larger sense of cooperation that exists in the city. I’ve been working to show people that this is something that we already do. And so the summit needs to happen in this city now because there are lots of efforts going on like that and they don’t share a common narrative. This is an attempt to get people into the room, and once you get people into a room, ideally building relationships with each other, ideally building those communication channels.… There are people who want to do policy, there are people who want to open incubators, there are people who want to connect with other efforts that are happening elsewhere, such as Jackson, [MS], such as Richmond, [VA]. In order to have a cohesive infrastructure here, we’ve got to get everybody in the room.
How does the collective economy movement in Chicago now compare with other places in the country or globally?
Davis: It’s in its infancy, definitely. There’s people here working in cooperation independently, but that web is not interconnected. We cannot compare America to the rest of the world because if we compare America to Europe and cooperation, we’d be like, yeah, cooperation hasn’t even been born in America yet.
Enyia: Chicago is just now getting up to speed when it comes to solidarity economies and cooperative economic models. On the West Coast, I visited a bakery called Arizmendi Bakery. It is a worker-owned cooperative and it was phenomenal. They share the profits and they determine what their working hours are going to be. They have now in New York City, but also state-level legislation that supports a cooperative economic model.… Even in Ohio and Cleveland, they’ve got the Evergreen Cooperatives, which is a huge cooperative that is doing quite well that’s established there. So Chicago is sort of, I believe, late to the game.
Strode: The grass is always greener on the other side. Right? Whether we’re talking about St. Louis, [MO], or Jackson, MS, or New York, I’ve had the good fortune to actually talk to people and sort of have this inside-baseball conversation about what’s really happening underground. Chicago is just trying to find its footing. We’re trying to find ways to communicate with each other. And then we’re also trying to overcome a legacy of neighborhood segregation, of these artificial lines being drawn between communities of people not wanting to be on the South Side. So in order to get to where we want to be in terms of cooperation, we’ve got to overcome some of that historical baggage of the city. But you know, in terms of where we stand on a national basis, everywhere has the same set of problems that we do or a similar set of problems that we’re dealing with.
What are your goals for the Cooperative Economy Summit?
Enyia: I would love to see a space that is inclusive, that really is where people from all around the city are participating in a conversation about how to advance an agenda of making sure that cooperative economic models are part of the economic mainstream in Chicago. And that means reaching across neighborhoods. I’m part of a group that’s starting a food co-op [in Austin]. We can go to Logan Square, there’s the Dill Pickle Food Co-op. There’s so much happening and so I want the summit to represent the diversity of what is taking place.… If they’re entrepreneurs, wanting to perhaps start a cooperative, or wanting to contribute in some way so that the general public is much more aware of how crucial this can be for our economy.… We’re still early on in this work and so the goal is really to create a big tent that is inclusive and that allows us to move forward together.
Davis: My personal goal is just to meet as many people who are working in cooperation in Chicago. Also to introduce more people to what Together Systems is working on here in the Chicagoland area. Holistically, the goal of the cooperative summit is truly to bring people together and to open up those lines of communication, which should in turn allow more resource-sharing in the cooperative economy.… It’s to form the ecosystem and to ensure that there’s groups leaving it saying, I’m going to meet with this guy tomorrow or we’ve been working on the same project for years, let’s just combine our projects and work together. I think that’s the real goal of the cooperative summit. Most of the people who are attending are cooperators.
The Chicago Cooperative Economy Summit. 237 S. Desplaines St. Saturday, August 25, 10am–5pm. $20 tickets remaining.
This report was produced with City Bureau, a Woodlawn-based civic journalism lab. Erisa Apantaku is South Side Weekly Radio’s executive producer and a team leader for City Bureau’s summer reporting fellowship. Erisa and her team are researching and documenting Black generational wealth in Chicago. To get in touch, tweet using #BlackChiWealth or email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on City Bureau and to get involved, visit citybureau.org.