Cooperation Jackson's Kali Akuno: 'We're trying to build vehicles of social transformation'

We are witnessing the rise of a solidarity economy movement, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, including organizations like Cooperation Worcester in Massachusetts, Cooperation Humboldt and Cooperation Richmond in California, and Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, among others. One of the leaders of this movement is Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, who recently wrote a book titled "Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi." Akuno was born in Los Angeles, California, and grew up in a working-class community where he watched the devastation brought by deindustrialization and the gang wars that hit L.A. in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. His family was deeply involved in various social movements, particularly the Afrikan People's Party. Akuno was raised in a world marked by violent poverty, as well as radical activism. Akuno moved around in California and eventually wound up in Jackson, Mississippi. We spoke with Akuno about his work with Cooperation Jackson, the broader solidarity economy in general, and what particular challenges working-class African American communities are experiencing in the deep south.

Robert Raymond, Shareable: So how did you end up in Jackson, Mississippi, as director of Cooperation Jackson, having been born and raised in California?

Kali Akuno, co-founder of Cooperation Jackson: So, I have a kind of varied background, particularly leading up to Cooperation Jackson. it really started in the early 2000s when I was the director of the School of Social Justice and Community Development in Oakland, California. During the second year of that project, I just woke up one night with a terrible nightmare. The nightmare was about, what were we really doing to prepare the kids we had recruited, in terms of a job, in terms of opportunity? Just kind of recognizing that given the shift of the economy that much of what we were preparing for was going to be rapidly becoming obsolete and that this was a population that was going to become increasingly more and more disposable.

I just woke up feeling like I kind of set these kids and their parents up with false hopes and false expectations. I just couldn't live with that. So I started on a journey trying to figure out what could be done. What could working-class people — particularly black working-class people — what could we do to put more direct control and power in our own hands, toward shaping the economy, creating the economy that would serve us and serve our needs. That led me back to a road of really looking at and analyzing worker cooperatives and other types of solidarity economy institutions.

So then from that, I was a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the New Afrikan People's Organization, and it was in the course of mid-2000s where we developed what became known as the Jackson-Kush Plan [a vision, starting in 2007, put together by a number of different organizations, including the Jackson's People Assembly, to create jobs with rights, dignity, and justice that generate wealth and distribute it equitably based on the principles of cooperation, sharing, solidarity, and democracy].

One of my major contributions to that plan was really incorporating the Solidarity Economy framework within it and contributing what I had studied from a deep, deep dive into a study of the Mondragon and Emilia Romangna cooperatives — as well as some of the work that was being done by that Zapatistas. So, I just really brought that to the fore and tried to incorporate that within the Jackson-Kush Plan, which eventually wound up becoming a core component of debate and study within that organization. As we launched a major phase of that plan's execution in 2013 with the with the election of Chokwe Lamumba to Mayor of Jackson, one of the main things that we were trying to move and shift as a result of pursuing that office was changing some of the municipal policies to make it so that it would be easier for a grassroots communities, working-class communities, to actually develop cooperatives to make a contribution towards the local economy, but also to put more direct control in worker hands. Unfortunately, Chokwe died shortly after, too soon before we could really execute what we all had in mind in terms of those policies. But the plan to move forward and to try to execute that vision, that moved forward and that became Cooperation Jackson. So that's kind of how I got involved, and that's part of the core genesis of how Cooperation Jackson got started.

So how would you describe Cooperation Jackson today?

Cooperation Jackson is an emerging network of cooperatives supporting solidarity economy institutions that are working to transform Jackson, its economy, and the social relationships. It's starting with the establishment of more equity in the community but overall it's trying to end some of the old school, longstanding differentials in the power that exists in the economy here locally. But to also be a model of the transformation of a more ecologically and regenerative way of doing production and putting the means of production directly in the hands of members of the community. So that's just a short bit of what we're trying to do, what we're aiming to do, and what we're on the on the road to do.

What do we need to know about Jackson, Mississippi, to understand why this project is so important?

Some key things I think to understand about Jackson, Mississippi. Number one: it's the capital of the state of Mississippi, it's a city roughly about 200,000 people. It's over 80 percent black. If you follow the federal regulations, it's overwhelmingly poor with more than twenty percent officially below the federal poverty line. We would argue that the real unemployment rate is between forty and fifty percent.

And then we exist in the larger context. This is the largest city in Mississippi, but it exists as a progressive bubble in a very red and ultra-reactionary state. … I think to understand Jackson and what's been going on here, and some of the success that we've had, is that we've been living with the politics that everyone else is now also experiencing with the Trump regime — the kind of virulent racism, the outright misogyny, you know the viciousness, we've been living with that for quite some time. That has been the norm and order of the day here in Mississippi for well over 50 years. Not much has really changed in that regard into the politics.

It produces a certain level of clarity that you have in the community's minds about what their interests are, and who's opposed to those interests, that I think has made some of the different aspects of the work that we've been trying to do somewhat simple. That clarity enables our work to really move in a way that may be a bit harder in other communities. That's a critical thing to understand. That doesn't mean that there’s still not a great deal of organizing work that has to happen, but for us, trying to convince people that there are problems is the easy part — that you don't really have to sell to anybody. The challenging part is what is your solution and is it viable? That is where there's a lot of organizing work that has to be done to convince people that doing economics in a different way is a viable alternative that can challenge the stranglehold of the powers that be. So, first and foremost, we're putting forward as solid a vision as we can to get people to see a different future as possible, and then to work our way towards building the models and the institutions that we need — to actually live, breathe, practice, and embody the vision that we want to see.

What is the connection between cooperatives and economic democracy in Jackson? And what other new economics interventions are you exploring?

A core element that cooperatives speak to are questions of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, particularly regarding historically oppressed, exploited, and marginalized communities. In order to change that situation it has to start from within, and with the resources and the talents that you yourself possess. We've got to be very clear that there are no external saviors coming to save the day. And that our liberation is in our own hands ultimately. So just starting with the clear foundation which I think Mississippi brings to bear every day, that the search for solidarity really starts within, within your own community and folks who are sharing similar experiences. So that kind of foundation runs through the black community particularly here given the circumstances I just described.

Another key thing that I will say is that the solidarity economy is not something that we have to invent or parachute or convince people of. Given the vast majority of people's economic situation, if there wasn't some level of solidarity that people were practicing — particularly with their families and their extended loved ones — many people just wouldn't make it through the day or the month. You know, paying bills, eating, providing child care support to each other. There's a great deal of solidarity that already exists as an informal solidarity economy, and what we're just trying to do in many respects is to build on that foundation and move it from an informal set of practices and relationships to a more formal set of practices and relationships, and create a dynamic wherein, you know, people can exchange, trade, and barter, and still share with each other across familial relationships or just basic communal relationships. And trying to scale that up so that we can do time-banking, perhaps throughout the city in the next couple of years. We're also working on an alternative currency. You know, so this organic composition already exists in that community and our challenge is how to connect it much more explicitly to the formal piece.

It really sounds like Jackson is up against a lot, with the far right in political power and having been entrenched in a kind of structural racism for decades — centuries. Do you think that things like alternative currencies, or even cooperatives alone, can transform the economy of a place like Jackson?

So, that is where the politics have to come in very clearly, and where we try to interject them very clearly. It's to say that we're not just trying to build cooperatives for cooperatives' sake. We're trying to build vehicles, very explicitly and very intentionally, of social transformation. What we're trying to do is fundamentally change the relations of production in our community. If people can create their own livelihood, I won't say business, because it's more than just business — but if we can create and control own livelihoods, it eliminates the long legacy of exploitation, of abuse, that people — particularly black people — have suffered in this community.

We believe that you have to have very explicit and intentional politics that goes along with the development of cooperative businesses and enterprises, so people are very clear on why they are trying to build a certain level of equity and what we hope that will lead to. You know, if we change the social relationships, we change the balance of power in this society and remove people from being in positions of dependency — particularly economic dependency — and move them to places of being able to exercise real strength because, say, they control their own resources and they're not afraid of somebody kicking them out of their house, or they’re not afraid of somebody firing them from a job. That control gives you far more power to say what you want, and to do what you want, and to exercise your own will when you control those fundamental basics.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Hear more from Kali Akuno in Upstream's latest episode — part two of their worker coop series. Listen to the episode here.

Header image of Kali Akuno courtesy of Cooperation Jackson.