Earlier this month two members from SEASALT, along with members from Out of Town & Bunker Housing Co-operative drove to Monkton Wylde, Dorset. Monkton Wyld is a sustainability centre set in the beautiful Dorset countryside.
The 3 day Co-operation Jackson residential was organised by Stir to Action as part of their new economy programme. It involved people from across the UK coming together to learn, listen and share ideas.
Introduction to Co-operation Jackson
Mississippi was the poorest state in the US and has been transformed into a hotbed of co-operatives. I was keen to learn more about the environment, political climate and people that had been part of the journey. Over the course of the residential, we learnt that Co-operation Jackson is much more than a better way to do business. Their ethos isn’t about creating co-operatives for co-operatives sake. It encompasses a deeper vision for a solidarity economy and social justice. The central vision is to put people and the planet before profits.
From the start, we were asked to share our ideas on how we could work together and create an accountable learning environment. We were all keen to reflect on how we could be part of the bigger picture. We were reminded we weren’t just tourists. We all needed to take something back that we could apply to our own work.
What is the solidarity economy?
“The solidarity economy is a global movement to build a post-capitalist world that puts people and planet front and centre, rather than the pursuit of blind growth and profit maximization. It isn’t a blueprint but a framework that includes a broad range of economic practices that align with its values: solidarity, participatory democracy, equity in every dimension including race, class and gender, sustainability and pluralism, which means that it can’t be a one-size-fits all approach.”(https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/seven-ways-to-build-solidarity-economy/)
Racism in Jackson
We learnt about the stark deprivation that affects almost half of Jackson’s residents. Almost 50% of people in Jackson are unemployed and live below the poverty line. Almost everyone in Mississippi is armed. Kali Akuno, Cooperation Jackson Executive Director, outlined the distinct racial divide that dominates Jackson. “90% of it is white controlled even though Jackson is 80% black.” “Most banks won’t lend to black people, even if they own a car or a house.” Co-operation Jackson has remained true to its ideals. “If we can’t meet on our own terms, we don’t meet”.
9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were major political factors. New Orleans was majority black, now it’s majority is white. The ‘prosperity gospel’ is rife in the black south with the common belief that if you’re not rich your not praying hard enough. Co-operative Jackson arose out of a necessity to challenge systemic racism. By convincing the people of Jackson they had capacity, they mobilised people to work together. “Individually it wouldn’t have been possible, the only way to do better was by pooling resources.” Co-operation Jackson works across a number of key areas. These include alternative currencies, time banking, workers co-ops, community production, urban farming, community councils and Community Land Trusts. The solidarity economy already exists among the poor working class. By embedding these structures and processes into Co-operative Jackson it has been able to grow and challenge the capitalist system.
In one of the exercises on the residential, we paired up with someone else in the room to come up with a joint vision. This was an interesting exercise as it allowed reflection and chance to really test out how well we knew our vision. It gave us the opportunity to explore a hypothetical situation to work together to build an interconnected network of co-operatives. Over the course of Co-operative Jackson the core founders sat down over a three year period to continually discuss where they were heading and reflect on what they were trying to achieve.
“What is the issue/ the struggle – define it. What are the contradictions?… if it’s going to change who is going to change it? …”
Co-operation Jackson has a six month orientation process with members contributing $50 per year/ alternative work share plus 4hours per week. The biggest employer in Mississippi is Walmart but Co-operative Jackson challenges this by re-investing any profits back into other co-operatives. It also challenges the supply chain to ensure local people are benefitting from the work and money stays in the local economy.
In Jackson racism is extremely visible. The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t hide their targets to reduce the black working class by 25%. This means they can control who gets elected. 40% of renters are absentee white landlords. Jackson utilised its vacant buildings and land. Co-operative Jackson owns all properties out right. They also cultivated support and pledges from hip hop artists.
On the first evening, we visited the tiny pub conveniently located in the stunning grounds of Monkton Wyld. On the second we visited Lyme Regis and a couple of us even got a swim in. We took advantage of the long summer nights and chatted outside till it got dark.
On the last day, a group for people of colour emerged. It became evident a distinct space for this had been overlooked and not included as part of the programme. SIM – were u in this? This was an important ADD
Where now for SEASALT?
SEASALT is now trying to gain property with the support of a local Community Land Trust and is thinking seriously about its purpose in the local community. As one of the SEASALT participants reflected “Now our job is deciding what is actually going to happen once we get the keys to the house.’ ‘How do we make sure how that rent is going to be paid on time? How do we make sure that people are maintaining the house and engaging as part of the co-op? How do we build these internal accountability structures?’Also, what is the heart of the project? Why are we doing this? When all of the founding members have left, say, ten years on, how do we make sure some sort of vision we had remains, even if it evolves over time?’
“The emerging trend of students founding housing co-ops is not just because students find it fun to start their own co-op, however empowering that is. Instead, they are doing it as a way to survive as they grapple with austerity and a broken housing market. ‘Ideally, we wouldn’t have to exist. Ideally, people could afford to live in homes even if they wanted to [rent], they’d have security in their tenancy, and they would be able to build their own community,’ ‘[Student housing co-ops] are almost a necessity for us to build that niche within different types of housing in cities.