Ten months have passed since Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered police to disperse what was known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, marking the end of a nearly month-long, blocks-wide community occupation. Gone were the barricades and the amassed tents and tenants at Cal Anderson Park. And gone was the No Cop Co-op, which distributed free food, hygiene products, clothes and more in the shade of brightly colored umbrellas.
But the creative energy generated during those weeks on Capitol Hill still reverberates across Seattle. In late December, this energy could be felt in an apartment in the Central District where a group of six or so organizers gathered and sorted 8,000 pounds of food into boxes to be delivered to 100 mostly BIPOC families in Seattle.
Compiling those boxes was no small task. The team — who named their program Ujamaa Food Circle — had ordered a swath of organic fruits and vegetables and hundreds of pounds of dry goods. Orian Grant, an environmental educator who serves as the sustainability director for Ujamaa, was in charge of what they called “garbogology”: carefully sifting through waste materials with the goal of diverting as much as possible from the landfill. The group worked long shifts for a few days, sorting, weighing and packaging the goods. Marcus Henderson, one of Ujamaa’s founders, remembers those days as “absolutely insane.”
For those who followed the goings-on of the CHOP, Henderson’s name might ring a bell. Their idea to start a community garden in one of Cal Anderson’s mowed-over social distancing circles blossomed into an agricultural cooperative called Black Star Farmers, which generated a broad following on social media. The cooperative’s original garden — now known as the Black Lives Memorial Garden — is still in Cal Anderson, and in the months after city leaders and police swept CHOP away, Black Star Farmers has gained momentum, connecting with a couple other urban gardens in Seattle and adding more volunteers to its roster. Ujamaa Food Circle is the cooperative’s latest project, and it’s spearheaded by a group who met for the first time during last summer’s protests. The mission, Henderson said, is “to provide families with culturally appropriate, organic foods.”
On the surface, Ujamaa looks something like Community Supported Agriculture meets a food bank, but it also goes beyond those models. Sarah Tornai, a vocal participant in last summer’s protests and another one of Ujamaa’s founders, said the group hopes to get “really deep into the food system” — reimagining the way we produce, distribute and access food. For Henderson, this means moving away from a system driven by maximizing individual profit and toward a vision of cooperative economics, in which people pool resources to support one another and cultivate local collective power.
Calling the program “Ujamaa’’ pays homage to this vision. A Swahili word that directly translates to “familyhood,” Ujamaa has also come to mean cooperative economics. In Kwanzaa — the multi-day celebration founded within the Black freedom movement of the 1960s — Ujamaa is the fourth principle. A definition written in 1966 describes Ujamaa as an effort “to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.”
At present, only a small portion of the food distributed by Ujamaa is sourced from the gardens associated with Black Star Farmers, but as the weather warms, the group hopes to include more Seattle-grown produce in its boxes. They currently source fruits and vegetables from Organically Grown and dry goods from Hummingbird Wholesale in Portland, Oregon. They’re also starting to form relationships with Black farmers in Washington. The idea, Tornai said, is to reduce dependence on a food system that extracts wealth from communities of color.
In the throes of the pandemic last year, grocery stores in the U.S. saw soaring profits while food insecurity — particularly among communities of color — skyrocketed. Kroger — the parent company of QFC, Metropolitan Market and Fred Meyer — saw a 90% profit increase during the first two quarters of 2020, according to a report from the Brookings Institute. Albertsons, which also owns Safeway, saw profits increase by 153%. A study conducted by the University of Chicago found that the percentage of Black families in Washington experiencing food insecurity peaked over the summer at 51%; the study showed the highest rate among white families in the same period was 17.1%.
But the people behind Ujamaa say it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of relying on global or national grocery chains to provide healthy, accessible food, community members could put that trust in one another.
“The challenge,” Grant said, “is making sure that we create that network and lean into that network, so that folks can circulate money, resources and energy internally.” For Ujamaa, this means helping community members learn to grow food while also supporting local BIPOC farmers and other businesses.
Currently, all of Ujamaa Food Circle’s boxes are free, funded by individual donors across Seattle and a United Way grant. But as the program grows, the team is considering moving to a partial-payment model: Those who can afford to pay for a box would offset the cost for those who are struggling. Henderson said he is also interested in educating families about the concept of food-buying clubs: groups of individuals or families who pool their resources to buy food directly from farmers or distributors, often for cheaper than they could find it at a grocery store, where that food would be marked up to make a profit. Buying clubs, Henderson said, give families “the collective buying power, or collective voice, they need to reach the farmer.”
Cooperative economics: A hidden history
Buying clubs have a backstory in Seattle. PCC Natural Markets began as a 15-family food-buying club in 1953. Today, however, some see recent expansion of the consumer-owned grocery chain as a sign of gentrification in the city. Since PCC opened a new location at 23rd and Union in the Central District, community members have urged the co-op to take responsibility for the role it plays in gentrifying the neighborhood by working more closely with the local Black community and expanding its board to include Black workers. Recently, PCC has been in the spotlight as members of the store’s union call for better wages and representation on the co-op’s board.
But the roots of co-ops run deeper and branch farther than the co-op KUOW has called Seattle’s “fancy hippie grocery store.”
“Mutual aid” became something of a buzzword at the start of the pandemic, recognizing communities that were organizing grocery runs for those who couldn’t leave their homes or offering free food and medical support to protesters over the summer. Google searches for the term spiked in June of last year, and Dean Spade, a professor of law at Seattle University, authored a short book on the subject and was interviewed by local and national publications, including Jonathan Van Ness of “Queer Eye.” But neither the idea of mutual aid nor the phrase itself are new.
A professor at John Jay College in New York, Jessica Gordon Nembhard spent 15 years studying the history of cooperative economics in African American communities. The result was her 2014 book “Collective Courage,” which offers a sweeping account of cooperative economics from the 1700s on through present day.
For Nembhard, the story begins with informal mutual aid practiced by enslaved and formerly enslaved people who pooled resources to buy one another’s freedom. Eventually, these practices crystalized into more formal organizations.
Some of the earliest official mutual aid societies among African Americans were burial societies: Members would pool money through monthly dues, and if someone’s family member died, they could pull from the communal pot of money to cover burial costs that would be too expensive otherwise. This worked, Nembhard said, because deaths were “staggered. … Each family didn’t have someone dying every week.” Soon, mutual aid societies popped up to cover medical costs or support widows and orphans.
Nembhard argues that these societies were the precursors to worker or consumer co-ops that soon grew popular within African American communities. Well-known figures like W.E.B. DuBois, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer were champions of cooperative economics, which they saw as instrumental in the fight for economic and racial justice.
Just as mutual aid has proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic, co-ops have historically grown and multiplied during times of crisis. Nembhard offers the Great Depression as an example of a time when co-ops were particularly active. In the 1960s, Black Americans who registered to vote were often met with economic retaliation — sharecroppers, for example, were kicked off their land, losing their livelihood. In those cases, co-ops offered a chance for ownership independent from a system that was both exploitative and precarious.
In the introduction to “Collective Courage,” Nembhard calls the history of cooperative economics “continuous and hidden.” While much contemporary economic thinking centers on the figure of the self-interested “rational actor,” Nembhard argues that economic cooperation is not only necessary but “natural.”
“In every period of American history,” she writes, “African Americans pooled resources to solve personal, family, social, political, and economic challenges.”
For Nembhard, “Collective Courage” was an attempt to “resurrect” this history, often excluded from the curriculum of African American studies. Today, the cooperative economic movement seems to be coming back to life.
Marcus Henderson read Nembhard’s book, and they and Sarah Tornai have since enrolled in cooperative business classes, in the hopes of exploring how cooperative ownership might be “a better way for societies to actually thrive,” Henderson said.
To date, Ujamaa has distributed over 30,000 total pounds of food in its monthly boxes, and currently works with about 200 families. Its model is “replicable” and “scalable,” its website states. Other cooperative economic projects have been gaining traction around the country.
With the onset of the pandemic, the official Black Lives Matter foundation set up a “Survival Fund” that acknowledges the history of cooperative economics within Black communities. The Movement for Black Lives, a national organization established in 2014, also embraces cooperative economics, promoting collective ownership.
Nembhard says many effective examples of cooperative economics began as small, grassroots projects, initiated during times of crisis: a single cooperatively run store or, in the case of Seattle, a garden patch in the middle of a park. Even as vaccines may allow us to resume some semblance of our pre-COVID lives, Nembhard remains hopeful that the fault lines exposed by the virus will continue to motivate experimentation with alternative economic models.
“I’m really hopeful that people won’t want to go back to the old normal,” she said.
Christy Carley is a freelance journalist in Seattle and former English teacher in Spain. Find her on Twitter @christy_carley.
Read more of the May 5-11, 2021 issue.