The Rapidian

#TheShift Summit plots cooperative course to success for local Black residents

The first annual #TheShift Summit on Friday, November 18, 2016 gathered African-American business and community workers to learn about cooperatives and other ways to empower neighborhoods.
Town Hall Meeting at #TheShift. From left, Commissioners Jones and Lenear, consultants Jonathan Jelks and Dwayne Powell,Jr.

Town Hall Meeting at #TheShift. From left, Commissioners Jones and Lenear, consultants Jonathan Jelks and Dwayne Powell,Jr. /Amy Carpenter-Leugs

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Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, professor of Economics, talks about the power of cooperatives for Black communities

Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, professor of Economics, talks about the power of cooperatives for Black communities /Amy Carpenter-Leugs

The Black Market featured several area Black-owned businesses with their products for sale

The Black Market featured several area Black-owned businesses with their products for sale /Amy Carpenter-Leugs

On Friday, November 18, an audience of over 50 people, including many African-American small business owners and non-profit community workers, attended #TheShift Summit at the Seidman Business Center of Grand Valley State University. The Summit was organized and led by Jamiel Robinson, founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB). It featured West Michigan community leaders as well as Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, professor of Economics at John Jay College at the City University of New York.

Gordon Nembhard, author of Collective Courage, addressed the attendees’ economic situation and possible solutions. Since the 2008 recession, though economic markers show growth for those of median income and above, “the rest of us have never really recovered,” she said, citing lack of jobs and continued inequities in wealth and income for people of color.

To address this, Gordon Nembhard said, “we can go the cooperative route.” The economist explained that cooperatives are companies owned by the people who use the services or make the products -- either member-owned or worker-owned. Some examples are food co-ops, worker-owned businesses, and housing co-ops. Cooperatives offer shared risk and shared surplus, and are democratically governed -- each person gets one vote, unlike shareholder votes in corporations, where those who own more shares get controlling votes.

During a twenty-minute presentation, Gordon Nembhard shared dozens of examples of past and present cooperative ventures that helped to build more wealth for African-American communities all over the U.S. For instance, Cooperative Home Care Associates was founded in 1987 in the Bronx and currently has 600 members. It is a worker-owned home care agency, “designed to bring the quality of home care up and the quality of home care jobs up.” Gordon Nembhard shared that these owners were often unskilled Latina and African-American workers who were previously on public assistance, and through their cooperative efforts were able to create full-time work for themselves and advocate for Medicare to pay more for their services, allowing them to earn a living wage.

Gordon Nembhard pointed out that cooperative business models allow African-Americans to combine their resources, including sweat equity, and to be accountable to “three or four bottom lines,” rather than only the traditional bottom line of profitability. Additional “bottom lines” can be benefits to African-American communities, such as job creation with stable incomes, sustainable environmental practices, and anchoring wealth and property ownership within the community.

As the Summit continued in breakout sessions, attendees built on the ideas offered by Dr. Gordon Nembhard. Kiara Baskin is a Community Health Worker for Spectrum Health focusing on maternal and infant health. She said about the lively Empowering Our Neighborhoods session, “I appreciated the unscripted conversation and safe open dialogue around the topic. Many in the room felt the need to meet people where they are to begin engagement by going door-to-door and addressing basic survival needs, as many of the indigenous residents are in constant crises so to discuss economics or politics is a stretch.” Two board members of Equity PAC, Kelsey Purdue and Denavvia Mojet, encouraged local community members to use this engagement to not only get out the vote, but to keep local officials accountable and to help qualified individuals run for office themselves.

During a Town Hall session, City Commissioner Joe Jones joked with Dr. Gordon Nembhard, “Call your family, ‘cause you’re not going back to New York. We want you here.” But the event made it clear to participants that Grand Rapids holds a wealth of talent, education and drive within its own African-American community. Community development consultant Jonathan Jelks spoke of his work with youth preparing to enter the tech industry. City Commissioner Senita Lenear encouraged the audience to continue to reside in the city as they become successful so they can continue to create change. She pointed to recent expansions of SmartZones within Black neighborhoods to help capture taxes. She also shared recent policy changes designed to make new development planning more accessible and to "require meaningful community engagement" before contracts are written.

The day ended with a Black Market, featuring area Black-owned businesses, and an awards dinner for local African-American businesses and organizations that have helped enrich the community. Winners of the GRABB awards included: George Bayard, Executive Director of the planned Grand Rapids African-American Museum; Lifequest Ministries; and Michael Buxton, owner of Load-A-Spud Potato Bar on 28th Street.

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