How Jackson, Mississippi, Imagines a Cooperative Future

Illustration by elenabsl/Shutterstock

Cooperation Jackson is “building a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi, anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises.” The group’s progressive initiatives help workers in Jackson take ownership of their work and the success of their communities.

brandon king moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in January 2014 to assist in the growing movement for economic justice, human rights and social and cultural transformation happening there. As a founding member of Cooperation Jackson, brandon serves on its Coordinating Committee, is its Organizing Coordinator, a co-coordinator of Emerging Freedom Farms Urban Farming Cooperative, and Cooperation Jackson’s representative to the Climate Justice Alliance.

Bioneers spoke with brandon king about Cooperation Jackson’s model for success and its plans to scale.

BIONEERS: What would you say to people who say there’s nothing progressive happening in the country outside of the East and West coasts?

brandon king: I think that there’s an issue with visibility. The stories from the South don’t get as much play as East or West coast stories. People can be doing really phenomenal work, but it’s really hard to get the word out to people about what’s happening. 

BIONEERS: What’s one thing you’re doing in Jackson that you could see being a model for other cities and towns?

Brandon King

brandon: We’re creating a model in which people can engage in a process of learning how to be democratic with each other. They can learn how to own their labor, share it and work with other people instead of working for people. I think that that’s one of the biggest things. 

Our co-ops are geared toward sustaining life. We have a farming cooperative. We have a catering and a café cooperative. We have a landscape and composting cooperative, and we have a community production cooperative. All of the co-ops are interrelated and interdependent. We want the food that we grow to service whatever sort of catering events that we do in the neighborhood. We turn our food waste into compost. When our landscaping picks up leaves, those become input for the farm. We’re creating a regenerative system in which the co-ops are interdependent and interrelated, but also engaged in sustainable, regenerative practices. 

One of our goals is to build those systems to scale so that more people can have access to co-op jobs. 

My family and community have operated within systems like this, although they may not have described it in the same way or used the same language. We’re just looking to formalize those systems so they’re not just based upon familial connections.

BIONEERS: What are some of the challenges you face in your work?

brandon: I think that when people don’t engage in democratic processes and instead have a clear chain of command, decisions can be streamlined and things may move more quickly. When you’re engaged in more horizontal decision making, like we are, it can take longer to come to a consensus. 

A challenge we face that we shouldn’t be discouraged by is that many people have been told about the democratic process, but they don’t really know it. We need to develop the muscles to be able to engage and struggle with each other and to work together to figure out the best way forward. We have to work on not being frustrated with the process, and we need to build the stamina to engage with each other to make the best decisions.

BIONEERS: Do you think capitalism encourages people not to engage with each other to make decisions?

brandon: I think many of our current systems are designed so a few can maintain control over people and resources. When people start to think for themselves and with each other, corporations lose some of that control. Our project is working to build systems that are life-affirming, and it’s working to de-link us from the systems that are harming us. 

We see capitalism, imperialism and white supremacy as systems that are harming us, and we’re seeking ways to have control over our own value chains. We’re hoping to build new systems to scale, so that we don’t have to engage in extractive, exploitative systems. That’s a long and hard process.

I’m inspired by the fact that we’ve already started to engage in a process of creating our own means of production through using our community production center and co-op. We’re learning about digital fabrication, 3D printing, laser cutting and milling. Our folks are learning how to make the tools that can make the tools. They’re learning so that we can engage in building our own housing, systems for farming, furniture, and any and all other things we need.

It’s about us taking more control over our lives and our destiny.

BIONEERS: How much does white supremacy affect your work and people in your community?

brandon: For me, it seems like Mississippi has had no qualms about being white supremacist and racist. Right now, the rest of the country is tasting what we’ve been facing in Mississippi for years. 

I feel like Mississippi is more honest than many other places. The lines are drawn clearly in terms of who’s on your side and who isn’t. I’m clear on where I need to move and where I need to go. In New York, I found a sort of liberal racism. People may shake my hand and smile at me, but they still won’t give me a loan. My community will still be redlined. The same sorts of things that happen in Mississippi happen in places like New York or Chicago, it’s just less transparent.

Jackson is a majority black city that became majority black after black folks started voting in black people to the local government. That led to white flight, and now wealthy white people live in the surrounding counties. There’s been this process of surrounding areas trying to take our resources and revenue away along with our control.

BIONEERS: Do you see enough momentum locally to maintain the power you have there?

brandon: There’s momentum in both directions. And sometimes it’s complicated. 

In Jackson, we face threats of gentrification that will push out much of the black community. There’s discussion of a new medical corridor, but I think about the history of the medical industrial complex, and professionals aren’t coming down to actually heal anyone. They’re coming because they see it’s quite lucrative to make money off of sick people.

For us, it’s a question of democracy. What do the people want? Will these things being provided for the city benefit people locally? We are creating spaces where people can address those things and actively engage in building something that is viable for our existence and survival. 

We’ve got to engage in creating a world that we want to see. Climate change is real, and it requires us to think deeply about our impact, our own carbon footprint, as well as making sure the things we do honor Mother Earth. It’s important for us to check in and be in alignment with how she moves and how she wants us to be. Us not listening is what has gotten us to this place.

BIONEERS: Is Cooperation Jackson organizing around the Green New Deal?

brandon: Yes. We’re members of an alliance called the Climate Justice Alliance. We think it’s important for environmental racism to be included in the Green New Deal.

We’re also asking questions about how we could create a Green New Deal that’s anti-capitalist, which is a big hurdle to jump over. Capitalism has been the system of infinite growth on a finite planet, and that’s what has put us in this situation. I think the system has to go in order for us to reduce our carbon footprint. 

We want to engage in these conversations but also push them further. 

BIONEERS: Tell us about your vision of an economic future based on your principles and values.

brandon: A big part of it is non-extractive production, and figuring out distribution in a way that reduces our carbon footprint. How do we make sure that we’re able to produce things locally? When we have to get things from other places, how are we making sure that process is ethical? We need to have those conversations and come up with mechanisms for testing and implementation. 

We’ve got to experiment. We’ve got to try new things. We have to fail, because failing is learning.

We’ve been taught, as human beings, to be like zombies and consumers since we were born. Buy, buy, buy. Don’t think for yourself. We’ve been pulled away from many aspects of our lives that actually make us more human. When we engage in our own production and our own value chains as human beings relating to one another, that makes us more human. When we forfeit that right, we become crippled.

BIONEERS: What is it about cooperatives themselves that helps manifest those ideas?

brandon: Cooperatives allow us to be in control of our labor as much as possible within a capitalist framework. You and your co-workers make decisions collectively. You have a choice and a say about what happens when you lose or make money. We have control of our lives. 

I think that’s really inspiring. A lot of people have become comfortable with going to work, doing a job, getting a paycheck and going home. When you have ownership of your business, there’s a lot more to do before you go home. There’s a lot more decision-making involved, and I think that’s a challenge for people. We have to have a desire to take on that work. It’s a question of if you want to be self-determined or you want people to control you. For us, we’re working on building those skills and those muscles to become self-determined and engaged in a democratic process.

BIONEERS: Is there an intergenerational component that you’re cultivating?

brandon: Young people work with the farm, and elders work with us as well. Young people are really engaged through culture and art and music. I think developing an arts and culture co-op could help engage more people in co-ops. I’m inspired by the young people participating. You see a spark when they see a plant smiling back at them after watering. 

It can be difficult to dream in a place like Jackson because there aren’t a lot of positive places. We have liquor stores, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, potholes everywhere. Sometimes that’s all you see. So when young people are engaged in a life-affirming project, they can see something outside of what they normally see every day.

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