How One Cooperative Is Trying to Develop an Alternative Economy in Oakland

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge, and in 2021 Americans quit their jobs in record numbers, people are increasingly refusing to work for corporations that don’t place enough value on their labor and lives, leading to alternative, employee-centered business models becoming increasingly appealing.

In the United States, there are about 500 worker cooperatives or businesses that are owned and operated by the employees, like REI and Alvarado Street Bakery. A recent study shows that U.S. counties with a higher number of cooperative businesses were more resilient during the last economic crisis in 2008, and recovered quicker in the aftermath.

For those in communities that have endured economic hardships decades before the pandemic or the Great Recession, the cooperative business model has already entered the mainstream.

Growing up in East Oakland, a region of Oakland, California, which is filled with aging and abandoned buildings, divided by a busy, polluting interstate and plagued with poverty and heavy drug use, Gregory Jackson, founder of Repaired Nations, knew even as a kid that he wanted to devote his time to improving his community.

“I saw my city at its worst; decimated by the crack epidemic; [Oakland] turned into a ghost town,” Jackson states. “I’ve seen the effects of underinvestment firsthand, including the degrading effects it can have on the mind. Every closed down business left an unkept, rotting shell; streets felt unsafe to walk and play on.”

After traveling to New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Jackson saw as local residents and organizations took control of disaster relief efforts when government aid fell short. Witnessing the damaged communities come together for the greater good in New Orleans became the seed for an idea that eventually led to the creation of Repaired Nations.

“Applying this lesson to the broader problem of Black wealth and autonomy, I knew that the way forward for my community would come from within,” Jackson says.

Formed in 2018, soon after Jackson graduated from law school, Repaired Nations is a project of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC)—where Jackson himself is a fellow—which was conceptualized with the aim of organizing and educating Black community members in the Bay Area about how to start and run their own cooperative businesses and create economic security derived from collective ownership.

“I began interning with the Sustainable Economies Law Center after realizing that without an economic and community-centered foundation, Black people would continue to be exploited and marginalized. With SELC, I researched incessantly, looking for ways [in which] cooperative ideals and principles [could] be used to develop Black businesses and create thriving communities. Here, [at SELC], I learned about the many facets and forms of cooperatives,” says Jackson.

The practice of cooperative business, or those owned and operated by the employees, has a long history within the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities of the United States, according to the book Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, which was also a source of inspiration for Jackson and the team at Repaired Nations.

“That book really set the fire,” says Mia Jackson, co-chair at Repaired Nations, “People in our [Black] community always say that we need to come together. It’s like a mantra, but there was no framework for what it looked like. It was lost from memory. But with Gordon Nembhard’s book, we saw how the cooperative model has been used in the past and how it’s been done successfully, and how we can band together to solve our problems [within the Black community].”

Repaired Nations helps cooperative businesses find financing and helps them operate once they’re off the ground, and also serves as a connective hub for the Bay Area’s Black cooperative movement through live events and virtual conferences like the 2021 Black Cooperative Solidarity Conference.

“It started out [with the idea of] actually [going] to Africa, but COVID nixed all of that, so [in 2021] we made it into a webinar,” says Jackson. “We all learned so much in organizing and producing and editing it. [The webinar] was a major accomplishment and I have to give props to the entire conference team.”

Mia Jackson is the founder of one of Repaired Nations’-supported cooperative businesses called Authentik Afrikan, which she started at the onset of the pandemic. When Jackson realized that many people in her community were not wearing face masks to protect themselves and others against the coronavirus, she devised an elegant solution.

“People weren’t really wearing masks, and I thought, if the mask was beautiful, more people would wear them. So to make them more appealing, I recruited my daughter and my niece and started making masks out of Ankara fabric, which I also happened to have too much of,” says Jackson. “We also supported Repaired Nations with a portion of our mask sales. It was a way we could help everyone through this hard time.”

Authentik Afrikan is one of several cooperative businesses in East Oakland supported by Repaired Nations along with others like the DEEP Grocery Coop and Good JuJu Good Vibes. The organization also supports projects like Oaxxanda—which aims to provide pathways to East Oakland residents to “deepen their healing journeys” by developing a live/work cooperative complex for BIPOC members—and local artists and musicians like Honey Gold Jasmine.

“We give these small collectives technical support and help people to get the paperwork and documentation for things like business licensing and financial projections. Basically, we’re guiding people through the work and elevating them so they can grow their business and become sustainable,” says Jackson.

However, the work of Repaired Nations goes beyond helping those starting or running a cooperative business and also includes educating Black youth in East Oakland through book clubs, workshops and work-based learning programs. Their most recent apprenticeship cohort was funded in part by a grant from the Stupski Foundation.

“We had nine individuals in the [apprenticeship] cohort. They were artists and students and folks who were undecided about their future careers,” says Jackson. “They came and apprenticed with the small cooperative businesses we work with. It was really amazing because the small businesses were able to get some help, and the students were able to learn in an actual business setting. In the end, the participants wanted to get more involved, and I can see now how this will become a pipeline for future cooperatives.”

Moving forward, Greg and Mia Jackson and the team at Repaired Nations are preparing for future growth by expanding their presence on social media, team building and thinking more about fundraising strategies.

“My hope is that as we build, we remain strong and keep the same focus that we’ve had since the beginning and keep gathering [new focus areas] along the way,” says Jackson.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.