“I never lacked for anything,” Jamila Medley says of her childhood in Brooklyn in the eighties and nineties, “but it was called ‘the killing fields.’” She’s referring to her deteriorating community at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic. “Anything structurally and systemically wrong,” she explains, “was sent to East New York.”
Medley’s grandfather owned a property management company. Her mom was a property manager. When she was old enough, she got to work with both of them in the summers. “That’s when I learned about Section 8 processes and its paperwork,” she remembers. “It showed me grandmothers taking care of two or three grandkids with an annual income of $5000, my first introduction to poverty at that scale.” Her mom didn’t just collect rent or manage repairs: “She was a social worker.”
Later, as a single mom and college student, Medley encountered the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program—President Clinton’s notorious effort at welfare “reform” that added yet another set of punishing government hoops to jump through to receive aid. “My view of poverty expanded,” Medley says simply. She was working with her sociology professor at Connecticut College to research women on welfare and went on to do work for a community foundation.
“There were people with resources,” she learned, “who wanted to help.” This discovery and her own desire to be of service led her to work in the nonprofit world—aiding the homeless, those in recovery or ill from cancer—while earning an MS in Organizational Dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania.
But a later position at Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philadelphia exposed her to a different model. No longer helping people, she’s now empowering them to create a thriving co-operative economy.
While at Mariposa, Medley served for several years on the board of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA), creating educational tools and training, before becoming its Executive Director In 2017. By then, PACA included over 20 local co-ops—including not only the most familiar type, consumer-owned food co-ops, but also a credit union, a childcare co-op, a bookkeeping business, a solar installation business, a media company, a natural cosmetics firm and a group of co-operative urban farms. Soil Generation described themselves as “a project to address displacement politics and the right to grow, thrive, and feed ourselves in Black and Brown communities of Philadelphia.”
Co-ops are sometimes portrayed in media as idealistic and crunchy-granola-headed. But Jamila and her cohorts had noticed a more painful reality in their area. Philly’s food co-ops were all white-owned and many were too expensive and exclusive for many people to feel welcomed as members. Most often black and brown people were not at the table for important collective decisions.
“All our co-ops are independent, and all have versions of food justice,” says Medley, “so PACA started our conversation by considering that one in five people in Philly are food insecure. Several of our food co-ops are in gentrifying neighborhoods, displacing black folks or poor whites. All of this is political, but also more nuanced than that,” she says, describing the difficulty of talking about race and class privilege with dynamics particular to different locations. “The important thing is to acknowledge that this displacement and poverty is happening. Let’s not ignore it. We have to interact with it—and to bridge that.”
What exactly is a co-operative? It’s a business with democratic decision-making and equal but united investment. Unlike Costco, real co-ops are owned by their customers and/or their employees, and actively engage with their local community. PACA’s website provides a surprising history of Philadelphia co-op beginnings dating back to Benjamin Franklin; a mutual insurance company started in 1752 still operates. In 1787, The Free African Society was founded in Philly, the second mutual-aid society in the US, and a precursor of formal cooperatives.
England’s 1844 Rochdale Co-op Grocery typically gets credited as first, but African Americans were ahead of the curve. W.E.B. Dubois wrote in 1900 that free Negroes were so often in “precarious economic condition” they’d created hundreds of mutual-aid societies for all kinds of shared economics. Learn more in economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s history, Collective Courage.
Jamila Medley told Ms. that PACA, also aligned with a larger national group, New Economy Coalition, is one of only two or three co-op alliances in the country with paid staff. Their co-op business developers are creating a promising environment for bridging racial disparities in economic terms. Ideally Philly’s co-op alliance conversations will spark other co-ops. How best to start?
“It’s important for folks who have race and class privilege to find the people who are already doing the work,” she says. “Then support their leadership. Listen and trust their decisions about who and what to fund.” Stay tuned; Jamila and PACA and a growing population pursue a united prosperity based on co-operative values.
It turns out these are also American values in need of a good dusting off—namely, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, honesty, and social responsibility. E Pluribus, Unum!