BOP member and education coordinator for the Baby BOP summer program attended the Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference in Jackson, Mississippi during the first week of May. The conference was formed as an initiative to lay a foundation for the transformation of Jackson, MS into an example of economic democracy. The conference focused on providing the public with information and training to pursue the development of cooperatives and other forms of worker owned enterprises. Below are Itoro Udofia’s reflections from the three-day conference.

Traveling to Jackson, Mississippi for the Jackson Rising: New Economics Conference brought to the table some old questions with a chance to re-imagine how they could work for us now. The organizers on the ground showed their commitment and strength, by continuing their political work in spite of the new hurdles they face. The most sudden and tragic, the death of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, community organizer and human rights attorney, who co-founded the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. According to the people who knew him, they say he often espoused the phrase, “If you do not love the people, you will betray the people.” Perhaps this is why the memory of the people becomes so important. It seems Lumumba showed that deep love and integrity.

His passing serves as a bittersweet reminder that love and loss often exist in the same hand. And some of our fiercest dreamers do not reach the finish line with us. I was moved to hear of a Black politician who openly expressed such a radical love for the lives of the darkest of the dark and the poorest of the poor. In my experiences, expressing commitment to improving the conditions of black people and openly embracing our Blackness can be a sentiment that elicits much hostility. Even from those who say they are in “our corner.” The legacy Black organizing has had, certainly left an imprint on the American psyche about the power we can carry. Within a society still so conflicted over the question of black folks as self determinate beings, the idea of us organizing is still met with mixed sentiments of awe and fear. For the late Lumumba and the people of Jackson, to fight for policies that affirm ideas of self determination, promote a level of economic autonomy and centers black life as having a right to the best condition that can be offered is still a dangerous feat.

The conference focused on the cooperative movement in Jackson, MS. There were many goals in place to propel a collective dream for worker owned cooperatives. One strategy, was through the implementation of policies. The hope was to make it legal to create cooperatives run by “Jacksonians and those who looked like Jacksonians.” For too long, it seemed like the population was rife with seeing their basic rights of food, clothing, shelter and employment put on the chopping block as another thing they did not have a right too. Jackson is 80-85% Black. Most communities living there have histories of sharecropping, farming and a legacy that connects them closely to the land. No wonder the notion of Jacksonians benefitting from business and cooperative ownership is on the table. Many also spoke of the long history Black folks in the U.S have had in the cooperative movement. The organizers made it perfectly clear that this way of life was not something unrelated to the Black experience. Talks of how to create a sustainable movement without relying heavily on outside “assistance” within a more nuanced terrain of neoliberal policy and deep impoverishment was up for discussion.

One of the big learnings taken from the conference was the idea of having the space to dream while navigating an unforgiving terrain. Some organizers I spoke to, voiced a dream where the community decides their fate. The idea of us finding a way to subsidize our own liberation has been a dream that lives in our hearts. Malcolm X, in a speech he made on the economic situation of Black people, speaks frankly about this collective dream:

The man who’s controlling the stores in our community is a man who doesn’t look like we do. He’s a man who doesn’t even live in the community. So you and I, even when we try and spend our money in the block where we live or the area where we live, we’re spending it with a man who, when the sun goes down, takes that basket full of money in another part of the town.

So we’re trapped, trapped, double trapped, triple trapped. Anywhere we go, we find that we’re trapped. And every kind of solution that someone comes up with is just another trap…
So our people not only have to be reeducated to the importance of supporting Black business, but the Black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. What we will be doing is developing a situation wherein we will actually be able to create employment for the people in the community. And once you can create some employment in the community where you live it will eliminate the necessity of you and me having to act ignorantly and disgracefully, boycotting and picketing some practice some place else trying to beg him for a job.”

Malcolm X’s words could not be more timely for our situation now. How to see such a beloved dream through is probably the task of our time, with many risks involved. Jackson, MS is dreaming at a key moment, where they are seeking to develop before the developers come to push them out.

Black folks in particular, have been long sufferers of mental and physical displacement. No surprise, in comparing notes with some organizers on the ground there were in depth conversations about development and the new face of gentrification. In urban communities from West Oakland to Newark, New Jersey, we are experiencing the dream of our gentrifiers. There is an off-putting culture forming where you can hear gunshots one day, and the very next day, see a young white man rolling down the same street on his skateboard, and whistling to boot! The assault on our bodies and the tiny spaces we are allowed to inhabit are never ending.

Some residents living in an urban neighborhood were responding to the development taking place. Saying, “…yeah this place is bad, but at least it was cheap.” They went on to make a more terrifying joke, a subtext that seemed to reveal a deeply historical nightmare, “Soon they’ll push us into the ocean.” There are many ways in which we’ve been told our lives do not matter. Those sentiments are almost always expressed through the physical spaces we are pushed out of and simultaneously, in too. Jackson, MS has named our value in a primary relationship. The relationship to the land and our resources, which in return can reflect a relationship where everything and everyone has value. A dream that actually requires their full participation and presence.

There are great examples to look to wherein people and movements have attempted to figure this question out. Many names were evoked during the gathering, from Fannie Lou Hamer to the Zapatistas, to using Venezuela and the Underground Railroad as examples of where a solidarity of economics and unity existed. Jackson, MS has done a great job in responding to the needs of their context. Through the daily work of building genuine relationships with people, conducting skills assessments, listening to the heartaches of their neighbors, and understanding their own connection to their commitment, they also serve as an inspiring example.

Another idea that should be stated was the newer generations not forgetting to look in our own gardens, and see what’s growing there. In a time where we use social media and larger platforms to relay our message, we also have to be perfectly clear that we are living our message. If there was anything to learn from the people in Jackson, our dreams can be fraught with setbacks and are achieved one gritty day at a time. To remember those quieter moments that have shaped who many of us have become, should never be taken for granted. They also can serve as our most strongest tools of learning, growth and organizing. Many Jacksonians honored their own personal histories of cooperative ownership, deep grassroots organizing, faith and love. May we continue this long tradition, and fearlessly do the same.