PACA Looks to Mutual Aid to Build An Equitable Economy

Jamila Medley, Executive Director, and Emily Wyner, Co-op Development Administrator, Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance

Over two centuries ago, free Black Philadelphians organized for their collective benefit and advancement through mutual aid. The Free African Society, founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in 1787, invited members to contribute money monthly. Funds were distributed throughout the Black community to support widows, orphans, and the indigent and infirm, as well as the education of Black children. The society worked to instill a sense of agency, self-determination and worth by recording marriages and births, among other actions. These acts of self-actualization are the core principles of movements today, including Black Lives Matter.

Trans activist, writer and teacher Dean Spade has noted that mutual aid is a form of solidarity, not charity. Whereas charity differentiates those who have from those who need and puts those who have in a position of power to make decisions about how to meet others’ needs, mutual aid emphasizes working cooperatively to meet each others’ needs. Charity is vertical; mutual aid is horizontal.

Throughout history, especially in times of crisis, people turn to cooperation to meet their needs. Since COVID-19 hit, “concern for community” has shown up in such activities as advocating for frontline workers and neighbors getting groceries for the elderly and immunocompromised. We are also witnessing unprecedented acts of solidarity in the renewed fight to eliminate anti-Blackness and racism.

The Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance was born from Principle Six – Cooperation Among Cooperatives – of the International Cooperative Principles. Weavers Way, Mariposa Food Co-op, The Energy Co-op, Childspace day care centers, Home Care Associates, Ardent Credit Union and the Life Center Association were the founding co-ops to establish PACA as a co-op of co-ops with a mission to improve the lives of people in the Philadelphia region by supporting democratically organized businesses, promoting the principles of the international cooperative movement and growing the cooperative economy.

To build an equitable and cooperative economy, PACA acknowledges and takes action to repair the impact of hundreds of years of racial and economic injustice in this country. We prioritize providing services to Black, Indigenous and people of color as well as immigrants and refugees from poor and working-class backgrounds.

In solidarity with the racial justice uprising and in recognition of the work remaining to be done by many white-led co-op businesses locally and nationally, numerous statements of support have been issued. These have included steps toward change for more inclusive, diverse, and equity-centered co-ops. Weavers Way shared that it will focus more programming on the “important contributions of African Americans to the cooperative movement.” As a Black-led co-op development organization, PACA stands with the Weavers Way community. We offer our support toward the study of the historical and contemporary ways in which Black people organize mutual aid efforts. These efforts can teach us a great deal about how to manifest cooperative values in our actions and operations.

This spring, PACA hosted our network of co-ops – those that currently exist, along with start-ups – in a dialogue about how to practice mutual aid within our co-op community. We explored our current situation and asked what it is teaching us about the broader systems we need to change.

One start-up wanted to offer online events, so another offered to follow up and connect about their emerging platform. The child care and education co-ops shared similar experiences with navigating systemic challenges that need policy responses on a federal or state level and are in dialogue about how to advocate together.

Several co-ops needed financial resources to support their people and/or to make a pivot in their operations to adapt to COVID-19 realities. PACA opened its pre-existing fundraising campaign to include a commitment to redistribute half of every dollar we raised within our co-op community. Initial distributions of $2,500 each went to Birth Brown Cooperative, Home Care Associates, Making Worlds Bookstore, Soil Generation, and Urban Creators. By the time this piece is published, we will likely have distributed another two or three grants of this size.

In June, we mobilized members of our community to testify at the City of Philadelphia’s budget hearings, to make clear that we wanted our elected officials to #DefundThePolice and #FundOurCommunities.

We will keep listening together, building together and confronting systems of exploitation together in the spirit of mutual aid and collective liberation. As organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba once said, “Through those relationships that get built, we’re creating new social relations that we’re going to need into the future to disrupt the structural violence and oppression in the systems.”

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