Cooperative Economics: Balancing (in)equitable advocacy in Black art communities
Posted by Oct 27, 2022 0 comments
Kwanzaa, an annual celebration of Black culture from December 26-January 1, was created by activist Maulana Karenga and is based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of West and Southeast Africa. During the holiday, families and communities organize activities around the Nguzo Saba, or The Seven Principles, which are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). Celebrants attend feasts (karamu), storytelling, and multiple other forms of expression and end the holiday with reflection and recommitment to The Seven Principles and different central cultural values. One of the most important things to understand about Kwanzaa is that the Seven Principles apply during the days of celebration and throughout your life.
Wangarĩ Muta Maathai, a Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, described the purpose of celebrating Kwanzaa: “Our task (is) to expand democratic space in which ordinary citizens (can) make a decision(s) on their behalf to benefit their community.” The fourth principle of Kwanzaa, Ujamaa, or Cooperative Economics, embodies that of which Maathai spoke. Ujamaa, as described in a Brooklyn Reader article, teaches us “to build our businesses, control the economics of our community, and share in all its work and wealth.”
Whether or not you practice Kwanzaa, the principles apply to all areas of life, including the arts, industry and economics, healthcare, and education. These actions can look like developing community-wide initiatives, such as those that center on art; creating community-led and focused direct impact service organizations; establishing businesses; educational and cultural events; and other enterprises that celebrate and center sustainable economic growth for and within the Black Diaspora.
Like the art we create—be it murals during protests, artist community services rebuilding after a natural disaster, micro-grants for entrepreneurship, or any of the multiple ways creatives show up and produce work—Ujamaa teaches us that this fundamental drive should grow out of the communal concept that it is for the betterment of our communities. Nobody should be under- or misrepresented, exploited, or oppressed; no one person, business, corporation, nonprofit, or organization holds the power to an unequal distribution of wealth, opportunity, recognition, or expression. As a practice within and among Diasporic populations, this principle asks us to understand that when we share our talents for growth and continued development of our environments, we establish the blueprint for how we survive and thrive.
Additionally, it would befit creatively positioned organizations and other arts-based entities, both those established by Black creatives and otherwise, not to name themselves as only arts administrators and supporters but to look at themselves as economic developers and changemakers. Artists and creatives, like people of all professions, have human needs that deserve attention to produce work and better their communities. These include healthcare, food security, stable and safe housing, financial well-being, and other quality-of-life necessities. Are local, regional, statewide, and national art companies doing their part and focusing on community growth in ways that matter? What tools of measurement gauge this work? Art institutions must have honest conversations with their populations and authentically develop shared capital, tools, and resources in all their forms; this embodies Ujamaa as a community and humanitarian exchange, like sharing and cooperating within the locality. As arts services stewards, collaboration, sustainability, and growth guidance are crucial because without the fundamental knowledge and practice of shared economics and revenue, the social conditions for exploitation, oppression, and inequity increase.
However, what happens within these various community groups when individuals need to seek the same funds, spaces, press and media coverage, and support due to a lack of economic prosperity and interest? It breeds the opportunity for tension and causes rifts within shared creative spaces. When asked to fight for the same resources, it can mean survival of the fittest. Even if you remove Kwanzaa and its principles entirely, how do you justify being a center of progressive action yet creating the same tyrannical structures you want to leave behind? The old system cannot dismantle and uphold simultaneously. For example, if two creative-based organizations have discussed a particular inter-organizational partnership to establish systems, tools, and resources to better develop a solidarity economy within their shared communities, why then choose to usurp your collective partner(s) to reach the finish line first? Why settle for the recognition of those who do not consider you to be their peer? When appropriation occurs from within non-white-centered community support systems, it only rubs salt in the wounds of existing inequities. How do we advance economic justice and liberation within Black and Brown arts spaces?
While there is enough room for everyone to share, grow, and have a seat at the proverbial table, why do we often remain in a scarcity mindset? As if power is the goal, not creating and supporting art. Collaboration and support are not as important as acknowledgment. If only white-centered, driven, and established businesses set the standards by which we become bound—be it for funding, work, press, or otherwise—when and how do we learn to grow outside of those confines? It is necessary to consider how white supremacy culture constantly urges and requires us to remain fractured even within non-white-centric societies. For example, within the field we often see non-white philanthropists, donors, and cultural influencers only seem to give both financial and non-financial support to white artists and white art spaces rather than funding non-white artists and arts organizations directly. Do we, as supporters, have so little faith in our communities that we consciously or unconsciously remain biased and take on the perceptions and behaviors of those who have functioned as (artistic) oppressors?
Occasionally, unfortunately, the answer is yes. Just because you may identify as a Black-run nonprofit, it does not necessarily mean gatekeeping or “blacklisting” does not occur. It does not mean you do not hold your own prejudices and create similar inequitable systems of recognition as the ones you say you are fighting against. Sometimes, Diasporic organizations can become biased factions under the auspices of connection, rather than openly equitable spaces. It becomes a situation where creatives are (un)intentionally left out because of the type(s) of art they create and how; if they are evolving or well-established; if they have access to goods and services including major networks or notable funding sources; or if they share the same beliefs and vision(s) of said organizations. However, this way of interacting only shows how deeply ingrained white-supremacy thought is in our actions, even though we may believe we are actively rejecting those same norms. These types of spaces allow us to only function as a monolith rather than the varied and diverse Diaspora that truly exists. As if we only share space with those whom we consider important enough to be a part of our circle. That is not inclusive or cooperative and does not make us different from similar all-white spaces we say operate in similar ways. I am by no means saying Black organizations cannot operate how they wish; I am more asking by what standards are we being selective, and how are those standards decided and created?
As Black and Brown-created and nurtured organizations—especially those in disadvantaged areas and neighborhoods, rural communities, those without administrative capacity, and those that are solely volunteer-led—continue to grow and flourish, executives, staff, board members, and anyone involved with the group should set standards within the organization to establish goals, priorities, values, and missions that set them apart from the practices and policies that previously held them back. The Kwanzaa principle of Ujamaa reminds us of this. Cooperative economics could help guide us in the direction of positive systemic change on multiple levels and influence a new growth stage within the field.