Too B.L.A.C.K. For you? Cooperative Economics and the Education Connection
The song “They Schools” by dead prez is a song that every educator of black and brown students needs to listen too. You’re not necessarily listening to it because you identify with the language and anger, but because the point dead prez makes is real (ESPECIALLY at the end of the song). The education we typically provide students is irrelevant and disconnected to their cultural and socioeconomic needs as a generationally exploited nation within a nation. Skill and content of all subject matters need to be instructed and tailored to all needs of this population, so education is no longer perceived as or functions as yet another institution that demonstrates apathy, degradation, or exploitation. There are several ways, albeit status quo-challenging, to apply this relevance to uplift community. One of them is by understanding that the schools and districts can decide what economic roles they want to play in increasing collective prosperity of disenfranchised communities in there cities. They can take a page from the organization Building Leadership and Community Knowledge (B.L.A.C.K.).
This Saturday, B.L.A.C.K. organized and facilitated the Black Business Marketplace in downtown Rochester at the legendary Sibley building. The purpose of this event was both proactive and reactive. Proactive in regards to strengthening the psychological and financial practice Ujaama (Cooperative Economics) which builds stronger financial stability in a financially broken community, and reactive to the mega-consumerism that occurs after Thanksgiving in which major companies leech off of the black dollar and credit card with little to no support or respect for the demographic. The famed British journalist Katherine Whitehorn once acknowledged “From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.” Black people contribute billions to this monetized holiday season while still being treated as second class citizens in all of America’s capital-funded institutions, further contributing to the unfortunate realities of our students. B.L.A.C.K., while not even remotely connected to the Rochester City School District, understood the social, economic, political, and cultural realities of their people and provided for those needs through the cooperative economics demonstrated at this highly organized and successful event. There were over 40 different business that set up their stations on the first and second floors of the Sibley building. These businesses ranged from organic food imports to fitness organizations, tax services to jewelers, restauranteurs to skin care retailers, and video game arcade owners to clothing designers. Cynics weren’t able to pigeonhole this as an Afrocentric marketplace that only sells shea butter and ankhs, or label it as ghetto fabulous with bootleg DVDs and hair packs galore. Hundreds on hundreds of people came in and out of the event making purchases, each having to read a sign communicating that the Marketplace was a “hate-free” environment.
Throughout the attendance, it was very clear that the event wasn’t just about “supporting black business.” Instead, it was unapologetically about cultivating a network of local black businesses (hence cooperative economics) and nurturing the psychology needed to maintain such a network. For example, prior to this event I don’t recall a moment when I’ve seen the Nation of Islam’s economic endeavors and black Christian economic endeavors operate under the same purpose. People were running into friends, starting new bonds and friendships with consumers and business owners alike, all in the context of cooperative economics. This cross pollination of social connections and financial/consumer resources was also encouraged by the energy and aesthetics of a fashion show, the energy of the DJ, the host, and the performers (yours truly was one of them). Most importantly, this event, in reference to both the business owners or facilitators, was extremely diverse in terms of age. What really caught my attention was the number of older teenagers that ran business
es (shout outs to Thomas of GIS and Mr. Muhammad the Poet!), and the teens that B.L.A.C.K. hired to work at the event. One of these teens is a student where I teach (he beat me brutally in a basketball game a couple years ago). I was glad to see him working, getting his money, and witnessing the community-centered and diverse ways in which money could be gotten and used. Loosely understanding this student’s educational experience over the past two or three years, he possibly received more education witnessing and participating in this event than most school days he’s had at Douglass. Why? Not because the teachers are crappy. Not because administrators haven’t tried with him. But because it was an experience that promoted him to think and act critically about the positivity and structure being cultivated in his own disenfranchised community. It also made him reflect on his involvement in it, and his reward for it. Applicable education, and more importantly an education for liberation.
So, long and short of it, B.L.A.C.K. taught us educators of children of color a few things. First, B.L.A.C.K. taught us that our peoples needs are to be met differently as people of color and as people who are going through generational multi-system oppression. What we do for their advancement has to apply to their war, a war that they themselves may not quite understand or be aware of, but we should be and be prepared to educate them about. Second, B.L.A.C.K. taught us that you do not need to outsource intellectually, industrially, or socially. There are plenty of businesses and organizations that can be plugged into our regular academics and school activities. Imagine if instead of the 8th graders having to read the novel Lyddie, they read local acclaimed novelist Banke Awopetu-McCulllough’s (Marketplace attendee) Always Want More. The setting of this novel is in present day Rochester, told from the perspective of a young black girl. Sounds like a socio-academically enriching experience would be manifested if a school principal, teacher, or even the district could acquirde class sets of this novel for the libraries, summer reading programs, or curricula to be shaped around it. It just takes searching and awareness of the community for school and district to have its hand in the cooperative economics network, since they have the major potential to be significant expanders of said network. Third, and arguably most importantly, B.L.A.C.K. taught us that we don’t have to wait for nobody. B.L.A.C.K., an organization of relatively young people (late teens-30s) didn’t wait for any person, any organizations, or any companies to cosign their initiatives. No corporate sponsors, and no pats on the head from the community elite saying “go ahead.” They saw a need, thought critically about it, stayed organized, and executed to meet the need. If we educators of children of color struggle to adopt the Ujaama (Cooperative Economics) principle from B.L.A.C.K.’s model, then we can certainly adopt their Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) principle. Depending on what the struggle is, we don’t need state, district, or administrative co-signs to do what we discover is necessary to do, even if it means criticism or worse. Remember, the risks are worth it because our children are at war. It is with B.L.A.C.K.’s mentality that we will effectively convert our educational system from an ineffective, oppressive, and destructive one, to a prosperous and liberating force. Hopefully, this wasn’t too B.L.A.C.K. for you.