Lela Klein &amaha sellassie
Co-op Dayton is boldly showing how collective worker power can transform communities through a “cooperative ecosystem.” As in other cities across the Midwest, majority Black neighborhoods in segregated Dayton have suffered from disinvestment and dwindling access to goods and services such as grocery stores and health care. Amid capital flight and wealth extraction, Co-op Dayton’s incubator program nurtures worker-owned enterprises through assistance with access to capital, business development, and advocacy tools to boost neighborhood resilience. Having mobilized a cooperative grocery store in a former West Dayton food desert that now has 5,000 community member-owners and 25 worker-owners, Co-op Dayton envisions a future when retail co-ops are served by cleaning and delivery co-ops, while real estate investment and construction co-ops redevelop homes in surrounding neighborhoods. Through its work building cooperative businesses, the initiative continuously brings in neighbors—as member-owners, activists, and movement leaders—to gain political and economic power. The upshot is a model for grassroots revitalization in the face of deep urban abandonment that creates jobs, renovates buildings, and—through a culture of ownership—reconnects people with their community.
Our hometown, Dayton, Ohio, has seen decades of divestment and deindustrialization, leading to boarded-up storefronts, crumbling housing, and a sense of economic despair. We see cooperatives as an economic development model that is grounded in acknowledging our interdependence and Dr. King’s vision of a single garment of destiny. Our project is centered on how to emerge a local economy that supports Black and working-class families. To do this, we are building a replicable cooperative economic development model for community ownership, worker power, and democratic participation, taking us closer to a more beloved community.
West Dayton, which due to hyper-segregation is predominantly Black, has been disinvested for decades. The lasting impact of redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and informal forces of segregation created systemic underdevelopment and concentrated lack of access to opportunity. This showed up concretely in people’s lives in many ways, but one glaring example was a food apartheid: a lack of grocery stores serving tens of thousands of Black Daytonians. By really looking at the geography of our city and the legacy of segregation, we realized we not only deserved better, but that by drawing together as a community, we could take collective action to build solutions—starting with a co-op grocery store.
For our first, deeply meaningful project, the Gem City Market, we dove in, truly learning the grocery industry. We learned so much, and we want to use this experience to replicate the process for other cooperatives. We are building out a more streamlined community mobilization, cooperative investment, and technical assistance model, so that we can broaden our impact and support more teams of cooperative activists and entrepreneurs. Our fundamental near-term challenge is to systematize our processes and prepare for scale, and then achieve it.
Fanny Lou Hamer, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ed Whitfield, Ella Baker, Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, and The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain. Kristen Barker (the leader of Co-op Cincy, our sister organization in Cincinnati), Project Equity, and labor movement leaders like Sara Nelson have also inspired us.
Corrine Saunders is a former grocery store worker who lives in Northwest Dayton. Sick of having to travel miles to the grocery store, Corrine started coming to our cooperative, contributing ideas and experiences. Our model prioritizes proximate leadership, and Corrine really stepped into that role. She started volunteering to spread the word about Gem City Market, and joined our search committee to hire our general manager. She was then elected by our 5,000 community members to represent them on the Board of the Market. Her leadership path is exactly the way we hope to give working-class and Black people in Dayton the tools to create the institutions and assets they want and need.
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