The principle of Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics – is deeply embodied within African-American communities and communities of African-descent folks worldwide. Living from this principle is what has enabled our peoples to survive conditions where few resources were left for our use. So much of the history of the United States is marked by white folks and white institutions controlling the work, labor and resources of BIPOC folks. Initially, we had outright slavery, where none of the economic benefits derived from the labor of Black folks went to Black folks. Now, many folks labor long hours in low wage jobs that leave them housing and food insecure, but contribute to the ability of multinational corporations to earn huge profits. Ujamaa invites Black communities to find ways to benefit from the fruits of their labor, and to share those benefits between all members of the community.
This year, I struggled to embody a nuanced interpretation of Ujamaa. Even before the pandemic, I relied on online shopping more than was in integrity with my values, often choosing ease and efficiency over the many important benefits to my community of shopping locally and prioritizing Black-owned businesses. If each online purchase we made came with a true cost disclosure – something that spelled out the impact on the environment, the physical toll experienced by each person working in the various points of that manufacture-delivery chain, the conditions under which some products purchased cheaply online were created – I believe I, and many others, would be much less likely to make those purchases.
The pandemic heightened this dilemma for me. Something as basic as purchasing food demonstrated the decisions many of us must make to align with Ujamaa. I could choose to purchase food online. Doing so can help contain the spread of the virus, arguably protecting not just me, but also the community. Prices of many online items were often cheaper, an important consideration when so many families were worried about making ends meet and uncertain whether whatever activities they did to earn money for necessities would continue. However important those considerations were, there were others. While I might be safer not going into a grocery store, the many folks deemed essential – grocery store employees, farm workers, teachers and more, experienced elevated risk. So although those with resources were more protected, the virus disproportionately rages through the communities of color whose members work in these areas. Choosing to purchase the cheaper online item could help my sense of financial security, but at a cost borne by the folks working at below living wages, often for companies that did not afford them basic time off and compensation if they were to get sick.
Many communities have returned to traditional strategies to address the economic and other inequities that leave so many of our community members without support. Records show that in the United States, African Americans came together and established mutual aid agreements like the Free African Society in 1787 where people would contribute financially and materially to support community members who needed aid. These traditions continue to this day. Since the pandemic started, I’ve seen numerous examples of people coming together to share the benefits of their labor with community members in need. They are not waiting for mainstream sources of support, many of which have significant barriers or hoops that prevent BIPOC folks from accessing them. Instead, folks are organizing to support their neighbors and community members. They are collecting funds and, based on an understanding of a community’s needs grounded in being part of a community, they are directing resources where it can make a significant difference. They are helping families pay rent and stay in housing, and sometimes even helping them escape predatory landlords. They are generating resources to secure food, childcare, medical care, emotional resources and more from folks who understand the communities they serve.
There are so many reasons the principle of Ujamaa, and the focus on helping generate and keep resources within the community to be used for the benefit of all, are so important. I want to name one that is important to me. When a community comes together to uplift all its members, it does so without the kind of exploitation that so often happens with outside help. I remember being a small child in NYC, living in a building where the landlord would not heat the building in winter. News stations came to our home and took pictures of my siblings and I, shivering under blankets. Aside from airing the story, they did nothing to change the conditions we experienced. We have all seen so many stories of charities and groups coming in to help distressed folks, usually people of color all around the world, raising funds with pictures of starving children, devastated communities, and people with severe illnesses. All too often, these charities use these photos to raise funds, but a significant portion of the funds raised cover expenses like fundraising and operating expenses. In the worst cases, the people whose images were used to generate funds, often with minimal consent and no attention to their dignity, themselves received very little aid. When communities seek to help each other, they are more likely to do so in ways that preserve the human dignity of those being served, and that attend directly to the needs identified by members of those communities. Even when we give to larger charities, we can choose those that pass on the vast majority of funds raised to local organizations to distribute. This is a way of helping get resources where they are needed, by those who know what is needed when we ourselves are not local enough to know where to direct funds.
What can I do to support economic growth in my community? Where am I choosing to spend money? Who’s ultimately benefiting from the economic decisions I make? What changes would I make if I intentionally focused on gathering wealth for the benefit of the community, rather than for my personal security? When I see calls for support online, from individuals or activists, who do I choose to support without question and who do I demand a higher level of accountability from? How can I support the individuals, local groups and organizations that are stepping up to help my neighbors and other Black communities in the diaspora? These are all questions I’ll be exploring. I hope you join me.
Read my reflections for the 7 days of Kwanzaa
Day 1: Umoja – Unity
Day 2: Kujichagulia – Self Determination
Day 3: Ujima – Collective Work & Responsibility
Day 4: Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics
Day 5: Nia – Purpose
Day 6: Kuumba – Creativity
Day 7: Imani – Faith