By Thandisizwe Chimurenga, Atlanta Black Star
Thandisizwe Chimurenga: I see in one of your bios you talk about growing up in a solidarity economy, having a cooperative upbringing, what do you mean by that?
Saki Hall: My mother is from Haiti and my father is from St. Louis. Since I lived in New York with my mom’s side of the family, the Haitian side of my family predominantly raised me. So I have my Haitian family and then my extended family of friends I grew up with living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Both were tight-knit communities. In both cases, we didn’t have a lot of money, so folks creatively figured out how to meet their needs. I feel like I was raised in two cultures that actually taught me some of the fundamentals of what it means to care and share with each other, to be a cooperator, as they say, in the cooperative world.
My mom has told me a story several times of when my dad bartered a painting for bread. He had done a small oil painting of a loaf of bread with a wine bottle based on a local bakery. One day they were hungry and had no money, so he went to the bakery and in exchange for the painting the baker gave him the same daily baked long loaf of bread featured in my dad’s painting. At that time they lived on about $800 a month with only a VA pension and an SSI check.
In New York City during the ’80s we used subway tokens in place of dollars at bodegas — a corner store — and with street vendors. My best friend and I stretched our resources on Saturdays by going through together with one token each way on the subway, and then we’d have two tokens to use for lunch. So, we could share a hot dog and a knish from a hot dog vendor.
Another example that connects me to the work I’m doing now is the apartment building I grew up in on East 9th Street. My mother gave birth to me and my father delivered me in our apartment in 1978 with everyone from the building there pitching in. Our building went through a long coop conversion process. It was resident self-managed through the ’80s and then formally became a low-income co-op in the early 1990s. I did not know that I lived in a “shared-equity cooperative” until two years ago at a Community Land Trust conference I went to for Cooperation Jackson. After college, I learned of the strong housing, homesteading and squatting movements that the Lower East Side had; My building was a product of the successful actions and organizing.
I feel like I’ve come full circle and working with Cooperation Jackson to take it to another level. Housing is very important, land is critical. We are developing the Fannie Lou Hamer Community Land Trust. It’s a tool that can make housing permanently affordable and put the development process in the hands of the community instead of corporate developers. Ultimately, we want to see land and housing no longer be a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.
From my childhood to now, I see the creativity of everyday working people and their organic practice of solidarity, especially women of color, immigrant women, single women, the women I grew up with, including my mother. So we have a responsibility to A) recognize and value that, and B) tap into the creativity and practices that already exist to strengthen and expand it. And connect it to a movement for transformative liberation.
I think a lot of people have a similar experience like I’m describing. So many of us have these roots that have been passed down in most ways informally. Black people would not have survived the brutality of chattel slavery and Jim Crow apartheid without practicing solidarity and cooperation in organized formal ways. So it is that sharing, caring and cooperation from the past with the ways we continue to do it now to survive that we want to very intentionally tap into and make it systematic with formal institutions like time banks, skill shares, bartering and have a dynamic solidarity economy.
Chimurenga: You identify as a Black feminist.
Hall: Right, a radical Black feminist.
Chimurenga: How do Black feminist politics and the struggle for Black women’s liberation connect with the work of Cooperation Jackson and the effort to build the solidarity economy?
Hall: So growing up in the ‘hood, Black, a child of an immigrant, in a diverse multi-national, working-class neighborhood, I formed a race and class analysis early on; my gender analysis did not get fully shaped until later.
For me, women have to be at the center of our efforts to build a solidarity economy. So when I talk about that organic solidarity I grew up with, the informal ways oppressed people around the world live and work cooperatively, even the so-called informal economy, women are at the center of that.
I remember being sent downstairs to borrow milk, sugar or some other food on the regular. It’s not borrowing ’cause you can’t give what you put in some cereal and ate back [laughter]. We didn’t have to pay anyone back because they came to our house just the same. And when I think about it, 9 times out of 10 it had to do with cooking and meals, and the majority of the time it was women doing that cooking. So I took part in that mutual aid. Now what I didn’t know and learned recently when my godmother passed away, was that they shared food stamps. When I heard that I was like, wow, that’s deep. Learning that women shared food stamps spoke volumes to me about women. We are creative about how to take care of our families and each other with very little resources.
I’m sharing that example because what I take from it is how central “care work” is to the practice of solidarity. And if we are going to truly build a solidarity economy that is transformative, women have to be at the center of that. As an organization, we are working towards fully recognizing care work, and fully center it as much as we center the value of worker-cooperatives in building a solidarity economy.
Women pretty much still take on the primary responsibility for care work. This work holds the social fabric of communities together, and labor goes into creating or reproducing this fabric every day, social reproduction. Care work includes maintaining a household, parenting children, taking care of a grandparent, taking care of other people’s family, social activities, healing, cooking, emotional support, even sex. A radical feminist lens recognizes social reproduction as labor and care work is critical to social reproduction. Capitalism and patriarchy separate social reproduction from economic production, it makes a false separation between public and private. Social reproductive labor is not valued, recognized, it’s unpaid, in some cases paid but severely underpaid. Disconnecting social reproduction from economic production marginalizes the people who do social reproductive labor, making their role invisible and easily exploited.
Capitalism would not survive without social reproductive labor, the unpaid labor that allows for the immense profit. What would profit margins be if a company had to pay the husband for working in the office and his wife for the work she does to run their home? Or had to pay a single mom double for her 9 to 5 and her care work? Domestic workers, mostly non-white women, mostly immigrants, work for low pay, do unpaid care work at home, and with the sheer amount of hours taking care of someone’s family and home, it limits the time they can provide for their family and community. Sex workers are in the public and private sphere, doing paid work that is criminalized because socially it’s for the private sphere and morally only for married hetero men and women.
So social reproduction and the role of women, and some men is solidarity-based, and a solidarity economy can reflect and support the transformation of society, [but] a solidarity economy in and of itself doesn’t automatically end gender and sexual oppression. But it does offer an opportunity, unlike capitalism.
For Cooperation Jackson we believe we have to challenge ourselves and each other to actively struggle against patriarchy and heterosexism in our work and in our lives. Assigned gender roles and norms that dictate who is a woman, what being a man means, even the subtle things like what color is allowed for which gender, pink being for girls and blue being for boys. Violence, that comes in different forms, is used to enforce these made up concepts, especially towards people who do not conform to these standards, like transgender people.
I see it as my responsibility as a member of Cooperation Jackson, as a mother, as a birth worker, to provide a Black radical feminist analysis for our work and to push us all towards practice that is truly aligned with our theory. And that is the hard part. The multiple systems of oppression and how they overlap limit us all.
Chimurenga: Cooperation Jackson is working on participatory budgeting. What would it look like if Black women were in charge of the budget or had a say in the city budget? Is fighting for a participatory budget an intentional part of the work of Cooperation Jackson in terms of integrating Black women’s knowledge and experiences into how to govern a municipality? Is that part of the plan?
Hall: We’ve been talking about and studying participatory and human rights budgeting. Which in simple terms is creating a budget that actually comes out of the community and reflects its needs, as opposed to a budget that is created by government officials. In Jackson, Mississippi, if Black women, especially Black working-class women, were centered in the process of creating a budget I think it would look very different than the city’s typical budget. What I mean by centered is that the development of a budget would be driven by the knowledge, experience, ideas and participation of Black women. For example, I think education and schools, things like affordable housing would be prioritized compared to police departments or tourism. So it would be important for families like mine that have a hard time or cannot pay at all for extracurricular activities to have access to free after-school programs, free arts programs, that could be included in a city budget. Going back to housing like I talked about earlier, the priority placed on urban redevelopment often means giving tax breaks to corporate developers. I’m sure for poor and working-class women, bringing in money to help improve the city wouldn’t mean displacing them from their homes. Protecting affordable housing with policy and the money to back it up would be my priority if I had a part in the planning.
The city of Jackson is in a budget crisis; so hard decisions have to be made about what gets cut, where the money goes and how much goes where. If we were able to do things differently, these decisions would be based on the people most directly impacted. So, in our case setting priorities for Jackson’s urgent infrastructure repairs would be done in a democratic participatory process set through the lens of Black and other working class people, particularly women and not the contractors and the corporations that typically dominate the process and its outcomes.
The important part is actually how decisions get made, not only about allocating resources through a budget, it is about who is there to make those decisions, how much power do they have. There are a lot of things that have to change to create a deep democratic system, human rights budgeting is just one of the tools that will go a long way towards advancing our goals when the decision makers don’t have the same interest.
Chimurenga: When I hear people say women in leadership it makes me think of a woman, a female figurehead. When I hear about women’s participation, what comes to mind are women doing the majority of the work, but not receiving the credit or acknowledgment of their work. So women already participate, women are in leadership. You know to me it’s more than women and leadership or women’s participation. How is this being practiced in Cooperation Jackson?
Hall: Right, women’s leadership has to be centered, it is not enough to have us in the room. To me there is a difference between women having roles in an organization and women having power in an organization. When I say power I mean decision-making power that sets the agenda and goals of every dimension of the organization.
Audre Lorde is quoted often saying we don’t live single issues lives and there is no hierarchy of oppression. That highlights the intersectionality framework that informs our work. Cooperation Jackson understands that Black people’s self-determination and liberation is not possible without ending heteropatriarchy, just like it is not possible without ending capitalism and white supremacy.
Radical feminism recognizes the intersections of heterosexism, patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, and other systems of oppression. These systems of oppression privilege men, privilege heterosexuals, privileges whiteness, privileges the ruling class, English as a language, adults, etc. In Cooperation Jackson we have a vision of a deep democratic, cooperative, sustainable community. For us, that means we have to create a culture free of patriarchy and heterosexism. Our struggles are connected and our liberation is intrinsically connected and we are committed to moving us as close as possible in that direction…we are struggling to create this liberated space in our organization and we all know we have a long way to go in our communities.
What we have done to this point is that we’ve institutionalized space for women’s leadership and queer leadership. I’m excited that our membership and core leadership of the organization represents young queer people and women. That stands out in Jackson, Mississippi [chuckle]. At the same time, that is not enough. Heterosexist views and behaviors have to be struggled with and shifted. We attempt to make tasks non-gendered like taking notes at a meeting and cleaning, it is interesting how we all fall into defaults and have to remind ourselves and each other. Patriarchy is a hell of a …
Chimurenga: Well, hell of a drug
Hall: [laughs] Yeah, and so you know, it rears its ugly head in the personal and political spaces. Even in radical, progressive, women-friendly, queer-friendly spaces, time and time again. And we’ve internalized it, so even women and queer folks perpetuate it ourselves.
We have been intentional in actively creating the space and environment that is truly open and conducive to women and queer folks coming in from anywhere and genuinely feeling like they can fully engage and participate in discussing the work and doing the work. And it is in subtle and overt ways. Like having a sign that says, “gender is a universe” on our bathroom door. We have a banner on our entrance wall outside that says, “All Our Family Welcomed”, with the rainbow and gender equality symbols including a combined queer and Black power symbol. We have a room called the little people’s society named by one of our members. She is a high school student and her family provides child care at our gatherings. Little people (children) are welcome in all spaces is a community agreement.
Chimurenga: What do you see going forward?
Hall: As a leader of Cooperation Jackson, I have to make sure that we create the time and space to engage in the struggle to dismantle sexism, patriarchy, and heterosexism. It’s about our relationships with each other. So, I’m not the only one doing this, but it can’t only be a few of us. I do see it as part of my responsibility though, to point out when sexist language or behavior happens, or to highlight the impact on women if we are talking about an issue and that gets left out. And that can be uncomfortable and frustrating at times.
CJ has to systematize these things, document this analysis and integrate it into all of our writing more. We need to document how it is impacting our work and practice, both successes and challenges.
A challenge for me is how to encourage and push the younger women in the organization to be more visible and vocal in our overall work. But, I have to check myself sometimes because it can’t only be about the way I define active leadership or challenging patriarchy. So, I am constantly learning and developing myself, which is a part of the process, unpacking our privilege and unlearning what we’ve been socialized to accept.
What I think we have done is create the space for this to happen, instead of sitting back and waiting for them to ask to step into a role, we are encouraging and asking them to facilitate a meeting, do a report back. Collective models of leadership and decision-making can provide a space for everyone to participate fully. But it has to be coupled with principles and practices like men stepping back and not dominating discussions, sharing power overall. So I see us getting stronger in our theory and practice.