After a passionate debate a few days before the official vote to decide the food co-op model for our neighborhood, members of the Brooklyn Movement Center stood thoughtfully around a sheet of paper titled, “Suggestions for Name.” Few members took turns writing their ideas down, lingering around the warm room in a historic brownstone mansion, explaining what their name meant and why they thought it amply defined the efforts of the group so far, and expressed their hope for what a co-op in central Brooklyn would look like.
Almost a year of organizing, meeting and discussing has led up to this moment. The vote was caste by a total of 17 dues-paying members of the community based organization, lovingly referred to as BMC and was split 10-7 in favor of a member-only model. We were mothers, grandmothers, fathers, community organizers, long-time residents, self-identified gentrifiers, immigrants, Brooklynites, recent graduates and many other identities that made urgent our reasons for contributing to this effort.
For my part, I’m a single mom of a toddler who’s tired of sourcing fresh fruits and vegetables (organic and otherwise) out of my neighborhood. Mobility is an issue, and since I believe I’ve exhausted about every other option to make life a little easier while piecing together affordable healthy food for my family. Working towards a food co-op in the neighborhood has become more than an activist activity, but a necessity.
Co-ops in neighborhoods such as ours have for decades been created out of need. In her book, “A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice,” Jessica Gordon Nembhard details how black communities that are left out of mainstream capitalist models consistently worked towards creating alternative cooperative models.
From pooling resources to burying their dead, to creating consumer-owned groceries, black owned and operated cooperatives became a practical way to resist against a societal model created to leave us out.
For many reasons, this history has not taken its rightful place in our collective Civil Rights memory. One of them is the meaning the word co-op evokes. “In the U.S. co-ops are often linked with hippies, communism or socialism and back in the 1950s, just after the McCarthy era, black leaders knew they couldn’t talk about either and be listened to,” Nembhard said when interviewed by Colorlines.
Particularly, when envisioning food co-ops in Brooklyn, the ever-popular Park Slope food co-op, an institution in its own right, is the immediate connection made. What comes along with that image is the sight of a typical Park Slope resident bike riding with re-usable bags to get their weekly supply of green-stemmed carrots and rutabagas.
That the vote for our still unnamed food co-op went in favor of a members-only model that Park Slope adopted, has all but solidified that connection. While we happily work with Park Slope Food Co-op and many other co-ops, we’ve had tireless discussions about ensuring that this effort is not co-opted by anyone outside of the community.
Recent press about our efforts with pictures of that typical Park Slope shopper happily holding fresh produce may have suggested a more than advisory role the coop has played in our planning and voting process.
I first became acquainted with the leadership of Park Slope Food Co-op, Bushwick food co-op and Greene Hill food in an all day Saturday teach-in this past March, as they presented on their models, outreach and challenges. There were difficult discussions about gentrification, race and exclusion all graciously handled by the presenters.
These discussions are still ongoing as we advance the planning of the co-op. But what is clear to me, if not all those involved, the Central Brooklyn community is at the forefront of defining what this co-op will become.
We still don’t have a name for the co-op, but will soon vote on it. Some of the suggestions include African names, names that evoke ideas of community, unity and names that just plain let folks know where we’re from. For my suggestion (which didn’t make it to the final cut), I thought about what I would say to my son as he would grab one of the reusable bags from a chair, put on my shoes and loudly proclaim, “Buh bye, mommy!” to me. “You going to market?” I would say in my Trinidadian accent. “Pick up some mangoes for meh!” “To market” was the name I put forth, a name that evokes to me the spirit of this Central Brooklyn food co-op project.
The “market” was a fresh outdoor marketplace, distinguished from the supermarket. Growing up, the market was easily accessible and you were guaranteed fresh affordable fruits and vegetables sometimes sold by the farmers themselves. That’s what I think about when I talk about our food co-op.
If you are a resident of Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights and would like to be a part of the Brooklyn Movement Center and join the food justice work, you can email [email protected] to join.
Originally posted on The Brooklyn Reader.