March is Women’s History Month, and for those of us who work to advance community-based enterprises and collective and cooperative spaces, it is impossible to capture the scope of the contributions women have made in this field of endeavor.
One of the women we celebrate this month is Ella Baker (1903-1986). Known for her civil rights organizing, Ella Baker worked to build a cooperative economy and promote cooperative development in New York City and throughout the country. In the 1930s, she served as national director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which sponsored consumer cooperatives and buying clubs across the country.
Another influential leader was Halena Wilson (1897-1975), who served as an important link between the cooperative and union movements. She promoted cooperative education and women-led cooperatives and was instrumental in organizing the Brotherhood Consumer Cooperative in Chicago. Halena Wilson was the only Black woman elected to serve on the National Consumer Cooperative Council.
Local contemporary voices may be less well-known than Baker and Wilson, but they are no less important. Meghan Sobocienski leads the Grace in Action Collective, bringing together youth co-ops and more in Southwest Detroit. Akua Woolbright is board chair of the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, which is poised to break ground for its Black-led food co-op in the North End. Lisa Leverette is “chief changemaker” of Community Connections, supporting grassroots and cooperative organizations in Detroit. Women-led co-ops in Detroit include lyengar Yoga, Cleaning in Action and Bridging Languages Co-op.
I have named just a few women here, but in fact the list of changemaking women in the field of cooperatives is long and impressive. Let’s take a moment to celebrate what they have done and are doing today.