Written by Nkuli Shongwe 

The Humanist Philosophy of Ubuntu was introduced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African cleric and theologian, one of the main Leaders of the South African anti-Apartheid, and Human Rights movement. One of the many meanings of Ubuntu  is:  I am because we are. The word holds a meaning of collectiveness and interconnectedness in humans. The humanist philosophy can be used to advocate for the economic and social justice through cooperative economics for people who identify as identify as women, LGBTQIA, African, and African American. Economic justice is a tool that promotes sustainable economic growth and restorative community wealth in historically marginalized and continuously exploited communities.

It’s been a year since I was introduced to the cooperative movement. Before that, I never thought much of co-ops, I barely knew of co-ops- in the formal sense.  I was fascinated with cooperatives and became interested in learning more about their history. I had this burning question about the first coops and where they were established. As I was doing more research to familiarize myself, I quickly discovered that most of the information I found online and the narrative in the coop world  stated that cooperatives started in Europe in the 19th century and  the Rochdale pioneers were  established  as pioneers whole catapulted the  modern cooperative movement in the 20th century.

During my research, I was introduced to Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book– Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. Dr. Nembhard’s book is the only book written in the 21st century about African American cooperative business ownership and its place in the movements for Black civil rights and economic equality. It is one of two books ever written recollecting the history of black cooperatives. The only other text in existence W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1907 Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans.

What was fascinating about Dr. Nembhard’s book was the she debunked the dominant narrative about the establishment of the first cooperatives. She details incredible history and stories proving that African Americans have had a long-rich history of cooperative ownership driven by market failures and racial discrimination that predates that cooperatives established in England during the 19th century. The revelation came when I read that coops were not always formal structures. There were many informal forms of cooperating that were powerful such as the underground rail road, programs led by the Black Panthers,  mutual aid societies, tilling kitchens- and list goes on.

Essentially we have been cooperating as since the beginning of time. After pouring, through the research and learning more about the informal coop structures used  and how they were used for survival, I began asking myself- where are my people in this story? Do my people have a history of cooperating and where can I find this history and information. I put in the words South African coops in google and google scholar and I was met with an extensive list of formal cooperatives existing in all  provinces in South Africa.

I was astonished and found myself going down rabbit holes. Once I pulled myself out of the rabbit hole, I thought of   the informal ways of cooperating and the list was also endless. I thought of family weddings or funerals where all the mothers and women of the family would gather to make a beautiful feast. Each woman would have a task from cutting the vegetables or meat, cooking, plating up, and washing the dishes- there were no formal procedures. Women would come together and contribute where they were needed. I thought of stockvels- invitation only clubs of twelve or more people serving as rotating credit unions or saving scheme in South Africa where members contribute fixed sums of money to a central fund on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Stockvels have been around since the 19th century and were used fight against colonialism.

The philosophy of UBUNTU is prevalent throughout the cooperative movement and the fight for economic justice. Cooperatives use a human based approach to build community wealth.  Cooperation is driven by trust, care, and empathy for each other.  The cooperative movement encourages us to participate in a liberatory economy that is regenerative and works to actively challenge a racialized and gendered economic system.

Nexus’ longtime partner and board member, Pakou Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), was recently featured in The New Food Economy:

Pakou Hang, 42, was born in Thailand, but she’s been an American for all but two weeks of her life. Hang, the child of Hmong refugees resettled in the United States and grew up in Wisconsin, where her parents supported the family by farming. Today, that history deeply informs Hang’s own work: She’s co-founder and executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), headquartered on a 155-acre research and incubator farm 15 miles south of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Facing persecution as U.S. allies in the Laotian Civil War and the Vietnam War, more than 100,000 Hmong refugees have relocated to the United States since the 1970s. They brought their agricultural prowess with them. In past decades, Hmong-American farmers helped to pioneer the contemporary local food movement in California and the Midwest, popularizing ingredients like Thai chili peppers and bok choy; today, Hmong farmers account for more than half of the produce sold in St. Paul’s farmers’ markets. Founded in 2011, HAFA helps to sustain that legacy by providing pilot plots, professional training, and a food hub—the key piece of processing and distribution infrastructure that makes doing business possible. 

Hang spoke about her upbringing, her childhood resistance to the farm life, and why she decided to come back home and make agriculture her calling and career.

Read the full story here.

We are so proud to call Pakou a partner, and are excited to see the continued growth and support for HAFA and Hmong farmers both locally and nationally! Cheers to you Pakou!!

How AEDS is transforming the African immigrant experience in Minnesota

Entering the African Economic Development Solutions’ (AEDS) office in St. Paul, Minnesota, visitors are instantly greeted with bright-colored, floor to ceiling banners displaying African pride and the work of AEDS.

Founded 10 years ago by Gene Gelgelu, president and CEO, AEDS supports wealth building in communities, with an African-centric focus. In its early years, AEDS provided wealth building through business planning and youth enrichment programs. Over the years, with the help of Nexus Community Partners and others, the work has expanded and evolved.

“We were able to start our loan program in 2013 with the help of Nexus and the grant we received. We have expanded the program so we are able to do micro-lending for businesses, financial literacy, and credit placemaking [in the Twin Cities-Metro area],” Gelgelu said.

Through the various programs, African Economic Development Solutions impact can be felt and seen economically, physically, and socially.

“Our biggest impact through the loan program is that we are helping start businesses that create jobs. From there, people are able to buy homes that are within their budget and that they own. We have our Little Africa festival, which creates space for people to connect to the African community [in Twin Cities] and helps in attracting and retaining talent in the region. All of this creates social capital, adding vibrancy and value to the area.”

When Gene first founded AEDS, it was not the large, vibrant office space it currently is. For the first couple years of the organization, Gene was sharing a desk with another organization and could only give himself part-time pay, though he was working far more than the standard, 40 hours a week.  

“[W]hen I look back, I think about how many people have been impacted. We [African, immigrant communities] don’t get money for the planning stage like in certain communities…Nexus has supported us with funding during our planning stage and beyond. They’re not only our funders, but our friends. The [Nexus] team understands our community. They understand us because they have folks who lived through it or [who] step up to the challenge. They deeply care about what we do.”

The relationship between Nexus and AEDS dates back to 2010, when Nexus gave the organization a $10,000 capacity building grant to develop and strengthen their asset and wealth building programs. “We trusted Gene’s vision and his ability to address the needs of his community,” said Danielle Mkali, Nexus program officer. Over the years, Nexus provided funds to help AEDS communicate their story, attract additional resources and expand its programming. Today AEDS is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), and in 2017, the organization received a $150,000 award from the Small Business Administration. “Gene is helping families build a legacy. It has been a pleasure to witness AEDS overcome barriers and watch the organization grow. We have learned so much from AEDS,” said Danielle.

Reflecting on next steps for AEDS, Gene wants to build out the lending program, expand benefits for existing staff, and strengthen organizational capacity; however, he also wants folks to remember how African communities are important to the Minnesotan fabric.

“We, our community, are an asset. We bring and have brought assets to this region…African immigrant communities are thriving in this region.”


Written by Nichelle Brunner

Written by Nkuli Shongwe


Nexus Community Partners and Village Financial Cooperative held the first annual Blackonomics Conference. The two organizations brought together over 60 people from the Twin Cities, Denver, Oakland, and Chicago. Blackonomics is an intentional gathering of Black folks in the Twin Cities and the Midwest that are working towards Black cooperative economics and solidarity economics.

The weekend kicked off Friday evening with a welcome dinner where we enjoyed incredible food from Chelle’s Kitchen. The air was filled with joy and celebration. The space was blessed by Amoke Kubat , a write, artist, teacher, Yoruba priestess and community elder who took part in Nexus’ North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship. After dinner, we had a fish bowl conversation about cooperation, healing, and Blackness. One of the participants from Chicago was moved by the conversation and suggested that we needed to actually give money to the cause. He spontaneously pulled out a $20 bill and threw it on the ground. This prompted people to dig into their wallets and give what they could to the cause. By the end of the night people contributed over $180.

Saturday morning we had incredible breakfast from K’s Revolutionary Kitchen. After breakfast, everyone sauntered off to the three different morning break-out sessions. Danielle Mkali led a session about the steps of cooperative development. LaDonna Redmond Sanders and Makeda Toure led a session about the cooperative principles and values. I led a session about the historic and present local, national, and international BIPOC cooperatives. During lunch, we had the opportunity to learn about Mandela Foods Cooperative from the keynote speaker, Adrionna Fike. Adrionna is a worker owner of the BIPOC grocery coop in Oakland, California. Adrionna told the story of she found her way to Mandela Foods Cooperative, gave some history about the grocery store and the journey they are taking which included freeing themselves from a disempowering relationship with Mandela Marketplace, hiring more worker owners, and forgoing moving to a larger space which used to house the 99c store. After the Keynote, we had the last breakout sessions. Isaiah Goodman led a session about Becoming Financial, Renee Hatcher, a human rights and community development lawyer, led a session on the legal basics of starting a co-op, and Julia Ho and Salena Burch led a session an building solidarity economies.

After we adjourned the day, we headed to Coop Fest which was led by Cooperative Principles, a co-op investment club. We celebrated cooperating and had the chance to donate to up and coming co-ops incubated by Minneapolis’ C-TAP program, Women Venture, and Nexus’ North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship. Each group gave a brief presentation about their cooperative and stated how much money they needed. There was a lot of excitement and jubilation in the air. At the end of the night, people donated money to the coops they were most interested in and the ones they supported.

Blackonomics came to a conclusion on Sunday. We spent the morning envisioning what cooperation would look like 30 years from now. Dr. Rose Brewer, a professor of Afro American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, and Irna Landrum, a digital campaign director at Daily Kos led us through and activity about how we would build, maintain and develop and Black solidarity economy in the Midwest. After a lot of robust conversation we decided to build out our networks and invite more Black folks to our movement. We then identified who wanted to take initiative and be part of the planning process for the next Blackonomics conference which would be bigger than and just as amazing as the first one. We ended our day by expressing our gratitude of being in the space and how we felt after the long yet rewarding weekend.

Blackonomics was a beautiful, melanin filled space, that provided healing, hope, love, warmth, joy, and community.

The North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship is proud to announce our 2018-19 cohort! Please help us welcome the following fellows:

  1. Chalonne Wilson
  2. Duaba Unenra
  3. Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski
  4. Ini Augustine
  5. Jasmine Boudah
  6. Jolene Mason
  7. Kadijah Parris
  8. Marcus Harcus
  9. Quanda Arch
  10. Quincy Ballard
  11. Roxxanne O’Brien
  12. Shiranthi Goonathilaka
  13. Stacey Rosana
  14. Tia Williams
  15. Tyree Gulley

Keep following us here for more updates on their cooperative focus, photos and progress!

Top Left to Right: Stacey Rosana, Quincy Ballard, Ini Augustine, Marcus Harcus, Duaba Unenra, Repa Mekha (Nexus President),  Tyree Gulley, Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski, Chalonne Wilson, Quanda Arch, Tia Williams, Roxxanne O’Brien

Middle Left to Right: Danielle Mkali (Nexus), Nkuli Shongwe (Nexus), Selah Michele (Guest facilitator & NSBCF Alumni 17-18), Shiranthi Goonathilaka

Front Left to Right: Kadijah Parris, Jasmine Boudah

Participants discussing coops in small groups

Written by Nichelle Brunner


Walking into Room 105 of the Urban Outreach-Engagement and Research Center (UROC) in North Minneapolis, the room setup is perfect for group discussion, planning and work around cooperatives. The large room is filled with tables draped in colorful table cloths, and on the front walls, the co-op values and principles are centered.

In the room, there are over 20 community members, business owners and partner organizations who have come ready to engage and to learn about cooperatives and their role in our cultural history.

This was the first of a 2-part Co-op Learning Series hosted by Nexus Community Partners, a community building intermediary in the Twin Cities. Repa Mekha, President and CEO of Nexus, opened the meeting by introducing the Nexus staff and Nexus’ commitment to a strong, equitable and just community in which all members are afforded multiple access points to generate and sustain wealth.

During the almost 3 hour long meeting, Nexus introduced the room to the definition of a cooperative, the importance of  culturally-based economic development, and the idea of using cooperatives to build democratic communities.

Storytelling, power, and cooperative movements

Following the introduction, LaDonna Redmond, Seward Community Coop’s Diversity and Community Engagement Manager, approached the mic stand.

With a commanding and energetic presence, LaDonna set the foundation of her presentation by defining exactly what a coop is.

Grounding structure of coops

“One, a coop is a legal structure. That means it’s a business. Two, it also has a social justice lens. These two things tend to overlap in a coop structure.”

Once the foundation was set, LaDonna presented the history of coops and the importance of power and oppression in storytelling.

“I will start with telling the story of the Rochdale Pioneers. They say the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 created the contemporary coop movement, meaning that they codified, or wrote down, the principles [of coops] as they understood them. So they show you a picture of 10 white men in England, where one of the dudes had the baddest mushroom haircut I’ve ever seen in my life,” LaDonna said, as the room erupted in laughter.

“But what they don’t tell you is the Rochdale Pioneers organized themselves to take control of their economic destiny. That doesn’t come across when you see the photo of these 10 white men. Me, a Black woman, when I saw this I thought, ‘This is only for white people.’ So when we talk about the narrative of coops, we have to talk about power and who has the power to tell these stories.”

For the next 30 minutes, LaDonna challenged the “white’s only” cooperative narrative by highlighting the stories and histories of Blacks in the United States.

“In 1787, 60 years before the Rochdale Pioneers, Africans formed cooperatives for their freedom in the U.S. The Black Panthers 10 Point Platform has the same values as our local coops. When someone asks me what is a coop and cooperation, I say it’s the Underground Railroad. It’s all the pieces and principles coming together.”

Back to the basics

Participants reflecting on the coop timeline development activity

For the final part of the meeting, guests were asked to get in pairs and participate in a gallery walk. On the walls of the room were pictures and descriptions of various coops, such as New York City’s Colors Cooperative, Oakland’s Mandela Marketplace, Pine Ridge Reservation’s Owíŋža Quilters Cooperative and Minneapolis’ Village Trust Financial Cooperative. As they circled the room, the pairs reflected on common themes and coop principles.

At the end of the gallery walk, guests shared their final thoughts and what resonated with them regarding cooperatives. One participant commented on one thing that is missing from nonprofit and federal programs.

“When we transition programs to nonprofits and to the federal government, community is lost in this transition. Coops can bring that back,” said one participant.

Everyone stressed the importance of getting back to the basics, as was summed up by one of the final thoughts of the evening.

“Capitalism and white supremacy are in place so we don’t practice what is at our basic core. If you take away those things, cooperation is human nature. It makes sense because it’s who we are.”


If you have any questions regarding the Cooperative Learning Series, feel free to reach out the Nkuli Shongwe, the Community Wealth Building Coordinator- nshongwe@nexuscp.org

We are ecstatic to welcome Keliyah Perkins to our Nexus team! Keliyah joins us as the North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship Summer Intern, where she’ll be supporting the cohort development and engagement, communications and research and technical support for the North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship.

Keliyah is a rising senior this fall at Gustavus Adolphus college. She is a Philosophy major with minors in Film and Media Studies and English. She believes that the problems that exist in this world cannot be tackled from just one angle, that if we want radical change we must advance from all sides.

Learn more about Keliyah here, and please help us welcome her to the Nexus family!

In June 2018, Nonprofit Quarterly featured Nexus Community Partners’ Community Wealth Building (CWB) work – the framework, the programs and collaborations:

In adopting a community wealth-building frame, Nexus borrowed heavily on the work of others… But Nexus has also sought to make the ‘community wealth-building’ approach its own. This includes redefining community wealth-building by developing its own set of eight principles, including equity, mutuality, stewardship, and attention to cultural practices. The cultural practices principle in particular illustrates the unique ‘Nexus approach’ to community wealth building. As Nexus writes, ‘Economic strategies must be tailored for the specific communities they are designed to benefit. Culture is a resource for creating and expanding wealth building options…’

“But building a supportive culture to support this work cuts across all three of these program areas [authorship, leadership and ownership]. In terms of rollout, the foundation has envisioned a three-part strategy: with 2016 envisioned as a ‘seeding’ phase focused on awareness raising, convening, educating, and getting a common language, 2017 focused on launching programs (a ‘cultivation’ phase), with this year being a ‘harvesting’ phase where tangible outcomes begin to become visible…

“[Nexus program officer Elena] Gaarder points out that a large part of the work is not just building cooperatives, but also building the ecosystem of support that gives the cooperatives a reasonable chance to prosper and thrive. As Gaarder explains, ‘The work that Nexus is building infrastructure around cooperative models. From that what we learned, it has to be a coordinated effort that builds the infrastructure first locally and then brings in national partners to build support that is needed.’”

Click here to read the full article

In a recent Next City article titled “City Halls Now Hiring for Community Wealth Building,” Reggie Gordon lifted up community wealth building as a strategy that cities across the country are beginning to invest in.

Reggie Gordon is the director of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building, the first of its kind in the nation. As he says, minorities all too often suffer from high unemployment or are pushed into low quality, service-sector jobs that don’t give them the opportunity that they need.

“The first step is to call it out,” says Gordon. “This isn’t fictional. Sixty years ago, there was intentionality around redlining and segregation that led to concentrated poverty. And here we are in 2018 receiving the byproduct of those intentional decisions … It’s up to us to be just as intentional about solving these problems.”

Check out how Community Wealth Building is gaining momentum around the country!

Join us to celebrate the North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship 2017-18 Graduating Cohort!

Come help us honor this year’s graduating North Star fellows: Amoke Kubat, Carl Crawford, Harrison Bullard, Lashunda Roberts, Lavasha Smith, Nicque Mabrey, Selah Michele and Sheronda Orridge and their efforts in establishing Black led Cooperative initiatives. Fellows’ initiatives vary from housing, worker owned, healing networks, hair care and hair product cooperatives.

Join us to learn more about their work and how you can be in cooperation with them. A keynote address will be made by Collie Graddick, our local north and south cooperative leader.

RSVP by April 18th here!