The community economic development (CED) principles of solidarity, cooperativism, and mutual aid have been practiced by many Black communities around the world for thousands of years. And so Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the ways in which Black communities have shaped – and continue to shape – contemporary CED.
However, this celebration is incomplete if we don’t also grapple with the foundational role that anti-Black racism has always played in propping up the Canadian economy, and how this has affected CED and the social sector.
Slavery was practiced in the territories that would become Canada from around 1630 until its abolition in 1834. During this period, as Robyn Maynard writes, “white settler society profited from owning unfree Black (and Indigenous) people and their labour… while exposing them to physical and psychological brutality.”
The abolition of slavery did not put an end to the exploitation of Black people or the extraction of their wealth. As Maynard explains, “first slavery, then segregationist state policies regarding immigration, labour and education put [Black people] in a lower social and economic status than white Canadians.”
State-sanctioned poverty was and is sustained by systemic racism in institutions such as healthcare, education, policing, housing, real estate, and finance. All of this serves to extract wealth and resources away from Black communities, so that those who are already privileged within our dominant economic model can continue to hoard power, wealth, and control.
However, economic injustice is not a law of nature. Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard reminds us that “the system of capitalism that we’re in right now” – which requires racial hierarchy and domination in order to function – “is very new on a human scale.” When we take a longer view of history, we see that “solidarity economics” is actually humanity’s first and longest-lasting economic system.
Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein and Megan Pearson explain that solidarity economics is based on cooperativism, equity, and social and economic democracy. They trace the roots of the solidarity economy back to Black and Indigenous communities around the world. Many practitioners locate CED within the global solidarity economy movement. In fact, Professor John Loxley credited Afro-Guyanese economist C.Y. Thomas with influencing the creation of the Neechi principles, a guiding force for the development of community economic development in Manitoba.
Sometimes, solidarity economics are a survival strategy – without sharing or mutual aid, for example, many oppressed communities will simply collapse. However, Gordon Nembhard says that sometimes these systems are also built “around a larger vision in mind for how they could really change society and bring prosperity” to everyone.
These scholars all point to the potential within the solidarity economy to transform our dominant economic system from the ground up. But anti-Black racism remains an obstacle to achieving such transformation, not only within society at large, but also within our sector. Gordon Nembhard has written about racism in the co-op movement, and Hossein and Pearson explain that Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour are often excluded within the social sector – an exclusion that “upholds racial injustice, violence, exclusion, and trauma in Canada and elsewhere.”
We may not all be oppressed by anti-Black racism, but we all do suffer under an economy that treats people and the planet as disposable commodities. If anti-Black racism stands between us and economic transformation, we should all be striving for Black liberation, even if we are not Black. Our collective liberation requires Black freedom.