but injustice is costly beyond measure —
by Alex Kent

My work as a member of the Amherst Food Co-op board of directors has made me more keenly aware than ever of the need to make dismantling racism a cornerstone of the Co-op. By their nature and long history, cooperative enterprises are necessarily political in nature. Cooperatives came into existence in response to injustice, inequity, and unfairness. Scholars like Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and her magisterial study of African-American cooperatives Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Bottom Practice, speak to the indispensable role that collective enterprise has played in communities of color.

Over the past 50 years or so, food co-ops in the US have become increasingly patronized by white, middle- to upper-class people. As Patricia Cumbie and Jade Barker have discussed in a previous blog post, it’s fine to put up a sign on a food co-op saying “everyone welcome”; it is quite another to make this promise of welcome a reality.

The Co-op’s trade area – Amherst and its surrounding towns – contains a complex mix of widely varying socioeconomic groups. The Amherst Food Co-op is committed to ensuring that this co-op is accessible in every way to all members of the community. In a community that is as economically and socially diverse – I would say divided – as greater Amherst, the Co-op’s leadership team has come to realize how vital it is to the success of this project that we become more aware of and better trained in approaches to undoing racism.

Here is a letter I sent around to our leadership team recently. We have been discussing the pros and cons of retaining an anti-racism trainer. Naturally, as a startup operating on a shoestring budget, cost is an issue. Here’s what I said:

“Our project is evolving and changing. When I came on board over six years ago, I just wanted a downtown grocery store, mostly for my own shopping convenience. I realize now that in this project, the food, the store’s stock-in-trade, is itself a secondary concern. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the food is a vehicle for a larger and more urgent imperative: seeking justice in an unjust society.

Is the fight for social justice beyond the purview of a cooperative grocery store? No, it is not. Justice must be the central mission of a co-op. This project must be all about justice, about our community’s attempt to make the world better and fairer. Will finding better uses for “ugly” fruits and vegetables than simply letting them rot in the fields improve the world? It certainly will. But we must do more, much more, on the small portion of the “arc of the moral universe” allotted to each of us. 

I am more convinced than ever that the goal of the Co-op must be to draw our fractured and fractious community more closely together. I am more convinced than ever that if it is our objective to offer people in the Amherst area simply another choice in food shopping in the context of so many other attractive choices, then we will fail. 

Racism is the deep and intractable tumor in the soul of our country. Racism and the “othering” of people of color, of people who do not have as much access to education, to economic resources, of those who struggle with disability lies at the very heart of our deeply troubled society. This is the disease in the body politic that has landed us in the era of Donald Trump.

We need anti-racism training. We need to take the time and spend the money. I believe such training is essential to the success of our project.”

Image: Yarrow, by Portland artist, Sarah Farahat, available at Justseeds.org