How One Cooperative Is Trying to Develop an Alternative Economy in Oakland

Yves here. I wish this post had a bit more on the nuts and bolts of how Repaired Nations gets cooperatives on their feet. Regardless, the core message that cooperatives are econimcially resilient is actually reasonably well proven. The most dramatic case is Mondragon, the Basque cooperative super-power. After the 2008 crisis, Spain was hit particularly hard, with unemployment nationally reaching 27%. In the Basque region, which is dominated by Mondragon enterprises, unemployment reached only 12%.

Aside from the high odds of greater worker commitment due to more say in how things are run, another huge advantage cooperatives have is the lack of the need to reward equity investors and comparatively modest executive and managerial pay. These factors confer huge cost advantages which allow for more generous treatment of workers and more community-friendly practices.

By Aric Sleeper, an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller. Produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge, and in 2021 Americans quit their jobs in record numbers, people are increasingly refusing to work for corporations that don’t place enough value on their labor and lives, leading to alternative, employee-centered business models becoming increasingly appealing.

In the United States, there are about 500 worker cooperatives or businesses that are owned and operated by the employees, like REI and Alvarado Street Bakery. A recent study shows that U.S. counties with a higher number of cooperative businesses were more resilient during the last economic crisis in 2008, and recovered quicker in the aftermath.

For those in communities that have endured economic hardships decades before the pandemic or the Great Recession, the cooperative business model has already entered the mainstream.

Growing up in East Oakland, a region of Oakland, California, which is filled with aging and abandoned buildings, divided by a busy, polluting interstate and plagued with poverty and heavy drug use, Gregory Jackson, founder of Repaired Nations, knew even as a kid that he wanted to devote his time to improving his community.

“I saw my city at its worst; decimated by the crack epidemic; [Oakland] turned into a ghost town,” Jackson states. “I’ve seen the effects of underinvestment firsthand, including the degrading effects it can have on the mind. Every closed down business left an unkept, rotting shell; streets felt unsafe to walk and play on.”

After traveling to New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Jackson saw as local residents and organizations took control of disaster relief efforts when government aid fell short. Witnessing the damaged communities come together for the greater good in New Orleans became the seed for an idea that eventually led to the creation of Repaired Nations.

“Applying this lesson to the broader problem of Black wealth and autonomy, I knew that the way forward for my community would come from within,” Jackson says.

Formed in 2018, soon after Jackson graduated from law school, Repaired Nations is a project of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC)—where Jackson himself is a fellow—which was conceptualized with the aim of organizing and educating Black community members in the Bay Area about how to start and run their own cooperative businesses and create economic security derived from collective ownership.

“I began interning with the Sustainable Economies Law Center after realizing that without an economic and community-centered foundation, Black people would continue to be exploited and marginalized. With SELC, I researched incessantly, looking for ways [in which] cooperative ideals and principles [could] be used to develop Black businesses and create thriving communities. Here, [at SELC], I learned about the many facets and forms of cooperatives,” says Jackson.

The practice of cooperative business, or those owned and operated by the employees, has a long history within the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities of the United States, according to the book Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, which was also a source of inspiration for Jackson and the team at Repaired Nations.

“That book really set the fire,” says Mia Jackson, co-chair at Repaired Nations, “People in our [Black] community always say that we need to come together. It’s like a mantra, but there was no framework for what it looked like. It was lost from memory. But with Gordon Nembhard’s book, we saw how the cooperative model has been used in the past and how it’s been done successfully, and how we can band together to solve our problems [within the Black community].”

Repaired Nations helps cooperative businesses find financing and helps them operate once they’re off the ground, and also serves as a connective hub for the Bay Area’s Black cooperative movement through live events and virtual conferences like the 2021 Black Cooperative Solidarity Conference.

“It started out [with the idea of] actually [going] to Africa, but COVID nixed all of that, so [in 2021] we made it into a webinar,” says Jackson. “We all learned so much in organizing and producing and editing it. [The webinar] was a major accomplishment and I have to give props to the entire conference team.”

Mia Jackson is the founder of one of Repaired Nations’-supported cooperative businesses called Authentik Afrikan, which she started at the onset of the pandemic. When Jackson realized that many people in her community were not wearing face masks to protect themselves and others against the coronavirus, she devised an elegant solution.

“People weren’t really wearing masks, and I thought, if the mask was beautiful, more people would wear them. So to make them more appealing, I recruited my daughter and my niece and started making masks out of Ankara fabric, which I also happened to have too much of,” says Jackson. “We also supported Repaired Nations with a portion of our mask sales. It was a way we could help everyone through this hard time.”

Authentik Afrikan is one of several cooperative businesses in East Oakland supported by Repaired Nations along with others like the DEEP Grocery Coop and Good JuJu Good Vibes. The organization also supports projects like Oaxxanda—which aims to provide pathways to East Oakland residents to “deepen their healing journeys” by developing a live/work cooperative complex for BIPOC members—and local artists and musicians like Honey Gold Jasmine.

“We give these small collectives technical support and help people to get the paperwork and documentation for things like business licensing and financial projections. Basically, we’re guiding people through the work and elevating them so they can grow their business and become sustainable,” says Jackson.

However, the work of Repaired Nations goes beyond helping those starting or running a cooperative business and also includes educating Black youth in East Oakland through book clubs, workshops and work-based learning programs. Their most recent apprenticeship cohort was funded in part by a grant from the Stupski Foundation.

“We had nine individuals in the [apprenticeship] cohort. They were artists and students and folks who were undecided about their future careers,” says Jackson. “They came and apprenticed with the small cooperative businesses we work with. It was really amazing because the small businesses were able to get some help, and the students were able to learn in an actual business setting. In the end, the participants wanted to get more involved, and I can see now how this will become a pipeline for future cooperatives.”

Moving forward, Greg and Mia Jackson and the team at Repaired Nations are preparing for future growth by expanding their presence on social media, team building and thinking more about fundraising strategies.

“My hope is that as we build, we remain strong and keep the same focus that we’ve had since the beginning and keep gathering [new focus areas] along the way,” says Jackson.

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  1. Samuel Conner

    Do readers have knowledge of successful efforts in ‘cooperative residence ownership’?

    I’m thinking in terms of high density residences, analogous to ‘single room occupancy’ settings. My perception of the economics of local SRO hotels is that they are significantly profitable, which suggests the possibility of cooperative arrangements that could significantly lower housing costs for the residents.

    1. Otis B Driftwood

      I grew up in cooperative housing in a suburb of Chicago. This wasn’t a hippie commune, it was designed and built after WWII to provide affordable housing for veterans. Like Levittown in NY, the entire town was planned around the idea that the “co-ops” would be the place to start a new family and then eventually transition to traditional home ownership. I saw a lot of friends come and go during the years I grew up there (1970s), but many like my family never left.

    2. Patrick Morrison

      The ‘Collegiate Living Organization’ ( provides inexpensive just-off-campus housing and some meals for ~80 University of Florida students in what is, essentially, a student-run SRO. For me, in the early 80’s, it made the difference between taking a chance on a bachelor’s degree at UF and sticking with my restaurant kitchen job. Many years later, hanging out with some of my CLO friends, we joked about the need for the same thing when we hit retirement age. I think there’s much more to the idea than joking about it. If I were to do something about it I’d look to CLO’s experience to inform my own.

    3. Samuel Conner

      Thanks all.

      @ Patrick Morrison

      > the need for the same thing when we hit retirement age. I think there’s much more to the idea than joking about it

      agreed; this has been on my mind in recent years too.

      change from below

    4. diptherio

      There are many housing co-ops in the US, with many different structures. Some are similar to SRO situations that you describe, some are composed of individual houses and look more like a regular neighborhood, and the most active in recent years have been manufactured home communities converting to cooperative ownership (see

  2. diptherio

    REI is NOT a worker-owned co-op, it’s a consumer co-op (currently engaged in union-busting).

    1. diptherio

      Adding, putting REI and Alvarado Street Bakery in the same sentence, as though they bear any resemblance to each other, is some pretty poor journalism. The author should probably educate themselves on some co-op basics before writing an article about them, as this kind of conflation is pretty unhelpful for worker co-ops (and distressingly common).

      1. Charlie

        gotta agree here. REI is essentially owned by its customers. I think hybrid ownership models are interesting (like resonate), but strictly consumer cooperatives like REI are garbage for workers.

  3. Dave in Austin

    I’ve been involved in a number of cooperative ventures: food coops in the Washington, DC area, a locally created hostel in Austin and most recently, a food coop and a brewing coop in Austin. Those are just the highlights; I’ve helped a number of other coops in one way or another, generally housing coops.

    I’m still very much in favor of coops. They teach people about self-government and can often provide needed services.

    The downsides: coop volunteers often don’t understand the basic business issues: every dollar spent must be equaled by a dollar earned; coops like other businesses grow by earning a net profit and not using all of it to increase wages- some must be retained to fund expansions- “the period of primitive accumulation” Marx called it; and most fatally, the vested interests of coop owners who want the maximum service at the minimum cost coupled with the usual human “I like it the way it is” leads to stagnation and a lack of what Schumpeter called “Creative destruction”.

    That said, housing coops are often very successful and a real business plan is what the government-funded National Coop Bank in DC is always looking for. The up-side is cheap, basic housing; the down-side is the limited owner profits- you can’t tear down “your” house and build and sell “your” McMansion. I’m about to buy a small home in Greenbelt, MD, a Roosevelt-era planned coop community near Washington DC. The rules can be a bit of a pain in the butt. There is little chance the house will make me rich. But it is a very nice, decent walkable place to hang your hat.

    1. diptherio

      “Primitive accumulation,” in Marx, refers to things like the enclosure movement and colonial land-grabs (i.e. outright theft), not building up your operating reserves in a new business…just sayin’.

      There is a large difference between consumer co-ops, which most food co-ops are, and worker co-ops. There are no “volunteers” in a worker co-op, and the problems you point to are not generally the ones that plague worker co-ops. It makes a huge difference whether the co-op members are just shoppers, or the people actually doing the work, as the incentives in each case are very different.

  4. Andrea

    For clarification, REI is not a worker cooperative owned and operated by the employees, as the article says – it’s a member owned co-op. There are many consumer-owned co-ops (like food co-ops) or producer-owned co-ops, that are not worker owned.

  5. diptherio

    Collective Courage is definitely worth a read, especially if you’re interested in economic history, Black history, or both. If you follow the link in the article, to PSU Press, you can use the code JGN14 to get 20% off the cover price.

  6. Tommy S

    Also in Bay Area: Rainbow Grocery, which is huge. (500 employees??), and then at least 3 Arizmendi bakeries….among others…

    1. diptherio

      Pretty sure Rainbow isn’t nearly that big. And the Arizmendi co-ops include 6 bakeries, a construction co-op and a landscaping co-op. Arizendi and Rainbow are both cool af.

      1. diptherio

        Checked up on the Rainbow numbers, and while they’re not at 500 workers, they’ve got more than I thought:

        Since we moved to our current location at 13th and Folsom in 1996, we have more than doubled our workforce from about 85 people to over 250.

  7. anon y'mouse

    i bet i went to school with Gregory Jackson. if not him, then one of his older siblings.

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