CDF grantee spotlight: North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship–a project of Nexus Community Partners


Members of the North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship’s third cohort. [photo: Roosevelt Mansfield]
Nkuli Shongwe grew up with a deep cultural knowledge of the power of cooperation. When she learned about the cooperative movement in the U.S., she quickly understood its importance. “When thinking about how people come together for a certain cause—whether it is to build wealth, or develop a business together—co-ops just made sense to me!”

As Community Wealth Building Coordinator at Nexus Community Partners in St. Paul, Minnesota, Nkuli now facilitates the North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship (North Star), a seven-month fellowship focused on Black American cooperative economic history, thought and practice. The Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF) has supported this program through its Cooperative Education Fund.

“Nexus Community Partners is an intermediary at the nexus of community, philanthropy and government,” Nkuli explains. “We’re celebrating 20 years as a Black-led, BIPOC-majority organization that does work around three ‘ships’: authorship, leadership and ownership.”

Authorship With a focus on community engagement, Nexus ensures systems are taking the lead from communities when making decisions—and making sure those communities are paid for that work.
Leadership A training fellowship prepares BIPOC folks interested in civic roles like boards and commissions; a number of current leaders are alumni of the program.
Ownership Community wealth building work is a key part of the work.

Nexus previously focused on asset-based community wealth building but switched to a cooperative development approach inspired by the work of Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard and her celebrated book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.

Introduced by a Nexus-led book club in 2017, Collective Courage was a key starting point for the organization’s journey into cooperatives, ultimately resulting in a space for facilitating Black cooperative education and development with technical assistance: the North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship.

The North Star curriculum focuses on context, practical skills and support. The history of Black feminist and cooperative economics, and a power and landscape analysis of Minnesota cooperative and financial institutions provides the background. Cooperative skills like governance, decision-making and conflict resolution—coupled with access to funding—help provide the tools and resources to develop and strengthen new and existing co-ops. Finally, coaching to better engage in cooperative business boards to build power in the cooperative sector, and support in designing and creating a strategy for a cooperative economic project, are the culmination of the work.

“It’s been so important to build cross-sectoral relationships in this space, building with community partners, non-profits, governmental agencies, and national and local funders—folks like AmbitioUS via the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) and Shared Capital Cooperative,” Nkuli notes. “It’s been really amazing to have the support from CDF to help us do this work.”

97 cohort members have graduated from the fellowship since 2017. And now that North Star has been in place for a number of years, cross-cohort engagement has emerged: alumni are even stepping up financially to support the organizing efforts of new groups.

“I love being with the North Star program—it’s a wonderful co-learning space,” Nkuli concludes. “People having access to cooperative knowledge, having an avenue to get into cooperatives, and then seeing themselves in that vision, and moving forward with the work… I think that’s really exciting. It’s really beautiful to see.”

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