In a Climate of Racial Tension, Let’s Lift Up Co-ops as Places of Inclusion


The arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia coffee shop earlier this month underscores the deep current of inequality, bigotry and bias that still runs through too much of America. For far too many, this broader pattern in how society treats black people and other people of color makes it impossible to achieve the American dream.

And yet, there are beacons of hope. During this national moment of racial tension, it is time to lift up and support the cooperative businesses across our country that stand out as places of inclusion.

The cooperative coffee shop serves as a safe and welcoming place for everyone to live life in the full pursuit of happiness. Whether you are conducting business meetings about investing in your community, collaborating with colleagues to solve issues pertaining to food deserts, or just having a warm “cup of joe” with friends, the cooperative coffee shop will always be a welcoming and empowering place for the community it serves. Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore, Maryland, is a perfect example.

As you walk up to Red Emma’s, you can’t help but notice the toll the area’s lack of community empowerment has had on its citizens. Still, Red Emma’s—a worker-owned cooperative—is a shining light in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood. When you cross Red Emma’s threshold, you enter a diverse world of hipsters and “funkadelik” urbanites enjoying an array of locally-sourced, fresh and flavorful fare.

Another thing that stood out was how at ease patrons felt in the café—they were relaxing, enjoying a cup of coffee or just charging their phones and devices while talking about the issues of the day or reading a book from Red Emma’s diverse bookstore. The worker-owners I observed gave warm greetings to their community patrons and never once pressured them to buy. In fact, one of the worker-owners even sat down for a nice chat with a customer.

Red Emma’s felt like community.

I was there for a business meeting to discuss how social enterprises and cooperatives can improve the lives of people often overlooked in society. I felt comfortable in this environment to discuss real issues in a real way, never feeling like I would be harassed, judged or removed for offending the senses of others around me. In other words, I felt the love from Red Emma’s team serving me and from the local patrons who sat next to me. I left Red Emma’s knowing what Jessica Gordon Nembhard described in her book, Collective Courage, is true:

Cooperatives stabilize their communities – increasing economic activity, creating good jobs, increasing benefits and wages, and encouraging civic participation…Cooperatives provide a mechanism for low-resource people with few traditional opportunities to create new economic opportunities for themselves and their co-workers and neighbors.

Everyday citizens, regardless of their background, can be part of and support sustainable, democratically-owned and operated enterprises that are actively engaged in the communities they serve. Why not start by supporting your local cooperative coffee shop? There is a Red Emma’s near you.

If you live in or near one of the cities below, I encourage you to visit your local co-op coffee shop:

NCBA CLUSA member the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives has a complete list of worker co-ops here.

Support cooperation wherever you find it. These are the businesses that provide entrepreneurship opportunities, jobs, education, empowerment and civic engagement for community members. These are the businesses working to create an inclusive 21st century economy that works for and welcomes everyone.

—Stephen McDow is Manager of Membership and Stakeholder Relations at NCBA CLUSA. 

Share This Post

We hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, we would love it if you would share it to your social networks!