Building a Sustainable Community: Moving Beyond the Grass Roots to Achieve Collective Black Progress

We are into the second week of our guest series. I am grateful to have doctoral candidate Lomax Campbell as this weeks guest essayist.
Since I was first introduced to the concepts of ujamaa and susu economics, I have long pondered how these culturally-rooted ideas can be practically used to move our people and communities forward. Many of us are well aware of our specific challenges and the current situation in America and abroad (including the motherland of our ancient ancestors), so I will not explain them here. However, the very idea of comprehensive action-planning has seemed to continually escape us as we exclaim the need for “unity in the community” and making the most of our “collective consciousness.” Unfortunately, without comprehensive action planning, lofty sayings and motivational speeches are incapable of getting us on the “bus and down the road” together.
Ujamaa refers to the broad concept of cooperative economics, or the importance of supporting one another in order for both or all parties to achieve material prosperity. To keep it simple, this involves purchasing goods and services from one another. A major condition for successfully practicing ujamaa requires each party to be committed to the bigger picture of growing and prospering together. By comparison, susu refers to groups who pool money and other resources together on a fixed basis—such as monthly or annually—over time. As resources are collected, each party (i.e., individuals, groups of individuals, or even organizations) can either take turns withdrawing resources as needed, or the contributors can use the resources to acquire revenue generating assets such as property, inventory, and equipment allowing them to produce goods and services together. They can also purchase commonly used goods in bulk to reduce their overall costs. These can be thought of as “rotating credit associations” and “investment groups,” where withdrawals can be thought of as interest-free loans and grants the group creates for their own benefit. These pools of resources can also be used to pay down debts, attract investors, and secure interest bearing loans from banks and credit unions. The major condition for successfully managing susus is trust and communication since they deal with larger quantities of money and other resources, and because it can take a while before a person’s turn to make a withdrawal comes around. There are many ways to structure susus.
While these seem to be useful tools for getting our people to work together and raising funds, they are not enough to build sustainable communities on their own merits. Our people need to have a bigger vision, patience, and strategic focus in order to move from marginal grass root economic activities to building a functional ecosystem within the larger local and regional economies. We will not get too deep here. This basically means that our people must learn the basic principles of economic development, which I would like to reframe as susu economic development for our purposes to remind us that this is a collective effort. This is why capitalism has not worked for us in any substantial or collective way. Our historical and cultural strength lives in our cooperation, we must adopt a social and economic system that balances the interests of the individual with the interests of the collective. This has been described as responsive communitarianism in modern times, but has roots in ancient Afrikan civilizations. Moreover, balance does not always mean equal.
Each individual and organization within our communities must know the vital roles they play in strengthening our economic condition to achieve collective Black progress. To go a step further, it means that the Black community must be committed to supporting Black-owned businesses, Black-operated nonprofit organizations, and Black-oriented groups, teams, and associations. At www.bobrochester.com, we call them BOBs for short. It also means that BOBs must first recognize their responsibility to the Black community and other BOBs. So BOBs should strive to maintain a standard of excellence and fair pricing to qualify for community support. They should provide the first right of refusal for jobs and other opportunities to members of the Black community, particularly when qualified candidates can be identified among us (note the emphasis on qualified BOBs and job applicants/candidates from our communities). They should also strive to source their raw materials/inputs, goods, and services they buy from other BOBs whenever possible. Especially when those BOBs are located within their regions of operations. This keeps all of our money circulating in our local and regional communities and increases our collective prosperity.
The major problem with our people and communities is that we spend most of our money and other resources with other communities of people and do not produce goods, services, assets, and intellectual property for sale at the same rates or higher rates than we consume. In this situation, our money and other assets are not working for us, but against us. This economic problem has been well discussed by our elders and ancestors including Jawanza Kunjufu, Dr. Claud Anderson, Dr. Boyce Watkins, Paul A. Barton, Malcolm X, and Marcus M. Garvey to name a few. By committing to a shared vision of the future, patience, and strategic focus, we can become more organized, integrated, and deliberate about how we build together. We must identify areas where we are not currently producing and encourage our people to start new organizations working to provide for those aspects of the Black ecosystem. We have seen this in action when we observe Asian communities open stores and restaurants in our communities, or when they enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields as computer scientists, medical doctors, engineers, and other professional roles serving in or benefitting from our communities. High technology, medical device manufacturing, alternative energy, and photonics are only a few industrial areas where we are grossly underrepresented and present great opportunities for future investments. By comparison, we are oversaturated in service-based businesses such as barber and beauty shops, restaurants, and event planning. We also launch way too many nonprofit organizations, further dividing the effectiveness of taxpayer and donor/foundation funds. But I digress. If we get it right over time, there will be only a few areas where we are not producers and consumers. The honorable ancestor Malcolm X taught us the importance of buying from our own and selling to everybody. We cannot exclude that last part. I think it is high time we heed his wisdom or continue to suffer from the error of our ways.

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