Black-owned cooperative startups in the North End model opportunity for more equitable Detroit

Fast and fresh homemade eats. Locally crafted beauty products. Sustainably grown plants, and garden supplies. Three new cooperative businesses are taking shape in the North End neighborhood, all owned and operated by Black Detroiters, most of who are women living and working in the community.

STUFFED Detroit cafe, Everything Beautiful Beauty Supply and the recently opened Black Bottom Garden Center are all spring 2021 graduates of the North End Co-op Academy. This place-based cooperative business incubator is the first of its kind in the city and a pilot program of Detroit Community Wealth Fund (DCWF) in partnership with North End Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC) and Detroit Justice Center. 

The 16-week academy and incubator, launched by DCWF last November, was designed to develop worker-owned enterprises for the commercial district along Oakland Avenue, a goal of North End Christian CDC toward equitable community revitalization.

“Cooperatives are an opportunity for Black-owned businesses to thrive once again in the city of Detroit,” says Natosha Tallman, program director at Oakland Avenue Urban Farms, an arm of North End Christian CDC. “Economic disparity often places those individuals with entrepreneurial spirits at a disadvantage. Many of us simply lack the financial capacity to start and/or maintain a for-profit business.”

Tallman is one of five female worker-owners introducing STUFFED Detroit Cafe, an ecologically-minded farm-to-table option for folks on the go. Menu items will include po’ boys (vegan and regular), jerk wings, and all things “stuffed,” including waffles, mushrooms, and burgers. The cafe will be taking pre-orders this summer from the kitchen at Mama Akua Community House in the North End, while working toward acquiring a food truck for the business corridor. 

“I’m excited to walk into this new journey of ownership,” Tallman says. “By pooling dollars and resources, cooperatives provide a safety net where democracy and ownership are intrinsic. [They] offer an opportunity for those who have been historically marginalized to tap into privilege often only reserved for those who have access to generational wealth.”

Founded in 2017, DCWF exists to empower innovative residents of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park, many of who've been excluded from today’s economic system. The fund works alongside their clients, helping to guide and build democratically run co-op businesses—where every worker is an equal-share owner with an equal voice in decision-making.

“It’s about self-determination and self-reliance,” says DCWF executive director Margo Dalal. “Co-ops are part of the strategy for a solidarity economy, and for wealth-building opportunities for Black and brown Detroiters. From the perspective of the pandemic, we saw how vulnerable a lot of industries were, and low-wage workers were the first to go. Co-ops are more resilient in economic downturns,” she says, “and often grow out of economic crises.”

This is largely due to the ability worker-owners have to strategize for their own well-being, she adds, as well as the support co-ops can receive from nonprofits like DCWF and its national community wealth cooperative, Seed Commons. 

During COVID-19, Seed Commons, with DCWF’s democratic vote, has paused loan payments for struggling co-ops, raised emergency funding for worker-owners, provided critical technical support, and helped businesses pivot offerings, Dalal says. This kind of emergency support aligns with the nonprofit’s principle of non-extractive financing, where loans are never gleaned at the detriment to businesses, but only through revenue derived from the investment. 

Non-extractive loans also mean loans aren’t based on personal assets or the credit histories of co-op members. This is a game-changer when it comes to startups between strangers, like the three new businesses launching in the North End. DCWF investments are instead contingent on the viability of a business plan and the relationships formed with member-owners. Enter the North End Co-op Academy & Incubator. 

Nineteen volunteer participants worked together over four months to create three businesses community members voiced a desire to see in their neighborhood. Participants ranged from people who’d had business ideas but didn’t know where to start, to folks with definite small business and nonprofit experience, to those who simply wanted to contribute to an organization they believe in. 

Enrollees learned about workers’ rights and responsibilities, non-hierarchical management, and the history and principles behind co-ops. They developed business plans, financial models, legal entities, marketing strategies, mission statements, etc.

“It took the wealth fund several years to find a community that understood co-ops,” Dalal says about North End Christian CDC’s invitation to collaborate, “that could connect the dots and see the impact co-ops can have, which has translated now to some incredible worker-owners.” 

DCWF hosted a virtual graduation ceremony for those worker-owners in April. Each co-op shared its mission and plans and gave its best “pitch” to win the night’s ticket sales and donations. Black Bottom Garden Center, which opened Mother’s Day weekend at Oakland Ave. Urban Farm took the first place prize of $1800; the other two each received $900.

“This is just the beginning,” says DCWF program manager Rosie DeSantis. As the co-ops move through their pilot phases, they’ll meet with them regularly for support. “I’ll help them wrestle with different questions that come up, really nailing down the financials and getting them loan ready,” they say. 

There’s no specific timeline for that, it could be months or years. It’s all about the relationship and trust between DCWF and worker-owners, they say, who display hustle, dedication, and a commitment to receiving support. 

In their pilot phase, Everything Beautiful Beauty Supply plans to conduct local pop-up experiences featuring body oils, healing herbs, beard butter, high-quality wigs, and more made exclusively by Detroit, metro Detroit and Michigan entrepreneurs of color. Self and beauty care workshops and demonstrations are also in the mix. Long-term goals include a mobile unit serving the North End neighborhood and a brick and mortar on Detroit’s west side. 

After hosting an exhilarating grand opening weekend, Black Bottom Garden Center, located in hoop house #2 at Oakland Ave. Urban Farm, 9227 Goodwin St. will continue weekend hours through the growing season. The center offers sustainable growing materials: soil amendments, flowers, vegetable plants, culinary herbs, exotic houseplants, hanging baskets, etc. and plans to host educational workshops in the future.

“It’s their vision that’s happening,” says DeSantis, “and it happened in four months. They get to direct it, nobody else.” Participants are enthusiastic about doing something that hasn't been done in the city before, they say, and they’re willing to be “a little rare” in their offerings.

DCWF hopes to replicate this place-based model of cooperative development across the city, one neighborhood at a time. Its second co-op academy incubator will launch this fall; location to be determined. The fund is currently working on developing a self-guided workbook to help participants new to co-ops walk smoothly through the process.

As for businesses already established, DCWF is rolling out a financial initiative to support Detroit business owners and workers who want to transition to employee ownership as a succession option.

“Detroit Community Wealth Fund has a very good problem right now,” says DeSantis. “We have access to way more funding than we have businesses to give it to. So if you are interested in the cooperative model, if you have a business idea, but you don't necessarily know how to get started, shoot us an email, think about it.”

For news on DCWF programming and spring/summer workshops, visit https://www.detroitcommunitywealth.org/ and follow @detroitcommunitywealthfund on Facebook and Instagram.

Black Bottom Garden Center is open Fridays 3-7 pm, Saturday 10 am-5pm, and Sunday 11 am-3pm.

Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller 
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