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Two hands exchanging money.
It’s time to acknowledge the varied forms of co-operativism, mutual aid, self-help groups and ROSCAs that are important to the vitality of civic life. (Shutterstock)

Banking co-ops run by Black women have a longtime legacy of helping people

Ajo, Osusu, Sandooq, Chit or Arisan? These are cultural names for systems of mutual aid and collectivity — known by academics as rotating savings and credit associations, or ROSCAs for short.

ROSCAs are hidden forms of co-operatives that Black and racialized people practise all over the world, including in Canada and United States.

For the past 14 years, I’ve been studying and writing on development, financial exclusion and co-operative economies specifically for the African diaspora. Before becoming an academic, I worked as a practitioner in the field of international development for most of a decade. I was influenced by an international non-governmental organization (NGO) near Philadelphia called OIC International. The NGO was led by African Americans and founded by the late Rev. Leon Sullivan, a civil rights activist.

What I learned from African Americans was how to do business equitably, including how to co-opt aid and be mindful of the biased allocations of money.

What are ROSCAs?

ROSCAS are at the very core of what we know as the solidarity social economy — the citizens sector. They are self-managed voluntary co-ops used around the world, and they’re embedded in civil society. ROSCAs are usually described in a local vernacular — Somali Ayuuto, Jamaican Partner, Indian Chit, Haitian Sol, Chinese Hui, Equub for Eritreans and Ethiopians and Tandas for people in Latin America. And the list goes on.

ROSCAs aren’t new to me. My great-grandmother, Maude Gittens, was a street food vendor who lived in Sangre Grande, Trinidad. But she was also a well-known Susu “Banker Lady.” Susu is a local name for a ROSCA. It’s the same name used in Ghana, West Africa — in fact, is an original source for these co-ops. And Susu can be found among the diaspora outside of Africa and the Caribbean, so in your towns and cities.

The story of the Banker Ladies.

When people emigrate, they organize ROSCAs from around the world. It’s a way to help each other financially. The women who manage these co-ops are also concerned about social supports and kindness, wanting to give people a place to belong.

ROSCAs are usually made up of people who share the same socio-economic class and who are alienated from goods and services. ROSCA members decide how their co-ops will be structured. Members contribute a “hand” — a fixed sum — on a weekly or monthly basis to a pool, and that lump sum of money is collected and then shared with a member.

The women who organize ROSCAs call themselves the Banker Ladies — and they adhere to the same principles as other co-operatives.

Co-operation and self-help

My work on solidarity economies is correcting the erasure of the contributions of people of African descent. I teach my students about co-operatives, non-profits, social enterprises and mutual aid so they can go into the world and make business inclusive. I am proud to say that I see many of them disrupting conventional business practices.

My research is smashing the binaries of South/North and left/right. It pushes all of us to think about feminist futures and the theory of community economies. Feminist scholars J.K. Gibson-Graham and CERN — the community economies research network — reject the fixation on the capitalist firm as the unit of analysis for how to conduct business because most of life’s interactions are submerged like an iceberg, hidden away. Community economies have always been around. So much of our self-provisioning on this planet is beneath the surface.

As a Black feminist scholar, I am steeped in this idea of community and solidarity economies and co-operatives, along with intersectionality, because it is the one sure way to counter racial capitalism. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught any of us anything, it should be that the future of giving requires a new design. One that is thoughtful, more efficient and mindful of the knowledge and the expertise beyond white experts.

Politicizing co-operation

This is why my Black Social Economy theory is useful. It argues that to counter inequities, historically oppressed people of African descent must politicize co-operation to combat exclusion.

The Banker Ladies are living proof that there is a resistance quietly taking place. Thousands of Black and racialized women lead co-ops and remake co-operative economies despite the everyday traumas they endure.

For years, I have been interviewing hundreds of Banker Ladies in six countries. These women actually represent thousands more women, because each Banker Lady represents the members of her group, and these can range eight to 80 members. I met a Cameroonian Janjui in Toronto who had more than 1,000 members.

Read more: Banking while Black: The business of exclusion

These Banker Ladies organize co-ops, refusing to sit idly by waiting on handouts. They contribute as co-operators to make our world a better place. Banker Ladies who organize ROSCAs are rooted in mutual aid and they hold the keys to underdevelopment.

This is in part because they are consciously redefining what they do. They use group consensus and mutual aid to help those who are discriminated against, or those who feel like they don’t belong anywhere. Their work enhances civic life.

Underground Railroad

The African tradition of ROSCAs — rooted in Ujamaa, Kombit, Ubuntu and mutual aid — has helped so many people for more than 100 years and yet remains obscured, unknown. The Underground Railroad, in fact, was a co-operative in which real risks were taken to free people. When the refugees made it to Canada, they drew on True Bands, a ROSCA system.

Black women today are still pooling together their after-tax income to gift each other funds to start a new business, pay tuition fees for their children or buy a used car. ROSCAs are rooted in friendship and mutual aid. Whether people with African American roots or newcomers, these ROSCA members embrace co-operative values.

Now that COVID-19 has revived the “rebirth of mutual aid,” stories of neighbours helping each other are the most cherished ones we tell each other through the lockdowns. It’s time to acknowledge the varied forms of co-operativism, mutual aid, self-help groups and ROSCAs, and to recognize that they are important to the vitality of civic life. But none of these forms of economic co-operation are new to Black and racialized people. They are a way of life.

The pandemic has also illuminated systemic inequities and anti-Black racism. We now understand why Black people, especially women, would seek refuge in the solidarity economy and set up their own money-pooling co-op systems out of sight.

The Banker Ladies address under-banking and ensure there is some cohesion in our society. They repair the harms of anti-Black racism. ROSCAs teach all of us that solidarity matters. They teach us not to rely solely on a charitable model. We need to invest in Black women co-operators who understand trust and reciprocity, which are fundamental to building equitable economies.

This article is based on the lecture prepared for the Big Thinking on the Hill organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Science held on March 9, 2021

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