Go Far Together: The Two Year Journey of a Kola Nut

‘He who brings kola brings life.’

Igbo Proverb as noted in “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

As 2019 comes to a close, the Kola Nut Collaborative has taken up residence in an office at Flood’s Hall which will allow us to broaden the number of regular programs we may present to the public in furtherance of our mission to use timebanking as a method to cultivate social infrastructure. This development arises at the close of the year providing an opportune time to reflect on where we have been and are heading.

The vision for the Kola Nut Collaborative was born out of the intersection of Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living, Healthy Food Hub, and Cowry Collective in 2017. Several Chicago-based organizers and activists who came to know Cowry Collective between 2011 and 2015 were inspired to develop a similar model here. Healthy Food Hub already hosting conversations on social and community economies made direct invitation in 2015 to Chinyere Oteh to visit and speak about the work of Cowry Collective during a weekly Market Day.

Her visit served as a catalyst for a social permaculture curriculum facilitated during Black Oaks Center’s Lifeboat Series in 2017. The Lifeboat Series was a 72 hour permaculture training hosted by Black Oaks Center which concluded with students developing a final practicum based either on a place, project, or system. While permaculture is often applied to natural or agricultural systems, its social and economic dimensions are greatly underdeveloped. Deploying the timebank as an element of social permaculture highlights that cultivating communities and relationships raises the potential for successfully transforming a natural or agricultural system.

During our first year of launch, the Collaborative would facilitate three Kola 101 sessions to introduce timebanking to neighborhood partners around Chicago; an Emergent Strategy Time Salon (based upon adrienne maree brown’s text “Emergent Strategy”) with Sacred Keepers Sustainability Lab; a Time Traveling Pop-Up Session at Black Eutopia Festival; a DIY Collaboration Space for Perform/Transform 2 Festival; a Timebanking as Collaborative Strategy presentation before Hive Chicago Network (now Chicago Learning Exchange); a Collaborative Economy Working Group within Chi Hack Night; and Deliberate Practice: A Walking Meditation with Marianna Lopez at Garfield Park Conservatory. Each of these activities in their own way was an activation of the built environment and human resources in ways that were meant to communicate what timebanking makes possible within communities.

Our relationship with Hive Chicago Network would evolve in 2018 into a Chronocurrency pilot initiative launched during their monthly gathering with orientation and training hosted by Lincoln Park Zoo. Under this pilot, network members joined the timebank, trained on agency to agency trading via our platform, and received dedicated technical support throughout the life of the project. Several members from the pilot remained with the timebank and have continued to cultivate new collaborations within it. Chicago Park District via North Park Nature Center have served as an ongoing partner, community hub, and orientation host site for timebanking in the Albany Park neighborhood. The relationship would expand in 2019 to include the Environmentalists of Color network who partnered on a “Community Building & Reciprocal Exchanges” workshop facilitated by the Collaborative.

By 2018, our vision for timebanking had expanded towards a desire to broaden outreach to social movements and activate organizing in Chicago around the solidarity economy. Members within Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) developed a Solidarity Economy Working Group in the fall of 2017. During this same period, the Collaborative became a member of New Economy Coalition (NEC) granting access to a national network of shared learning, support, and resources. Our relationship with New Economy Coalition had been forming since their 2017 bi-annual Member Meeting in Chicago which featured a one-day workshop facilitated by Highlander Center entitled “Mapping Our Futures: An Economics and Governance Curriculum”. More information on this transformative curriculum can be located on Highlander Center’s website.

In the spring of 2018, the Collaborative helped co-facilitate the launch of Cooperation for Liberation Study & Working Group (Coop 4 Lib) when Joan Fadayiro initiated a dialogue on the intersection between timebanking and worker-owned cooperative development. Out of a trio of community forums organized by Joan in response to the 2016 elections, Coop 4 Lib bloomed into a two year old initiative with a core team organized into four working committees which hold bi-weekly public gatherings at #theLetUsBreathe Collective’s Breathing Room space in Back of the Yards. These public gatherings are an intentional space where participants reflect upon the historical and contemporary use of cooperative ownership models in Black communities as a pathway towards economic justice. Our public forums have included the launch of a zine which presents a selection of concepts from Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s “Collective Courage”; an immersive gallery and timeline charting Black cooperative history from the 19th century to the present; a guided meditation on our living social networks; and a World Cafe style visioning of how our lives might look within a fully realized solidarity economy. A toolkit from our inaugural public forum can be located here.

The first project proposal of the Chicago DSA Solidarity Economy Working Group was a zine to explain the solidarity economy in broad conceptual strokes that were connected to projects active within the region. The Collaborative delivered an article entitled “A Community Currency Primer” which was later released on Medium when development of the publication stalled due to lack of submissions. The group switched its attention to hosting “Solidarity Economy 101” in May of 2018 which brought together presenters active in Chicagoland region solidarity economy initiatives to speak about their projects including Sean Shatto of Dill Pickle Food Co-op, Scotty Hendricks of Qumbya Housing Cooperative, Bradley Rydholm of Horizontal Stateline (a Rockford-based community land trust) and Mike Strode of the Kola Nut Collaborative. Kate Duva of Prosocial Power facilitated mocktail introductions in a style echoing the popular education methodology of Highlander Center.

Following Solidarity Economy 101, the focus of the Collaborative switched sharply towards developing of a series of curated economic encounters on invitation from the P.O.W.E.R. Project and Art Leaders of Color Network as part of an annual month-long programming takeover of Comfort Station Logan Square. Seven events curated at Comfort Station would lay the groundwork our primary facilitated offering dubbed the Time Salon which guides participants through dialogue and practice in communal asset mapping, social economy and non-monetary exchange. Those Time Salons included: Empathic Economies: A Black Lives Matter Listening Session; Gift Economies of Scale: Readings and Reflections on “The Gift”; Collaborative Economies: Screening of Katie Teague’s “Money & Life”; Resistance To Resilience: On Puerto Rico’s Mutual Aid Centers; Our Social Economies: Community Peace Circle on Value and Values; A Brief History of Big Ideas, Excess Capacities, and Unmet Needs; and the Currency of Social Structure: A No-Money Marketplace.

That summer proved a busy season as we moved immediately from curating at Comfort Station to preparing for our attendance at New Economy Coalition’s CommonBound conference in St. Louis near the end of June 2018. Our visit to St. Louis was bookended by participation in the Evolving & Emerging Economies Mini Jam facilitated by Chinyere Oteh of Cowry Collective, Maya Hackett of Pollen Institute, and Shilpa Jain of YES! This Mini Jam became a small, reflective container in which a handful of invited participants could escape contemplation of the complex economic ideas circulated throughout the weekend and begin the deep, imaginative work of envisioning the world we desired to live within.

CommonBound 2018

Experiencing the YES! Jam format in St. Louis proved helpful when the Collaborative was invited in July 2018 by Chicago Community Trust and Citizen University to join the launch of the Chicago Civic Collaboratory, a gathering of regional civic innovators and leaders brought together to create a hybrid of a mutual aid society and project incubator. While the provocations brought into the room to inspire dialogue were useful, there were several challenges in stimulating meaningful collaboration since the model focused on participants pitching to a room full of people who were expected to make commitments the same day. Follow up, scheduling, and consistency proved difficult until the project sunsetted in April of 2019 after three gatherings.

July was also a month when Grow Greater Englewood and Phoenix Diverse Holistics Collaborative came together to host a Circle Keeper Training in Englewood supported by the Chicago Fund for Safe & Peaceful Communities. There has long been a vacuum on the south side for a regular, public community peace circle similar to the one held in Rogers Park at United Church through Circles & Ciphers. During this session, seventeen participants were guided through the protocol and practice of facilitating a peace circle and sent away with a mandate to facilitate at least one circle within the next month with support available from the instructors as necessary. While that regular south side circle has yet to materialize, we are hopeful that the Collaborative can use the timebank infrastructure to incentivize a small cadre of circle keepers to circulate this responsibility in the coming year.

On returning to Chicago from CommonBound following a months long sprint of activity, the Collaborative learned that the Solidarity Economy Working Group had elected to pursue hosting Chicago’s 1st Cooperative Economy Summit in late August of 2018 absent full member input. While dismayed at realizing we had just under two months to prepare for a convergence of solidarity and cooperative economy initiatives within the city which broadly represented work happening within and between sectors, we moved to facilitate introductions, make connections, and address oversights in the initial Working Group planning process. This hasty restructuring resulted in a Summit attracting roughly 250 attendees to the West Loop for seven hours of speaker panels and breakout sessions on a Saturday.

Earlier in August, Illinois Worker Co-operative Alliance and John Marshall Law School Business Enterprise Law Clinic (now Community Enterprise and Solidarity Economy Clinic) had released their report “Cooperation Chicago: Building Chicago’s Worker Cooperative Ecosystem”. The Cooperative Economy Summit would portend a wave of new collaboration on the horizon within Chicago’s solidarity economy including the announcement of an inaugural convening of the Chicagoland Cooperative Ecosystem Coalition in October 2018. While the Solidarity Economy Working Group was a bit worn on closing the Summit, we did manage to hold space for a Post-Summit Reflection & Response Gathering to review what was accomplished and what work might occur going forward.

Cooperation Chicago – Rev 082418

Amidst this flurry of August activity, a group of restorative justice practitioners and circle keepers had gathered to plan and host a citywide Restorative Justice Summit over two days at Chicago Teachers Union. The event was meant to connect and galvanize a network of practitioners in the city who were bringing a range of different values to the practice of restorative justice. Prominent among the conversations was the use of restorative justice within and adjacent to the criminal justice system when those who employed the practice in social movement spaces were committed to prison and police abolition. Neither this conversation nor the role of racial equity were resolved during the Summit, but the Collaborative did manage to facilitate a breakout discussion on the role of restorative justice practice and values in creating a more just and equitable economy which several attendees found rewarding.

Given the outsized role of the Collaborative in facilitating multiple spaces, our work around timebanking grew dormant and pilot partnerships operated with relative autonomy in their collaboration. One exception was a September 2018 presentation at the inaugural DegrowUS Gathering featuring a 15 minute “Lightning Talk” on the use of timebanking and community currencies in cultivating diverse local economies as part of a degrowth strategy. The four day gathering opened space for several strategic conversations on the interaction between timebanking, circular economy, degrowth, and social movements with just transition as a value central to these conversations.

BRIJ Embassy for Black America approached the Collaborative earlier in 2018 about a content partnership highlighting work being done by solidarity and cooperative economy practitioners whose initiatives centered the needs of Black communities. The Ujamaa Hour launched in October of 2018 with a 4 episode pilot scheduled to sunset at the end of the year. Through this endeavor, we have currently released 16 episodes with featuring 13 interviews covering 5 cities throughout the US. With Flood’s Hall extending its space partnership this year, our intent is to further improve production value and develop a dedicated studio for hosting these conversations.

October was an auspicious time for launching the Ujamaa Hour as the Collaborative had recently been invited by Nexus Community Partners and the newly formed Village Financial Cooperative to present on our solidarity economy work in Chicago during their St. Paul gathering, Blackonomics. Blackonomics would serve as a clarifying space for some of our ideas around how we wished to support the solidarity economy in Chicago providing inspiration for developing immersive galleries, guided meditations, and visioning exercises. The gathering closed with Dr. Rose Brewer hosting a group reflection and offering some of her insights from being a core organizer for the US Social Forum.

While the Solidarity Economy Working Group was still not meeting consistently, a collaboration developed with the campaign of Rossana Rodriguez (now Alderman-elect of the 33rd Ward), Chicago Boricua Resistance, and Midwest Socialist to co-host an event entitled “Chaos or Community: Lessons in Mutual Aid from Puerto Rico After Maria”. With Puerto Rico still reeling from Hurricane Maria in the year after it made landfall, this event held space for us to learn from organizers within Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana (Mutual Aid Project of Mariana) about how they came together to help their community survive in the aftermath.

Closing 2018 proved a challenge with multiple projects winding down and spinning up. A writing assignment with Sixty Inches from Center and Illinois Humanities’ Envisioning Justice Initiative found us covering restorative practice and community building at Circles & Ciphers in Rogers Park. Chicago DSA Community Councils Working Group had built some momentum throughout the summer and were preparing for a first public event. Both Kola Nut Collaborative and Community Councils Working Group were evaluating invitations from Symbiosis to become signatories and co-authors on their call for a 2019 Congress of Municipal Movements.

“People’s Assemblies: Building Direct Democracy (And Why We Need It)” was presented by Community Councils Working Group in late January 2019. While the Working Group has dissolved, its research and presentations tools were archived in a public toolkit by the Collaborative. February was a relatively quiet period around the Collaborative with the exception of our attendance at a Story-based Strategy Introductory Training hosted by Center for Story-based Strategy and Chicago Coalition to End Money Bond. Activity dramatically ramped up again in March as the Collaborative joined Illinois Coalition for Cooperative Advancement in seeking passage in the Illinois Legislature of HB3663 (Limited Worker Cooperative Association Act).

With the Collaborative seeking more formal structure in its third year, we enrolled in the 43rd cohort of Sunshine Enterprises’ Community Business Academy, a 12 week entrepreneurial curriculum replicating a model from Rising Tide Capital offering a basic foundation for business launch or expansion which prepares entrepreneurs to pursue more rigorous business coaching and mentoring. This Academy ran concurrent with a Cooperative Development Fellowship facilitated by Nexus Community Partners and Democracy-At-Work Institute (DAWI) which offered us access to additional resources to fortify the work of both Coop 4 Lib and a larger cooperative ecosystem developing in Chicago. The fellowship included in-person training, webcasts, and an opportunity to more closely examine the cooperative ecosystems in Boston and the Twin Cities. Commitments to the Academy and the Fellowship would hold the bulk of our attention through June and October of 2019 respectively.

In May of 2019, an opportunity to travel and learn in Madison, Wisconsin for “The Art & Science of Cooperative Development: Building Blocks” series hosted by Cooperation Works! arose and we were able to see how the different elements of their cooperative ecosystem interacted with each other. University of Wisconsin at Madison was our host site and home to the Center for Cooperatives which is one of the most robust and longest operating university-based research centers for cooperative ownership in the US. The week-long training brought attendees from all regions of the country together to draw insight from those with deeper experience in cooperative development. Our closing session found Alex Stone presenting on the value of a robust cooperative ecosystem and prompting a period of reflection on our medium and long term goals for contributing to that ecosystem in our own cities and regions. The Collaborative made some firm commitments to continue the cooperative education which gave rise to the timebank and use the timebank to provide some facilitative infrastructure for sharing skills and talents within our ecosystem.

Global Degrowth Day in Chicago was hosted on May 29th at Dill Pickle Food Co-Op and the Collaborative was invited to emcee the gathering which included: “Awaken Giant!” by Barry Feldman of Rebel For Life Pop-Up Theater; “HEADING FOR EXTINCTION & WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT!” by Joe Phillips of Extinction Rebellion Chicago; Jim Benton of Chicago Tool Library; “How We Got Here; How We Get Out of Here” by H. Peter Steeves and Danielle Meijer of DePaul University Department of Philosophy; and “DeCOALonize and DeGrow: Ending the Tyranny of Growth and Creating a Revitalized Sense of Possibility” by Rachel Elfant of Chicago Area Peace Action and Centro Romero. Degrowth can be a cryptic and misunderstood concept, but the interdisciplinary nature of this event format allowed presenters from divergent backgrounds to reflect on its relationship to their particular work. This allowed the audience to consider several different options for how they might engage degrowth in their own life and work.

At the mid-point of our Cooperative Development Fellowship in July 2019, we made a trek to visit with Boston Ujima Project and heard from a panel of cooperative enterprises active within the New England region. August would prove tremendously exciting as the Illinois Coalition for Cooperative Advancement and cooperators throughout the state pushed HB3663 (Limited Worker Cooperative Association Act) over the final hurdle in the Illinois Legislature to pass a public act which will ensure that worker-owned and multi-stakeholder cooperatives have a designated corporate entity as of January 1, 2020. The Co-Op Ed Center hosted their Summer Co-Op Celebration inviting Coop 4 Lib to share their work among a gathering of supporters, cooperatives, developers, and consultants offering a festive close to the month.

In the lead up to September, we had been participating on a bi-weekly planning call for the upcoming New Economy Coalition (NEC) Member Meeting occurring in the second week of that month. Our convergence was scheduled to take place in Asheville where members of the coalition had autonomously formed their own regional coalition to address the needs of Western North Carolina. The national body was going through some transformation and sought to create space during the Member Meeting to present some strategies under consideration for which they were seeking member input. With work still be done in Chicago, we pushed pause and embarked on a retreat to the meet with other zealous organizers towards a more democratic, just, and equitable economy. Between Tuesday and Friday of that week, we learned together, shared meals, built relationships, exchanged resources, and found a way through the more confusing parts of coalition building. At the end, the Collaborative for our part felt like we had a better understanding of our own role within the coalition and what types of support we could expect from other members.

While we had planned to return from the NEC Member Meeting and make a bee line for Detroit to attend the Congress of Municipal Movements hosted by Symbiosis, a break from additional commitments was necessary to reflect and digest on all of the opportunities 2019 had presented. How could we best leverage the infrastructure of the Kola Nut Collaborative to build familiarity in Chicago for these models we had studied during our travels? While the UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) Sawyer Seminar in late September did not entirely build the type of synergy we thought would evolve from the space, it did offer some clarity around the role of the academy in researching and documenting prefigurative solidarity economy organizing work. We also had the opportunity during the Seminar to strengthen our ties with Cooperation Jackson and cultivate a space for shared learning between projects. They shared some specific interest in building out their timebanking strategy and wanted to learn from our research and work in this area.

October brought to a close the Cooperative Development Fellowship with Nexus and DAWI. Much of this month was spent attempting to strengthen our final portfolio for presentation to the group. The latter half of the month found the Collaborative in attendance at the annual Dill Pickle Food Co-op Annual Member Meeting with a member of the team being elected to a seat on the board. This was followed by a period in November of paring down several obligations as new endeavors including Asase Yaa Hemp Cooperative and ChiFresh Kitchen were building new momentum. Rising Tide Chicago invited us to present on timebanking during the launch of their Chase Bank divestment campaign as an alternative means of exchange for communities economically exploited on the frontline of environmental injustice. Garfield Park’s Nu Church Movement had also been working closely with the Collaborative on a Land and Housing Toolkit which could be used to provide education and policy insight about cooperative housing options that might stem displacement in their neighborhood. This work reached a new plateau in December as we joined a panel before the S.A.V.E. Alliance to present cooperative ownership as a critical anti-displacement strategy for local organizers to engage.

‘When the Kola nut reaches home, it will tell where it came from.’

Igbo Proverb

Over the course of the past two years, the Kola Nut Collaborative has evolved from its initial aspiration to cultivate a citywide timebank which can create an infrastructure for resident engagement accessible to all neighborhoods. We now endeavor to be a catalyst for novel and unconventional economic approaches to building and empowering communities at the resident level. We seek to lift up diverse, community economies where a number of different methods are available to meet needs. There is far too much happening at the medium and large institutional layer which leaves behind small residential associations and organizations. We seek to be the partner of these grassroots neighborhood efforts offering a unique approach to mapping assets which enriches their social capital.

To this end, we celebrate the new partnership with Flood’s Hall which will enable us to host additional member orientations, potlatches, Time Salons, and circles. This means that more of our members can begin to take full advantage of their membership within the timebank by meeting others and building those trust relationships which are so critical to rooting the timebank in communities. We thank all of the participants who have joined us and maintained their activity thus far as the timebank has attempted to locate its footing. We ask members who have disengaged to revisit their reasons for joining the timebank and see if there are things here which meet your present needs. 2020 is certain to be an exciting year and we look forward navigating it alongside each one of you. Our membership and the relationships they establish are our abundant social infrastructure made visible.

Kola Timebanking Guide

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