Don’t despair, organise!: an introduction to Cooperation Kentish Town

By 21 December, a week after a disastrous election for the left and a few days into the subsequent soul searching, everyone was suddenly talking about how what’s needed now is community building. That afternoon, on a small council estate in Kentish Town, a group of activists were already doing that. We didn’t need Labour to collapse in order to know that there is more to politics than the electoral cycle, or a leadership crisis to remind us that what we need to do, now and always, is to develop autonomous organising in our communities. 

Cooperation Kentish Town was born out of frustration with a different kind of organising, on the other end of the lefty spectrum from the PLP. It’s organisers – feminists, trade unionists and antifascists activists – felt that, while all these areas of organising are crucial for practical resistance, there is building to do in the grassroots, if we want to ensure that our communities develop the material and structural resilience we’ll need in the face of the next neoliberal crisis. We also knew that the politics of autonomous self organising, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid should be at the heart of that resilience. Not as an election slogan, but as day to day organising principles. 

As the name suggests, Cooperation Kentish Town (and consequent reiterations in Cooperation Hackney, Liverpool, Falmouth, etc) is inspired by Cooperation Jackson. While the current idea for this series of estate based food co-ops emerged after yet another antifascist action (we lost, they had the streets, we were licking our wounds), the principles were always there and exercised by oppressed communities everywhere, from Mississippi to Chiapas, Rojava to Palestine. 

The idea is that, while fighting racism, we need to create spaces of tolerant cooperation; that fighting fascism on the streets means that we are too late – we should have not given it an opportunity to emerge in the first place through embedding intuitive antifascism into all our interactions and through creating opportunities for people to discover and articulate this through action, rather than the usual lefty tropes of endless meetings, written analysis pieces and performative street action. 

The food co-op is a direct response to all this. It is an autonomous, self organised, self sufficient, non hierarchical space for radical social reproduction. It is operated by its members and relies on them for its growth and sustainability. It’s an invitation to practice cooperation through meeting the day to day material needs of the community. With its collectivised, free childcare, it’s a feminists space (because when women organise in the community, the community is gonna be fine). It’s a space where new skills are developed and new friendships are forged. It’s practical solidarity at the grassroots level, away from parliament and the Guardian but also away from the anarchist sphere and the traditional lefty spaces. 

We decided early on, however, that none of this needs to be explicitly articulated when we get to organising. Not because we don’t trust people to understand (they already know it!) or because we want to somehow sneakily radicalise people (they already have little faith in mainstream politics), but because we are not here to lecture people or, worse, set them on some (our) right political path – there are no votes to win or salaries to defend, there is nothing external to gain. Any success will belong to the community itself. 

We know that people struggle with household costs and are forced to buy expensive, low quality food, while there is what seems like an endless supply of free, healthy food making its way to food banks but is out of reach for people not on the breadline. At the same time, squatted social centres get evicted within days, while council owned community centres stand empty due to funding cuts. These two, seemingly unrelated, factors are both the result of the same problem (neoliberal capitalism manifest through austerity, scarcity and price hikes) but, combined, they are also the solution. 

The plan is simple: a food co-op on the estate will involve local people coming together to source and distribute free produce from a local charity. A membership fee of up to £2 a week will secure purchasing additional supplies in bulk – toilet paper, rice, washing up liquid, etc. – thus significantly reducing the price per unit. We estimate that members will be able to reduce the cost of their weekly shop to those £2. 

In addition to the weekly subs, members will contribute around an hour of work per week – researching, ordering, receiving, unpacking, weighing, repackaging and distributing products. In order to allow parents to take part, members will take turns to organise and facilitate free childcare at each co-op organising session. 

This means that members will, in addition to making a saving on food costs, get to spend an hour a week collaborating with neighbours, learning new skills and bringing a desolate space back into community use.

On 21 December, the Saturday before Christmas, we organised a public event to introduce the idea and test the water.

Securing a space at the community centre was easy – the space stands empty most of the time and the manager was desperate to be able to offer something to the community. Securing the food is equally easy – currently there are different charities in the UK that collect perfectly usable food that is nearing its sell by date and distribute it for free to smaller organisations (we contacted the Felix Project via our friends at Refugee Community Kitchen). 

In the morning we collected 14 crates of pre-booked free food from the Felix Project in Enfield (around 100kg of fresh fruit and veg, cake, bread, juice, snacks and salad) and a few crates of organic produce from the Eden Farms stall at the local farmers market. A volunteer from the Food for All Project dropped by with fresh bread and cakes from a local fancy baker and later on, a local cafe sent over a huge vat of fresh homemade bean stew, veggie sausage rolls and cake. 

We unpacked and displayed the food to look as appealing as possible – colourful produce in tilted wooden boxes, loose fruit in large bowls, fresh bread stacked on big trays, nice paper bags – to ensure the space doesn’t give food bank vibes. By the time we opened the door it looked “like a posh organic shop”, where everything is free!

We knew from conversations with local people (we distributed around 800 flyers and knocked on hundreds of doors), that, in general, Kentish Town estates residents are not desperately hungry, but that some families struggle with food costs and that many elderly people are housebound and lonely. We also knew that, while there are many local shops to buy good quality and organic food, they are inaccessible to lots of people not just due to cost, but also because of a sense of social exclusion (people spoke about neighbours in the big houses around the estate looking down on them).

When speaking to people we realised that putting flyers through letterboxes wasn’t going to be enough. Some people were confused about the purpose of the day (“Is it for homeless people?”, “Are you asking me to donate food?”) and others said that they couldn’t take free food, while others are more needy (we always asked who they referred to, so we could speak to those neighbours directly). It seemed extremely important that the event shouldn’t come across as a charity project targeting ‘poor people’ but as an invitation to join a collective action, regardless of needs.

When out doorknocking, we were looking for organic community leaders and organisers – the ones who regularly spoke to their neighbours, were aware of local concerns and were already part of a formal (like the TA) or informal (mums swapping childcare) residents network . We knew that reaching out to them meant reaching out to many more people and that they would be instrumental in promoting any longer term plans. 

 

I was also conscious that this should not look like a total outsider intervention. I mentioned to anyone I spoke to that I used to be a youth worker on the estate; I knew many residents by name and worked with their children or grandchildren, was involved in different local projects and was aware of the history of the estate and local issues. After a long break, I was also back organising in the community centre, so had access to local gossip (that’s important!). 

Around 10-12 of us signed up to work throughout the day: two people set up board games and jigsaw puzzles (for adults) in the main space, 3-4 people set up craft and play activities for children and the rest were in the food area, arranging the display and making plans for the cooked dinner. We had flyers printed about the co-op idea with a date for a meeting the following month. 

We still had no idea if people were interested. I spent the last week worrying that no one would turn up and, by Thursday, contacted a few local churches and homeless projects to say that we will most likely have lots of food to donate by the end of the day. It was an experiment.

But as soon as we opened, people started coming in. Whole families came with children (on one occasion, three generations of the same family), carers picked up supplies for the people they cared for (who we specifically targeted), the community centre’s manager packed bags to deliver to vulnerable housebound residents, people went out to remind their neighbours to come in… The place was busy the whole time with kids playing in the hall, elderly residents chatting and playing board games, neighbours discussing recipes for familiar and unfamiliar vegetables, people asking about the origin of the project and, most importantly, about its future. 

We then cooked the leftover food and shared a vegan meal with whoever stayed or came back. We packed and delivered cooked dinner for people who couldn’t attend. It was warm and delicious and we had more brilliant conversations around the dinner table.

We provided good quality food for around 40 households. We made sure that people picked up (or were were delivered) food they knew how to cook, but also received fresh vegetables they wouldn’t normally be buying (including pre prepared salads, if they were unlikely to prepare fresh veg). We introduced people to new vegetables, if they were curious, and imagined interesting ways to prepare them. We talked about our kids and our pets and about memories of the area. We discussed social issues (mostly vague concerns around immigrants, in line with the election results. No speeches were made) and, mostly, we chatted about what a long term, sustainable, collective food project could look like on the estate. 

The general feedback was brilliant. People were happy about the free food and excited about new possibilities for the community centre (which used to be the heart of the community before all the funding dried out). I am confident that the Free Food Larder would lead to more activities on the estate, beyond the establishment of the co-op, and to increasing local organising, resilience and resistance.

Moreover, we’ve already been contacted by activists in Edinburgh, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Hackney, Falmouth and Tower Hamlets, who want to set up similar projects in their area and asked for advice and resources. 

The website mutual-aid.uk, bought earlier this summer on a whim, is now used to hold information about the project and will be used for future iterations. A space to share our experience and scale up the project into a network of Cooperation Towns. 

What’s next? In late January we will hold a workshop to plan in more detail the structure and processes of the co-op. We invited co-op ‘guru’ Sion Whellens (from Calverts) to share from his experience of supporting co-ops around the country and help us plot together. 

We already secured hundreds of kilograms of free food for the coming two school breaks (when low income families struggle the most), so the new residents-organisers will have to decide how best to distribute them (cooked lunches at the community centre? Packed lunch for every child? Another free larder?). The plan is for the initial organisers, who don’t live on the estate, to step back as soon as the group is self sustained. We will always be on hand to support and advise, but, ultimately, this should remain a local project.

Shiri Shalmy (on behalf of Cooperation Kentish Town)


All pictures curtesy of Cooperation Kentish Town