New Roots: Omar and Jonah on a New American Tradition
6 questions for Omar and Jonah on supporting cooperation among new Americans in Maine
Give us a little overview of what you're doing, how you got into this work, and since then, what keeps you going?
Omar: I worked with this family when I was young and growing up; I translated for them many times. I was working with New Roots when they were forming as a co-op.
There are a lot of things that keep me going! I love working to help New Americans understand the system; I am a New American myself.The language barrier is ongoing and that’s something I am always around to help with, and I have deep connection with all the farmers so I am always going to be here if they need me for anything.
Jonah: I have always loved food: growing it, cooking it, eating it and sharing it with family and friends. This love of food led me to working in kitchens in restaurants, events and soup kitchens and growing food in community gardens and on farms. Alongside this work, I was also engaged in organizing around the environment, economy, and war and started several community based organizations that combined activism and community organizing. In 2007, I co-founded Local Sprouts Cooperative, a worker-owned cafe, catering business and bakery and I helped grow this co-op for 7 year. I left Local Sprouts in 2014, to help other people create cooperatives and this led me to working with the Cooperative Development Institute.
We live in an economy that is fundamentally unjust, inequitable and unsustainable. Our food system exemplifies the problems of our economy. My work has been rooted in the desire to grow a new economy and food system that provides food for everyone, meaningful and fulfilling work and builds community and equity at all levels. I keep doing this work because we still have a long way to go before
we live in this new economy. I also continue doing this work because I love food and community and helping people create cooperatives in the food system helps to increase a community’s access to food.
What's the vision for your work? If you're successful, what change will have occurred?
Omar: My vision for my work is simple: I would like to help all the New Americans and refugees become a success in their coop business. For example, New Roots Cooperative Farm was the group I helped get to their feet in 2017 and now they are close to being stable. I helped fix many of their problems such as getting their contracts done, training, developing their infrastructure for the land, coordinating their market meetings, translating for their meetings, connecting with other service providers, etc. If I am a success it is from improving my leadership skills.
Jonah: The larger vision for my work is to create a just and equitable economy that works for everyone and a food system that provides food for everyone and where the people who work in food have good jobs with dignity. My work in the Northeast is connected to work that people are doing all over the planet to transform our food system and create a new economy. On the day to day level, I work towards that vision by supporting people, particularly immigrants and refugees, to become cooperative owners of their farms and food businesses. These are steps towards the larger vision and provide direct change now.
What would you say is the single biggest food systems issue or challenge you're facing? How are you meeting that challenge?
Omar: I would stay single biggest food system is food safety. Knowing that, I am involved in all Somali Bantu farming activities so I am able to help with this food safety issue. I recommend people take the workshop that Cultivating Community provides to new farmers and especially New Americans.
Jonah: I think the biggest food system challenge is the domination of corporate control and exploitation of workers and the environment to increase their profits. Small farmers and food producers are at huge disadvantages to compete with this power. Cooperatives are one tool for farmers, workers, cooks, and food producers to build their power and strength in the face of our cooperative food system.
What are some of the lessons you and your organization have learned in confronting that challenge?
Omar: My organization has been a big help for me.
Jonah: One of the biggest lessons that I continually learn is the challenge of establishing a sustainable food business. Many food businesses are set-up with exploitation of people or the environment as a core part of their business plan, by paying workers low wages, buying conventionally produced food, and cutting costs everywhere. It is really hard to build a profitable business that pays workers well and pays farmers and fishermen well and still keeps the food reasonably priced for the community. One of the lessons learned around this is need for businesses to diversify revenue streams and to work on developing prices that are fair to the consumer and fair to the business and the workers.
Who is helping you? What kind of help do you need to realize your vision?
Omar: My coworker Jonah Fertig-Burd, has helped me throughout this journey
Jonah: My work has been inspired and support by a range of different people and organizations. Other staff members at the Cooperative Development Institute have helped teach me and supported the co-ops. I also had the opportunity to be in a fellowship program with the Democracy at Work Institute which helped expand my co-op development skills. I have also learned from various co-ops as I have learned about their model and talked to owners of those co-ops. Our work has also been supported by the USDA, several state-based foundations and individuals.
To realize the larger vision of transforming our economy and food system, we will need to continue to collaborate, innovate, learn and grow to address the current challenges and those that still lay ahead of us.
Has your work changed as federal government policies have grown more hostile to immigrants and people of color?
Jonah: Federal policies around immigrants and people of color haven’t necessarily changed our work but has increased the importance of supporting immigrant and refugees to become co-op owners. One of the USDA’s programs that specifically supports co-ops started by immigrant people of color owned was potentially going to get cut by the federal government, but fortunately has survived and continues to fund our work.
What have you observed about gender, class, or race in your work?
Jonah: The co-op movement and economy in the Northeast has been and continues to be majority white people and in some cases, predominantly middle class. More people of color and low-income people are becoming owners of cooperatives and starting new co-ops in the Northeast. From New York City to Maine, immigrants and refugees are starting new cooperative businesses, and many of them in the food system, that are meeting their needs and creating new jobs for their community.