relational architectures is a series that locates ways for design to operate through relationships built on solidarity.

I first met Kali Akuno in 2018 — the same year that the “Deep Adaptation” paper was published1. Despite a lack of wider circulation, the paper went viral in climate movement circles. For many of us, the paper validated our years-long campaign to declare the current era as the sixth mass extinction, while also urging us to abandon our standard way of life and form alternative ones. Kali’s work with Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi takes this urging to the task. As detailed in his latest book, Jackson Rising Redux2, building the future in the present demands new designs, new formulas, and a new definition of how to be human. Catching up with Kali six years after, I believe we are closer to the future than we think.

Portrait of Kali Akuno in front of a mural that reads “Free the Land.”

Jamie Tyberg:

Happy 10 years to Cooperation Jackson!

Kali Akuno:

Thank you.


I know that the organization initially came out of community-led efforts following Hurricane Katrina and the need to create material and political conditions within the municipality to build a solidarity economy. Can you tell us about the work in this stage of Cooperation Jackson’s development?


We’ve learned a lot over a 10-year-period and have had to adjust a lot to an ever-changing dynamic. When we started this journey, Jackson was a mid-size southern city of about 210,000 people. In the course of that time, as a result of some major shifts in the economy on a local level, the city has shrunk.

When you look at Jackson, it’s set up within the overall political economy as a transport hub. What it’s set up to do—from a structural perspective—is to be a midpoint of transferring goods, primarily material goods, from New Orleans in the south to Chicago in the north, Atlanta to our east, and Dallas to our west. And the first level of infrastructure that was built to accommodate this hub function was the railroad. That’s still one of the primary means by which goods are transported through Jackson. Another level of infrastructure is the interstate highway. A good part of Jackson’s infrastructure and industrial outlay is primarily being a containerized transport holding facility—warehousing and storing grains, some level of oil containers, and shop flooring for cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, and things of that nature.

The city took a major set of blows during the pandemic when the transport of goods and services basically ground to halt. That’s forced more working class people—particularly Black working class people, which our program was designed fundamentally to serve and build up—to have to move to bigger markets in order to survive. What we’ve experienced in the course of that 10 years is a city that went from over 200,000 people to roughly 160,000 people. We have lost somewhere around 50,000 people in a 10-year stretch. That’s pretty significant for a mid-size town. 

Even before the pandemic, Jackson had an inverted bell curve, meaning most of the Black working class is older retirees—so 50, 60 years old, returning from the great migration to the land that their family had to retire on because it’s a much cheaper, much easier pace and price of living. And those who are in their prime working years, their twenties, thirties, forties, have moved to Atlanta or to Houston to maximize their earnings. But what they do is leave their kids with their grandparents. And so in that regard, Jackson exhibits some dynamics which mimic a lot of the Global South or the Third World in terms of children being with their grandparents, parents working away and sending remittances back home in order for the family to survive. 

What that means is that the tax base is also declining, and the city doesn’t have the revenues to rebuild or repair or upgrade the infrastructure, which was already under severe strain and has been for decades, on account of structural racism and the very intentional neglect and divestment from Jackson beginning in the 1980s. So Jackson is facing an acute infrastructure crisis, the most glaring aspect of which is a major water infrastructure crisis. So, as result, we’ve adjusted aspects of our focus and orientation, and we’ve become much more of a hardcore mutual aid hub, much more than we initially anticipated.

Cooperative Jackson’s vision for transitioning to a solidarity economy takes a programmatic and strategic approach as captured in the image above.

Mutual aid has always been a core component of how we build solidarity, how we take care of a community. Due to the tornadoes that are now more frequent because of climate change, and the collapsing water and other types of infrastructure, we’re responding to some major crisis two or three times every year: delivering water, delivering food, coming up with portable generators and fundraising, and setting up community distribution centers. All of that becomes a major component of our work, and we’ve become very proficient at it, but it’s not within the framework of us adding productive capacity to the community to meet its own material needs.

It is good that we can go get generators and supply them to the community to meet an immediate need, but that’s an investment in the old fossil fuel economy. And so the short term need is actually perpetuating the very dynamics of which we are trying to get out of. We’re meeting a need, but we’re not building the alternative, and this is a tension that we are in now because of this deep crisis mode. We are increasingly facing the tension between focusing our limited resources on long-term infrastructure building versus how much we meet the immediate needs of the people.

I can either spend $10,000 building a solar farm that can supply a whole neighborhood’s energy year round or spend $10,000 on five or six generators which have a limited lifespan. We don’t have unlimited funds or capacity, so which one do we really want to do? That’s a hard choice to make in a community which is struggling as much as our community is struggling, but this is one of the most fundamental shifts. And so there’s been a very steep drop off in community engagement across the board since 2020.

“How can we negotiate with capital on our own terms? And do we have the ability to tame it to serve our strategic needs and transition it to serve a broader social function, not just private accumulation, private appropriation, but can we actually use this as a tool to serve a social function?”


Of course, you initially bring people in through mutual aid work, but we’re going to stay if there’s a long-term objective that we can participate in and build together, which is the infrastructure. When there’s two to three crises every year to respond to, it becomes that much more difficult to negotiate your priorities.


It’s just a qualitatively different kind of experience. Now, one thing I want to come back to is the shift around the economy. The digital dimension has had a major impact and I think we need to talk about this because I’ve seen this in every city that I’ve been to in the last two or three years.

Most of the new restaurants that are opening up are primarily takeout operations. There’s very little dining in and they’re now specifically catering for UberEats and other digital exploitation platforms. They’re renting smaller spaces, smaller kitchens. There’s basically no eat out space, so what that means in a place like Jackson is that the service sector employment, which is a mass sector, is completely shrinking. There’s drivers, but no waiters. There’s no people bussing tables, there’s no people back there doing the dishes. That’s a tremendous shift which is hitting the economy, and in Jackson, it is forcing people to flee because those service jobs aren’t there. 

We’re shifting and trying to deal with that as best we can, and working along the solidarity economy principles gives us some flexibility to adjust and adapt. We’ve done a good job of developing the community land trust and decommodifying land. There’s about 50 properties, some of them are very significant, like a whole mall plaza that we own as part of the community land trust. The challenge now, though, is we’re going to have to take out some loans in order to really develop these properties. We could take another 10 years to gather resources to do it, but by that time a large part of that infrastructure may collapse and deteriorate further because we don’t have the resources to invest in it.

So we have to take on some level of debt, we have to engage capital. But can we engage it on our own terms? That’s the phase we are at now and I think this next five to 10 years will be a major challenge for us as we seek to scale up. What the concern is, okay, we take out a loan, we own the grocery store, but if we can’t get terms and interest rates in the way we want, does that then mean that we have to start charging market rate rents? Does that mean we have to totally apply market rate pricing on food items or other items which goes against our principles and orientation of meeting our community’s needs? 

We’re going to have to navigate with clear politics and clear principles in order to keep the goals and objectives alive, but to be clear, because we have outright ownership of the lands we steward in the land trust, we’re in a much better position than most “standard” businesses in terms of being at the mercy of some employer or capital.


I’m thinking about the 50 properties. Could a third of the properties be catered towards more of the upper middle class to charge market rates, and the wealth produced from that is then invested into the wider community infrastructure building projects?


We could take out loans and build market rate housing and maybe make a killing, and we could reinvest it back into the organization to support this work, but then we wouldn’t be working for the community that we intended to serve because that community would be pushed out and scattered someplace else. We are telling folks: Black working class people being here and being in the majority is what makes this a progressive place. And if you lose that, you’re not going to be able to afford living here for much longer and you won’t have the political voice and a level of political power that you can exercise. So it’s a real acute contradiction that capital has around development. 

So the issue again is, how can we negotiate with capital on our own terms? And do we have the ability to tame it, for lack of a better word, to serve our strategic needs and transition it to serve a broader social function, not just private accumulation, private appropriation, but can we actually use this as a tool to serve a social function?

One of the ways that we want to be able to get over this is by controlling as many of the core resources that go into housing as possible. That’s why we’ve made such an investment in community production around hemp and bamboo because of all its varied utility: hempcrete, wood, clothing. 

We’re aiming towards supplying our own feedstock as a means of conscious and intentional carbon reduction. So we’re not importing wood or anything like that. We’re actually regrowing it year by year on our basis and removing a small amount of carbon out of the environment through how we want to build in this alternative way. 

So there’s a strategy of making decisions that enable us to grow and own the things that we need so that there’s a level of us owning and controlling the direct means of production and the regenerative aspect of the raw materials that we need to do the things that we want. Then we’re not trapped in the cycle of having to borrow and having to go to external markets.

Building a hoop house. Photo courtesy of Cooperation Jackson.


What you’re describing is people learning how to govern themselves as a community and as people of this country where the closest thing to practicing democracy happens every four years where we’re participating in presidential elections. That gap is really huge to not only think about self-determination and autonomy, but actually practice governance amongst ourselves.


Every decision we make needs to enable us to have more self-determination. You use that as your measuring stick about how you determine your time, energy, and capacity. Is this decision going to help me have more autonomy down the road, two steps ahead of the game? With the experience of the pandemic, our current base was kind of like, oh, now we get why you’ve been arguing for food sovereignty. They see how a particular form of food production is a weapon to hold the working class captive. With inflation going up, what we’ve been able to do with our community supported agriculture the last two years has had tremendous benefit, tremendous engagement. It’s been a struggle, don’t get me wrong, but people understand the need for it, from those direct experiences, and this has been a major qualitative shift in our work that I think is going to carry us for the next 10 years in a pretty significant way.

“The formula is to get people to think of every yard as a farm and every garage as a factory.”


You’re laying out the tangible complexities of trying to implement and transition into a solidarity economy, which ultimately means designing alternative modes of production and consumption as well as the distribution of the resources either on top of, or alongside, or in spite of, the existing capitalist modes of production and its political economy. I want to ask, for you, what are some of the most promising projects that Cooperation Jackson has embarked on for the transition into a solidarity economy?


I’ll highlight this: a planning app that we’re tentatively calling Gigi, Give It Get It. It’s about finding all the different sources in the community that have some surplus that they want to share and distribute free of charge to others in the community.

It’s a recycling, repurposing and reusing dynamic that is inherent in this, but the ultimate thing is if you’re growing food, bring some food to trade with somebody for a clothing item or another good or service, to enhance the productive capacity of people in the community so that we meet our base of productive needs.

The formula is to get people to think of every yard as a farm and every garage as a factory. Many of us actually do produce a lot of things, but we either try to commodify it in different ways or just take it to be a hobby. You can actually exchange and get another one of your fundamental needs met if it’s coordinated. And so we’re trying to integrate the promise of blockchain to enhance productive capacity and meet people’s needs without money, but just through direct mutual exchange and engagement.

The next step will be getting them to interface so that we create value change—we are trading in goods and services on account of our own principles and don’t have to necessarily deal with capital exchanges. I’m most excited about us taking a lead in designing it. 

It’s a way to re-engage people in the need to do broader community planning and really highlight the need of what can be done to benefit us all. It’s not all protests or all doing self-defense work, but we can actually try to meet some of our overall productive needs and plan this out in a very systematic way. 

Whether it sticks this time, we’ll see, but I’m a firm believer that it’s not a problem to fail. We just have to fail better each time so that we learn, get stronger and clearer around what the lessons were, what to build upon, and what to discard. We use failure as a transformative element with every step of the road.


You’re also building up people’s creativity as well as their confidence in themselves and their labor. You’re giving their labor a meaning as it contributes to this interdependent network with their neighbors and their communities. I think those are the things that make us human beings which have been robbed by this system. That’s a tremendous project and I’m excited to see how it grows.


We’ll see.


Every yard, a farm; every garage, a factory.


Yeah, new formulas.

You can materially support the work of Cooperation Jackson by becoming a sustainer or supporting their broad capital campaign through a patient or low-to-no interest loan by emailing cooperationjackson [at] gmail [dot] com.