The Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference, held on the campus of Jackson State University, went off without a hitch the first weekend in May. That, in itself, was testament to something new growing in the heart of the South.
Conceived as part of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s plan to develop Mississippi’s crumbling capital from the bottom up, Jackson Rising ended up taking place just two months after Lumumba’s sudden death, less than two weeks after the election of a new mayor, and days after the key leadership of Lumumba’s administration—including many of the conference’s organizers—found themselves out of office and out of a job.
Jackson is a pre–Civil War city whose city hall was built by slaves. With a population of 175,000, it is home to some of the poorest citizens in the nation and has a higher percentage of African-Americans (80 percent) than any other city except Detroit. Mayor Lumumba, a longtime activist, was elected in June 2013 on a pledge to reduce poverty and narrow the enduring wealth gap.
One of the ways he intended to tackle inequality was through strict contracting and procurement rules. Jackson was, and still is, under a federal mandate to upgrade its crumbling sewer system. So, despite qualms, Lumumba supported a 1 percent sales tax hike to be spent specifically on infrastructure, which voters approved this past January. While in the past a vast majority of city contracts went to businesses owned and operated by nonresidents, Lumumba assured voters that the lion’s share would be spent locally. And where there weren’t enough locally owned businesses, his administration intended to cultivate new ones, in part by incubating worker-owned cooperatives.
By pooling resources and spreading risk, worker-owned co-ops give low-income people a low-barrier way to start their own companies. But to grow to scale, co-ops need reliable financing and, ideally, ”anchor” clients. With an estimated $1 billion to be spent on repair in the coming decades, Lumumba and his team were exploring the possibility of seeding local co-ops with municipal contracts.
“We thought we would have more time, but we’re moving ahead the vision,” said Kali Akuno, Lumumba’s right-hand man on Jackson Rising.
It’s unlikely that Akuno and friends will capture significant resources from municipal coffers now. Although the City Council voted to support Jackson Rising right after Lumumba’s death, no city funds were committed, and at the last minute, incoming Mayor Tony Yarber’s office rejected requests that the city cover insurance and campus security. (A business-friendly pastor and former school principal, Yarber beat Lumumba’s son in a runoff in April.)