CoFED partners with young people of color from poor and working-class backgrounds to build food and land co-ops.

This Cooperative Life: Joe Brooks

This Cooperative Life Blog Series

Interview #4: Joe’s Audio
Joe Brooks' Cooperative Life Story


Joe is a living legend. He has been doing social justice work his entire life and is the oldest male Brooks alive. He has a swagger and heart like none other as he smokes his wooden pipe, rocks his Kangol hat, and spreads truths through what I like to call “Joe-isms,” simple truths to live your life by, like “don’t let perfection get in the way of progress.”

Joe Brooks is Senior Fellow at PolicyLink and has dedicated decades of work to racial and economic equity, civic engagement, and mentorship. He is most passionate these days about his membership in the Leadership Council of the Brotherhood of Elders Network, an Oakland based organization with the mission of assisting Black boys to thrive. En route to elder status, Joe was an active community organizer and former president of the Emergency Land Fund merged with the Federation for Southern Cooperatives to increase access to farm land for Black families post-slavery.

Interview Caveat. Joe is my mentor. I knew before I knew about urban planning or co-ops, in fact--he was who introduced me to both fields of work. We worked together as I was just starting to work with nonprofits. He provided me room to grow, stayed with me and overlooked my naivete, believed in me, advocated for me, and continues to play a pivotal role in my life. In fact, he doesn’t even know this, but my grandfather (who I miss terribly) also wore Kangol hats like Joe. Joe is more than my mentor, he is an elder to me, and I love him like family.


Interview “Aha’s.” Joe was interviewed early-on, at my home. It was when the idea of creating a “co-op story series” was still a dream and I was unsure, so I asked Joe and being the fantastic mentor he is, he immediately said Yes. It was that Yes, nearly a year ago that sparked the idea for this larger interview series. So...this interview is where it all began!

Here are some gems from our interview that demonstrate Joe’s cooperative life:

  • Black Farmers faced tremendous barriers to get loans to support the development of their lands. Land holdings were in difficulty and as a result, underutilized. Many farmers then began to think of cooperatives as a way to pool their resources and leverage capital, and that’s how Joe got into cooperatives in the United States.

  • Land Grant Colleges are supposed to serve their residents, including agriculture and experimental farms--farmers should have been able to benefit, but they would not serve African American rural farmers. So there had to be a political agenda. What was most memorable to Joe was putting the political pressure to make things right. His stories and tactics are worth a listen!

  • A Lasting Legacy and Land Fund. In 1984 the Emergency Land Fund merged with the Southern Federation of Cooperatives, because of Joe’s work. He’s stayed in touch, especially with the Mississippi work, they merger made a lot of sense and allowed isolated farmers to build broader connections


An overview of Joe’s answers to our two signature questions:

1) What was Joe’s first experience with co-ops?

The Berkeley Consumer Cooperative and Credit Bank in the late 1960’s. Joe was born and raised in Berkeley, he was even on the board of a co-op. Joe and his wife Iris went to Tanzania, when he was 30th and was very much into trying to understand the very recently independent African nations and he had heard of Ujama Economics and the foundation for that movement, which was cooperatives. During his 6 weeks volunteering and working in Tanzania they had a variety of cooperatives: fishing, produce, corn and it was attractive to so many people because the government was providing low-interest loans and equipment to make it happen and involve themselves in the cooperative efforts. That’s where Joe first got a sense of what a co-op could mean and this idea of pulling together so the sum of the parts is greater really came to fruition. This idea was in Joe’s mind as he returned to the U.S. South to work with Black Farmers.

2) Which co-op principle was Joe most feeling on the day we interviewed him?

We truly do not know, because we came up with this question after our interview with Joe! If you have a time-machine, please let me know, it would do this question some good.


Produced interview can be listened to on this link: Joe's Cooperative Life Interview

A Special thanks to Yahya for helping produce and edit this interview!








Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment