Our History and Our Predecessors | The Cooperative New School for Urban Studies and Environmental Justice

Our History and Our Predecessors

2017 is an auspicious year for Southern movements. It is the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (The Federation) and the 85th anniversary of the founding of Highlander Research and Education Center (Highlander). It is also a time of renewed commitment to and hope for change in the conditions of the oppressed and exploited in the South and throughout the world. The Cooperative New School for Urban Studies and Environmental Justice (The CNS) was also founded in 2017.

Highlander, the most venerable movement organization in the South, was founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, a Southern United States educator, labor activist, and socialist. His original purpose for the school organizing laborers and labor activists in Southern Appalachia. Over the years, Highlander has focused on Civil Rights, helping to train many Civil Rights leaders including Rosa Parks, LGBTQ activism, and recently economics and governance. Horton was close with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who shared authorship on the book We Make the Road by Walking, which is a conversation between the two educators.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives was founded in 1967 as an continuation of the Civil Rights Movement in the economic realm. One of their Founders, John Zippert founded the Greene County Democrat, which has provided news to the Black Belt County for years. The Federation was founded to organize black farmers economically through cooperatives and later to protect black-owned land from land loss. The Federation recently went through a significant transition with long-time executive director Ralph Paige stepping down and Cornelius Blanding filling his shoes. The Federation has probably made the most material impact of any movement organization in the South by help black farmers control land.

In 2009, Zac Henson began his dissertation research by working with Urban Ministry in Birmingham, Alabama, on their garden, West End Community Gardens. His research was intended as a prima facie case for a social movement in Birmingham. In 2011, Zac, Anna McCown, a then graduate student in anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Virginia Ward, a community leader in the Grasselli Neighborhood of Birmingham, founded Magic City Agriculture Project (MCAP), a non-profit popular education and community development organization, modeled after a combination of The Federation and Highlander. Over the next four years, MCAP conducted antiracist classes and aided Project Hopewell, Inc, the non-profit arm of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in developing Southwest Birmingham Community Farm, led and founded by Virginia Ward, to develop their farming and education operations. In 2014, MCAP raised $5,000 to purchase equipment for the farm.

Richard Rice became a board member for MCAP in 2014 in which he initiated the process to create a community development strategic plan for the organization and larger. The strategic plan included six parts - popular education, cooperative development, community land trust development, a regional sustainability brand, a 501c4, and a community development financial institution. As of 2017, the plan, written by Zac Henson, Richard Rice, Rob Burton, and Lathia Banks, has garnered the results of one community land trust, one policy and political organization, continued popular education, and one cooperative. The ten year plan is 67% implemented or partially implemented in two years.

After the plan was released, Dr. Zac Henson resigned as president and Richard Rice succeeded him as president of MCAP. Dr. Henson immediately founded Revolutionary Consulting, a community development consulting firm in Birmingham. In 2016, Revolutionary Solutions, formerly Revolutionary Consulting, began experimenting with popular education, holding four classes in late 2016 and early 2017. In May of 2017, Zac Henson, CNE Corbin, Susan Diane Mitchell, Paul Rogé, Heather Covington, Karen Johnson, Carolyn Finney, and Felicia Harris-Daniels founded The CNS.

The CNS, like MCAP, is a combination of the models of The Federation and Highlander, the two most important movement organizations in the South. In contrast to MCAP, The CNS uses a cooperative business model instead of a non-profit business model. It is an institution rooted in Southern movements and hopes to replicate the legacies of its elder organizations.

Like The Federation and Highlander, The CNS aims to bring the advantages of the Southern movement to the rest of the world. Our main advantage is the culture of self-defense rooted in Southern movements. What we as Southerners have to offer to residents of increasingly anonymous mega-cities is a solidarity based culture that borders on family. Call it our Southern ways or our rural roots, but we in the South know how to build loving cultures that withstand years of onslaught from intimate reactionary forces in our midst. The CNS’s online education program offers the best opportunity to share that culture with the rest of the world.