At ACER, we believe in the power of community, culture and collective action to create racial and economic justice for African immigrants and the African Diaspora in the Northwest suburbs of the Twin Cities — and beyond.
From ethnic foods to professional services, our businesses are essential to thriving communities, and our entrepreneurs are the future of our region’s growing economy. But our small and micro businesses face steep challenges in accessing appropriate resources, and too often our owners are forced to assimilate to systems that do not serve us. To showcase the promise and impact of cooperative, community-owned commercial spaces, ACER listened to and collaborated with small business leaders to envision and launch the Innovation & Catalyst Center in Brooklyn Center.
The Northwest suburbs are home to thousands of African immigrants—and hundreds of businesses grounded in our diverse ethnicities and dedicated to serving our communities.
In 2008, ACER was established to connect African immigrants to employment, but quickly recognized that our communities are also creating and growing businesses on their own terms, in ways that uplift their unique cultures and meet their family realities. Yet, many of these businesses are overlooked by government programs that prioritize larger companies, are shut out by American banking practices that deny them capital, and are invisibilized by a lack of affordable, accessible commercial spaces.
But that hasn’t stopped them. In the Northwest suburbs, many of our entrepreneurs operate out of their homes or occupy office buildings. For instance, nearly 130 small and micro businesses — from hair styling to home care — found attainable rent and solidarity with other African businesses at 5701 Shingle Creek Parkway Office Building in Brooklyn Center. But these informal economic hubs have relied on spaces our community members do not own, where landlords can and do spike rents and evict tenants at will.
As a community, we knew we needed a different model to support and sustain our collective wealth.
In our African cultures, we already had that model. While American capitalism centers individualism and competition, our cultures are rooted in rich histories of collaboration and cooperation. Our communities have long participated in susu — a community-style savings practice in which a group of people pool their money together to support their financial goals. Here in Minnesota, such informal loan groups have made it possible for entrepreneurs to launch their own businesses, even as banks and economic development agencies deny them resources.
In 2020, that spirit of cooperation and the crisis of COVID led 32 African immigrant women business owners to come together and form Ignite Business Women Investment Group (IBWIG). Having faced rent increases, evictions and poor landlord practices, they started raising money to create a Real Estate Investment Cooperative.
"We came together because we believe that, by bridging our businesses, we can create wealth, change lives, and build a larger market audience,” said Jannie Seibure, manager of Cavalla Travel, a member of IBWIG. “This purchase proves that we can do anything, if we stick to it long enough."
According to author Jessica Gordon Nembhard, cooperatives are “companies owned by the people who use their services, created to satisfy an economic or social need, provide a quality good or service at an affordable price, or create an economic structure to engage in needed production or facilitate more equal distribution.” The lineage and growth of cooperatives in the United States can be traced back to Africa, Gordon Nembhard emphasizes, as “African Americans started using cooperative economics from the moment they were forcibly brought to the Americas from Africa.” And the 7 Principles align with the needs of our communities today:
Voluntary and Open Membership
Democratic Member Control
Members Economic Participation
Autonomy and Independence
Education, Training, and Information
Cooperation Among Cooperatives
Concern for Community
In 2023, the African Investment Group USA (AIGU) also came together as a cooperative with 13 businesses looking to purchase commercial properties to address displacement, gentrification, and access to affordable space. Over the past two years, ACER has supported nearly 50 businesses in forming cooperatives and will continue to prioritize that work in 2024 and 2025.
“We don’t want to be another nonprofit owning a building in the name of community.” - Denise Butler
Thanks to years of organizing and advocacy by community members, city leaders in majority-BIPOC cities like Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center are recognizing our economic influence. In 2021, ACER was engaged by both cities as they pursued purchasing property for entrepreneurship centers and an ethnic business market. With a steering committee of our small business owners, we pushed back on the cities’ proposals, emphasizing that it’s not enough to provide access—our communities want to own their spaces cooperatively. This year, on October 13, ACER took ownership of the Shingle Creek Center to put community vision into practice and showcase what cooperative ownership can look like.
Developed over years in partnership with community members, the Innovation & Catalyst Center will house ACER’s headquarters and provide incubator space that is affordable and appropriate for our small and micro businesses. In partnership with IBWIG, it will showcase and further develop a model of community ownership that rewrites the narrative about economic development, pushes for policies (like character-based lending) that uproot economic exclusion in our current systems, and creates innovative pathways for future cooperative ownership and generational wealth in our African Diaspora communities.
Are you an entrepreneur, business owner, or community member looking for investment opportunities? Contact us today, to discuss member owner opportunities in a new cooperative!
Connect with Denise Butler, Associate Director/Director of Economic & Community Development, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612.217.0282.