• Hall of Fame

Ella Josephine Baker

Ella Josephine Baker, a prominent leader of the civil rights movement, was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1903 and grew up in a close-knit African American community in Warren County, North Carolina where Black people pooled resources to help each other survive and thrive in the aftermath of slavery. An assertive and adventurous soul who experienced early on the benefits of a sharing economy, she worked with George Schuyler to power a new Black cooperative movement in this country at the age of 27. As one of the founding members of the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League (YNCL), and its National Director, she worked with others to promote cooperative economics to solve some of the economic devastation among African Americans that she was seeing on New York streets.

She deepened her knowledge of cooperatives after attending co-op training on a scholarship from the Cooperative League of the United States (CLUSA). Soon after, Baker spoke on “What Consumers’ Co-operation Means to Negro Women” at the first conference of YNCL, where one of the resolutions of the YNCL conference was “that we seek to bring women into the League on equal basis with men.” She was elected the national director of YNCL, where she co-led an ambitious five-year plan to develop a multi-sector cooperative ecosystem, connected through two dozen League councils throughout the U.S. that supported the national YNCL coalition of local cooperatives and buying clubs.

Over the next decades she helped form many cooperatives, inspired many others to pursue the cooperative model and saw the links between self-help, and economic and racial justice. Baker’s early work organizing and promoting cooperatives likely inspired and honed the ideas about participatory grassroots leadership strategy she is so loved and well known for, and she used those insights to inform her organizing for many other causes in the next 60 years.

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