Do you know what a historic conjuncture is, David Cobb asks. Told no, the already quick cadence of his voice quickens over the phone.
The term, the 2004 Green Party presidential nominee excitedly explains, was coined by Antonio Francesco Gramsci while the philosopher was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini's fascist regime and describes a moment when society shifts in a permanent way. Generally, Cobb says, if you want to predict what today's going to look like, just look at yesterday. If you're interested in tomorrow, look at today.
"It's predictive ability," he says, adding that it applies 99 percent of the time. "That's true until moments of historic conjuncture, true until there's a huge shift — a point in history when there's such a shift that nothing looks the same."
And here we are. In the weeks since COVID-19 spurred the county's shelter-in-place order, isolating North Coast residents, grinding much of the local economy to a halt and threatening the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable residents, a nonprofit Cobb helped found is flexing newfound muscle, mobilizing a wide array of volunteers and programs to meet needs and — maybe — permanently reshape Humboldt County.
Cobb thinks we were on the road toward an historic shift before people a continent away began falling ill at an alarming rate and COVID-19 entered popular consciousness. The global climate crisis and growing income inequality were already causing bitter political polarization, he says, which a future of increased automation and climate strife only promised to exacerbate. The center wasn't going to hold for much longer, he says, and the nation was at a precipice, ready to fall into repressive, authoritarian fascism or toward a more peaceful, democratic and sustainable future.
It was that sense back in 2016 that led to the founding of Cooperation Humboldt, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping build a local solidarity economy supporting cooperative efforts and local, sustainable solutions. Tamara McFarland, who co-founded the North Coast People's Alliance and was the lead organizer for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign in Humboldt County, says it was her deep conviction that "our current way of life is literally destroying the planetary systems we rely on for survival" and a desire to find solutions that drew her to co-found Cooperation Humboldt.
"I want everyone to have access to as much nutritious food as they need to thrive, and I want local residents to control how that food is produced and distributed," she says in an email to the Journal. "I want housing to be guaranteed for all and for residents to be empowered to make decisions about the things that affect their lives. It's way past time for regular people to be empowered to create the world they want to inhabit, and my involvement with Cooperation Humboldt allows me to help build that reality in the place I've lived for the past 40 years."
Whether it's the weight of its aspirations, the breadth of its vision or the varied backgrounds of its board members, Cooperation Humboldt doesn't look like a traditional nonprofit. Yes, it has the five-person board of directors but next to it, on the same plane in its "leadership circle" is a "core team," a group of 30 people who have taken the time to study everything from local Wiyot history and patriarchy to race and economic philosophy together. Then there are 100 to 150 active participants, people volunteering on projects and engaged in ongoing operations. The next level sees 2,500 local supporters, people who contribute what they can how they can.
In just a few short years, the nonprofit was growing up to do some big things, helping people follow their particular passions toward making Humboldt County a more equitable place to live. It planted dozens of fruit trees throughout the county, with a caretaker assigned to each to make sure the tree remained healthy, but also that its fruit would make it to local food pantries and nonprofits. It supported a "keeping residents as residents" effort to keep medical professionals in Humboldt and improve access to healthcare, and worked to create childcare cooperatives. It created a tool library and skill share network, built tiny pantries around town and helped homeowners convert lawns to vegetable gardens.
It was also working on a handful of massive projects, according to Cobb, based on ideas that had drawn keen interest from a group of Silicon Valley "social impact investors" who had pledged to invest $15 million to $20 million to bring them to fruition. There were plans to build a Wiyot Cultural Center and Artists Hub that would have also provided incubator space for nonprofits, including Cooperation Humboldt. There were plans to develop "eco villages" that would allow small groups of people to live together on properties held by a land trust around "some kind of theme or shared interest," like permaculture, child raising or the arts. They were researching the creation of student housing cooperatives and a worker-owned cooperative senior care facility.
"Those were all on the cusp," Cobb says through the phone. "Then COVID hit."
The organization then quickly pivoted its focus to areas it believes can make an immediate impact on helping Humboldt County navigate COVID-19 and emerge from it a stronger community.
"We immediately said, 'Oh my god. We need to get the community ready and to be helping each other because government is going to be overwhelmed,'" Cobb says. "Society writ large is not ready for this and it's going to take all of us. Honestly, that's what we've got. We've got each other."
Cooperation Humboldt's food programs have now shifted to meet residents' immediate needs. That means coordinating volunteers to re-stock the 10 or so little food pantries it has set up, mostly in Eureka. But it also means doubling down on its food-not-lawns program, offering to send volunteers to overhaul people's yards — while practicing social distancing, of course — to vegetable-producing gardens. Volunteers are creating and delivering "ready-to-grow" 3-foot square micro-gardens with plant starts and online gardening tutorials to residents who want them.
"We believe food is a fundamental human right and that every member of our community should have access to fresh, culturally appropriate foods," McFarland says.
Then there's the online registry that connects people in need with volunteers who are standing by ready to help. It works like this:
There's a form on Cooperation Humboldt's website that allows people to log on and offer to help or report a need, which can be anything from groceries or medications to counseling or help getting to a medical appointment. A data entry team puts that information into a spreadsheet and a local "team captain" is assigned to the case. The captains then look to a bevy of volunteers — as well as "distribution centers" with stockpiles of supplies in Fortuna, Eureka and Arcata — to make sure the need gets met. If it proves challenging, they figure it out.
Then there's a network of volunteers helping out how they can. Some make hand sanitizer, others sew masks and some who don't know how to sew simply volunteer to lend out their idle sewing machines to people who can. And all this is taking place under an umbrella organization connected enough to get things where they need to go. So when Food for People called needing volunteers to help staff a massive April 10 food box distribution, 10 Cooperation Humboldt volunteers showed up, and when the Central Labor Council called to say it had essential workers whose companies hadn't provided them masks to wear on the job, Cooperation Humboldt delivered 100 masks with another 100 on the way.
The nonprofit also purchased a "high-end Zoom" account that its loaning out to volunteers looking to host virtual dance parties, tarot readings, poetry discussions, tutorials on noviolent conflict resolution and wahtever else might keep people connected, informed, engaged and home. Another Cooperation Humboldt team lead by Danny Kelley, meanwhile, is working to help some hard hit local businesses prepare to transition into worker-owned cooperatives. Kelley says currently available expanded funding opportunities present a unique opportunity to create more worker-owned business in Humboldt County.
Jessica Hall joined while pushing the idea of a worker-owned elder care facility and found it to be a "good fit with Cooperation Humboldt's solidarity economy ethos." She says she hasn't been too involved in the nonprofit's COVID-19 response but her explanation of what drew her to the organization can be seen as a resounding affirmation of why it was perhaps so poised to step into the void after an historic conjuncture.
"I believe that we can do better — socially, ecologically and economically," she says, "and where politicians fail to lead by our higher values and principles, and private companies have outsized influence on our world, we need to create alternatives that affirm our humanity, decency, creativity, love and collective care for one another and our world."
To learn more about Cooperation Humboldt — or to register a need or to volunteer — visit www.cooperationhumboldt.com.
— Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.