Solidarity is one of the core values of the co-operative movement, standing with one another collectively to empower each of us to build a better life. And one of the principles that best demonstrates solidarity in action is co-operation among co-operatives, working together within and across co-operative associations for mutual support, collaboration, and more impact for our members. 

In August, Erbin Crowell, New England Farmers Union Board Member and Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, attended the 56th anniversary celebration of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund in Birmingham, Alabama. Emerging from the Civil Rights Movement in 1967, the Federation paved the way for the co-operative development movement in the South and has since grown into an association of Black farmers, landowners and co-ops with chapters in 17 states across the Southeast U.S. The Federation’s vision is for sustainable rural communities based on local control and ownership and supported by a network of farmers, landowners and co-operatives, with a mission of catalyzing the development of self-supporting communities through co-operative economic development, advocacy, and land retention. 

“The success of the Federation is a testament to the power of co-operatives and of working together through associations,” said Crowell, who also serves on the Board of Directors the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA CLUSA). “Their work has not only made a profound difference in their communities but has also inspired efforts for racial and economic justice and co-operative development around the world.” 

NFCA Executive Director Erbin Crowell with Ben Burkett, member of Indian Springs Farmers Association & State Coordinator of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives. (Photo courtesy Erbin Crowell)

This year’s events opened with the annual Cooperative Roundtable moderated by Terence Courtney, FSC/LAF Director of Cooperative Development & Strategic Initiatives and attended by co-operative leaders from across the country, including Crowell and Doug O’Brien, President & CEO of NCBA CLUSA. The focus of this year’s conversation was on the infrastructure needed to support new co-ops, as well as the need to focus on succession strategies at established co-operatives so they continue to thrive and serve their communities. 

The evening kicked off with a reception at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a reminder of how far we have come in the struggle for social and economic equity and inclusion, and how much more there is to do. The Annual Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner provided an opportunity to celebrate and honor people who have done so much to advance the work of civil and economic rights. This year’s honoree, Xernona Clayton, epitomizes the true spirit of community and co-operation, and the struggle for Civil Rights.  Xernona moved to Atlanta in 1965 where she accepted a position with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked closely with the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dedicated to promoting racial understanding, she has been a leader in civic projects and civil rights activities for many years. Her persistent fight against prejudice and bigotry was never more apparent than in 1968 when the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan denounced the Klan and credited Xernona’s influence with his change.  Xernona Clayton’s autobiography, “I’ve Been Marching All the Time,” was published in 1991. 

The next day included a journey to the Federation’s Rural Training Research Center in Epes, Alabama, where co-ops and their members and partners gathered for a day of workshops, policy dialogs and a panel of representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) presenting information on the latest developments in programs supporting family-sized farmers. 

The existence of the Center itself speaks to the struggle for justice and the power of association in enabling people to work together for a better future. In the 1960s, when sharecroppers were driven from their homes in retaliation for participation in voter registration efforts, one group formed a land buying co-op, pooling limited resources to purchase land. One of these properties was later acquired by the Federation and converted into a conference and training center in 1971. During the visit, Crowell also had the opportunity to join O’Brien and Federation Executive Director Cornelius Blanding on a tour of the Training Center and demonstration plots, as well as nearby housing and health co-ops that are part of the Federation. 

“This gathering continues to inspire,” said O’Brien. “More than anything, it’s humbling to be reminded of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and the amazing FSC/LAF history and continuing commitment to racial and economic justice, and to growing the co-operative economy.” 

By Erbin Crowell, with thanks to NCBA CLUSA. 

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