This is a session from the online conference: Cooperating to Enhance Native American Food Economies
Moderator: Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, CEO, Native American Agriculture Fund
Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director, Federation of Southern Cooperatives
Roger Fragua, President, Cota Holdings, LLC and Energy, LLC
Whitney Sawney: We're going to get to learn more about some of the common challenges in co-ops. So today's moderator is actually going to be Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, the CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund. And we're going to get to welcome our panelists, Roger Fragua, the consultant and president of Cota Holdings, LLC and Flower Hill Institute, and Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Land Assistance Fund. Toni, I'll turn it over to you.
Toni Stanger-McLaughlin: Thank you, Whitney. Because we had such great speakers in the last panel, I'm not going to take a long time. I've already introduced myself. I will just quickly give an introduction of this session. And it's related to challenges in cooperatives. And we have a great lineup for this speaking session.
And just to talk a little bit about the challenges that we've seen, as I said on the first day, Janie and I have been working to prove the awareness and number of Native American cooperatives, both through individuals, but also as tribes and regional tribal organizations, how we can work together to increase that. And there has often been a misconception that just because of our jurisdictional makeup and the added layers that we have working in trust, our restricted lands and our various sovereign governments, that it's almost impossible. But we've seen today that cooperatives are possible, and we're hoping that in the future, tribal governments can fill the space that our state governments have right now.
In researching some of these issues. There are reports out there as it relates to co-op agricultural cooperatives, but there are, as we've heard over the week and our last speaker, all different types of cooperatives, and cooperative sizes and structures. But as we are talking about agricultural cooperatives, we can look at reports, but we don't have a report specific to us. So that's actually the void that we're going to at the Native American Agriculture Fund look to fill that informational and data void. And we will be working with partners to create a survey to find out what the issues are and how we can improve the awareness and tackle some of those impediments as people look towards creating their own cooperatives.
One of the issues that we have heard is the limited access to capital. In a cooperative structure, one of the things that's noted is the inability and somewhat inefficiency in how to transfer ownership rights among owners. There's issues with control and there's also sometimes membership distrust of management. There's conflicts between large and small numbers. And just misunderstanding your industry; there's always risk in agriculture, no matter what size you're working within, or what type of commodity or production.
But there are also inherent pros in creating your own cooperative, and that's better access to markets and supplies, your lower overall production costs, risk mitigation, and the democratic management system within cooperatives. As we've said, and it's been echoed over the last few days, blends very well in Indian country because our communities are based on on what's better for everyone. They're community based in the way that we were created in our creation stories, but also our relationship to food. So as I've said before, Indian country is prime for cooperatives. We will mitigate a lot of those issues just by the nature of how we operate within our communal and village structures already.
So I'm going to hand it over to our speakers. And the first speaker that we are welcoming today is, as we said, we have invited our partners and we're hearing from a tribal producer, somebody who's engaged with tribes throughout the country, and not only in climate and energy, but also now in this food sector, and lifting up as a consultant tribes throughout the country. So our first speaker is going to be Roger.
Roger Fragua: Good morning, Toni, and all the participants, can you can you hear me OK, Toni? Yeah, OK, great. Well, again, thank you for the honor of speaking here today. I'd like to thank Doug O'Brien and yourself, Toni, and all the facilitators and staff that make something like this happen, especially during covid. To get this quality crowd together, to have these discussions is just kind of short of amazing. And I'd like to thank you for the honor of being invited, and really thank the registrants for signing on. There's lots of places they could be with their day and so happy that they're here and really honored to sit next to Cornelius, who got the memo that we're supposed to be wearing white today. And I'm glad he's dressed appropriately. As we decided earlier in our long meeting that we had getting ready for this.
But, you know, when we started thinking about the African-American community, which I'm sure Cornelius will cover, and then the American Indian community, we share a deep history. But I also think we share a bright future together, and I'm really looking forward to hearing Cornelius in his presentation. But, you know, we start thinking about American Indian tribes and Native American people, we are minorities, but we're not simply just minorities. We actually are very unique relative to other minorities in the sense that there's a federal Indian relationship based on treaty, and trust responsibility on a government-to-government basis. So those fifty five million acres of senior water rights, those fifty five hundred seventy seven federally recognized American Indian tribes that are geographically spread across thirty three states, are unique and distinct sovereign nations. And I think that that really does set us apart from not just the African-American community, but all the other minority communities in these United States. As we think about the context of this presentation, I tend to think because of my career path, which is not my own, I would have messed it up a long time ago. But my career path is actually has been doing nothing but exclusively working for Indian tribes and Indian country, in that sense. And those five hundred and seventy seven sovereign nations make up 90 percent of America's diversity, not just in terms of language, food, song, dance ceremony, customs, traditions, but in terms of governance.
We start thinking about the five hundred seventy seven unique and distinct sovereign nations that comprise Indian country, and growing four percent per year. Our nearly three million Indian people that are growing four percent per year, doubling every 20 years. You know, that tribal leader sits at that intersection of cultural preservation, environmental protection, and economic development. And really having to make very tough decisions based on family legacy. You know he will have to live in that community with those decisions for a very long time. So it really puts Indian country and tribal leaders at a very unique situation. So you start thinking about our tribes, whether they're rural, urban, large or small. It really does make for an interesting place.
That interesting place experienced some really phenomenal challenges with the covid-19 pandemic. The covid-19 pandemic really exposed some true opportunities and challenges both, to include exposure of strains in our food systems, and access to food. And I think what we learn coming out of this is that we're stronger together, and not one of us is smarter than all of us. So in terms of the basis for a cooperative approach, we probably, coming out of this pandemic, are uniquely situated to be able to look at that.
When I think about these cooperative opportunities kind of going back to the future, I sit here as a Pueblo Indian and looking at the genesis of the All Indian Pueblo Council, which was transformed to the All Pueblo Council of Governors. But the all Indian Pueblo Council since 1598 was a cooperative association, and that predates this country. So the 19 Pueblo's of New Mexico, speaking four or five different languages, geographically spread across the Southwest, really did form a cooperative arrangement between and amongst those Pueblo nations. So I'm really steeped in my DNA and my philosophical approach, that Indian country really is uniquely positioned to start looking at these cooperative arrangements.
And when we start thinking about kind of going back to the future and managing the vast buffalo herds. Even warfaring tribes, as I understand it and have heard from other tribal leaders, would look at the Wild West and the wild buffalo herds, and wild animals, as a domestic herd that was pushed even to your enemy so that they can live another day to fight. So I think that even in our warfaring ways between and amongst each other as Indian nations, being able to make sure that we can feed each other to be able to even carry on conflict.
So how would that transfer over to today? Looking at those, you know, managing those kinds of food and food systems. I think that much like the Yakima Nation of eastern Washington, which was where a court recently acknowledged the tribe's ability to trade, and I think that it's those kinds of landmark cases that in my mind were kind of almost unexpected in this US court system that Indian country has to live within. Being able to have soft words and hard argument about our ability to trade between and amongst tribes. Whether we're the -- in pre-contract our life ways, our diets, our trade, whether we're the Rice Nation, whether we're the Buffalo Nation, the coordination -- or a place that I've had the honor of working most recently in the Salmon Nations -- when you start thinking about those kinds of places like Yakima and their pre-contact trade, backed with treaty -- and looking at what Osage Nation is doing with their amazing meat processing plant, which is uniquely positioned to serve an entire region -- I just think that there's things that are happening today already, whether it's conscious or subconsciously, in terms of looking at regional food systems.
But I think that there's no place in Indian country, and maybe it's a challenge to the rest of us in Indian country, to what the Salmon Nations are doing in the Northwest. We started thinking about Portland Area Indian Health Board affiliated tribes, Northwest Indians, and the fifty seven tribes or so -- from Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Western Montana, and a few first nations out of Canada -- and the kind of amazing work that they're doing in the Northwest as a model of inspiration for the rest of Indian country, to think about what they're doing in the Salmon Nations, and how those benefits could be transferred to the rest of us in Indian country.
And I think the regional food systems and the hard work that's happening up in the Northwest, backed by great tribal leadership, and a lot of hard working people with a lot of dirt under their fingernails, that are just the tenacity and perseverance to remain Indian in this very complex, covid environment. And figuring a path forward again that we're better together than we are independently. That's been, I think, kind of the mantra and the approach, even though it may not be the explicit one, maybe it's the implied one.
So we're here today to talk about some of the challenges to Indian cooperatives. And I think in advance of the NAAF survey, I'm glad to hear, Toni, that NAAF is considering developing that survey, I would offer in advance that survey some of my thoughts, and really kind of goes beyond, I think, the obvious, which is: money, people, capacity, technology, time, politics. I think those are all well known and almost anticipated challenges. But if I may be frank, and I mean the word Frank more than just figuratively.
Billy Frank from the Northwest, from the Squali tribe, if you knew Billy, he would turn a swear word into a term of endearment. And he would take the challenge to young people, and those peer tribal leaders, and those activists around him, and would say, "just get up and do something!" He really challenged us all. And that's what I mean, if we could be very frank, because Billy Frank was very frank with anybody he spoke to, in a very inspirational way. And I think to be very frank, I think when we start thinking about, you know, beyond those obvious things that we've discussed, but I think there is something else that maybe is obvious, but maybe politically correct, not often discussed, and that's trust.
And I think that that trust issue-- and I'm not talking about trust between Indian people or Indian tribes and government, and its legacy with Indian country, or industry and their greed, and their history with Indian people. I'm talking about trust between and amongst tribes. And I think when you start thinking about trust pre-gaming and then trust post-gaming, I think we have as Indian country, I think we have to own what is out there in our own community. And one of those challenges and I don't know, Toni, if people will talk openly about this in the survey, but I think we ought to start that conversation and be frank, as Billy Frank would be, in talking about how do we work around the trust issue that has stemmed up in Indian country from -- clearly, you can mark it in time from the early 90s when we started competing over gaming market share. And then you start thinking about that trust on the Indian-to-Indian, tribe-to-tribe, and you start thinking about Vegas doesn't have that problem.
We all just got back from the RES Show and from the NIGA show in Vegas. How many people said, as we got on the plane, "oh, great, I'm going to MGM, I'm going to Circus Circus, I'm going to the Mirage"? None of us said that. We all said "we're going to Vegas." And when we start thinking about when we're going to go to Vegas, we talk about Vegas as a strip, as a lot of competition, but that was very well organized and marketed, marketed to working together. And I think that it's about time Indian country, that we look at that kind of a Vegas Strip model with the Indian food. And the Vegas Strip model with Indian food is, don't start talking about, "oh, I've got to go to this tribe, or that tribe," or, "this is mine," or "that's yours." Think about working cooperatively like they are in the northwest. It's amazing what's happening in the northwest.
And I think that having the farmer sit alongside the tribal leader, to whisper in the leader's ear that this is what's necessary. Us farmers -- I'm a farmer, I farm chili and corn, and I wish I could be better at doing that than I am; this weather and the climate change -- for all you deniers out there, I'm here to tell you that in my corn and my chili field, there's no denying my lack of access to water. But I think that the farmer-to-farmer really can demonstrate to the tribal leader-to-leader that there really are opportunities to kind of meet in the middle, to meet at the fence, to share the water, to make sure that we have enough to go around. And I think that the tribal leader can learn a lot from their respective tribal farmers, that lie within sight of all of our nations, whether you're the Rice, the Corn, the Salmon, or the Buffalo nations. I think there's a lot to be learned by tribal leadership from your people, and how they interact with other native people.
So I think farmer-to-farmer sitting alongside tribal leadership could be very important and helpful. And I think also looking at leveraging our needs, our resources, our strengths, and our markets. And when we leverage those together, I think that there is certainly enough to go around without thinking proprietary about "this is my market share." Think about "this is our market share," with a capital "O," and start thinking about it that way.
I'd like to challenge Ernie Stevens, and the rest of the two hundred and fifty or so gaming tribes -- four hundred facilities, 30 billion dollars a year -- to start thinking about a cooperative group that could purchase, right? So I'm not going to name Cisco, and some of those other companies. I don't dare name them in fear, they may come sue me for contract interference. But I think if the NIGA tribes would buy from their own people, there wouldn't be enough food for that 30 billion dollar industry. So why don't we farmers, and us tribes, get together with those casinos and start looking at creating something that is not there right now? It's a cooperative purchasing entity.
And I think that if Ernie Stevens and the rest of the NIGA board and members would simply do that, that would be transformative for Indian Country, and our fifty three million acres, and our senior water rights, and create a whole lot of really good, culturally relevant jobs to sit alongside the gaming industry. And how hard that would be? All they have to do is just say they want that to happen and then go start making that happen.
And I'm sure that they would get the attention of us farmers to be able to make something like that happen. So that's a true and honest challenge. And that goes back to that trust issue that Billy Frank spoke about. Ernie, and the rest of the gaming tribes, I think it's about time that we all listened to Billy Frank and take his challenge. We're old enough now. We've sat in his shadow, and now we are the Billy Franks, and it's up to us to have the same courage and bold decision making that Billy had. And I think that he would be very proud of us in the work that we do.
So how do we begin? I think we do what the Northwest is doing through partnerships. When you look at the Northwest, they're partnering with Red, Ecotrust, Northwest Harvest, academia from the Northwest. I mean, it's amazing what we are doing in the Northwest reaching out to these partners. And you think that these partners would be strange or unfamiliar partners. They're not. They're really interested in partnering with Indian country, and Indian country is very interested in partnering with them. I would venture to say those Northwest tribes are going to be feeding a lot of non-Indians in the Northwest. It's part of their vision. It's part of our history, it's part of our legacy, and it's part of what we do.
So I would close with this to invite the Feds, the States, industry, to join our hard work that we're doing in the Northwest. There's a lot of amazing people up there, Valerie Siegrist, and just just tons of people up there. There's too many to name. Phil Rigdon, and [inaudible] Brady, and others from Yakima, and the leadership there. But, Toni, I would reserve the rest of the time for my brother Cornelius, and to hear from him, and hopefully leave some time for some question and answer.
Toni Stanger-McLaughlin: Thank you, Roger, we have been working, just so you know, with NIGA, and we are right there. We are going to move on that. So it's good to hear you talk about that as a producer, because that's something that Janie's been working on. And that's one of the reasons why we had such a big presence at RES this year, the Reservation Economic Summit. We had six sessions, and one of those sessions was going to be a joint session with NIGA, it just unfortunately didn't work out in the end, but it's on the horizon.
So moving on to our next speaker and as Roger stated, our brothers and our sisters, the African-American community in the United States, we have a lot of similar stories, and a lot of the same issues. And we see right now in the national news that there is funding set aside for land fractionization, and passing on your land. And most of -- you don't really see that outside of our two communities. And so it's encouraging to see that support in this new administration. So I'm going to hand it over to Cornelius. Thank you for joining us today. And I look forward to meeting you very soon. We've only been able to meet virtually, but hopefully we can meet in person.
Cornelius Blanding: Well, definitely. Thank you. Toni, I do look forward to meeting you. Your predecessor, Janie is a great friend, and I have admired her for a long time, and she's made the introduction. I look forward to speaking to you, and meeting you in person and, really figuring out how we can work closely together.
Roger, it's a pleasure. Thank you, my friend. Look forward to spending more time with you. And thank you for your kind words. Thank you all. NCBA, CDF, and the Native American Ag Fund for presenting me the opportunity to share here. It's an honor and it's a privilege to be with you and to talk about some of the common challenges. I want to speak from my perspective, from our perspective as an organization.
My name again is Cornelius Blanding. I'm the executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives / Land Assistance Fund. I've been the executive director for the Federation for six years now, but I've been a part of the Federation for twenty four years. And twenty four years out of the 54 year history of the Federation.
The Federation is, simply put, a cooperative association of black farmers, landowners, and cooperatives all around the South. We are a cooperative of cooperatives. And again today, coincidentally, August 4th is our 54th year. We were chartered today, fifty four years ago, directly out of the Civil Rights Movement. We were founded in 1967 as an outgrowth of that movement in our country. And again fifty four years ago exactly today.
We were formed out of necessity. The challenges of the times during that day and not much different than the challenges of today. And because of those challenges, cooperatives in our communities started popping up, and the Federation formed as a cooperative of those cooperatives. Those cooperatives formed a federation. We had -- in Alabama, you had sharecroppers who were being kicked off their land for registering to vote, and they had no other alternative but to form land buying clubs and land buying associations, to figure out how to have a place to live for those families. They created quilting bees as jobs for communities, who again were kicked out of not only land, but kicked out of jobs.
In Tennessee, you have farmers who started to collaborate and cooperate together because they were denied access to basic inputs. In Mississippi and Louisiana, we had farmers who were denied access to common markets. They had to form cooperatives. In Florida, you had residents of the community who were denied fair access to fair credit. They had to form credit unions or financial cooperatives. So you had cooperative responses to real problems and real situations of the time, and no different than today. Toni, as you've alluded, we continue as a community to have certain challenges. Many of them are similar to the challenges you have in the Native American area of this country.
But in 1966, many of those cooperatives who were formed in the 50s and before, and the 60s, started hearing about each other. They came together in 1966 to discuss an idea of what a federation would look like, an idea of all of them working together. So, Roger, my friend, I appreciate your words, your thoughts. Thinking big and speaking big, because it requires big ideas. And we think of the Federation as one of those big ideas that was started fifty four years ago. We're trying to think even bigger today, and it requires those big ideas. But it's possible when people come together and start working together. But it starts with the big ideas and moving on that.
And again, we were created in 1967, as a way for co-ops to solve the problems and the challenges of their time. Our mission, then and now is, to be nothing more than a catalyst for the development of self-supporting communities through cooperative economic development, land retention, and advocacy. Our vision has always been around envisioning sustainable rural communities, supported by a network of farmers, landowners, cooperatives and credit unions, all based on local control and ownership. And so we definitely think, and I would love to explore opportunities for us to collaborate. For us to collaborate as cooperatives, but also as communities. Communities with a lot of similar challenges. This is the goal for us, the vision, the mission.
But to get there, we must have strong and sustainable cooperatives. And in order to have strong and sustainable cooperatives, you must have strong and sustainable members, individual members. You have to address the needs of those individual members as producers, as consumers, as workers -- address those individual needs, those individual challenges. And when you do that, you can then start addressing the challenges of the collective. But you must focus on both levels. We have we have always focused on both levels: the individual member level, and the cooperatives collectively. Those folks working together collectively and their issues and their concerns.
You must recognize and deal with the individual challenges of the members. Toni, you alluded to what we call heirs property, and you all talk about fractionated land. That's a huge problem for individual landowners, and it's a huge problem for our communities, and thus is a huge problem for us when we try to cooperate. Issues around access to credit, issues around access to irrigation and other things as farmers. But those things have to be recognized and addressed on an individual level prior to looking at it collectively as a cooperative, because the cooperative is only as strong as its weakest member. And so those challenges on an individual level are also important.
But the challenges of a co-op -- Roger, you alluded to it, you talked about any time there's a group of people working together, you're going to have challenges. But you must address those challenges head on, meet them head on, and really deal with those challenges. It's the common challenges of a co-op is what I want to speak about from my perspective, from our perspective, from our history. And those common challenges have already been talked about and alluded to here, but I want to mention them again, starting with trust.
Trust is an important issue and it's a huge challenge. And it's a challenge that you always have to work on. You have to build trust. You have to work on it every day in terms of building that trust, and there's a number of ways to do it. But the cooperative, on a cooperative level, but also on the individual level. But also individuals have to truly understand the cooperative model, including all of the principles. Understanding that a co-op is a shared business, a shared business to meet a common need. And again, is based on their collective ownership and governance -- that common need. You also have to really identify and understand and focus on that common need -- and I can't emphasize that enough, that common need that that there is.
And when we talk about that and realize our common need, and the purpose, I think you can get past a lot of things, including the trust issue. But developing a shared vision and purpose, developing that and truly understanding that, and understanding how to constantly communicate that shared vision, that shared purpose, that common need. Whether it be through the business plan, really making that simple and workable, and really going back to it. But also the policies, the procedures, and the agreements that we have with each other, and understanding the basic importance of all of that as an underlying force of it. And most importantly, having good and effective meetings -- meetings with each other and talking. And not only business meetings, but informal cultural meetings. The more we meet, the more we talk, the more we communicate, the more we begin to build trust because we start developing relationships. And that's extremely important: the relationships and the community. And we can never forget about that.
And Toni, you mentioned that in your beginning conversation, and what's unique in Indian country, and in all of our communities: those relationships, those communal aspects. And sometimes we forget that, and we try to deal with business without dealing with community. It's all a part of it. Business is always about relationships. And we must keep that front and center.
But we must also recognize leadership, whether it's at the board level or management. Leadership, making sure we identify good and trustworthy leadership, and support that leadership, and constantly develop it. Constantly looking to the youth to engage them, to bring them along to work with the leaders, but also looking at new members to bring them in, and making sure that we're all working together, and leadership is truly effective. And having support from the entire membership.
Sometimes we don't realize the value of supporting our businesses, our community being engaged, whether it be financially or physically. Putting in resources, but also being a part of the meetings, being a part of the co-op, physically utilizing the products and services that the co-op, and being there, and just being there.
And so those are some of the things in terms of common challenges we see on the individual level. But when you move out to the collective level, as it was mentioned earlier, there are three things that we focus on, primarily as common challenges for all of our co-ops. And that's access to capital. Just by the cooperative structure in itself, you have a challenge in terms of access and capital, because usually there is no clear ownership, and people don't recognize co-ops in terms of having clear ownership, one individual owner. And so it's a challenge, but really working through that within the structure of the co-op, and trying to access capital.
Two, really having good infrastructure. There's always a lack of infrastructure for us, whether it's the processing, the storage,, or the distribution. And Roger, you mentioned that in terms of really figuring out how we can utilize our co-ops, utilize co-ops and develop an infrastructure to collective market within a system that you already have established, and really working through that and developing that infrastructure as a second challenge on the cooperative level.
But third is getting to scale. Making sure that you have enough production to feasibly and consistently supply markets. Really thinking through that, identifying that, and making sure you have enough production or services to get to scale.
And last but not least, keeping the membership engaged, and truly engaged. And keeping them engaged through that structure of a cooperative, whether it be through patronage refunds, in terms of them seeing how they individually benefit from a co-op. You have to show the individual members how they benefit. And that's a challenge for us constantly, but also making sure that people are participating in an equitable way, and keeping them informed. Informed not only of the successes of the co-op, but the challenges. People talking through all that, and working through all that. And again, keeping that cultural piece at the center of it, really focusing on culture.
And last, I'll just say in terms of some of the things that we have been doing as a federation of cooperatives, again, focusing on the individual, the cooperative, the collective, but also for us a federation, all those co-ops working together, which is nothing more than a sixth principle: cooperation among cooperatives. How do you not only organize cooperatives, but how do you keep those cooperatives working together, and realizing that they are not true -- they can have a friendly competition, but how do we compete overall? And Roger, you talked about it in your example of Vegas. How do we cooperate together and have a common mission?
So for us, it's about really looking at the community, and how do our different co-ops, and we as a federation, interact with our community. And because of that, we expand into housing, and to health and wellness. So we have a housing unit that's a part of our federation, that we all own collectively. We have a health and wellness center that we as a federation -- all those cooperatives -- own collectively. So what are the things that those cooperatives do together to then move them out of that mindset that their only competitors, is kind of how we started looking at it.
But also in terms of joint infrastructure, what kind of infrastructure can we own jointly? Cooperative infrastructure, but also a federation structure, or federation ownership of infrastructure. So, we began to look at collective processing that all of our co-ops can feed into, and looking at how do we organize our cooperatives around a regional marketing system? So, how do we make sure that all those cooperatives share in a common market? So, getting to scale. Most times an individual farmer producer can't get to scale. Many times an individual cooperative can't get to scale. So how do you bring these cooperatives together to create a joint system where they can get to scale collectively, in a regional system? And so we're looking at things of that nature.
And last but not least, again, cooperation among cooperatives. Keeping that front and center as the structure of our federation, and really looking at that sixth principle of cooperatives around things like marketing. So some some specific examples: we go into arrangements and I see Erbin on the screen with the Neighboring Food Co-op Association. How do our cooperatives of black farmers and producers market to their cooperative of grocery stores in the Northeast? We're looking at looking at the National Co-op Grocers Association. How do we market collectively to these collective consumers, these collective food co-ops?
Looking at it on the financial side, working with folks like Cobank and the National Cooperative Bank and Share Capital. How do we create financing structures within that cooperative system? And so we've been able to access lines of credit and other things. And through NCBA; NCBA and all the members of NCBA, really utilizing that structure and figuring out how do we work with folks within the defined system of the NCBA in our country. The systems are there, just if we intend to be intentional and utilize them and move beyond individuals and cooperatives, to cooperatives of cooperatives, and to cooperative structures, and connecting with cooperatives outside of our network, and creating these networks.
Again, back to that vision in terms of sustainable rural communities supported by a network of farmers, landowners, and cooperatives. And we can create that network beyond our simple networks. How do our black communities engage and collaborate with Native American communities and cooperatives? All of that is possible if we're willing, and we say we're willing, and we want to really look for that. And last but not least, how do we use technology to do all of this?
Right now we're connecting through Zoom, and having this thing where we're all engaged. I think we have to continue to utilize this and push beyond it. And we're looking at technology to connect not only our members, but our communities and our staff to one another. And so as we build technology for our staff to better communicate internally, we want to make sure that our staff is able to communicate with our membership. But that requires really looking at the challenges of our individual members who don't have clear access. And how do we connect them? How do we connect it to our housing facilities, to our health care facilities? And so we're starting to look at partnership with technology partners. And how do we look at some simple form of technology as a starting point, and grow and not leave anybody behind, and keep us all connected so that we can continue to build that trust.
So I'll stop there and attempt to get it back on track with time and see if there's questions from there.
Toni Stanger-McLaughlin: Yeah, we're right there. I think we can field a couple questions before we're done. So if you want to enter those questions in the chat box, or reach out via email, let us know. Whitney, have we gotten any additional questions beyond the ones in this chat?
Whitney Sawney: No, I think we did have one question come through here in the chat box about asking if Cornealious can expand a little bit more about the structure of the Federation as an association of co-ops and credit unions, and some of the ways that they support their success of their member co-ops.
Cornelius Blanding: Definitely. So we, the Federation, we were chartered under the Co-op Development Act of D.C. Back when we were chartered, fifty four years ago, we didn't have access even to these simple structures in the South where we were working in, at that time, a hostile environment. So we had to charter in D.C. under the Cooperative Association Act of D.C. But what we are simply is a cooperative of cooperatives.
We also have a nonprofit structure, where we can operate as 501c(3). So in essence, this is an association of farmers, landowners, and cooperatives operating under a cooperative association, a cooperative nonprofit association. So we are truly owned by our cooperatives. So each cooperative of the federation -- right now we have seventy five cooperatives all throughout the South that make up the federation -- each cooperative has one vote in the governance of the of the organization, of the Federation. But we also have individual farmers and landowners who are members. So we are a primary, secondary and tertiary cooperative, if you will.
So, those individual landowners work together collectively, so they have a collective voice. They have one member represent those individual members on our board, and then each State, each co-op in a State comes together as a state association and they elect one member. So we, in essence, have one member from each State represent those co-ops that they vote among themselves to govern the organization. And it's a cooperative association of these farmers, landowners, and cooperatives. And what we do as a staff, we have about a 50 person staff throughout the South with offices all over the South. And our focus is around three things: cooperative economic development, land retention, and advocacy.
So our staff focuses on helping to strengthen and develop the existing cooperatives, but also chartering and organizing new cooperatives to continue to build the federation, and provide all the services they need as cooperatives. Whether it's access to capital, whether it's marketing, or anything else that they need. Then we also provide land retention services. If we are looking at those individual farmers and landowners who make up many of those cooperatives and our communities, dealing with issues like heirs property. So, having attorneys working on wills and estate plans to help succession planning, and working to transfer the ownership of that land in those families from one family to the other, to continue to build strong cooperatives. And then on the advocacy front, always advocating for good programs and resources that benefit our membership, and the communities that they serve, whether the individual members, or the cooperatives community. So co-op development, land retention, and advocacy, and our staff is always focusing on those three areas for our membership.
Toni Stanger-McLaughlin: I have a question for you, actually, Cornelius, do you have any similar organizations that are structured? You are advanced, obviously you have 54 years on a lot of these other organizations. Are others following suit?
Cornelius Blanding: Toni, that's a great question. And so one of the things when we talk about the Federation, we talk about "the only cooperatively owned organization of black farmers and landowners, and cooperatives in the country." I don't know of any others who are doing this.
Unfortunately, many times in our community, many folks they run out to start these non-profits, these 501c(3) organizations, as opposed to looking at the cooperative structure, and forming cooperatives. And so many have started the wrong way.
Again, we do have the benefit of 54 years, and sometimes the challenges are the opportunities. And so at that time we had to utilize the opportunities that were before us in the cooperative. And we like to think of the federation as a merger between the civil rights movement and the cooperative movement. And so cooperatives were sweeping through -- and I see Doug on the line. CLUSA was one of the organizations that were at the first meeting of the folks in the Federation, when many of those co-ops came together. So we started forming cooperatives as an offset. And once those cooperatives came about, those cooperatives then came together to create a federation. And sometimes we try to start that backwards. And so, unfortunately, I don't know of any other structures out there like us.
Toni Stanger-McLaughlin: Well, we are right on time. I'm just going to do a quick closing, I know Roger and I were sending private messages. This whole week has been inspiring, but it has also been an opportunity for the Native American Agriculture Fund to realize where we can fill gaps, where we can pull in other partnerships. And also where we might move our funding beyond every year spent for the past three years. We are a philanthropic drawdown trust fund. We are in existence for 20 years. We have 17 years left. We have special emphasis, our our targeted areas that we fund annually. And I'm envisioning cooperatives being in that next funding cycle, as an area that we want to focus on and invite applicants to solve these issues. Again, if you visit our website and look at our reports, Janie Hipp's vision document for how we can accomplish food security, food sovereignty, but also mass economic development for our underserved communities, is through hubs, sub-hubs, and founded in cooperatives. Not only individual cooperatives, but tribal and regionally based cooperatives.
So again, NAAF is going to pledge their support to make this a priority moving forward, and we invite other partners to join us in this effort. And we thank those that sponsored the event today. We thank, Doug, for inviting us to be part of this. And I also want to recognize Sandy Martini on our staff, who also played a big role in making this a success. We look forward to the remaining events and speakers that we have moving forward. I'll pass it back to you, Whitney. Thank you.
Whitney Sawney: Thank you so much Toni. Thank you, Cornelius and Roger, and I appreciate your time in being here with us today.
Cooperative Development Foundation (2021). Common Challenges in Cooperatives. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/common-challenges-cooperatives
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