Visiting the Federation of Southern Cooperatives

A trip into Epes, Alabama takes you down some curvy, bumpy roads. But given their history and connections, visiting the training center for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is a necessary part of looking into grass roots economies in the South. After a phone call where I asked for a few minutes time on their busy schedules to introduce myself and the F4DC project, I was finally able to get permission to come by briefly back in May. It seems that they were in the middle of filing some important reports and submitting proposals to make sure their work could continue. They were also preparing for a training program on the advantages of developing cooperatives and a summer youth sustainable agriculture program. Once I got there, however, the distance and impatience that I had felt on the telephone disappeared and I was warmly received and not rushed through the discussion. Face to face contact remains the most effective way of introducing people and ideas.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been around since 1967. It is a product of the Civil Rights movement and has most recently been involved in struggles for black land retention and against the patterns of racism and discrimination that has up until recently characterized the US Department of Agriculture’s relation to black farmers. The victory in 1999 in the Pigford suite reflects years of effort to redress the grievances of black farmers in the south who were systematically denied loans and other support that white American farmers could take for granted. Unfortunately, the multi-billion dollar settlement has not been fully funded and is tied up in Washington bureaucratic red tape and budgetary complications.

The two people I got to talk to were Pamela Madzima, Forestry Program Assistant and Osagie Idehen, Cooperative Specialist. They told me about the Federations current work with Tuskegee Institute and Alabama A&M University on forestry and goat husbandry as well as work with the Alabama Association of Cooperatives on coop development. They were both excited about F4DC’s planned efforts to look at ways to strengthen grassroots economies in the south. In particular, they felt that if we could together identify sources of conflict on the one hand and the unmet needs of the many economic groups on the other, we could be instrumental in helping southern grassroots economies move forward. We talked specifically of finding overlaps that created intensified competition for scarce resources, as well as gaps in the economic chain that prevented the full development of the synergies needed to push the new economic ventures forward over the declining economies that are causing so much suffering in our communities.

Before I left, I got to go on a brief tour of the Rural Training and Research Center facilities. In addition to the offices, I got to see the dormitory space, classroom space, meeting rooms and the dining facilities. We then went outside to see the garden area and the goats that are to be used in a combination forestry – goat husbandry research to figure out the optimum number of goats that can be raised in wooded timber areas.

I am looking forward to going to Birmingham for the Federation’s award banquet August 19 and then back to Epes for the federation’s annual meeting August 20 and 21.

Facilitating the building of a new economy

Taking advantage of a wedding that I was invited to at Highlander Research and Education Center and a planned to trip to see my mother in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was able to get started on our outreach efforts for the Southern Grassroots Economies Project in late May.

A core group of folks gathered in Black Mountain on the weekend of May 14, to sketch the general outline of this next major project of the Fund for Democratic Communities. Marnie Thompson, Suzanne Pharr, Emery Wright, and I met with the support of Bryan Cahall and Lamar Gibson at a retreat center in Black Mountain, North Carolina for two full days of discussion around how F4DC might involve itself in helping to facilitate the development of democratic economic activity that can make a significant difference in people’s lives.

We got involved in this work following a discussion that Marnie and I had with Suzanne Pharr some months before in Knoxville. At that time, the idea of looking for ways to help people realize their potential to be the productive in the midst of the current economic crisis became central to a discussion we were having about charting a way forward for F4DC.  Based on suggestions from Suzanne, we contacted Emery Wright of Project South and Monica Hernandez of Highlander to talk about the potential of planning for a gathering of people involved in community based democratic economic activity to take place in late 2010.

In the course of our follow-up Black Mountain discussion in May (which Monica could not attend due to a prior commitment), Suzanne, Marnie, Emery and I came to see how our projected work meshed with the work of a number of other people from across the country who are involved with what is called “Solidarity Economics”.

We are looking into ways to focus efforts in the US South, centered in African American, immigrant and poor white communities, and also particularly among women, to help create new opportunities and enhance existing efforts to allow people to be productive.  Rather than simply being content with redistributing existing wealth, we want to look at expanding opportunities to create additional goods and service to meet human needs

Among the things that inspire this effort are the very successful large industrial worker-owned cooperatives in the city of Mondagon in the Basque region of Spain, as well as growing activities around worker ownership of productive enterprises from South America to the dying factory towns of the US industrial heartland. The movement of community gardens on the one hand and worker-owned factories on the other has the potential of linking with community-based financing from credit unions and collective, cooperatively-based distribution through consumer coops of various forms to form the basis of a new kind of economic activity. We envision this not just be counter-culture activity, as many of the consumer coops are now, but the basis of a new economy that grows stronger as the old economy collapses of its own contradictions, which can be seen in the absurd concentrations of wealth creating increasing disparities in the distribution of the product of working people.

During last few weeks of May I drove 2,200 miles across the South and talked to people in Knoxville, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; Epes, Alabama; and Morganton, North Carolina.  In each city, those to whom I spoke saw the promise of linking the efforts that they are involved in via our Southern Grassroots Economies Project.

In the next few posts, I will detail some of the conversations I have recently had with Elandria Williams of the Solidarity Economics Network (SEN), Tamidra Marable of Heifer International, Osagie Idehen and Pamela Madzima of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Molly Hemstreet of the Center for Participatory Change, an Asheville-based organization that supports the work of Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut-and-sew shop in Morganton, North Carolina.