Cornelius Blanding is the kind of visionary leader the world needs right now. As the Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, Blanding helps farmers and landowners with limited resources gain access to credit, hold onto their land and form cooperatives and credit unions in order to build and retain wealth. Blanding is also a 2019 recipient of the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, which spotlights the work of individuals in the interconnected realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health.Using the cooperative business model & leveraging technology, Cornelius Blanding of the @Federation1967, is helping Black farmers in the south protect & expand land ownership. Click To Tweet
“To have a conversation with Cornelius is to witness someone building,” says Cabot farmer Jenni Tilton Flood. “Building a relationship, a bridge, a path, a consensus. He’s a man who is actively listening and inspiring, all the while facilitating change.”
The Farmer and the Activist met on the 2019 Cabot Community Celebrity Cruise, where 40 nationally recognized volunteers, including Cornelius Blanding, sailed the east coast of Canada and New England while networking, sharing ideas and experiences and enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime journey with like-minded people. Jenni and Cornelius discovered that in spite of their superficial differences, they were aligned in their passion for sustainability and stewardship of family owned farms, the efficacy of the cooperative business model, their enthusiasm for volunteering and an abiding belief in the power of food as a social, political and philosophical connector.
The Federation has grown, largely without technology, one hard-fought step at a time, for more than 50 years, when it was formed out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Blanding has been with the Federation for 23 years and at the helm for the past 5 years. He compares their journey to crossing the ocean. “If we were in a speed boat, we might have been fast and nimble, but we would never have survived a trip across the ocean. We’re like a cruise ship, slow, steady and purposeful. In the end, we are in the right vessel to make the crossing.”
In pre-Covid times the Federation operated the old-fashioned way. “We have field offices throughout the south and we did all our business face-to-face and one-on-one,” explains Blanding. That changed abruptly in March, when all their activity had to take place online. “This was a huge challenge for us. We were just not set up to do things this way, but we’re learning and growing…with a little help from our friends at Cabot.” Blanding explains with a hint of a chuckle. The two agricultural organizations have had a close working relationship for more than 20 years. With Cabot’s help, the Federation is revamping their website and amping up their social media presence, as well as developing sophisticated technology systems to facilitate sales and distribution from small, family owned farms to important markets across the south. It is just another component of the job that Blanding embraces with enthusiasm and optimism.
The mission of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund is not difficult to understand – its work is to facilitate the ability of Black family farm owners to protect and expand land ownership as well as organize cooperatives as tools for self-help and building wealth. That said, accomplishing the mission is less straightforward and more complex, carried out with a three-pronged approach:
• Developing cooperatives and credit unions as a means for people to enhance the quality of their lives and improve their communities
• Developing a Rural Training and Research Center to provide information, skills and awareness in a cultural context to help members and constituents build strong rural communities
• Developing, advocating and supporting public policies to benefit the membership of Black family farmers and the low-income rural communities where they live
Blanding lives every day aware of the profound urgency of this mission. A hundred years ago there were more than 200,000 Black farmers who owned about 15 million acres of land. Before the turn of the century, less than 20,000 Black farmers owned a little more than 2 million acres. Today, Black farmers are still struggling to hold onto the land. He believes that the key to the Federation’s work is the cooperative business model, including credit unions. “My passion is to keep limited resource cooperatives in the South connected to the larger cooperative movement and vice-versa,” he explains. Blanding’s vision of the future is based on the lessons of the past. “He’s studied and learned about the history of change in this country and accepts all that as a responsibility to go forward.” Says John Zippert, one of the original founders of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
Chief among Blanding’s responsibilities at the Federation is that of a connector – with people and with other organizations. His agile mind finds ways to match problems with solutions and ways to leverage opportunity. For instance, Image Relay, a Digital Asset Management service, has donated a subscription which will enable the FSC to put 50 years of their history, archived and digitized by the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University on their website. This will be a boon, not only for the Federation but will also become a valuable resource for Black History researchers.
During his tenure Blanding has also deepened relationships with credit unions and institutions like the National Cooperative Bank, advancing the Federation’s mission while raising its visibility. In June FSC received a $2,500 grant from Cabot’s Reward Volunteers Department of Gratitude with partner CoBank, one of the largest providers of credit to the U.S. rural economy. Blanding has reached out to organizations like these not only to expand the mission of the Federation but also to share experience and seek guidance from other cooperative businesses.
Blanding’s essential humanity serves him well as he guides the Federation into its next iteration. “Cornelius has an unforgettable spirit,” says Carolyn Kingston of Cabot’s Department of Gratitude. “He walks into a room and transforms it. He has the unique ability to generate hope and optimism wherever he goes.”
It’s no surprise that Blanding is a devoted family man. His wife, Edwanna, is by all accounts a formidable presence in her own right. Together they have four children, three of whom are still at home. The recent months of quarantine have been as much a challenge for his family as it has been for the Federation, though in some ways, the two have gone in opposite directions to adjust to the changing times. While work at the FSC has catapulted the organization into the 21st century, home life has slowed, relying on old-fashioned pastimes like yard games and technology-free family time to adjust to pandemic living.
The past months have afforded Blanding more time for his secret passion – cooking. His children are partial to a variety of his inventive pasta recipes. His personal favorite dish, however, is his beloved mother’s recipe for barbecue chicken, cabbage and rice. “The south is the largest producer of these ingredients,” Blanding says, “so they’re cheap and plentiful, which is part of the irony of the south and our food system. This is the kind of food that tastes like home to me.”
It’s reported that Blanding’s version of this meal is an unforgettable classic, one that takes humble ingredients and turns them into something unexpected and elevated. This is Cornelius Blanding’s gift, whether he is dealing with food, people or organizations. He sees the potential in the quotidian and lifts it up, taking it higher than anyone thought possible.
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Farming photos courtesy of James Beard Foundation.