Margaret Bau: My name is Margaret Bau and today we are having a webinar in honor of Black History Month: The challenges and opportunities for cooperative development in African-American communities.
And we are in for a treat today. We have with us Melbah Smith — she is a 2009 inductee into the Cooperative Hall of Fame. The Cooperative Hall of Fame is the highest honor given in the co-op community to someone whose life and work in supporting cooperatives is truly heroic.
Melbah spent 40 years developing co-ops in African-American communities in rural Mississippi, Alabama and the deep South. Not only are they to build mutually-owned businesses, it’s also a wonderful tool to building leadership capacity in unserved and underserved communities. As you will hear during this webinar, Melbah would go into those underserved communities to identify leaders and then she would encourage those leaders to use the co-op model to accomplish their dreams.
Melbah McAfee Smith was born in rural Rankin County, Mississippi. Her family farmed 40 acres of fruit, vegetables and livestock. Melbah attended a one-room schoolhouse where her mother was the only teacher. Melbah earned a degree in business administration from Mississippi Valley State University and a graduate degree from Tuskegee University. In 1972 at the ripe age of 26, Melbah moved to Epps, Alabama to serve as the director of consumer cooperatives at the rural training and research center with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
Then, from 1972-1974, Melbah served as the director of the Black Belt Community Health Center, an effort by the Federation to provide health care services to residents of North Sumter County. During the 1970s, she served in a variety of capacities for the Federation, including Comptroller of the Rural Training and Research Center in Epps. Working with the Federation afforded Melbah her first opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. to meet with congressional delegates to discuss challenges facing rural residents. She brought those experiences back to rural Alabama and then eventually to Mississippi, helping people to organize and to realize that they could effect change. Melbah worked to identify leaders in rural communities and encouraged those leaders to join together using the cooperative model in their towns.
In 1978, Melbah returned to her home state serving as the director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives within the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Funding was at times tenuous. Sometimes she served in this capacity in conjunction with Alcorn State University Cooperative Extension — and then there was a period of 15 months in which she worked as a volunteer without payment to continue on the work.
Melbah’s work was never 9 to 5. She worked until the job was done. She attended endless hours of meetings, riding tractors with farmers, eating meals at night meetings, and working weekends. Colleagues often describe Melbah as having intuitiveness when coming into contact with groups. Once she would make an assessment of a group, she would work hard with those groups to birth brand-new businesses.
In 1997 Melbah added a new responsibility to her work. She became the executive director of the Mississippi Center for Cooperative Development, which is partially funded by the USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant. Ever a cooperative developer and enthusiast, she helped organize over 25 cooperatives across Mississippi, the Virgin Islands and in post-Katrina efforts with the Gulf Coast communities. Projects range from producer marketing co-ops, farmers markets, a cotton gin serving minority cotton producers and affordable family housing. On a national level, Melbah helped to organize Cooperation Works!, which is a network of co-op development centers and practitioners.
As you will hear from the conversation today, Melbah is a strong woman of faith and vision. She challenges others to dream — and to fulfill those dreams. Her consistent advocacy on behalf of the underserved, low-income farm families, and rural residents have made Melbah a recognized agent for change in the cooperative world. Since the beginning of her career, her message has remained consistent. As Melba observes, we must help to preserve rural communities and there is no better way than the use of the cooperative model.
Through her tireless work with some of the poorest communities of the deep South, Melbah was inducted into the cooperative Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2009, Melbah retired from her formal duties with the Mississippi Center for Cooperative Development and the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives. Post-retirement Melbah served as interim director of the newly organized Coalition for Prosperous Mississippi. She also served as a mentor to Jackson Rising, a citywide effort to create community economic development for underserved African-Americans by utilizing the cooperative model.
We are thrilled for Melbah to share reflections on the challenges and opportunities for co-op development in African-American communities. She will share insights on organizing co-ops in some of the poorest rural areas of the country. Always the visionary, Melbah will also speak about what she sees as future possibilities for cooperative development. With that, thank you for this opportunity and we are excited to hear your presentation, Melbah .
Melbah Smith: Thank you so much, Margaret, and a very good afternoon to everyone. I take this opportunity to thank Margaret and USDA for their invitation to share a few of my experiences, in working with cooperatives in rural areas, and primarily in African-American communities and in the South. So, thank you all for this kind invitation.
So, as I begin, I would like to share a bit about my growing up in rural Mississippi, and this is possibly a reason why I can relate to other rural communities similar to that of my own. I grew up in a town called Brandon, Mississippi and during this time I experienced a lot of inequities as a child. I grew up in a family — my mother and father and my brother– and my father, I think I get most of who I am from my father, because he was a man who did quite a bit of work for other people. They were asking him to do something and he would never say ‘no’. He was always there. And I thank them for that — for things that they shared with me. And I’m getting to where I am today because of my background, and the roots that I had with my father and my grandfather. My grandfather was a farmer as well.
And he grew all the food that we ate. We learned how to work. And we didn’t shy away from hard work and we didn’t shy away from farming. There was a lot of cooperation among families living in the community, and most people who lived in the South, and I guess in other rural communities throughout the country, we would always share with one another, there was a need. And I found that to be the same way when I began to work with cooperatives.
I did not participate in the civil rights movement early on. One reason being that my mother taught in the public school system and was threatened with the loss of her job if she were found to be — either she or members of the family — participating in the civil rights movement.
I would just like to share a little bit about my background and the inequities that I saw. I attended a one-room school with one teacher from the first through the eighth grade. And, by the way, my mother was my first teacher, but I had been attending another one-room schoolhouse. And they are I saw how African-American schools received materials from other schools, and we could see that as children where these were used desks, with other kids’s names on them that we didn’t recognize. And then we could also see the books where they had been used maybe two or three years and you had to write your name in the book. And that always stood out to me, while we were receiving used things from other students. Some of our students sat on benches that were made by community residents. I think it was something that always stood out to me about how communities of people worked together to provide an education for children that lived in our community. But the love that existed in these situations — by working together.
And also as I grew, we were the last ones in our community to receive electricity. The last ones to receive telephones. And the last ones to receive a community water system. And there were roads that were unpaved. And my dad had to travel to his job at night and, of course, the roads, when the rains came in, were muddy and he couldn’t drive. He had to park is truck about 3 – 5 miles away from our house and walk through the woods at night when it was raining and cold in order to get to his truck, in order to get to his work which was in Jackson, Mississippi. That’s the thing that stood out to me. Why did my dad have to go through that when he was trying to earn income to support his family?
So these things grew more and more in my heart about how to bring change. And I could hear my mother and my father talking about not getting involved in the civil rights movement, but they would not shy away from our being engaged in growing up and becoming all we could be. My mother would say, "Hey, a college education will be just like a high school degree so you are going to have to go further. You’re gonna have to get a Masters degree. You can’t stop there, even though I got a BS degree. You need to go further." And we learned that and we took it to heart and we worked in that way.
But after graduation, my first job was to work in a Head Start program. And here I met families who lived in poverty. Mothers who were keeping care of their children at home who did not have a lot of food to provide for their children. Most of the children that came to the Head Start program were only able to get one meal a day, and that was the meal and snack that we provided at the Head Start program. And then I became more and more aware of other things going on around me, and I am sure that changed my thought pattern and began to grow up in me as how could I change this? Why are rural areas not receiving the same services as those in the inner city? So that stood out with me.
And after leaving the head start program, I began a career with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which was organized in 1967 by 22 cooperatives around the South. Now, the Federation was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, and it was formed by these 22 cooperatives in the Southeast to support them. They needed an organization that could provide the technical assistance that would help strengthen them to move forward with their vision of forming a co-op, and their goals that they had in doing just that. And primarily most of these were agriculture cooperatives, during that time.
So let’s talk a little bit about the civil rights movement and what I remember about that. It gave courage to many Black farmers to join cooperatives. Why is that? Because these farmers had to band together. They saw themselves as banding together in order to increase their income and to support their families, and to make money from their crops.
It provoked more discrimination — I think the Civil Rights Movement did — by white owners, business owners, against black farmers. Having come out of the civil rights movement, these people had experienced a lot of inequities, and they knew that in order to move forward they had to work together. And so I think it gave them that courage — they saw the changes that were brought about by the Civil Rights Movement — to begin working together.
And discrimination in some cases — and I will talk about that with the Mileston Cooperative Association, located in Tchula, Mississippi — this type of discrimination induced cooperative formation. It brought about "hey, let’s band together." They had heard about cooperatives and they thought this was a means to move forward and to continue to earn a living and provide for their families.
So Mileston Cooperative Association was organized in 1944 in a small town in Tchula, Mississippi, in the Delta of Mississippi. It was a cotton gin organized by 50 African-American farmers. What was the situation? What brought them to this? What was the problem there that they were experiencing?
They would bring their cotton in trailers to the gin, which was white-owned, but their trailers would sit there for weeks on weeks and not be ginned. And they only had a few trailers, that they needed, which were used to go back into their cotton fields to pick further cotton and bring it back. But since their trailers — the cotton in their trailers — was not ginned, then they lost money. They weren’t able to retrieve their cotton that remained in the field, and then later in November the rain would set in and therefore their cotton would be lost. So there was a problem and there was a situation that brought them to the point that, "we need our own cotton gin," and that’s what brought them together. In my opinion it was a very successful cooperative. Not only a successful cooperative, but it was a leadership in that rural community — which is called Mileston — where other people could see men coming together, and women coming together, and owning their own business.
As part of the civil rights movement too, some families in Alabama lived on plantations. Because they chose to go and register to vote, they were kicked off the plantation. This began a housing association, which was established to remedy that situation. I was a part of that, having worked with the Federation — came with them in 1972 as Margaret mentioned, dating me way back to that. But the work that I had done in the Head Start movement — the things that grew up in me, the discrimination in my community from being the last to receive basic services sort of prepared me for the next step, and that was with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
So what did we learn in my work? What were some of the lessons that we learned?
Cooperative members had very limited understanding of cooperative enterprise and their principles. But when they were introduced to it, they embraced it because of the things that I just talked about. The inequities that existed, and they knew they needed another way out. They couldn’t continue the way that they were going, the track that they were on. So the Federation of Southern Cooperatives provided that technical support for most of these cooperatives in the South.
Now I have word there [on the presentation slide] that says "went fast to go slow", but I also said "organization of cooperatives takes some time". Most of them heard about it and incorporated with the State of Mississippi and got their business off the ground, but they were not prepared for the next step. They knew their vision, they knew the outcome that they wanted, but how to get there was something that they had not experienced before. Business planning, marketing and marketing strategies. Where were they going to sell their cotton to? Other things. How were they going to get their product into the market? Looking at all of that. Sound record keeping. These are the things we were doing as staff members of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
We also found that the management in cooperative education was deficient. As I just mentioned they knew where they wanted to go but how did they get there? And this is where we were able to provide some services. They lacked the sound infrastructure that I just mentioned. That was needed to strengthen them and get them on the right road, and to be successful. Sometimes in my work I found that a lot of people — not everybody, but some people — would say, co-ops don’t work. But my point here is cooperatives work if you work them. If you work how they are supposed to be set up, and how you move forward in putting this infrastructure in. It works, if people are willing to work together. I will talk about that a little later on.
Marketing access was a problem. And sustaining involvement of membership. And I talked about — at the bottom there — "constant expansion and development of strong educational programming". Understanding what cooperatives are and how they work, and then sharing that and learning that, and then learning how to work together in putting all these things in place.
So "going forward", I will talk about that a little bit.
Constant education. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives — even though we had principles, cooperative principles that we taught in our training program — the Federation of Southern Cooperatives would have training sessions at their training center in Epps, Alabama. We’d bring farmers in, we’d bring others in: consumer cooperatives staff and other people there, to train. And then we’d send people out, staff people. And we had local associations — state associations in these states that had staff that were working directly with the co-op members in those particular states.
So we found that constant education was something that we needed to continue. Not just train in what co-ops are about, how to structure cooperatives,management, Board of Directors training, all of those. But we found that, even when new members come in, there was still a need to educate them too, so that they would all be walking in the same direction. Constant education was one of our principles that the Federation used.
Continual technical assistance for both new and emerging groups. Just last week, a local cooperative that I am a member of here in Rankin County, Mississippi, we were looking at a farm and beef supply store there. Now about 27 farmers, and they’re mostly livestock farmers — but some vegetable and some herb growers and a few others too. But we found out that we have a plan and we know where we want to go, but we need technical assistance to help get us there. And so the Federation provided that, but also looked outside to see if there are other sources of assistance.
Financial startups. Funding in the low wealth communities is what’s needed.
Development of marketing strategy, both state and regional. We’ve had these marketing strategies going forward in two states working together, Alabama and Mississippi — well, three states — and Georgia, working together. Small farmers, growing vegetables, growing watermelons, growing other types of crops, where in order to meet market demand they had to come together. So, that is strengthening these groups.
Now cooperation among cooperatives — provide support for smaller groups, "Working together works". I like to say about that, right there. This is a principle — a co-op principle that the Federation uses too. But looking at the much larger cooperatives, maybe not even from the South, if you actually believe that cooperation and cooperatives work, then cooperation not only extends just to your group your co-op, but it extends to other groups. Much larger groups can reach down and help smaller groups. This is one of the things that I am really pushing for. The co-op that I just talked about here in Rankin County, we’re doing a feed and farm supply store. How do we set that up? Where can we get feed at cost and be able to sell it to our members and still make money? A strategy for that. There is somebody out there with that experience that we don’t have as small farmers, as livestock farmers. Can another cooperative say, "let’s go in and help this group," "let’s help build that"?
See, cooperation is not just in your own section of the country, it’s across the state. Every time I walk into the grocery store here, in my local community, I see Florida Natural Orange Juice. Now, I don’t buy the other orange juice. Why is that? Because I am convinced that cooperation works, and if we work together we can change things, not only in our local communities, but in our regions as well as in this country. There’s a spiritual relationship to working together.
So, the next point I want to talk further on: encourage the formation and development of all types of cooperatives, in all sectors.
We’re having a situation here in Mississippi, where in Mississippi you can only incorporate — all the laws, the co-op laws in the State Mississippi, allows you to incorporate agricultural marketing cooperatives only. But there are a lot of needs in these states, there are a lot of needs in rural communities that could be best met by using the cooperative model. Whether it be housing, whether it be healthcare. Whether it be worker-owned. And just an example of that, of a worker-owned [cooperative] — in Hinds, Mississippi is the county Jackson is located, the capital for the state of Mississippi. There are a lot of — I met this gentleman, this white, gentleman, from this local church, and he had been working in this inner-city section of the community in Jackson with a lot of vacant lots. And he was very, very interested in cleaning up those lots. But then he saw further that there was an opportunity, and he met a lot of people. He met a lot of people — he met a lot of bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, out of work or who had seasonal work and didn’t have a lot of work.
So when we were talking about this, he said we need worker-owned cooperatives, where these guys can come together — and women, not just guys — can come together, pool their resources, pool their expertise, and begin using their craft to build the inner-city. Dilapidated homes that could be remodeled, some need to be torn down. To do things together. But what does that do? It gives them hope, it gives them employment, but it also gives them an opportunity to have the bonding that they need in order to bid on some of these projects and be able to earn income for themselves and for their families. But not only that, it builds the community and gives hope to the community. People seeing new structures going up, and then it disperses those that may be doing unlawful things in their communities — it disperses them from that, because these people have risen up and want to change their community.
So this law that we are talking about in Mississippi, it’s not only in Mississippi, but in the South. Most of these Southern states have similar laws that exclude the formation of other co-ops in other sectors throughout. One example is one of our co-ops which is a health food store. They had to go to Wisconsin in order to become incorporated and then apply to come into Mississippi and do business. So these are the things we are talking about.
Two things that are most important. Most important is changing the law in the state of Mississippi, cooperation among cooperatives, working with each other to bring about change in the community, which can bring. But as I mentioned earlier, co-op is to me, a spiritual type thing. Working with one another calls for us to have vision first of all. These are the keys that I am talking about now: keys to success. You must have a clear vision, you must know where you are going. Calling those things that be not as though they were. What am I saying? I am not over there where I’m going, but I will get there. A mission statement. Have a clear path as to how you will get there. Yes, I will get there.
Faith — must believe that the vision will come to pass. And talk again about trust, that each member has the good of the co-op in mind in every decision. I would just like to stay on this for a few minutes. It says in the Bible, "right division." Make it clear so that those who read it can understand it and catch hold and go forward with it. We found in our co-op, when I talked about going fast to go slow, being incorporated, I heard about it, "yes, this is something that I want to do." But not having all of the understanding — and the Federation has 11 steps, I believe, before you actually start putting your bylaws together and your incorporation papers, and actually submitting it to the state to do business in that state. So, doing these things are important. They’re steps to a successful business venture.
And so, I, now the vision. Making it clear. I had an opportunity to visit Haiti with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. We were looking at cooperatives over there and doing some technical support, and I think this is really a key when I talk about education. Before you could become a member of their co-op, you had to spend three months learning about not only what cooperatives were, but what the vision of that particular cooperative was. How did it get started? How did it come into existence? Where are we going? What is the vision? And what is the strategy to get there? And then people determining then, is this the place for me? Is this where I need to be? Or do I need to go out and organize my own business and work by myself? Can I work with other people? Or do I need to work by myself?
There are some people in cooperatives that may or may not need to be there. And I call those like-minded people, working in their community. Like-minded: having the same vision and wanting to work with others to bring that vision to pass. And it takes some time to do that. It’s not an overnight fix. It’s not an overnight accomplishment. But it can — you can get there. Working together works. I believe that. That the vision will come to pass, that each member has the good of the co-op in mind. Not distracting from that or taking away from that, but keeping their mind focused on where we are trying to go, and that’s the ultimate and most important decision. Where are we going? And then once you get there, looking at the community to see, are there other things that you need to be involved in, in order to correct whatever any other situation is out there. There’s plenty to do. It’s doing each thing step by step, working together. Working together.
And my next slide says, "Working together is an artform. It’s a symphony." I like that. It’s a symphony. Everybody in tune. Nobody playing a note that you can pick up by your ear and say, "mmm, they missed it". But you must start from A, and then go to B and then go to C, and move forward in order to bring that about. "Like-minded people" is a word I love to use. Like-minded: those that are interested in this and want to go forward. Sharing skills, talents and above all, learning to compromise is essential when working with a group of people. It’s not my way, it’s our way. And I have learned this over the years. Be a team player by cooperating with group members. Respect other opinions. How can we walk together unless we agree?
I have had many experiences throughout Mississippi and throughout Alabama and all over the state, primarily in Alabama and in Mississippi. And all the other states, pretty much that the Federation worked with, that had staff in them. But let me just share this. Whenever I would go to a group to do training, maybe at 7:00 at night. And as I would be driving there, getting there to the meeting — leaving the office may be at 5:00 and driving two hours to get there maybe for a 7:00 meeting — I would meditate on what am I going to talk about, what am I going to share tonight after having prepared during the day to go there. Once I presented, and on my way back, I would say "My, I learned so much tonight! I learned so much tonight from the people that I was talking to. I had prepared and yes what I prepared was well received, but I also received what they had to give to me." I think that was a great teacher, right there.
I now go back and visit these co-ops and some of the people that still are living and are still there and share and talk with them because I have made so many friends and I talk with them. But it also spans back to my mother and my father. It goes back to that. How they walked. How they talked. How they loved people, and how they did for people and how they did for those who didn’t have a vehicle to get to the store or to get their medicine or groceries, and how they did that. And my father would do that too because of how he would bring seeds and fertilizer home to those older people who didn’t know how to drive. He would be passing by the store and they would do what we would call in the rural area "sit’n go". And he would bring it back.
But I’m saying that to say this: that became a part of me and my work expressed that as I went forward. Not that I know everything. But I learned from those people who knew something too. And we were able to put that together, involved together, and accomplish that which we were trying to do. I’d like to say too that, I believe in cooperatives. I know they work. I have worked them. I know sometimes they failed because of personalities, because of this or because of that, but I’m committed to that, and in my daily work I am still doing that kind of thing.
So I came full force in my career and organized the cooperative in this county and it’s an agricultural cooperative and I talked about it a little earlier. But I’m a vegetable grower and herb grower so I am part of that cooperative. So my life has come full circle in terms of this type of work, but not in terms of the work that I have yet to do. But I am appreciative of the people that have walked along the way with me. Appreciative to my parents, appreciative to the discrimination that I experienced. I’m appreciative for that too. One room school, the lack of basic services in our community. Appreciative of the Civil Rights Movement, appreciative of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. When I left there to continue my walk in working in rural communities and my whole concern was to go away and learn about these things and bring them back to my state. And I walked that out. I walked that full circle coming back and now I have the local co-op here. I am appreciative of that and I’m appreciative of the cooperative community and the things that they talk about in the introduction. I’m appreciative of that as well.
But two things or three things I would like to leave with you: co-ops do work. There’s a need for the change of law in the state of Mississippi and these other states — and I wanted to express that again — to allow us, or anyone, to incorporate a cooperative business to meet the needs of especially rural communities — those are the ones I’m working with — but also inner city areas. And that’s some work we’ve been working on for four years, and we have not gotten this piece of legislation through the legislature. We are working on it. We are going slow to go fast. [Laughter] but we are working on it.
And we now have some talking about, "well, you don’t need a co-op, you need an LLC". That to me is because they don’t understand cooperatives and the whole spirituality to co-ops and how people begin to work together and began to share. Just like the coopeative jin that I talked about earlier, Mileston Cooperative. When one farmer’s tractor broke down, or their cotton-picker broke down, these farmers would go over and help him get his cotton out of the field. You see what I am talking about? This is a spiritual walk. This is love for one another. And this is what co-ops bring together. Other than a business idea and a business concept and a marketing strategy and how to make money — but it also brings people together to build something. And when they complete that they move to the next thing that needs to be done in order to build their community, and I am appreciative for that opportunity.
Cooperation among cooperatives, I’m gonna stress it again. There are groups out there that have been successful in other states and other parts of this country that have expertise in areas that some of these co-ops need. That could be very helpful. We as a cooperative need to identify what those are, and we need to search out — in these larger co-ops need to be able to make a decision to say, "we’re going to help those, too," reaching back in helping those. I think the cooperatives that are members of the Federation have done a great job. We’ve all heard about the Freedom Quilting Bee and how that cooperative flourished, quilting, working together.
So I am just appreciative of the time that I’ve had to be in this movement. That’s what we call it: a movement. So we need to keep it going. And we need to continue to work, and I am just so thankful to you at USDA for giving me this time to share, and also — and I mention again my parents and other people in the communities that I’ve been in who helped me grow, and who shared their homes. I got to spend the night and do things and learn and saw the love that existed there and concern. And some have youth programs that they are continuing to teach about the cooperative principle and learning more about that so they can carry on. I am so thankful for that and I’m thankful for you all today and for your listening, and I hope that I shared something that was beneficial to you. And I am thankful for those people who taught me something as I drove back from those late-night meetings, coming home. But I’ve enjoyed every minute. I wouldn’t change my life and I will say this one last thing.
Just this past week, I was driving along the road — and I do this all the time — I drive along the road and meditate. And one time I was driving along meditating, and I told the Lord that out of all the years I’ve traveled, coming home late at night, 12:00 1:00, not one time did my car breakdown. Not one time did I experience anything that was a threat to me. I’m appreciative. But also appreciative of the things that I’ve been — and I talk with him all the time, the Lord, and I just talked with him the other day. I would always ask myself, what is my purpose on this earth? And he made it clear: "You’ve walked out your purpose!" [Laughter] and I was so thankful that he said clearly, "What you are doing — sharing, caring, and helping people, was your purpose. And I sent you in the right family to get the foundation and I put you with the right people," Headstart and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and other groups that I worked with, "to walk out your life plan that I had for you." Thank you so much for listening to me today. I hope that I have said something that encourages you, and I am so happy to be with you today. I will turn it to Margaret.
Margaret: Oh, Melbah, we’re so appreciative and grateful to you for sharing your heartfelt stories and observations. Of course, everyone is muted, but if anyone had the same reaction as me, I was, "mmhmm, mmhmm," and I was just grinning from ear to ear as I listened to what you had to share, Melbah. Thank you for doing that.
Melbah, I would like to share with you an email that came in from Claudette Fernandez of the USDA national office. She wrote, "Ms. Smith, we thank you so very much for the opportunity to hear and learn from you. We were planning to have our deputy undersecretary Vernita Doer to help with introductions. We are all in Portland Oregon, but by the time we dialed in, the presentation had already started, and we didn’t want to interrupt. But please know that we are deeply appreciative of your continued passion for cooperative development and forthcoming interest to share your wisdom with rural development staff and beyond. It is a community economic development tool that is gaining momentum from the policy standpoint. Particularly in support of those who are in distressed communities, and finding ways to increase their economic opportunities and improve quality of life. Again, thank you. Respectfully Claudette Fernandez, acting director education research division. Business cooperative services, USDA."
Melbah: Thank you so much, Claudette.
Margaret: Andres, would you like to share some of the questions that are coming in?
Andres: Sure. The first question we had — there was a request — "Can you discuss the political influence, if any, of the communal movement that arose between the 1960s and early 70s on the cooperative work?"
Melbah: Could you say that one more time?
Andres: Could you discuss the potential influence, if any, the communal movement that arose between the mid-60s/early 1970s had on your cooperative work?
Melbah: Oh, yes. That was certainly an opportunity. I mentioned earlier on, talking about the housing, that people were kicked off their land, and then they had to begin working and finding ways to provide some type of housing for their families, and so that was part of it. And because of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives having located in Alabama in a small town called Epps, Alabama they were able to — it took a long time, but people were able to pull together and work together and live with families and that type of thing in a community. Eventually the Federation was able to help them with housing and establish housing there.
So I think that was all part of the work in getting people to a point where they could see some movement. Sometimes you get bogged down in a situation, and you think there’s no way out. But when someone comes along and says, "there is a way out," then you are very appreciative of that and then you can have hope. Sometimes there’s no hope, people feel hopeless. So sometimes just an encouraging word is something that moves people to the point where they are ready to get up and work toward moving forward. So I think that’s a great success for the Federation.
Andres: All right. Another question: "can you talk more about the co-ops that have survived for decades, like Mileston. How do they keep members active and remembering the vision?"
Melbah: Well one thing, they had good leadership at Mileston and they had people that were committed. The same way at Freedom Quilting Bee, that was a quilting co-op — and I am talking about those that I know about — there was a healthcare center in Arkansas, in Lee County, Arkansas. Some of you may remember that came out of the civil rights movement too, in [indist], when there was money for health care.
I think keeping the vision out front, continuing to talk about it, not letting the fire die down is what keeps people engaged. And also constant expansion was one of the co-op principles that the Federation used. Was looking at the membership, and I think I talked about that, and seeing what are the ancillary needs that the they may have in addition to that? One thing that Mileston did was, every year they would celebrate their accomplishments by having a big huge fish fry not just for the co-op but for the entire community. I think that is what really kept them going. They not only just did it among themselves, but they wanted other people to know, and it was a lighthouse in their community. Just as the health center over in Arkansas, just as Freedom Quilting Bee — these are just a few I’m talking about now — but That kept them going.
But you must keep things relevant and not just let the old suit be worn over and over but keep things new and fresh, and have good leadership — strong leadership. Someone that people can coalesce around and a great manager is key to the success of any cooperative. Somebody that’s there on a day-to-day basis and can respond to the needs of the members, and can also have the support of the Board of Directors. Those are key to me….Okay.
Andres: Okay. "What’s the biggest obstacle to inacting better cooperative law in Mississippi?"
Melbah: Changing leadership. The biggest obstacle is, the legislature in Mississippi is all Republican — majority Republican, I can’t say all Republican. There have been some misconceptions and intentional information being thrown out there that cooperatives are unions and they are going to bring unions back to the state of Mississippi, and we know that’s not true. There’s one member, one vote in a cooperative. They don’t need a union, each person represents themselves. But these are the kind of distractions and things that throw people off.
So we are trying now a new strategy and that is to work with the Secretary of State. And I have a tip from one of the attorneys there — that’s the attorney for the Senate — and her comment was, if you can convince the Secretary of State to put it in one of his bills, to expand the cooperative laws in the state of Mississippi, then it would go through fairly easily. So we met with him and with his staff and they’ve asked us to put together a task force team representing our views. And then of course they will have their business people there talking about why it should be an LLC. So, right after our session ends — which ends at the end of March but it will continue this year through the end of April because they have some extra business they need to take care of. So right after that the secretary will appoint this task force team. And we’re looking at people from all over, not just Mississippi. People who have experience with cooperatives and that can sit on this task force, and we’ll be identifying those and hopefully we’ll convince them. [Laughter] But that’s the obstacle. The Republicans now control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the governorship and the Lieutenant governorship. We only have one Democrat, and he’s the Attorney General.
Andres: All right. "How can we help you at USDA to enact better cooperative law?"
Melbah: Right, now in a meeting that I had — I see Jessica Gordon Nembhard is on this webinar — but she and I and several other people were talking about that and, I think that there is some relationship with USDA. So we’re going to be pulling in that relationship. There also is a uniform co-op law that’s been out there and that’s been enacted in some states, so we’re going to be looking at that as well and looking at, what are the needs in the South particularly, and can we adopt some of that, or do we need all of the uniform co-op law? Or, should we look at ways that will accommodate a lot of the needs that are particularly related to the South. But yes, people that are willing to step forward and serve on a task force — we would be glad to help you.
Andres: All right. One last question, what’s the most important ingredient to building a successful cooperative.
Melbah: The one? [Laughter] I just said it before. I think it’s working together and like-minded people having the same needs and having the same concerns and going in the same direction.
A lot of our cooperatives — sadly enough, people have all different types of ideas as to how co-ops should work or how they should be done. But leadership, I think is there — and then those like-minded people working together to bring about change. I think those are [indistinguishable] successfull co-ops.
I didn’t didn’t mention this, I don’t think, earlier but I would like to mention it now. Some of the co-ops in low wealth communities do need start up funding. But I think that start-up funding will be tied to a plan that shows exactly how they will reach the goals that they have set. I think the USDA could certainly — and I think they’re already doing it — putting some type of funding out there, but the start up funding would certainly be helpful with some groups. And of course there are the groups where they can get money, but they need that technical assistance in order to make sure they are on the right track to meet the goals that they have set, and to reach the vision they have set for themselves, and to actually meet that need that they are trying to meet. Those are some of the things. It may not be one thing, but I think like-minded people working together is one of them. Thanks so much.
Margaret: Thank you Melbah, it has been a pleasure. Just to let the audience know, this presentation by Melbah Smith has been recorded. If you would like a copy of the recording that you can put on your websites, various organizations across the country, so more people can hear the wisdom of Melbah Smith, please contact me, Margaret Baugh. We also have Melbah’s PowerPoint presentation available. So if you could spread the word of Melbah’s wisdom, it would be much appreciated. Thank you everyone, thank you, Melbah. Have a good day .
Melbah: Thank you. You all have a great day.