2019 Leadership Award Winner Cornelius Blanding
Executive Director, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance FundRachel Tepper Paley
April 30, 2019
Honored for his tireless work to develop and strengthen cooperatives for low-income African American and other limited resource communities in the South.
Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, James Beard Leadership Award winner Cornelius Blanding witnessed firsthand the disenfranchisement of his friends and neighbors.
“I grew up in an all black community, where we didn't own the infrastructure,” Blanding said. “We rented the housing. We didn't own the businesses. The only thing that was owned historically—in most of the communities and especially the community I come from—was the church.” The lack of physical ownership, Blanding continued, translated into a sense of powerlessness.
As an adult, Blanding sought to change the status quo, and business development aimed at helping people of color became his life mission. More than 20 years ago, he began working with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. The organization, founded in 1967, assists in the development of cooperatives and credit unions, which are aimed at getting land—and with it, self-sufficiency—back into the hands of family farmers, especially those of African-American descent.
Cooperatives have a longstanding history in the American South, Blanding explained, which is deeply tied to the Civil Rights movement. In 1960, more than 100,000 black farmers owned 8 million acres of land. But over the decades, institutional racism—including systemic denial of access to bank credit—drastically ate away at black farm ownership. Today, less than 20,000 black farmers own just 2.3 million acres of land.
“There are no good co-op laws in the South, so we work on it constantly,” Blanding said. Heirs property laws are a main focus, too: in much of the southern United States, the property of landowners who die without a will is divided between all of his or her heirs, who are then required to pay taxes. If any of those taxes go unpaid, land developers can scoop up the land for cheap.
“As generations went on, that base of heirs grows, so instead of the five or ten children, now you have their children and their grandchildren,” Blanding said. “There often isn’t a clear title, so I order the access of many resources so they have a clear title to show ownership.”
Important, too, is helping to empower people in their own communities. Blanding recalls a time just after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when coastal communities in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana were reeling in the storm’s aftermath. It was “the heart of our membership,” Blanding said. “There were a lot of farmers and landowners who were devastated.” His job was to assess the damage and come up with a plan for disaster relief. Key to the recovery? Putting together cooperatives to help re-establish these communities’ economic base.
“One specific example was down in Plaquemines Parish,” Blanding said. The Louisiana fishing community had been ravaged, and many fishermen had lost their boats and livelihoods. “We educated them about cooperatives and helped organize folks from various communities—the black community, the white community, the Asian community,” Blanding said. In turn, he helped the newly founded cooperative get government assistance to build its own dock, which gave the members ownership of their community’s food system.
Ultimately, Plaquemines Parish recovered and the need for the cooperative fell away. But the leadership skills—and the connectivity within the community—critically remained in place. “Even after they disbanded, they had done so much in their communities that when the BP oil spill happened years later, they were organized enough [to be] called to speak at the BP board meeting about what happened to their community and what the solutions should be,” Blanding said.
At the end of the day, Blanding said, his role is about development. “It's about leadership development. It's about people development. It's about business development,” he continued. Such work helps people help themselves, which is the key to long-term positive change. “Those are the folks who become the leaders of the communities.”
The 2019 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipients will be honored at a ceremony in association with Deloitte on May 5 in Chicago. Learn more about all our 2019 Leadership Award winners.
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.