Four outstanding cooperative leaders will receive the cooperative community’s most prestigious honor on May 6, 2020, when they are inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame.
The inductees are: Ben Burkett, State Coordinator, Mississippi Association of Cooperatives; Everett M. Dobrinski, former Board Chair, CoBank; Carmen Huertas-Noble, Professor, City University of New York School of Law; and Michael Mercer, CEO, League of Southeastern Credit Unions & Affiliates.
These cooperative leaders will be recognized at the annual Cooperative Hall of Fame Dinner and Induction Ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on May 6, 2020. In conjunction with the ceremony, a public forum on cooperative development and leadership will be held in the afternoon.
“This year’s Hall of Fame inductees truly reflect the spirit of cooperative values. Their commitment to furthering the cooperative business model and the achievements they’ve made have strengthened co-ops and made a lasting difference in the lives of many,” said Rich Larochelle, chair of the Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF), which manages the Hall of Fame.
African American farmers in the Black Belt would have lost a valuable advocate had Ben Burkett moved to Chicago after graduating from Alcorn State University as he had planned. But when his father fell ill, Ben, a fourth-generation farmer, stayed in Petal, Mississippi to get the family’s cotton, cucumber, corn and beans to market. Forty years later, Ben has made his mark on his community and the world as a farmer, cooperative organizer and advocate for southern black farmers.
Farming is never an easy profession but in rural Mississippi long ingrained discrimination denied Black farmers open markets for their crops, access to federal and state programs and even retention of their land. “We achieved the right to vote, but we still needed to achieve the right to survive,” said Ben. Seeking better prices for their watermelons, Ben organized neighboring farm families to sell their crop in Chicago. With the assistance of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the Indian Springs Farmers Association was born.
While continuing to farm and serve as a local co-op leader, in 1978 Ben joined the staff of the Emergency Land Fund (ELF), a non-profit whose mission was to save and expand Black farms and assist black farmers with heirs’ property issues. His role was to identify and work with other Black farmers and landowners to protect their landholdings. When the ELF merged with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1985, Ben’s role was expanded to include spreading the word about the cooperative business model and he began teaching diversified crop development for conservation and marketing purposes. Ben’s knack for connecting with rural communities in the South, his passion for farming, and unique ability to get things done made him a sought-after agricultural trainer.
Ben’s reputation as a farming and rural development expert garnered the attention of Mike Espy, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary of Agriculture under the Clinton Administration. Espy appointed Ben to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency Committee for Mississippi and was largely responsible for the inclusion of technical assistance funds that enabled more minority farmers to qualify for USDA farm assistance. Through his work with the FSA State Committee, Ben encountered and supported Lester Spell’s candidacy for Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce. Key to Spell’s election, Ben was appointed to the State Marketing Board where he served two terms and continues to be involved.
Ben’s political appointments and his service in various food advocacy organizations including the National Family Farm Coalition, La Via Campesina’s Food Sovereignty Commission, the Rural Coalition and the Community Food Security Coalition helped to raise the profile of the Federation and of agricultural and handicraft co-ops throughout the South. His expertise has taken him to Africa, South America and Southeast Asia where he shared his knowledge of small-scale agriculture and the power of cooperatives.
As a tireless promoter and advocate for the cooperative business model, Ben’s knack for connecting farmers globally and bringing them together for a common cause has made him a sought-after speaker, trainer, organizer and a true example of the cooperative spirit. Ben’s work was recognized with a leadership award from the James Beard Foundation in 2014.
Everett M. Dobrinski
A third-generation grain and oilseed farmer, Everett M. Dobrinski from Makoti, North Dakota recognized at an early age the value of cooperatives in providing essential services that his family farm needed to compete in a global marketplace. His personal commitment and leadership within the cooperative sector are a testament to his belief that cooperatives empower farmers.
A natural leader, Everett became active in Verendrye Electric Cooperative eventually becoming board chair in 1990. Everett understood that the cooperative needed to attract commercial business, such as the Minot Air Force Base, in order to maintain affordable, high-quality electric service for all customer-owners. Catering to the local community’s needs, Everett’s guidance was instrumental in financing a new daycare and convenience store in the more rural parts of Verendrye’s territory.
Everett is an advocate of cooperative education in the boardroom, schools and universities and the statehouse. He frequently educated members about cooperatives and championed the need for Cooperative Education Directors in other industry sectors. As an Advisory Board Member of the Quentin Burdick Center for Cooperatives at North Dakota State University, Everett provided valuable advice to develop curriculum about cooperatives for high school and college students. As a former member of the North Dakota House of Representatives, he championed political engagement and advocated on issues of cooperative taxation, retail wheeling, and territorial integrity.
Elected to the CoBank Board of Directors in 1999, Everett served as Board Chair from 2008 to 2018. His understanding that the mission of a dependable cooperative lender was to be there for customers during turbulent times, helped CoBank and the Farm Credit System weather the U.S. financial crisis in 2007-2008. His leadership enabled agricultural cooperatives to maintain access to credit. As the chairman of CoBank and a board member of the Farm Credit Council, Everett played a key role in ensuring that Farmer Mac had enough capital to comply with the minimum regulatory capital requirements. CoBank and other Farm Credit System banks provided a $60 million investment to Farmer Mac when many commercial banks were unable to lend to each other. If it weren’t for leaders like Everett, the Farm Credit System could have looked very differently today.
Everett understood that meeting borrower needs, building financial strength and improving diversification and enhanced long-term capacity were critical for customer-owners. He led the merger between CoBank and U.S. Ag Bank so that there would be greater opportunities to support rural America. Under CoBank’s Growing Rural America Initiative, Everett spurred the creation of the Sharing Success program where charitable contributions of the bank’s customers are matched from an annual fund of $4 million and the Co-op Start program that provides flexible financing up to $250,000 to early growth stage agricultural cooperatives. Everett’s guidance has positioned CoBank well to meet the needs of rural America today and into the future.
As a tireless champion for rural America, Everett has been a recipient of numerous prestigious awards such as the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperative’s Cooperative Leadership Award and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives Director of the Year Award. Everett was also honored for his contributions to rural America by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change for rural America.
A visionary leader in the worker cooperative movement, Carmen Huertas-Noble has spent her professional career laying the tracks for a sustainable worker cooperative sector in New York City and beyond. Known for her conviction, fortitude and determination, the Fordham University Law School graduate and tenured professor at CUNY School of Law, advocates for worker cooperatives as tools to fight income inequality and to alter traditional power and wealth dynamics. Her impact on worker cooperatives can be measured as a lawyer, a scholar and thought leader, an educator, and a policy developer and consultant.
With over 15 years of experience in law, public service has been a cornerstone in Carmen’s career. Having served as a Senior Staff Attorney in the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center, Carmen counseled cooperatives in navigating legal entity formation options and on creating democratic governance structures. She partnered with the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-NY) in creating COLORS, a worker-owned restaurant in Manhattan and with Green Worker Cooperatives to develop ReBuilders Source, a cooperative that collected and sold recycled construction materials and equipment.
As the Founding Director of the Community & Economic Development Clinic (CEDC) at CUNY School of Law, Carmen has educated and trained over 200 students in cooperative law. In a field where there are few co-op attorney experts, Carmen’s supervision of her students and the law graduate fellowship program that she developed is creating a cadre of professionals needed for cooperative development and expansion. Her fellows develop a skill set that help the cooperative movement grow in areas like labor law, financing, intellectual property and LGBTQ-related issues. In addition, she co-developed a national worker cooperative certificate program curriculum for community colleges aimed to familiarize more people with the cooperative model and to prepare the next generation of worker-owners and cooperative technical assistance providers for ownership and/or careers in the growing cooperative economy.
She played a leading role in providing support to organizations that create and support worker-owned co-ops such as the Coalition to Transform Interfaith and the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives. As cofounder of 1worker 1vote, a 501(c)(3) that facilitates the creation of a network of worker cooperatives, particularly union cooperatives, Carmen has developed legal expertise in the model and has educated union leaders, government officials, academics, worker co-op incubators and worker cooperators on this model. When drafting cooperative project proposals, Carmen has been an invaluable resource to the NYC Deputy Mayor of Strategic Initiatives.
An original member of the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative (WCBDI), a group that has received $12 million to date from the New York City government to develop a city-wide ecosystem to grow and support the worker co-op movement, Carmen played an instrumental role in securing that funding. Carmen is also a trusted scholar, law professor and cooperative lawyer whose work is referenced by local, national and international public officials and lawmakers. In New York, her work has played a key role in the passage of numerous local and state legislation in New York, including S6794 in New York State which expands New York’s Education Law to provide employer skill-training grants to cooperatives and S6855 that amends New York’s Urban Development Corporation Act and the Economic Development Law to allow small, converted worker co-ops to apply for assistance from the Economic Development Fund, Carmen’s reach has been far and wide.
“Worker cooperatives can create jobs, but more importantly, they can correct and prevent some of the oppressive economic conditions marginalized communities are too often subject to under our current political and economic system,” Carmen said. An important ally for worker cooperatives, Carmen’s insight, experience and tireless efforts are creating the ecosystem worker cooperatives need to flourish.
A statesman and visionary leader in the credit union and cooperative movement, Mike Mercer spent his career “connecting the dots” between credit unions, cooperatives, cultures and institutions—all with the goal of improving the financial lives of working people. Mike is CEO of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions & Affiliates, a newly formed merger of the Alabama, Florida and Georgia credit union leagues serving 342 credit unions with over 10 million members.
On the local level, Mike has championed financial products and services that meet the needs of working-class members such as used vehicle loans for low-credit score borrowers, small value personal loans, and saving programs, mortgages and accounts with few fees and minimum balance requirements. Even before the three-state league merger, Mike brought shared service centers to the Southeast.
Mike is a respected voice for credit unions and cooperatives at the national level. With over 30 years of service to credit unions, Mike has chaired the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) board and the American Association of Credit Union Leagues (AACUL). Twice he’s chaired the board of the National Cooperative Bank (NCB).
An advocate for credit unions, Mike is credited with securing the support for the Credit Union Membership Access Act from then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The passage of this law ensured the survival of the credit union movement after the Supreme Court ruled against a broader interpretation of the Federal Credit Union Act.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Mike used his knowledge of credit unions and his belief in their ability to improve the lives of working people to help the citizens of Poland. Mike was instrumental in the creation and implementation of the Poland-Georgia Credit Union Partnership Program over 25 years ago. Thanks to this program, Polish credit unions were able to draw from the experience of US credit unions. Today, more than 2.5 million credit union members in Poland are benefiting from this program. The Poland-Georgia partnership also became a model for other international league partnerships. For his leadership, in 2007 Mike was awarded the highest award that can be bestowed upon a non-Polish Citizen—the Knights Cross—in recognition of his contributions to the growth and development of the Polish Credit Union system.
Mike encourages cooperation among credit unions for both information sharing and efficiency. As a mentor and role model, he pioneered the Georgia Credit Union Affiliate’s Learning Journey and Idea Institute that allowed credit union leaders to share their expertise with one another as well as cooperatives and other leaders outside the credit union system. He has also worked with credit union leaders to create Credit Union House, Cooperative Services, CSCU Shared Service Centers, Credit Union Loan Store, CU Partnerships, League InfoSight and CU PartnerLink.
For his contributions to the credit union movement, Mike has received numerous awards including the 1997 AACUL Eagle Award, Georgia Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, the 2015 Herb Wegner Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Cooperative Bank Stan Dreyer Spirit of Cooperation Award in 2016.