Inductees named for the 2020 Cooperative Hall of Fame

Ben Burkett, Michael Mercer, Carmen Huertas-Noble and Everett M Dobrinski are the latest names to be honoured

The four inductees to the US Cooperative Hall of Fame for 2020 have been announced, with recognition for the worker co-op sector, black farmer co-operation, agri-co-op finance and credit unions.

The Hall of Fame, which recognises the work of outstanding co-op leaders, is run by the Co-operative Development Foundation (CDF), a charity partner of US apex body the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA).

This year’s inductees will be honoured in an event on 6 May at the National Press Club in Washington DC. They are:

Ben Burkett, a farmer, co-operative organiser, and advocate for southern black farmers. A fourth-generation farmer in Petal, Mississippi, Mr Burkett organised neighbouring families as the Indian Springs Farmers Association to leverage better access to markets. CDF says this was necessary against a backdrop of “’long ingrained discrimination [which] denied black farmers open markets for their crops, access to federal and state programmes and even retention of their land”.

in 1978 he joined the staff of the Emergency Land Fund (ELF), a non-profit whose mission was to save and expand black farms and help black farmers with heirs’ property issues. When the ELF merged with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1985, his role expanded to include spreading the word about the co-op business model and he began teaching diversified crop development for conservation and marketing purposes. Under the Clinton administration, he was appointed to the 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. He was later appointed to the State Marketing Board where he served two terms and continues to be involved.

CDF added: “Ben’s political appointments and his service in various food advocacy organisations 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 co-operatives.”

Michael Mercer, 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.

With more than 30 years under his belt in the credit union movement, he has chaired the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the American Association of Credit Union Leagues, and the National Cooperative Bank.

He has worked as an advocate for the movement at home and abroad, working with legislators in the US to deliver credit union law and travelling to Poland after the end of the Cold War to help set up the Poland-Georgia Credit Union Partnership Program.

CDF said: “A statesman and visionary leader in the credit union and cooperative movement, Mike Mercer spent his career “connecting the dots” between credit unions, co-operatives, cultures and institutions all with the goal of improving the financial lives of working people.”

Carmen Huertas-Noble, a law professor and leading advocate for worker co-ops. 

“A visionary leader in the worker co-operative movement, Carmen Huertas-Noble has spent her professional career laying the tracks for a sustainable worker co-operative sector in New York City and beyond,” said CDF.

Having served as a senior staff attorney in the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center, Ms Huertas-Noble gave advice on legal co-op forms and 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 co-operative that collected and sold recycled construction materials and equipment.

As the founding director of the Community & Economic Development Clinic at CUNY Law School, she has educated and trained more than 200 students in co-op law, helping to fill a gap in professional expertise needed by the sector. She also co-developed a national worker co-operative curriculum for community colleges, to prepare the next generation of worker-owners.

Ms Huertas-Noble has given support to organisations 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, which facilitates the creation of a network of worker co-ops and union co-op, she has educated union leaders, government officials, academics, worker co-op incubators and worker co-operators on this model.

An original member of the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative (WCBDI), she helped the group secure $12m in funding from the New York City government to develop a city-wide ecosystem to grow and support the worker co-op movement. Her work has played a key role in the passage of numerous local and state legislation in New York.

Everett M Dobrinski, a leading figure in the agri-co-op sector. A third-generation grain and oilseed farmer from North Dakota, he recognised at an early age the value of co-ops in helping his family farm compete in a global market.

“His personal commitment and leadership within the cooperative sector are a testament to his belief that cooperatives empower farmers,” said CDF.

In 1990, he became chair of the Verendrye Electric Cooperative, helping the organisation gain vital customers and also provide extra amenities, such as daycare, to remote rural parts of the community.

An advocate of co-operative education in the boardroom, schools and universities and the statehouse, helping North Dakota State University to develop a co-op curriculum for schools and colleges. Among state legislators, he has advocated on issues of co-op taxation, retail wheeling and territorial integrity.

Elected to the CoBank board in 1999, Mr Dobrinski served as chair from 2008 to 2018, and helped the organisation, and the Farm Credit System, weather the 2008 financial crisis, allowing agri-co-ops to maintain access to credit. “If it weren’t for leaders like Everett, the Farm Credit System could have looked very differently today,” added CDF.

The induction event will also see keynote presentations on measuring co-operative impact, from Brett Theodos of the Urban Institute, and telling stories of co-op impact, from Margaret Lund of Coopera Co.

​And there will be a panel discussion featuring last year’s inductees – ​Jerry McGeorge, from Organic Valley; Mike Keyser, from BARC Electric Cooperative in Virginia; Paul Bradley, from ROC USA in New Hampshire, and Carla Decker, from DC Credit Union, in Washington, DC.