Briar Blakely: “Leadership is doing what it takes to build up and amplify the voiceless while being one to inspire at the same time”

Leadership is doing what it takes to build up and amplify the voiceless while being one to inspire at the same time. It’s one thing to take the lead, and it’s another to inspire while doing so. Leadership means understanding how to create a coalition to advance a cause and solutionize challenges. As part of […]

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Leadership is doing what it takes to build up and amplify the voiceless while being one to inspire at the same time. It’s one thing to take the lead, and it’s another to inspire while doing so. Leadership means understanding how to create a coalition to advance a cause and solutionize challenges.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Briar Blakley.

In recent years, Briar Blakley has created a multifaceted career without margins as a music artist while working in digital media and non-profit communications. As a major supporter of amplifying marginalized and minority communities, she became passionate about outreach pertaining and to social impact. She currently serves as the Interim Director of Communications & Member Relations for The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund. In her work as a millennial activist, she began her search for understanding of the challenges of black land loss, food sovereignty, and sustainability that unfolds in her series of articles “A Millennial’s Return to the Land”. In her recent article, “Millennial Involvement and Understanding Could Help Stem the Tide of Black Land Loss”.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in rural America, Shuqualak Mississippi to be exact. It’s relatively small with about 1,000 residents and no stoplight. I grew up watching my grandparents farm their 20-acre land with my aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins all helping out when necessary. I grew up in cooperatives as a child as my mother played an active role in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund and is currently Board Chair. As a young singer at the time, I sang at every annual meeting starting at the age of 8. As I got older, I always thought the answer was to get away, go to college get an education, and leave for the city at some point, and I never thought I’d look back and be inspired by rural community charm, although I’ve always loved visiting home. It wasn’t until after I moved from New York to Atlanta that I sought fulfilling work and wanted to commit my time to something bigger than myself. I thought, why not “Go home” and reconnect to the legacy that my grandmother created as a founding cooperative member of the Federation. I took on an internship with the Federation and found a true passion for assisting rural farmers and understanding farming as a means to solving issues with healthy food desserts much like the one I grew up in.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One of many challenges upon working with the organization has been to engage younger generations with the Federation’s 53-year history and opportunities. The pandemic in its awful nature created an opportunity to “zoom” into an untapped audience of individuals eager to learn more and help. There lay my answer to that challenge; develop a platform that would encourage intergenerational dialogue with a focus on Land & Ownership, Food Access & Health, Economic Development, and Farming in communities of color. Our first webinar landed roughly 500 attendees which was a huge deal for us. The Federation’s Millennial Exchange Webinar Series was birthed out of that desire to connect younger gens with black farmers, cooperative development, and land loss prevention. I was shocked to see the substantial support for the series, and I’m excited to see it return, grow and expand.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The first mistake I made was categorizing Federation Farmers with a general sense of farming or farming the way it is seen on TV or aesthetically presented through social platforms. I’d forgotten the bigger picture and even remembering how I grew up seeing farming. Rural farming is different. It wasn’t pretty all the time. There was a mass amount of land to farm with little to no infrastructure but that of support from cooperatives; farmers coming together to use collective resources to uplift their farm operations and communities. That’s what makes the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund so unique. Many of our farmers don’t have decent access to the internet or broadband connection. When they are in the field, it’s truly them connecting with the land as for all types of farmers. We all share the want to feed and build self-supporting communities which is why urban farmers, rural farmers, and other types of growers have to be a united front.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

For decades, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund has been working to reverse the trend of black farmer-owned land loss across the rural South through the development of cooperative and credit unions as the means for people to own their futures by enhancing their financial capacity at home, saving, protecting and expanding the landholdings of black farmers and landowners throughout the South, and Supporting, developing and advocating for public policies and programs to benefit our members and the rural communities they serve.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There is a specific family that has inspired me recently in my journey of reconnecting to the land. The Ely family of Barlow Bend, Alabama, is a beautiful family the Federation assists with conservation amid their legal battle with someone who bought a share of the family property. The Ely’s own what is considered Heirs Property which is a leading factor of black land loss. The Federation has been instrumental in helping the Ely’s regain their land by providing critical legal and technical support. We’ve received great thanks from the family, which makes me proud to be a part of their mission to protect their landholdings.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I say that there’s one specific thing that I and my circle of advocates are encouraging and demanding prominent Agricultural leaders like Secretary Vilsack and USDA to Implement & fully fund Sections 1005 & 1006 of American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 at 5B dollars for farmers of color as they have and continue to face race-based discrimination. We should be reminding our elected officials that equality and access to USDA programs and services for our nation’s farmers are critical. Just last year, white farmers received 97% of all farm subsidies and Covid 19 relief. These reparative measures for farmers of color are critical right now to keep us farming and owning land.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is doing what it takes to build up and amplify the voiceless while being one to inspire at the same time. It’s one thing to take the lead, and it’s another to inspire while doing so. Leadership means understanding how to create a coalition to advance a cause and solutionize challenges.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

This is a really tough question as I’ve been involved with the Federation since birth. Therefore, I’d already been exposed to the work, movement, systems and processes as a child. The Federation is family for me. I’d say there are three things that come to mind.

  • The importance of understanding the diversity amongst communities of farmers. Farmers vary from region to region. Varying income, disparities and access create these diverse groups. I work on behalf of poor and low-income community farmers who depend on organizations like the Federation to rally behind them. For example, the pandemic exacerbated challenges faced by limited-resource communities. While our organization had to switch to virtual programming via zoom, we had to really focus on our members who struggled to log on to meetings because they either didn’t have internet or were not familiar with webinars and online meetings. Better understanding that earlier on would’ve helped create connections and see the challenges more clearly and obtain more resources proactively.
  • That I’d be the youngest staff person. I find it humorous, and While this is in no way a negative aspect, it is a testament to how much more work there is to do to engage younger generations in the movement of economic development for rural and limited resources communities. I see in the future that the Federation will continue to make great strides in reaching younger audiences as we have in recent years.
  • That I’d need to grab a pair of farmer boots. At times when I’m out in the field, my tennis shoes are efficient because you have to walk through high grass and muddy puddles across many acres when doing farm visits.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Millennial civic engagement is an important factor in my work. I’ve dreamed of creating a multigeneration platform that created opportunities for artists, millennials and other generations to “ return to the land”. I envision a digital site where artists and other individuals seeking civic engagement can connect with grassroots organizations in their areas based on their interests. This platform is an effort to make economic development and rural food systems a point of focus for activism, allowing individuals to connect with elder community leaders/ members through mentorship to learn oral histories and cultural traditions related to black farmers and their contributions to American agriculture and food, using their talents and skills to amplify the cause.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Fannie Lou Hammer- “Never to forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over.” This resonated with me in that I see the value and grounding in remaining rooted in grassroots efforts. Being a civil person is seeing the need to be involved in local community advancement and taking advantage of moments to connect with elders who’ve seen it all and can offer life-changing advice. In working for The Federation, I’ve gained a renewed sense of how important land retention and land utilization are. It definitely gives a sense of agency to African Americans to be owners and preserve legacy in that way. As an artist, I will always find a way to pay homage to those who’ve paved the way for me and made my voice louder and stronger to be an advocate of land retention and black generational wealth building.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I would love to sit with Stacey Abrams to pick her brain for ideas on galvanizing voters to make a difference in their own communities. She’s done great work with organizing Georgia voter efforts that also amplified other organizers like Shirley Sherrod and the Southwest Georgia Project which led rural and limited access voters to the booth in large numbers. I would love to start strategizing on similar efforts in my home state of Mississippi. We need leaders like that to truly affect change and continue to make an impact on Black communities and lively hood here in America.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please follow the Federation on social media via Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook

Reader can follow me on social media via Linkedin and Instagram

My music can be found on Spotify and Apple Music

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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