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The 50th Anniversary of New Communities: The First and Black Community Land Trust

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The 50th anniversary of New Communities, the first and Black, community land trust was equal celebration, commemoration, and opportunity. The legacy and enduring symbol of New Communities remains a shining beacon still some five decades after its coming into existence, through years of struggle and adversity, where it is able to stand today as a gathering point for those who seek to carry its vision forward. 


The event brought together many different organizations whose underlying emphasis is the land; from urban farms like Habesha, who brought out a strong contingent, to national housing rights networks like Right to the City, who also brought out a contingent of folks. Indeed, a number of members of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance were also present, including Savi Horne with the Land Loss Prevention Project in North Carolina, Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm in New York,  Zachary Murray with Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network (and Oakland Community Land Trust), and Jenga Mwendo with the Backyard Gardeners Network (and Crescent City Community Land Trust) in New Orleans--as well as our national staff, Dara Cooper, Asha Carter, and randolph carr. To be sure, there were many others-- in all, nearly 300 people-- for whom New Communities represented a needed model for a needed movement. Since 1969, over 200 community land trusts have been formed across the country, most in urban areas where housing affordability is threatened. This fact highlights the ground covered and how much further the model seeded by New Communities has to grow.


We gathered on a former plantation ground, now a 1600 acre working farm and retreat center named Resora, the current operation of New Communities.  The entire event occurred over the course of four days, beginning Wednesday, October 2nd and ending Saturday, October 5th. With the core of the event taking place over the weekend, Friday and Saturday, there were a variety of offerings in the tent just outside of the antebellum plantation house. A peak moment is when Mrs. Shirley Sherrod was brought to the stage to a standing ovation. She invoked the need to look back as we moved forward, sharing such trying moments as their long legal battle with the USDA as part of the Pigford settlement, the steady challenge of losing the brightest and most committed to the call of the city, and the resiliency which allowed New Communities to stand today. Powerfully, Mrs. Shirley Sherrod, to cheers and applauds, said “We need a movement.” She spoke with vigor when she proclaimed the need to bridge the divide between urban and rural issues, when she reminded us that it couldn’t just be about housing but also had to be about the land. 


The gathering was also a fundraiser. New Communities unveiled its capital campaign whose goal it is to raise $5 million dollars in support of the expanded vision of what New Communities can be in this moment. Already, the farm has served as a training ground for local farmers.  In the face of staggering unemployment, rising out-migration, persistent food insecurity, health disparities, and the lack of infrastructure and investment – New Communities envisions a food hub that can be a solution to the growing problems. In support of their campaign,Andrew Young, who has served as the Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia Congressman, and an Ambassador to the United Nations  gave his reflections on the importance of New Communities and Albany, Georgia to the Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60’s.


The spirit of a movement to come was best captured in the workshops of the final day. There were several workshops, some happening simultaneously, which complemented and layered one another, only adding to the refrain by Mrs. Shirley Sherrod proclaiming, “We need a movement”. In the morning, the Alliance led a workshop on Urban Gardening that focused on the value of urban gardening and bridging the connection between urban and rural enterprises.  The main assertion: our individual farms and gardens will not survive without strong movement. Put simply, our work cannot exist in silos and to achieve the scale of work we envision, we must work collectively. At the same time, a panel discussion on rural leadership brought together an inter-generational conversation around the challenges unique to the rural landscape.


The morning workshops were followed by workshops from Right to the City and Project South. There was a rich exchange and lots of questions around the application and experience within current Community Land Trust and continued discussion on movement building in this moment. 


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Surely, a crowning moment was the panel discussion, moderated by Dara Cooper, on the Black Land and Power Project. The panel was momentous for the depth and range of experience it brought together – bridging our past and current work – into a clear image of the wisdom present in the room. On the panel was Savi Horne of Land Loss Prevention Project and John Zippert of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives alongside Leah Penninman of Soul Fire Farm and Jenga Mwendo of Backyard Gardeners Network. Mama Savi and Mr. Zippert gave historical context, names and moments new to many in the room (including the Pinola collective land ownership model that the Federation of Southern Cooperatives still holds today); Leah talked about the work of Northeast Farmers of Color and their efforts towards a regional land trust, as well as their success securing written options to deed land to emerging farmers in the network; and Jenga focused on the post-Katrina land grabs and racist policies  operating from local to the national level, and how the strategy of collective land-holding would have been helpful to retain Black communities. The common theme throughout was how hundreds of people lost their land and how vulnerable they were when they were not connected and able to support one another. All together, a compelling argument was put forth about the nature of the movement in this moment. 


The weekend culminated in a culture festival, music and craft by local residents. While we were able to celebrate the legacies of those present and those who have passed, we were able, too, to be in exchange and dialogue about what this moment will take. We know our strength is in our ability to root ourselves, not as individuals, but as collectives, working together toward a common goal. The fight that made New Communities a necessary intervention some fifty years ago is still ongoing; today we demand just as bold visions in order to democratize the governance of land, secure the resources to develop it, and create spaces from which a just and sustainable future can grow.


NBFJA