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Black Communities in the US Reclaiming Land and Organizing for Ecological Justice

June 2017

Juneteenth is a date celebrated across the US to commemorate emancipation from slavery. This year, Grassroots International is inspired by the call to action put out by the Black Land and Liberation Initiative to reclaim land and public spaces. We celebrate the many Black communities across the country who organize on this date and every day of the year towards a vision of racial and ecological justice. A few such examples include Alternatives for Community and Environment, Cooperation Jackson, the Black Land and Liberation Initiative, and the Movement for Black Lives.

Organizing for Environmental Justice in Boston, Massachusetts

Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) is an environmental justice organization based in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood with strong Black history and culture. Since 1993, ACE has taken on and won a number of important struggles, including transit justice (for example, a youth pass on public transit), environmental health, and more. In recent years, ACE has linked its struggles more and more to a climate justice vision, starting by listening to the issues that are most important to people in the neighborhood. Kalila Barnett, ACE’s former Executive Director, explains,

“Given the economic and political environment we are in, in order for a conversation around climate to be relevant and interesting to people, it has to have strong components connected to struggles to stay in the neighborhood, because of the high cost of housing. Two, we connect it to people’s health. It has to connect to the displacement fight… Part of our work is to expand people’s notions of what is sustainability, what is climate, and how that relates to conversations and opportunities to really improve people’s lives… community control and stabilization is part of how we adapt to a changing climate.”

“Part of our work is to expand people’s notions of what is sustainability, what is climate, and how that relates to conversations and opportunities to really improve people’s lives.” -Kalila Barnett, ACE

As part of the Right to the City Alliance at a national and local level, ACE is working towards passage of a local policy that would help keep some renters in their homes.  It is also working on explicit community development efforts, “making sure people are involved in decision-making, and calling into question how development can improve the health of the community and strengthen our ability to be more resilient in the face of changing climate,” explains Barnett.

In community planning workshops that the Boston Redevelopment Agency has organized, ACE noticed that there was no conversation raised about climate, even though, as Barnett points out, “we know that parts of Roxbury will be susceptible to flooding, and heat will be an issue as a number of people are impacted by asthma and other respiratory illnesses.” ACE sees its role as raising these issues and pushing to make sure they are addressed, so that the current population in Roxbury can stay in their homes and enjoy an improved quality of life.

ACE is also moving forward its work of community control over land through gardens. After visiting community-run urban gardens in Detroit during the 2010 US Social Forum, ACE’s youth decided to initiate a local campaign called “Grow or Die,” taking over vacant land in the neighborhood and working with local residents to create urban gardens. Thanks to ACE’s work, two of these gardens will soon become part of community land trusts so that they can continue for the long-term, with resident stewardship committees making decisions about how to run the gardens.

Regenerative Economy in Jackson, Mississippi

Cooperation Jackson, based in Jackson, Mississippi, is another member along with ACE and Grassroots International (among others) of the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) and anchors one of the CJA “Our Power Campaign” pilot areas, moving forward an agenda for a Just Transition away from the extractive economy, towards regenerative, local, living, loving, linked economies. brandon king, a community organizer and cultural worker with Cooperation Jackson, explains,

“Just Transition is about being oppositional and transformative—in our communities, families, neighborhoods… We’’e looking at the current political moment and trying to figure out a way we can move toward non-extraction, but toward sustainability and doing things that are in alignment with the planet. We’re building out a network of interdependent and interconnected cooperatives that work together in an ecosystem where whatever we produce we are able to regenerate as well.”

So far, Cooperation Jackson’s emerging network of cooperatives include: Freedom Farms (an urban farming coop), Nubia’s Place catering coop (including development of a cafe), the emerging Green Team (landscaping and composting), and a newly forming Community Production cooperative. The strategy is an interconnected cycle, where Freedom Farms produces food for Nubia’s Place, where the food waste from Nubia’s Place is converted into compost through the Green Team, and where the compost is then used to nourish the soil at Freedom Farms. At the same time, these coops create meaningful work through sustainable livelihoods that are based in democratic practices. As more cooperatives are created, this web will expand.

“We’re building out a network of interdependent and interconnected cooperatives that work together in an ecosystem where whatever we produce we are able to regenerate as well.” — brandon king, Cooperation Jackson

As part of its Sustainable Communities Initiative, Cooperation Jackson plans to build an ecovillage sitting on a community land trust. The start of the ecovillage is a project on a full block with state-owned property that the organization acquired.  The vision is to have a live, work, recreation and learning community, including urban farming, housing, and democratic control of the means of production through a “Fab Lab.”

In addition to doing such inspiring and powerful local work, Cooperation Jackson clearly also prioritizes efforts to build links and solidarity with others around the country and around the world.  brandon reflected,

“Something I learned at the COP21 (in Paris) was that if we were not there, there would have been much invisibility of Black people colonized in the US sharing their opposition to the UN climate talks. It’s super important for Black people all over the world to connect, realizing that we can’t continue to operate in the same fashion, that we have to be creative in how we implement our programs, doing it in a way that’s sustainable, connecting global capitalism to how our communities are impacted on the frontlines… If we don’t have a clear understanding of root causes, it’s like putting band-aids on, we’ll rebuild but won’t be able to stop the system that is destroying the environment. We need to stop capitalism in an anti-imperialist way.” 

Frontline Black Communities Struggle for Land Rights

As the two examples above demonstrate, frontline Black communities in the US are finding ways to connect with one another to learn from one another and work toward broader goals of climate justice. One additional resource that is connecting Black communities is the Black Land and Liberation Initiative (BLLI).  A collaboration between the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project and the Blackout Collective, this initiative brings together organizers, activists, artists, farmers, and healers across the country as part of a national cohort, as well as within several regions, to learn from one another and build movement around Black communities’ struggles for land. Quinton Sankofa, staff collective member at Movement Generation, explains,

“My generation is the first generation to grow up outside of the South, and even those in the South, a lot have migrated to big Southern cities… This is a global phenomenon, with the Green Revolution in the 1950s. A lot of Black folks have lost relationship to land, especially those of us who are outside the South. My grandma kept her knowledge and gardened, but it was a supplemental cultural thing. One of the most important things we can do is to take activists and organizers in cities who have done really important things, for example organizing against police brutality — but who don’t have any connection to ecology. We are investing in long-term strategy development and then also centering our culture back onto ecology. We are looking at healing our relationship with the earth and the planet as Black people, as a way to heal ourselves as well.

 “No matter if we take back the land, buy land or are being gifted land, we have to take cues from the living world. Just like in nature, diversity is our best defense; zero waste — there are no throwaway things or people. We want our actions to tie threads together around all different struggles — for example, between gentrification and climate, private schools, prison and food.”

 BLLI does this through an 18-month program, including several week-long trainings (including skills-building around direct action, earth-based skills, and more) and strategy sessions, combined with deep engagement and coordinated actions at the local level. 

This philosophy of the interconnectedness of issues facing Black communities is in many ways a reflection of the consciousness that has come forward through the Movement for Black Lives. In the summer of 2016, the M4BL released an extensive platform, developed by over 50 organizations who came together from across the country, outlining a set of demands that answer the question of what the movement is calling for. The document starts out:

 “…We have created this platform to articulate and support the ambitions and work of Black people. We also seek to intervene in the current political climate and assert a clear vision, particularly for those who claim to be our allies, of the world we want them to help us create. We reject false solutions and believe we can achieve a complete transformation of the current systems, which place profit over people and make it impossible for many of us to breathe.”

Black people are amongst the most affected by climate change. If we’re not serious about reducing emissions, the planet will keep getting hotter and Black people will continue to bear the biggest brunt of climate change. Divest from industrial use of fossil fuels and reinvest in community-based sustainable energy solutions to make sure communities most impacted (Black communities) are helping to lead that shift.” — Black Land and Liberation Initiative

This visionary platform goes into detail around six subheadings, two of which relate directly to the struggle for climate justice: Reparations and Invest-Divest. The reparations section of the platform connects environmental injustices done against Black communities to a number of other important issues:

“We demand… reparations for the wealth extracted from our communities through environmental racism, slavery, food apartheid, housing discrimination and racialized capitalism in the form of corporate and government reparations focused on healing ongoing physical and mental trauma, and ensuring our access and control of food sources, housing and land…

 “We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations…”

The Invest-Divest section of the platform continues this approach, with greater focus to climate justice:

Black people are amongst the most affected by climate change. If we’’e not serious about reducing emissions, the planet will keep getting hotter and Black people will continue to bear the biggest brunt of climate change. Divest from industrial use of fossil fuels and reinvest in community-based sustainable energy solutions to make sure communities most impacted (Black communities) are helping to lead that shift.”

The platform names the US military as the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and the industrial agriculture system as one of the largest sources of emissions as well. It puts forward a number of solutions from the federal to local levels, including divesting from industries that profit from fossil fuels, reinvesting in the creation of cooperative loan funds, and shifting to Black community control of renewable energy and food systems. It includes concepts such as a Just Transition, zero waste, promotion of solidarity economies, and building connections between small-scale farmers, including with La Via Campesina, a global network of more than 200 million small producers around the world.

As part of the Invest-Divest context and demands, the M4BL platform recognizes and opposes the role of the US government and military in exploiting and oppressing Black people and other oppressed nationalities around the world, specifically naming the impacts on Africa, Garifuna communities in Honduras, the people of Haiti, and Palestinians. It calls for a 50% cut in US military expenditures, reparations to countries and communities “devastated by US war-making,” and a reinvestment in domestic infrastructure and community wellbeing.

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation. We also stand with descendants of African people all over the world in an ongoing call and struggle for reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery. We also recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination.”

brandon king of Cooperation Jackson was one of the authors of the M4BL platform. He reflected on next steps for those who would like to see the platform put into practice:

It’’ very good to state intentions, what our hope for the future is, and it’s imperative that we build those systems amongst ourselves, to make those policies a reality. The platform can be inspiring… but it’s imperative that we build on the ground, on the grassroots level, how we can organize around different aspects of that locally. We have to build power in order to make the platform a reality.”

Through our US advocacy work in the Climate Justice Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and more, Grassroots International is honored to be in relationship with each of these struggles across the US. We were honored to have a leader from Cooperation Jackson as part of our recent delegation to Honduras, where we met with Garifuna (Afro-descendant Indigenous) and Indigenous Lenca communities, building solidarity with them around struggles for land, territory, and Mother Earth. We are committed to continuing to look for opportunities to learn from and connect these and other US-based movement-building groups with our partners—including social movements led by Black and Afro-descendant communities in Honduras, Haiti, Brazil, and West Africa.

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