Land, community, leadership: Reflections from the second School of Political Leadership session

The second, and unexpectedly last, in-person session of the School of Political Leadership (SoPL) took place in Albany, Georgia with support from Southwest Georgia Project and farmer Sedrick Rowe of Rowe Organic Farms. The cohort had the opportunity to visit with Ms. Shirley Sherrod, Amber Bell, and the full team at Southwest Georgia Project and Resora, a 1,638-acre former plantation near Albany that was originally owned by one of the largest slaveholder estates in Georgia. Since 2011, it has been under the stewardship of New Communities Land Trust along with the support of the Southwest Georgia Project and has served as both a retreat and conference center and a working farm.

The cohort also got to hear from organic peanut farmer and advocate, Sedrick, who spoke to the challenges and opportunities he faced as an independent farmer and weighed in on the importance of Heirs’ Property on a federal policy level. They dug into issues impacting farmers of color and in particular, Black farmers in the southeast, including the role of local, state, and federal policy—past and present.  We chatted with Qiana Mickie, Sheryll Durrant, and Renee S. Keitt—the Urban Agriculture and Equity team from New York City about their takeaways from the session.

For the second SoPL session, you went to Albany, GA, and spent time at Resora, which is part of the New Communities Land Trust. What were your expectations going into the session?

Once you have the land, how do you finance the enterprise? How do you use it in a way that honors it, honors your ancestors and your community? 

Renee: I looked forward to seeing Resora. I’m used to New York, where you have to navigate so many barriers to land tenure, affordability and funding. Land access is such a complicated issue in New York, with the perpetual fight between housing and open space—with the powers that be lacking the ability to realize that it isn’t one or the other but both. Once you have the land, how do you finance the enterprise? How do you use it in a way that honors it, honors your ancestors and your community?

Qiana: I had the honor of meeting, talking to, and hearing from Ms. Sherrod a few times before, but I had never been to Resora. I looked forward to hearing more about her experience; how she acquired the land and what they’ve been doing with it. I was equally excited to hear from Amber, and other partners, and to meet other Black farmers. It’s humbling to talk to Black farmers in the South because they are working at a scale we just don’t see in the North East. As conversations about Black farmers and policy move forward, it’s important to remember the long history of Black farmers (beyond the scope of the North East) that have been farming with great trouble and great triumph in the scale that we don’t see in urban spaces—100s to 1000s of acres. It’s one thing to hear stories about their history and the history of the land, and another to be able to be on that land and be able to see, touch and hear it.

Sheryll: Needless to say, the opportunity to meet and hear from Ms. Shirley Sherrod was high on my list and, it was everything I expected and more. To hear her speak about her journey around farming and land tenure in the South was as sobering as it was instructive. Her charge to all of us to persist in the work despite the difficulties and setbacks is one of the lessons I took away from our meeting. Even more was the chance to hear from Amber and others at Resora who are working to build a strong agrarian model that is rooted in sustainable practices and is fiscally viable, and how difficult that can be especially as Black farmers in the South. I came away with a sense of hope and renewed energy that our work was worth doing.

Organic Peanut Farmer Sedrick Rowe chatted with the cohort about collaboration, community building and the need to engage with policy

You met and heard from Ms. Sherrod and also from Sedrick, an organic peanut farmer. What are some reflections you had from these sessions?

If we take into account our history of slavery, through emancipation and the continuing struggles of, and injustices towards black farmers around land access and tenure…I am surprised we are even still in the game.

Renee: My reflections: how to honor community and place, relationship building, collaboration and cooperation, how to maintain a holistic balance among your health, community and the land? Community building as a form of resiliency and sustainability along with land stewardship. Somehow, it always returns to the land. How do you choose to build and integrate the community? Sedrick spoke about how he was building community with other farmers in the area, working and learning from Mr. Donnie McCrary—this was an intergenerational collaboration that resonated with me.

Qiana: Listening to Ms. Sherrod and Sedrick, I realized again how tenuous land ownership is for Black and Indigenous people; how land is a root of power in our country, and how systemic and persistent the attempt to take it from us violently has been. I wondered what this means for agriculture policy; because the current systems, structures and policies continue to find new ways to supposedly reallocate and take land ownership from black and brown folks. Resora is not Ms. Sherrod’s first connection to land. She and her husband were some of the first people in our country to build a community land trust. Getting the funding for Resora, which is a restorative place, though it’s former plantation land, was a long journey for them. Even for someone like Ms. Sherrod, despite her history, her proof of concept, and her connections to the land, accessing resources that come through policy was a struggle. If it’s hard for her, imagine how much harder it is for others. That can feel disheartening but I also found inspiration in her story—she’s still evolving the operations at Resora and using that space as a way for beginner farmers to figure out how to scale, and learn about policy engagement and ownership.

Sheryll: If we take into account our history of slavery, through emancipation and the continuing struggles of, and injustices towards Black farmers around land access and tenure…I am surprised we are even still in the game. But I neglect to realize this is because we recognize that through our ancestry and inherent in our DNA — that a deep and endearing connection to land is both restorative and healing to our people. We recognize that land is the connection or the thread that weaves together our community. I saw at Resora an intergenerational community of learners and teachers and deep respect for the contribution of each and everyone and reverence for our ancestors and ancestral knowledge. I saw with Sedrick the respect and reverence he had for his elder and mentor who was deliberate and  patient in passing on his expertise, time and knowledge, and patient and open to learning new ways and ideas from Sedrick. It brought home the importance of building strong intergenerational communities within our work.

What knowledge or insight did you get from the session that you can take back directly to your campaign? 

…there are so many different ways we can engage in policy, from farmers to consumers. We can’t lose sight of that and I think this trip helped remind me of that.

Qiana: As much as we’re trying to advocate for better policy we have to understand that there’s still systemic racism within our food and agriculture policy. Our voices and experiences can be critical to informing policy. While there are forces that keep our influence in policy at bay; there are also times folks of color choose not to engage in policy. It is these reasons that we have to engage even more. When we self-select out of the system or minimize the impact of policy—it has implications.

So it was humbling and inspiring to see Black farmers in this space, both historically and now, engage with policy. They were not deterred by the systemic inequity and the racism that comes with it but were continuing to find ways to do the work and still engage in policy. Sedrick mentioned farmer fly-ins for example—there are so many different ways we can engage in policy, from farmers to consumers. We can’t lose sight of that and I think this trip helped remind me of that. There still are diverse opportunities on an individual, community and systemic level to push policies that reflect the resiliencies of our historical cultures and practices, and shape how resources get allocated across the board and more equitably to farmers—in particular Black and Indigenous farmers across the country. From informing it (policy), applying for it, to advocating for what happens to it after.

Renee:  The crafting of policy isn’t the final result. Two other elements are part of the process. The need for engagement from those who have the lived experience and the implementation of said policy. The Payroll Protection Program is a perfect example. It didn’t get to those who needed it. This piece of policy perpetuated the status quo, the inequity that has been built into the system.

Sheryll: This session amplified how much we are co-opted by a system that reinforces inequity and injustice without really realizing it; and how much we unwittingly perpetuate that status quo even though we believe we are doing the good work. The session gave us valuable tools to recognize how we passively engage in systems of injustice because we mistakenly believe that we can effect change by following the rules that are inherently not in our favor without questioning their legitimacy. Once we begin to spot these red flags it frees us to begin to build new strategies that are outside the existing norm, with the hope of building strong alliances that can eventually mount successful challenges.

Did you come to any new realizations about your work during these sessions? 

Renee: It isn’t so much something new but it reinforced a belief. Move forward. Ms. Sherrod said, ‘just put one foot in front of the other, no matter what’. Do the work.

Qiana: After the trip, I learned Albany, GA became an epicenter for COVID-19, and had one of the highest concentrations of cases in Georgia in April. It’s surprising to me that some of our connection points are some of the biggest epicenters of this crisis. These three places—New York City, Navajo Nation and Georgia—are different in so many ways and yet we are struggling disproportionately. I’m seeing so much commonality across the board for Black and Indigenous communities—in terms of wealth, healthcare and policy. To me, that was humbling. In times of crisis, who makes the sacrifice and who is the sacrifice?

Sheryll: Like Renee, Ms. Sherrod’s charge to continue to do the work resonated most with me. There are many times during my endeavors that I’d like to take a hard pivot in my work, away from challenges that at that moment seem insurmountable. But Ms. Sherrod’s advice to continue, sometimes quietly, even when those that have challenged and opposed you think that you’ve abandoned your quest was inspirational and uplifting.

Qiana: We also want to lift what we get from HEAL and the rest of the cohort. We learn a lot from the Diné/Navajo Nation team and their work on their campaigns. For me, they highlight the fact that food, agriculture and policy should not be separate. We’ve been too exploitative and wasted too much time, resources and land, and this is the time to do better. It’s been a challenge to hear how folks in Navajo Nation have been struggling through COVID-19, considering also how much we were looking forward to being on that land, for the next School of Political Leadership session, and learning from our other ancestors. At the same time, we are also seeing how important policy is because this is what happens when we don’t have good policy. I’m inspired by their efforts on the ground now, within and beyond the campaign.

Renee: When people use words like ‘regenerative ag’ there doesn’t seem to be any thought to what the underlying cause of the destruction of land and the people who labored in its service has been. Gloria Ann Begay, of the SoPL Diné team, speaks about Mother Earth and Father Sky and how to be in relationship with the land/earth. The underlying motivation behind regenerative agriculture is to deconstruct capitalistic practices that were formulated to maximize wealth without care to the earth or those who labor. The missing part of the discussion concerning regenerative agriculture is the people who grow and harvest our food. We need to answer the question: how can we have a regenerative economy that encompasses caring for the land and the people who tend it, through a social justice framework?