Category Archives: ACORN

New Communities and Community Land Trusts

Greenville       Reading in Harper’s about New Communities farming land trust in Georgia celebrating the 50th anniversary since its founding, my memory is playing tricks on me.  I keep thinking that I met Charles Sherrod or at least was in a meeting at the same time with him, but I can’t place the time or occasion, so it’s more likely that I’m transposing something else on it.  I suspect Tom Wahman is to blame.

Tom Wahman was part of a philanthropic underground of sorts.  One of those progressive pearls embedded deeply in the shells that encased the rich and their wealth in foundations.  I met Tom when he was at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund through an introduction from George Wiley of the National Welfare Rights Organization.  Tom was an early funder of ACORN for several years while he was at RBF in the mid-1970s.  He would pull the money out of a hat and wash it to ACORN via the Center for Community Change and an alley of his there, who ironically was George’s ex-wife’s partner.  When Tom would visit ACORN in Little Rock in the early days, he was equally cagey.  He would combine it with a visit to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation as cover, and he was always on his way to his pet project and great passion, New Communities.  It’s likely hearing Tom talk so much about the Sherrod’s work there and his love and support for the project that I felt we were on a parallel path, starting organizations in 1970.

New Communities was a community land trust, one of the first of its kind.  There are some 260 of them around the country.  Our still thriving Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) is likely listed in that mix with its thousands of land trust apartments.  All of our early ACORN Housing Corporation housing developments were founded on a land trust model.  Sadly, we were not able to continue on that model except in New York City.  Too many of the members wanted to see their housing equal wealth for their families.  We understood and eventually stopped trying to push water upstream.

New Communities endured to 50 though, much as ACORN has, through the ups and downs, so I find myself celebrating with the Sherrods on that score as well.  Their groundbreaking success in the 1970s was crippled by first drought and USDA discrimination denying them a loan until a lawsuit by black farmers saw New Communities get the largest single settlement at $12 million.  Though they had lost their first 6000-acre property, the money allowed New Communities and its model to rise again twenty-five miles away, and celebrate their fifty years.  As I steered the riding mower around our four pecan trees to cut the tall grass on the half-acre ACORN Farm in New Orleans lower 9th Ward yesterday, I marveled at how hard their work had been and how amazing.

Creating a community land trust of any kind is never an easy ride.  It’s collective ownership and combined resources and decision making that’s a saddle sore on capitalism’s hide.  Tom Wahman and Charles and Shirley Sherrod and their fellow farmers were right.  We need more of these, no matter how many rocks are in the road.

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Talking Organizing in Atlanta

New Orleans  Having not flown in months, I was curious what was up in the airways.  My 6:15 AM on a Saturday to Atlanta was the first flight out of New Orleans.  That was already strange.  It used to be one of many.  Where was the 5:28 AM to Houston?  The 6:00 AM to Chicago?  The early flight to New York?  Nowhere, that’s where.  The next surprise was that everything went faster.  I was the only one in the TSA-PRE line.  They screen for temperatures at the gym, but not on the airlines.  Better have a cup of coffee at home, because there was nothing open anywhere in the airport.  Not leaving at least.  Only Chili’s coming back.  It was a ghost town.  On Delta, zones were on the boarding pass, but the boarding was by rows, back to front.  Bringing back the old school, and I liked it.  When the bell rang on landing, I jumped up.  I was surprised that everyone ahead of me kept sitting down.  Social distancing, I guess?

But that was all about what’s up in the air, the real takeaway from Atlanta in my meeting with folks about organizing there, is the on-the-ground benefit of being in the same room in a different city taking part in the valuable cross fertilization of ideas that comes from face-to-face-mask-to-mask conversations.   I’ll give you a couple of examples to prove the point.

  • Talking about the long lines in Georgia polling stations and the similar problems around the country in Louisville, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, a constant refrain in the excuses of election authorities is that the reduced number of manual polling sites was because they didn’t have the poll staff willing to work. Anyone who has ever voted has seen the crew at the polling stations.  This is like the waiting room of a Social Security office.  The ones without gray hair are political cronies making an extra day’s wage complete with donuts for breakfast and fried chicken for lunch.  Talking to my colleagues and new friends in Atlanta, here was an idea for a quick campaign:  an organization should mass file names of “volunteers” willing to be trained to handle the polls in November so there would be a full force.  Who could turn that down?  In states trying to run from the mail ballot, it matters that we have as many open polling locations as possible!
  • In cities like Atlanta and Memphis where the rent amnesty is ending July 31st, local activists are predicting a tsunami of evictions. In New York City on July 1st for example they are expecting 50-60,000.  In these cities the new big landlords are connected at the hip to huge Wall Street private equity companies, so it’s a twofer.  In the wave of resistance now, how about a mass protest and campaign to block the landlords from filing to evict that puts pressure on courts and civil sheriffs to refuse to process evictions?  Supplemental unemployment will still be good, so the troops are out there.  Given the massive support of grassroots donors this day for new activism, it might even hit a cord and raise some money.
  • Training? People are suddenly desperate for a way to up skill for this moment!

See what I mean?  The back and forth of listening, discussion, and synthesis is not something that the Hollywood Squares of Zoom is best at handling.  As hard as it always is, and as virtually impossible as it is now, there’s a reason that organizers have to travel to get closer to people who want to make things happen and help them along.  Atlanta was calling, and it was hard not to pick up the phone.  We’re open for business again!

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