Moving Beyond Diversity Towards Collective Liberation: Weaving the Communities Movement into Intersectional Justice Struggles

Posted on March 8, 2018 by
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Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

Struggles for equitable land-use and affordable housing have intensified across the country at an unprecedented rate in recent years. Decades of extractive urban renewal policies1 and the entry of predatory financial institutions2 into real estate markets have resulted in waves of displacement, gentrification, and housing insecurity for low income communities and communities of color in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

How can the Communities Movement address the suburbanization of poverty, the gentrifying face of the urban inner city, and the stark economic challenges of rural and agrarian communities? With a historical lack of racial, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity in the dominant narrative of intentional communities, what interventions might be necessary to make this movement more impactful in a time of great social and ecological crises? How could an entire discourse about collective placemaking and modeling ecologically sustainable lifeways be strengthened by a grounded racial and economic justice analysis and practice? What would it take to build a more accountable and expansive Communities Movement that is grounded in deeply intersectional justice work? How might we proliferate radically inclusive models of community, land stewardship, and governance that transform our relationships to land, place, home, and each other?

These are some of the questions that the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network3 (POCSHN) has been tackling in our organizing work over the last three years in the San Francisco Bay Area. POCSHN is a resource network for self-identified people of color (POC) interested in building intentional, healthy, collective, and affordable housing communities in the Bay Area and beyond. The network was established in response to extreme increases in housing costs, rapid gentrification, and the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in the predominant intentional community, cooperative, and cohousing movements around the country. Our central vision is to create an entire ecosystem of cooperatively-controlled POC-centered communities that are ecologically, emotionally, spiritually, and culturally regenerative spaces.

POCSHN was founded in February of 2015 by long-time Bay Area residents, Tavi Baker and Lailan Huen. It started as a Meetup Group—hosting events, trainings, and field visits to cohousing, cooperative, and farm sites that were primarily led or owned by people of color. Since our first day-long POC Sustainable Housing Convening in August of 2015, we have brought together groups and individuals passionate about collective land acquisition, cooperative living, and co-ownership models. Our efforts also include educational workshops at local and national convenings (including a keynote address at the 2016 West Coast Communities Conference), community study groups, and strategic partnerships with vision-aligned organizations including the Sustainable Economies Law Center4 (SELC) and our fiscal sponsor, the Northern California Land Trust5 (NCLT).

POCSHN has grown to become an intergenerational project with six core organizers (mostly volunteer-based) and a 1,200-person broader member base. Our time doing this work has made it abundantly clear that people are hungry for cooperative solutions to the housing crisis and want to be a part of shaping them.

Our efforts are POC-centered (though not exclusive) because our aims are to support communities on the front lines of racialized violence in the work of creating and reclaiming spaces that honor our historical legacies of survival, resistance, and ancestral placemaking practices. Many people have come to our network with horror stories about navigating white-dominated collective houses, cooperatives, communities, and other institutions—stories of unexamined power dynamics, tokenism, and problematic expectations rooted in a lack of ongoing personal and collective engagement with issues of race, class, and other types of identity formation that shape our lives.

It is important to acknowledge that building meaningful alliances across difference is hard work and is a particularly intimate task to come home to in community. However it is the deepest work we must do in order to enable a politics of solidarity to blossom into action. The work of cultivating skills in nonviolent communication, community governance, and effective responses to conflict must go hand-in-hand with the work of examining and transforming our relationships to wealth, land, and power. POCSHN is committed to building a narrative around community co-ownership that interweaves these frameworks—with the hope of co-creating and sustaining cooperative living and co-ownership projects that are rooted in grassroots efforts to bring about more sustainable ways of relating to people and the planet.

Over the last three-plus years of organizing, we have encountered and incepted a number of visionary strategies that we believe are worth replicating and supporting within the Communities Movement. Here are three key strategies we recommend engaging to deepen your community’s work on issues of race, class, and privilege:

1. Study Up!

There are many resources out there that unravel histories of settler colonial violence, labor extraction, discriminatory urban planning, radical land-based resistance movements, cooperative and community land trust history, and more!  At the end of this article is a list of resources to check out on issues of displacement, national movements, and land histories. Use these resources as jumping-off points for conversation within your community. Folks should also engage the breadth of work out there on anti-oppression praxis, including the Catalyst Project6 and Showing Up For Racial Justice7. Collective study and discussion is one way we can build shared understandings of the complex past and present that we are all accountable to and more holistic visions of the futures we seek to create.

2. Engage in Redistributive Politics

The radical redistribution of wealth, land, and power is key to creating the world we want to live in. There are community projects doing this work at various scales and it’s worth looking at one community trend here. POCSHN has been in contact with a few different long-time rural and semi-rural intentional community projects that have engaged in the work of redistributing some of their land to people-of-color-led collectives. While I don’t have permission to mention them directly in this article, I believe that this could be one way of approaching questions of diversity for groups who may have started off as a fairly homogenous bunch who now wish to expand their membership, rather than the usual “add and stir” inclusion model where a few folks who carry marginalized identities are admitted.  Let’s instead work towards models that put forth a greater shift in governance and representation.

3. Support Radical Financing Models

With the cost of land and housing skyrocketing in many areas around the country, it is more important than ever that we invest in financing models that build community-wide assets and long-term permanently affordable spaces that are out of the grips of the speculative market and into the hands of the people. A couple really awesome efforts we would like to share: The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust established the Shuumi Land Tax8 for non-Indigenous people who live in traditional Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone territory to make a voluntary annual financial contribution to their critical community work of bringing land back into Indigenous stewardship. Secondly, Liberating 23rd Ave Community Building9, a long-time, low-rent community building in East Oakland, ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to help collectively purchase their multi-use building.

What’s Next for POCSHN?

POCSHN is launching two exciting initiatives in the coming year: The East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EBPREC) and the Community Co-Ownership Initiative10.

In partnership with the Sustainable Economies Law Center, we formed the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, an umbrella project that is a California cooperative corporation that can raise capital through multiple small investments, keep land permanently affordable, and provide a limited equity appreciation model for residents. For more information about this exciting initiative, visit the EBPREC website, www.ebprec.org.

The Community Co-Ownership Initiative is a partnership between the Northern California Land Trust and POCSHN, along with other members of the Bay Area CLT Consortium11 (BACCLT) to diversify and expand access to shared ownership and resident-controlled housing through leadership training, development of new financing tools, and technical support. The partnership leverages the technical expertise and stewardship knowledge of NCLT with the broad reach and engagement of POCSHN’s diverse grassroots membership. As POCSHN’s fiscal sponsor, we are partnering with NCLT to build joint organizational capacity, cultivate prospective and existing cooperative resident groups, and establish new sites for permanently affordable housing across the Bay Area.

If you are interested in helping to grow, connect with, and support the work of POC Sustainable Housing Network, please visit our website at www.pochousingnetwork.com.

Resources to Explore on Land Justice: Urban, Rural, and Suburban Issues

Land Justice: Reimagining Land, Food and the Commons in the United States: foodfirst.org/land-justice-re-imagining-land-food-and-the-commons

Revolutionary Urban Spaces: Study Group Reading List: docs.google.com/document/d/1lXTqmEO28UeqWoQrckv8IdmPl8QyQtVzDvLiPQrbevs/edit?usp=sharing

Right to the City Alliance: righttothecity.org

Urban Displacement Project: www.urbandisplacement.org

Sogorea Te’ Land Trust: sogoreate-landtrust.com

Suburbanization of Poverty: “The Changing Geography of US Poverty”: www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-changing-geography-of-us-poverty

“Housing Challenges in Rural America Persistent, on the Rise”: nlihc.org/article/housing-challenges-rural-communities-persistent-rise

Down on the Farm: Wall Street: America’s New Farmer: www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/OI_Report_Down_on_the_Farm.pdf

Movement Generation: Justice & Ecology Project: movementgeneration.org

Arc of Justice (film): www.arcofjusticefilm.com—documentary about New Communities, Inc., the first community land trust in the US that was created by black farmers in the face of land loss and discrimination.

Deseree Fontenot is a co-organizer of the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network (www.pochousingnetwork.com). She is a farmer, scholar, and activist based in Oakland, California. Deseree holds an interdisciplinary Masters of Arts in Social Transformation from Pacific School of Religion where she focused on ecology, African-diasporic spiritual traditions, and geographic histories of food and land-based movements. She is passionate about transforming relationships to food, land, and place by addressing land access, tenure, and pathways to community co-ownership.

Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.


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