Heal, Repair, Restore: A Story of Land Reuse & Community Empowerment

The smoke from incense swirled around the porch. Herbs and a lavender plant waned from the summer heat. The rocking chairs beneath us creaked as neighbors came and went, some stopping by only briefly to exchange meals and others staying longer to share stories from around Stark Court. Throughout the summer of ‘19 we talked about dilapidated properties and the city’s disregard for ward five. We discussed barriers to having the first African American getting seated on city council, the effects of climate change, the prison industrial complex, gender-based violence, and most notably, food apartheids and the devastating consequences of an unequal food system.

In Marion County, Ohio the per capita income is just over $40,000. Many neighborhoods that were once middle class are now rundown (14%). Black children are 4x more likely to experience poverty compared to their white peers (71% and 22% respectively). This combined with high levels of adult obesity (36%) and food insecurity (15%) paints a picture of a struggling community. Given this, I knew one initiative could not easily address decades of community neglect and disinvestment. I understood that to some, I would be seen as an outsider, as a middle class, White woman who lived 30 miles south of town, working for a system with a long history of discrimination, Cooperative Extension. Back in my office, where previous ways of doing things was sufficient, my peers were also skeptical. Nevertheless, I persisted.

I found solidarity on Ms. Etesta Hudson’s porch, generating plans with people directly affected by the outcomes of my work. To her and to others I was a welcome ally: “Whitney is giving us a chance to ask questions and providing opportunities to express concerns in our community.” Consensus was built on how we were going to ethically share resources, knowledge, and relationships. We agreed on tenets for democratic organizing. We read books from queer Black feminists. We took trips. We talked about our growing relationships on radio shows, webinars, and via formal presentations. Alone we could do so little, but together we could shape change and change society.

The most prominent program was a 15-week series aimed at developing multi-cultural, leadership capacity at the grassroots level. Community Voices central premise was that when voices are raised in unity, we can enact positive change. After only the first few meetings the cohort increased urgency around Marion’s food ways. healthy natural ecosystems. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 96% of agricultural producers in Marion County are White while West side residents suffer from food insecurity. Exacerbating the problem is most public decision-making is made by a small group of people, even though research tells us civic participation is critical to a healthy society. In fact, we only realize the full promise of democracy when people participate and when there is an abundance of opportunities for residents to voice their opinions about important issues driving the public policy or social sector’s agenda.

With a historically Black church, a city council representative, two farmers, and disability rights activists, we acquired land bank properties to transform them into accessible urban farms. As a community educator at OSU Extension, my responsibility was to organize and link resources that could provide starter plants and seeds, water tanks and rain barrels, small tools and equipment, soil testing, and picnic tables. Together we sponsored
Community Planting Days, taste-tastings at the garden, educational events, a farm tour, and at the end of the season, initiated the development of a neighborhood association. A year later, we continue to assert land cultivation as a significant part in the fight for freedom.

Forty acres and a mule would be at least 6.4 trillion dollars into the hands of Black Americans. This does not even account for the years of discriminatory fees and lending imposed upon African American farmers and business owners. Though the finger is often pointed at the federal government, reparation work can be facilitated through land grant universities in the same way Cooperative Extension hired African American agents in the early 1900s, long before the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race. In the midcentury, Extension set the precedent for Community Voices when agents introduced the notion that grassroots leaders could deliberate and decide upon Extension programming to benefit their community’s well-being. Among established leadership this approach was met with disdain, but eventually the outcomes received recognition and support. Similarly, in the beginning of our project there was a lot of hesitancy and skepticism from local leaders and my peers about the work I was doing in Marion County. The biggest obstacle was the belief that the previous ways of doing things was sufficient. With persistence, community organizations and funders became curious, involved, and at the end of 2019, I received endorsements from 15 stakeholders including the Marion Chamber of Commerce, Regional Planning Commission, United Way of North Central Ohio, Marion City Schools, and others. More importantly, community members shared the impact of my work: “Whitney’s program has benefited my community. Her passion for social justice has provided healing spaces in Marion.”

In 2019 FCS expanded program access to people of color by over 1000% compared to 2018:

  • 25 percent of participants in Dining with Diabetes were immigrants from South America
  • 43 percent of Community Voices participants were African American, Hispanic, or Latino
  •  87 percent of mindful wellness participants primary language was Spanish
  • The farm itself served culturally-relevant food to over 100 families
  • Approximately ten participants had a developmental disability.

These figures are almost unheard of for a rural county where many say, “diversity does not exist.”  To achieve such broad representation, recruitment required intentional relationship building, kitchen table conversations, patience, and advanced planning. Transforming our community engagement approach from a mechanical model (teacher to participant) to authentic empowerment and co-facilitation with residents, led to a publication in The Knowledge Bank at The Ohio State University: “For More Reasons Than Compliance: Why partnering with residents that reflect the diversity of our communities makes us land grant fierce.”  The project’s accomplishments are also evidenced by the national, statewide, and local recognition.

In 2020 the program received Community Engaged Program Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement by faculty, staff and/or student led programs/initiatives focused on community-university partnerships and impact. In 2019 a graduate of Community Voices received the Ohio Community Changemaker award from the Ohio Food Policy Network, nominated by OSU Extension. FCS also received the 2019 Collective Impact award from the United Way of North Central Ohio. Other achievements have been presented in the form of invitations to speak at National Land Grant Diversity Conference, The eXtension Foundation, The Ohio State University, and the American Public Health Association.

There are several lessons learned from my experience. I’m outraged by inequality in our food system yet in my efforts to mobilize others around anti-Black racism, I sometimes became too passionate and may have hurt people who were trying. At times, I forgot the people that have been fighting for decades. In other instances, I became suspicious of people who have been part of the movement with me and sincerely love me. But here’s what I also know: oppressive systems require isolation. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism want us to feel alone. Building with each other is one way we can fight against this lie. “Nurturing the slowness of community rather than the speed and isolation of convenience” is part of how we do this.

My advice, if a movement for radical social justice is not already in your community, recruit others and build one. Our Extension Creed calls educators to advocate for truth and justice. Wherever you are, whatever workplace or neighborhood you are in, you can make a difference. When people feel belonging and where everyone is at the decision-making table, transformation becomes really easy to access and there’s enough support to yield healing for everyone. Be justice, be peace, be community.

From our front porch to yours, we are rooting for you.