E91: Developing through Community Identity and Sense of Place

Thursday, October 29, 2020
Related to: Community & Economic Development | Equity, Race & Food Justice | Food Insecurity | Food Policy |

Equitable Food Oriented Development is a growing movement to promote food projects and enterprises as vehicles for building community wealth, health and self-determination. With us today are two leaders in this movement. It is my pleasure to welcome Rashida Ferdinand, a fifth generation, lower ninth ward homeowner in New Orleans and an organizer of the Sankofa Community Development Corporation and Lorena Andrade, the executive director of La Mujera Obrera in El Paso, Texas. This is the third podcast in a five part series, focused on equitable food oriented development.

Interview Summary

The EFOD movement is a systemic approach to wealth building through community projects that help lift up community identity, build on the power of community identity and sense of place. So first, let me ask you both: how does equitable food oriented development help create or strengthen the community identity and sense of place? Can you help our listeners understand why these things are so important? Rashida, how about if we start with you.

Community identity is what makes people feel comfortable and connected to the place where they live, where they work or where they raised their families, have lineage and longevity and sustainability. It is important that we address our work around people who live there and censoring the work around their needs. What EFOD has done is bring in the capital investment, resources and finances to support the ideas, thoughts that we have planning work that we are doing into development to meet the needs of the people who live in this space.

Thanks for the explanation. Lorena, what are your thoughts on this?

EFOD allows us to defend our community, to stay in our community and it also helps us be creative, develop and construct the community that we imagine. EFOD comes in different forums, it’s not just one thing, one project. When we defend community and when we build community together, we cannot only just focus on one program, it has to do with food. It has to do with what our culture looks like. It is sharing of our knowledge, of our elders and of community members, taking care of our children with building restaurants, with music. We need to be able to carve out a little space to be creative and to build, but to do it together. And that also takes resources, collective labor and collective thought.

Thank you. You both painted a wonderful picture of what EFOD is meant to accomplish. Why don’t we get a little more specific about what this looks like. Lorena, what sort of things are going on in your community?

Here in our neighborhood in El Paso, Texas, many of us have been pushed out of our countries, pushed out of other communities. We have been an immigrant community for several generations and we are a garment worker organization. We were one of the communities that was most impacted by the North American free trade agreement.

So one of the things that the workers had always wanted to develop are social enterprises. We have a daycare center. We also developed a restaurant. We have a community farm. We have a network of indigenous women’s cooperatives that we help coordinate. And it’s always thinking about how can we be creative in those economic projects? You know, how does this serve the community? How do we learn to work together in those?

We’re in the neighborhood to see who’s growing food. What is the knowledge of our elders? How do we share it together? We have festivals in the community where we exchange food. The women give workshops themselves. When we have music and when we have art, anything creative that the women want to share with each other. And, it’s a way of having that community pride and also creating that sense of community and saying, hey, my community has the knowledge that we need to build a community that we would like to see. We’re already building it together.

It’s very important to believe that we can build this ourselves. Another area of work is called familias unidas, to fight against the school closures. Right on the border, there’s a lot of sources of contamination through the diesel trucks, through the recycling facilities. And so we’re also trying to push those out of our community as well. It’s always kind of a two-part thing to defend against the contamination, the gentrification, the Penn defending for better education, but it’s also the building and the creative and the celebration of who we are.

Well, what a wonderful picture you’ve painted of programs to address, things that might be hurting in the community like food insecurity and contamination and also celebration of things that are important to the community. So thank you, I appreciate that explanation. Rashida, can you give us some examples in New Orleans.

We live in a neighborhood that has been under-resourced for decades. It was once a thriving working and middle class neighborhood around the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. A place where you had the highest rate of black home ownership once in the country, actually. Many people who moved into this neighborhood came from rural areas and had vision to create a space for their families to live in and sustain themselves. There was just a lot of decimation from hurricane Betsy in 1965, the redlining, and movement of people from the neighborhood who could not afford their homes. Next is hurricane Katrina that has affected the neighborhood and it still hasn’t fully recovered. We used to have more small businesses. Most of the homes in the area are properties that are blighted and caught up in many different types of legal binds—issues such as succession, taxes, or liens on the properties. Families own them but are no longer in a neighborhood. What it has created is a space where there is a lack of economic development. Resources that could drive people to live in a neighborhood, as well as an impetus for businesses to want to be in a neighborhood.

We try to address this through a community marketplace, through the lens of culture and art and food. So we had music, traditional, cultural programs, formers and craftsmen at crafts ladies. It was really a great gathering space and people were actually seeing each other who hadn’t seen each other since they had to evacuate and weren’t able to return home. Some people were not actually returning home to stay, they were just coming to try to check on what was remaining of their houses and property.

From that, monthly community marketplace, we evolved into projects that focused on health-centered development for sustainable use of land and what resulted are planning and pilot projects. We are beginning to implement a wetland park and reusing the beautiful spaces that were used for generations, where people use the natural areas and felt comfortable doing it. But that’s been lost over generations where it hasn’t been accessible to children and they’re not growing up understanding the importance of that. So we are restoring land and its use in that way.

We are also trying to restore the access of fresh food as a normalcy in our neighborhood there. A lot of people grew up with the tradition of backyard gardening, and they brought from their rural routes into the lower ninth. Corner stores had fresh produce and what we have now are a lot of gas stations or outlets that sell more processed foods, more fried foods, foods that are heavy and salt and sugar. And it contributes to that high propensity of cardiovascular and chronic diseases that we have in our community. Lack of healthy access becomes a normalcy in a way and it really changes the approach to what we think what we should have. Children who grew up in this type of environment don’t know what the past was or what they should have. They think this is a normal approach to living.

So what we’re trying to do is just lift a scale and create resources that affirm that we can have something better. What makes us strong and able to build out a wetland park, 3,000 square foot wellness center with academic partners, business owners, community residents and stakeholders, where we’ll have fresh food, we’ll have a coffee shop. We’ll also have health education classes, but it’ll be a one concentrated area. What’s really great about this, it’s also going to be a part of my initiative to develop our boulevard, our avenue where there was once commercial spaces. It is investment of time and labor and working with community members to do some intentional planning. We are trying to be a space of leadership and stimulate growth by working with our municipal representatives and officials and just keep being that squeaky wheel. But we’ve been doing this for about 15 years and we are hoping that this is a time where we can see some really clear results and get some substantial resources to move this plan into implementation.

It’s heartwarming to hear from both of you about the examples of things that are going on in your communities. And I can just imagine the vitality this helps build in the community and it must be wonderful to see it in action. One question I have is I imagine funding is probably not the easiest thing to obtain and you probably had to be pretty creative with that. So what are some ideas for other people that might be considering this? What are some things that have worked for you in order to raise money and put these projects into play? And Rashida, why don’t we begin with you.

It’s important to look at different approaches to fundraising. We started the work with small seed funding with a heavily volunteer-oriented approach. It was important to start that work and not just wait till we got the big funding because we know funders want to see that you have partners and other funders and support of what you’re doing and you have models and best practices. Most of our funding over the course of our work has come from philanthropic sources. We do have some governmental funding from EPA, USDA and other groups. It took a lot of effort to start with a few grants that were maybe $1,500, $2,000. We had second jobs while we started this work. But what we have been able to do is create pilot projects, measure our results and our outcomes and approach major funders to expand the programmatic work. It was also important for us to be ready to either grow the program and expand it further or shift it to what the need was. We are building partnerships so that having these relationships with our municipal representatives, we can be included in long term, sustainable state and federal funds that trickle down to the local resources. We also are trying to sustain ourselves and our capacity through a donor base—because we have been just doing the work. We have not focused on donations directly from private supporters, but we now have a person who is more dedicated to that approach.

Thanks for that background. Lorena, what about in El Paso? How do you and your colleagues go about trying to generate funding?

It’s a scramble sometimes, especially at the beginning. I mean, we’re a group of displaced women workers from the garment factories and we want to develop all these economic projects. We did need a lot of assistance in helping us develop the plan. And then for the people that we were presenting the plans to believe that we were able and had the capacity to do this. It also is a difficult situation sometimes when we have a plan for our neighborhood and the powers that be, sometimes in the city, basically said, no, your neighborhood is not going to be funded in these ways. That’s not worth investing in, in so many words. And so, there’s that constant back and forth in negotiation with some of those things. We also almost have to cut and paste, piece together different sources of funding, so that our entire program can be designed the way that we would like.

For example, if we run our business and we’re able to get, let’s say workforce development funds at the beginning, we don’t have those anymore. But how do we bring in resources in order to be able to develop the leadership within the programs for them to carry over the community, to contribute to the community, to work in the business more creatively. And sometimes when resources come in, they’re just specifically to learn this or specifically for this purpose. And so, we have to be able to be creative within that space. Our funding comes from many different areas, especially nationally and we’ve gotten some support locally. But most of it has come from national funders and even the federal government, when we need the big money for the building infrastructure.

You both painted a picture of having to scramble, but have done it successfully. Like to come back to a topic that we’ve discussed a little bit and it’s the issue of community ownership and why that is such an important part of this work and Lorena, let’s begin with you.

So, what does ownership look like? You know, it could be that we own our homes, but it is also, we want to stay in this community. Almost like a communal kind of sense of space, right? We do not own every piece of land in our community, but we’ve lived here for generations. We contributed to it and we have a right to stay here. We have a right to form our relationships with the land, with each other here in this space, to not get pushed out, to not be forced to migrate again. Whether it is buying buildings physically and defending those spaces. It also looks like a space like in the park where we create a festival where we form our local school, defending that space and having a sense of ownership of that school. It belongs to our children and to the future generations, that type of thing. That is where the organizing comes in and that’s where our economic work in our businesses, for example, our daycare center informs our organizing to defend our schools. And then the work of defending our schools informs how we work in our daycare centers and how we create community and what kind of environment and space we want to create for our children here in our daycare centers, the same with our restaurant. So that ownership is like money. We own this building and we own this space, but also sense of ownership, like I want to belong to this community, making a commitment to this land here.

Thank you, Lorena. So Rashida, what are your thoughts on that issue of community ownership?

I really believe that the work that we’re doing, investments that we’re making would continue. Even if I’m not sitting at this table doing the work or the staff members or even people who are volunteers, that it’s a part of an institution. And it’s an institution because the people who live in a neighborhood are invested and they’re part of it and not just on the planning portion or the implementation, but they are the benefactors directly. And we know that there are things that people need to feel safe and secure. They need clean neighborhoods and safe neighborhoods, a healthy place to live and they need money. They need resources. They need to be able to pay their bills and take care of themselves and take care of their families. We envision that this work becomes a space where people see themselves as a part of it. That they do not see it as a, ‘they doing this for us’, but we are doing this all in this together. That there’s a connection that the people who are a part of our community feel to the market, not just because it’s there and it’s a great place for them to shop or have coffee, but because they were a part of the building of it, they were invested in making it what it is today. They are the owners of the spaces, not just in a deed or the title, but because it would not be that way and exist, if it wasn’t for them. It is important that the work that we do has some economic trickle down value to people. That there’s some opportunities that people see from what we’re growing in our gardens, the okra that we’re growing, the basil, even the flowers that we’re growing becomes something that people may want to develop into a business for themselves and grow in their own backyard or use our community garden spaces or have land to do this. So we see that ownership also in system change and a way that people can actually access land to do more of this work if they so choose or grow their business, that’s connected to some ideas or resources that we’ve already put into the community.

Thank you, so I’d like to end with one final question. Do you feel that EFOD can be a pathway to lasting an sustainable change? Rashida, let’s begin with you.

I do believe that the energy and the thought partnership that is with the EFOD team is a place of equitable consideration for what we need in our communities. And it’s also an approach to looking at the systems in which we’re working, which are made to support vulnerable populations or under-resourced spaces or people who may have limitations and barriers to actually moving out of that cycle of poverty. The focus of EFOD on community leadership as the core of development is significant. I think the foundation of EFOD around collaboration and equity and honestly and authentically looking at how we live and what systems we are living in is significant, would be net sustainable community change.

Thank you and Lorena, what are your thoughts on that?

Well for us and the organizations that are a part of it, work cannot be imposed from the top down. It has to be created from the community, right? There’s obviously leadership involved in that and work that needs to be done. We are integrated directly into the community. EFOD also allows for what that looks like in every community is different. There are some basic principles, but the way we go about being creative, the way our community looks and the way the community response is different and it allows for that creativity. It allows for those different strategies that emerged from the organizing of many years and in a certain community. That is why it allows for this long-term sustainability because sometimes when you do economic work, it can be so overwhelming. With the EFOD resources, the way we are imagining them, you would work on the economic, but it also allows you to creativity and the growing community and the organizing out in the neighborhood and defending against the gentrification, celebration and the art and the music and everything that comes along with building community. It will be sustainable at the long-term because the people themselves are participating in it.

Lorena Andrade (right) is Executive Director of La Mujer Obrera (LMO), a community- and women- led organization in El Paso, Texas. La Mujer Obrera was founded in 1981 as a garment workers organization. When factory jobs were lost due to NAFTA in 1994, community members began to develop their own economic alternatives. Today, they organize for a food system that is informed by ancestral traditions and by local practice. LMO advances food access work through its restaurant, community farm, daycare center, cultural festivals and Lummetik Trading Company.

A fifth generation Lower 9th Ward homeowner, Rashida Ferdinand (left) organized with community stakeholders in the Lower 9th Ward during 2008 to form Sankofa Community Development Corporation, with a commitment to providing resources that address social challenges related to urban revitalization, youth enrichment and education, health and wellness, and economic development. Sankofa CDC works with residents and other stakeholders to identify locally-felt social challenges and address them in thoughtful, culturally-competent ways. Sankofa’s ultimate goal is to support the creation of a local environment that promotes positive health outcomes and builds healthier communities for generations to come.

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