Transforming Systemic Inequity

2020 will go down in history as a year of profound disruption. One crisis after another exposed the mortal consequences of racial inequities––beginning with a pandemic in which people of color were far more likely to die than white Americans and a series of brutal police killings of unarmed Black civilians. These painful events spurred a national uprising, led by the Movement for Black Lives and supported by thousands of allied groups across the country, that has since been characterized by scholars as the largest mass movement in US history.

As the summer of protest turned into an autumn of reckoning, Natural Investments advisor Malaika Maphalala joined Jungwon Kim of the Rainforest Alliance and Brooklyn-based restauranteur Alicia Hines for a conversation about transforming systemic inequities. Their talk was part of a series of events hosted at Likkle Shop, Hines’ restaurant and book-lending library, that invited community members to move beyond allyship to become co-conspirators for systemic change. Following is an abridged and adapted version of their conversation.

Jungwon Kim: This year, mainstream America finally began to confront painful, longstanding realities about institutional racism and the daily violence of anti-Blackness. Malaika, you’ve devoted much of your professional career to catalyzing the kind of systemic change that has finally captured the attention of the masses in 2020. How do you approach this through investing?

Malaika Maphalala: I work with a wonderful group of accredited investors who want to focus specifically on regenerative investing, which I define as investing in projects, organizations, and companies in ways that directly support the regenerative capacity of communities and ecosystems. Key to many of these types of investments is addressing the issue of equity—across gender, race, and class—which is a crucial underpinning of a healthy society. They work to address the wealth gap, ensure access to basic, life-sustaining resources for everyone, and democratize the power to make decisions and direct capital in its many forms—not just financial capital, but natural capital and human resources. As we know, societies where income inequality is extreme (like we’re seeing more and more here in the US) become prone to violence and civil unrest. Building social equity contributes to stability and helps communities and individuals develop the capacity and resilience to face the challenges of our times—the most significant of which is the way climate change is bearing down upon all of us. This is the core of what I’m working on with my clients, those high net-worth investors who want to use their wealth as a tool to help create just, restorative ecological systems.

JK: We’re witnessing a surge of support for Black-owned businesses, as well as long-overdue calls for reform of financial institutions that have traditionally discriminated against Black Americans. Remedying these injustices through systemic change is critically urgent. At the same time, it’s important to note that Black business owners have much to teach us about resilience in this moment. Alicia, can you tell us the story of how Likkle Shop, this restaurant and lending library in the heart of Brooklyn, came to be?

Alicia Hines: My maternal grandmother grew up on a farm in Jamaica, in the Trelawny parish on the North Coast. When my mother was just six, my grandmother immigrated to England to work. My mother stayed behind with my grandfather, who was a baker, shopkeeper, and cook. As a young girl, my mother learned about the regional food supply chain from the market women, who would tell her, “No, no, don’t buy that breadfruit” because excessive rain meant it wasn’t good. And because she was living in 1950s Jamaica with her father—a stern man who woke up at the crack of dawn, worked all day, and expected a well-prepared meal when he came home—she developed incredible resourcefulness and resilience as a child of seven, eight years old. Much of it came from those relationships she created at the market, with women who taught her how to create something delicious out of the resources at hand… even if they were extremely limited.

In starting this business, I wanted to make sure that I was honoring that kind of careful intention. It’s a challenge to do that because our food systems are not designed for this approach. It’s a lot easier to head to a big restaurant supplier, get some frozen things, and mark it up as if everything were locally grown. But for me, it matters how everything gets on the plate. So in the long run, because we’re a small place, I am committed to staying nimble, to changing the menu each day to reflect that sustainable, responsive ethos around food.

JK: Many of us are searching for ways to bring back that ethos, from farmers on the vanguard of regenerative agriculture to organizations doing harm reduction on colonial commodity crop systems. Malaika, what are the prospects for meaningful systemic change toward a more sustainable and equitable food system?

MM: I’m excited about the Justice for Black Farmers Act, a new bill sponsored by Senators Cory Booker,
Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand. It’s really a form of reparations to address the devastating history of land loss by Black farmers in the US due to systemic racism. From 1910 through 2002, the amount of Black-owned farmland decreased by 90%, and the continuing trend is rooted in racialized predatory lending and a documented history of discriminatory practices within the USDA (the primary lender of capital for agriculture). Today 97% of agricultural producers are white, and the huge backlog of unresolved complaints against the USDA reveals story after story of Black farmers being denied farm loans or being forced to wait so long for approval that they were pushed into foreclosure and financial ruin.

The bill would initiate the study of discrimination at the USDA, develop reforms to finally end discrimination within the agency, and directly restore the land base that has been lost by Black farmers. It would move up to 32 million acres of land to Black ownership over the next 10 years, awarding 20,000 grants of 160 acres of farmland to build a new generation of Black farmers. This is huge—and as John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association notes, “the most ambitious legislative proposal ever developed to address historic and ongoing discrimination against Black farmers.” There are of course many hurdles ahead, but I see it as a hopeful initiative.

JK: It is indeed encouraging to see this bill, but it could take years to pass and then implement. In the meantime, what are some other regenerative, equity-based models that inspire you?

MM: There are so many! The ideal model, of course, should be flexible and adapted to the local region it
serves. That said, one of my favorites is the cooperative. Equal Exchange is a great example: a worker-owned, democratically run cooperative that our clients have invested in over the years. They have been around for so long that they serve as a leader and role model for others. They only do business with other worker-owned, democratically run cooperatives around the globe. They understand that it’s about equity, so for them it’s essential that the smallholder farmers they work with have a voice in the setting of prices, in business practices, and in the sharing of profits.

They also see that profit is not the sole purpose of their business. They started their cooperative as a form of political activism in the early 1980s, during Reagan’s war on Nicaragua. Equal Exchange chose to partner with a worker-owned, democratically owned coffee cooperative in Nicaragua to produce their first product, “Forbidden Coffee,” to support smallholder farmers in a place where they were really suffering.

And that’s the spirit they bring to their work to this day. In the US, Equal Exchange has recognized that Black farmers have experienced the highest rate of land loss—and therefore have intentionally sought ways to directly support them. They’ve recently connected with a cooperative of Black organic pecan farmers from New Communities, an organization based in Georgia. The pecan growers are also part of a community land trust, which is another powerful tool for constructing regenerative economic systems.

JK: The community land trust model has been gaining momentum, but it is still relatively unknown outside of regenerative economic circles. Could you tell us more about its roots?

MM: Well, this is an amazing story, and one of the reasons I love my work is that I get to spend my time learning about the incredible work people and organizations are doing to address critical problems. As it turns out, the very first community land trust in the US was founded in 1969 in Albany, Georgia, by a group of Black Americans who came together and bought 6,000 acres of land. It was called New Communities, and its members began to build out their vision of a cooperative social system dedicated to empowering the community through shared agribusiness and economic development.

Unfortunately, they were forced into foreclosure and lost their land in 1985 precisely because of systemic racism and the USDA’s unfair loan practices toward Black farm owners. In 1999, a class action suit, Pigford v. Glickman, filed by Black farmers against the USDA, resulted in the acknowledgement of discrimination. As part of the settlement, New Communities was awarded $12 million in recognition of the injustice. Under the leadership of the amazing Shirley Sherrod (pictured), one of the co-founders of New Communities, they recently purchased a former plantation of 1,638 acres, renamed Resora, that was originally owned by one of the largest enslavers in Georgia. Shirley talked about her personal struggle with the history of the land they purchased. She was uncertain about taking over a former slave-holding plantation and calling it home, until she experienced an emotional shift that brought her to the realization that it would be an amazing statement for this place to belong to the descendants of enslaved people. She has been instrumental in the rebirth of the New Communities vision at Resora, summed up in their motto that “cooperative living, learning, earning and doing together empowers a collective group of people.”

Shirley’s work over the decades as a social activist meant that her circles overlapped with Equal Exchange activist circles, and that led to this new relationship that brought Resora’s organic pecan cooperative to Equal Exchange.

JK: What a beautiful reminder that models for regeneration and resilience already exist. Over the past few months, we’ve had so many conversations about how to dismantle and transform inequitable systems to build a better world. Sometimes there’s this feeling that we have to invent something new, and it feels overwhelming. But people like Shirly Sherrod and New Communities remind us that we
don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

AH: James Baldwin talks about forgetting. Because America is very aware of the hypocrisy inherent in its founding, what we’ve been experiencing over this time has been a process of willful forgetfulness. And what’s happening now is we are seeing, and it’s like re-memory. There are these things that just keep bubbling up, and they won’t go away. They keep reminding us of the trauma. And in this moment of remembering the trauma, it’s also important for us to remind ourselves of these examples of resilience—to remember them by telling the stories and tap into their power.

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