Make a bed for the children of other people in the place where your own children sleep. ~ Moroccan Proverb
In the time since my initial essay, I have gone through a great many changes in seeking out the direction of my next entry. I had initially considered dance which has been the flint spark igniting a creative wildfire in this present leg in my artistic journey. That idea was quickly usurped by a conversation which occurred on Twitter beginning with a simple declaration by Kirsten West Savali that for lack of a better alternative political choice, she would again be supporting the Democratic ticket. The discussion between she, Journey, and myself continued to spiral outward further until the following cry was heard.
Community building is a question that I have spent the better part of my young adult life contemplating, running test scenarios, attempting implementation and by design, falling flat on my face when further planning was needed. I have been a party to many communities since I came into my organizational own in Chicago circa 1999: The Temple of Applied Theosophy, Frontline/Black Fist, C-Medina Youth Academy, Betty Shabazz International Charter School, Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living and the list rolls on.
Some of these communities have overlapped, engaged and walked alongside one another. Others were isolated. Some overflowing with unity and positive cooperation amongst participants. Others filled with contempt and disharmony now doomed to self defeat. All were necessary for me to learn the skills I now offer to the communities whom hold my present attention. Thus brimming over with the accumulated desire to see others create and engage their own communities in ways that are both novel and replicable, I offered the following sentiment in reply.
I have been fortunate in my 31 years to be surrounded by a diverse array of activists operating in hemispheres spanning atheism, food security, social justice, sustainable living and gun ownership legislation. One learns quickly that in building a community, it is important to not judge each other’s political positions too hastily for we may never come to understand how we may be of service to each other and still move forward in a principled manner.
This recalls to mind a conversation that Michael Eric Dyson had with Dr. Bernice Reagon & Martha Noonan regarding the recent text “Hands On The Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women In SNCC”. Martha Noonan was discussing her work with the movement and the notion of “preventative nonviolence”. She elaborated on the role that armed advocates played in protecting those nonviolent organizers in areas of the deep south where racial tensions were so inflamed that death could arrive swift and immediate to anyone who sought to agitate the social order. The point is only further made by the revelations of Rosa Park’s strong support for the work of self defense pioneer Robert F. Williams as noted in Danielle McGuire’s “At The Dark End Of The Street”.
These cases are not enlightening to those whom lived through the period, but have remained the substance of oral history while being submerged deep within the narrative that there is some clear line of demarcation drawn between proponents of Black Power through self defense distinguishing them from the nonviolent resistance of the Freedom Riders. Revisiting this discussion offers us the opportunity to consider the subtle weaving together of the elements of this era’s social struggle which are all too often simplified into Malcolm or Martin.
Kamau Rashid framed it as a difference between a coalition and an alliance. We must understand that it is possible for us to form strong alliances for specific core issues where we find agreement and work to advance the position of that issue. For example, I am a member of the Black Freethinkers of Chicago, an alliance of black freethinkers working to advance the understanding of atheism in the black community where it remains a position of heresy. Amongst our ranks, you will find a capitalist, a few socialists, a war hawk, and a pacifist. This makes for very colorful debate during meetings, but only in so far as we miss the point that we come together for a very specific purpose. Coalitions would then be formed for broader issues and longer term concerns than alliances.
All of this is stated in my present effort to grapple with the new hour of struggle in which operate. As the landscape evolves, so must the strategy that we use to navigate that landscape. This requires a measure of social and communal adaptation on our part as we seek out new forms which will work for us collectively. For my own part, I bring a sense of the significance of community and relationships in every action taken moving forward. I don’t want that passage above to sound like some manner of cryptic social theory so I bring along some present day examples in the form of the Healthy Food Hub, the Cowry Collective, and the Aya Leadership Development Institute which actualize the theory.
The Healthy Food Hub was born of a partnership between the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living and the Parent Council of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School. The Hub was designed to be a channel connecting the urban communities of Chicago with the rural communities of Pembroke Township and enabling black farmers who were growing produce in rural areas to cultivate a consistent supply chain direct to consumers which would allow them to make greater use of their available land. Through this relationship consumers could purchase both locally and organically grown produce which would solve two of the primary issues created by modern food deserts: food that travels too far to reach the consumer and the terrible quality of goods that are available directly in the community.
But the Hub was not simply a means to create an additional form of consumption. The urban community has been encouraged to become members of the supply chain. Those who are interested in working the land have been able to participate in the Rotating Apprenticeship program where they visit the Black Oaks Eco-Campus and learn permaculture, crop rotation, sustainable building and biofuel development. Through the bi-monthly market held on site at Shabazz Charter School, the members of the Hub are able to pick up pre-orders, shop for additional Market Day produce, network and engage with each other, and attend workshops and cooking demonstrations facilitated by other members or the staff of the Hub.
This is relationship building and a picture of the new vision that we must organize around how we think about food. When we shift our consciousness to buying local, let us disengage also from the consumption mindset that only hears buying local. Let us instead come into the awareness of building locally. Build local food systems which engage community and school gardens in the process of learning and growing the necessary food which then becomes an additional link in the supply chain and furthers the goal of localizing the food system while at the same time educating children and the community to the process of being part of the collective solution to food insecurity.
The Cowry Collective is a time banking organization founded by Chinyere Oteh whose stated purpose is “to build community among people of African descent in the greater St. Louis area by strengthening ties between strangers, neighbors, friends and family through a circle of giving and receiving.” The collective is named for the cowry shell which is a well known form of currency in numerous cultures throughout Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. The concept of time banking is a modern revision of the classic system of bartering. Members of the collective post service requests for other members to perform such as painting, yard work, flyer design or tax preparation. In exchange, the member performing the work receives a cowry for each hour of work performed. Those cowries are “banked” and may then be “exchanged” with other members for your own service requests in the future.
The thing that I particularly love about this concept is that it cuts away at how we presently understand the economic order. My personal problem with money in general and the economic system in particular is that it encourages exploitation in some measure. Those who have greater wealth are almost predestined to keep most of it throughout the course of their lives. Those who arrive poor are likely to remain that way also barring a few loopholes that some are allowed to leap through to keep a class explosion at bay. But I digress from my point. This removes the trappings of that economic system and reduces them to their most basic element, the relationship between members of a community who work to sustain the operation of the village as a whole instead of merely the individual components.
The Aya Leadership Development Institute was recently founded by Kamau and Safia Rashid with the objective of creating an enriching and engaging learning space where their children might build relationships with other children whose parents hold similar values thereby creating the connections which might sustain them throughout their life. As adults, we are well aware of the various stages of transition we have undergone to reach the place where we presently stand. We are working towards something quite different from many of the friends we knew as children. It may have been a strain at times to have relationships die off as we realized that some people were simply no longer compatible. It is possible that we can provide an opportunity to create those relationships now which may alleviate some of that strain in the lives of our children.
Thus far, the children have come together to experience camping classes each Thursday and in September, they will be heading to the Black Oaks Eco-Campus where they can practice the skills they have learned. Some students have participated in drumming classes with Baba Kwame Cobb. They have done map reading and compass navigation, self defense, first aid, fire training and water purification. In the future, we plan to hold critical thinking workshops and perhaps work on other languages. In the time between, they play tag, pick at plant matter and laugh together. This is a system which truly seeks to personify the Moroccan proverb which opens this essay “Make a bed for the children of other people in the place where your own children sleep.” How does one measure the strength of the village? By how they protect the most vulnerable of their members.
All of these organizations are examples of grassroots exercises in community building. Each of us came into them quite unaware of the task ahead, but devoted to the journey and the mission of drawing people nearer to one another for a variety of purposes: food security, alternative economic engagement or education. I am a skeptic and therefore I am blindly devoted to no single point of action. No system of living or governance is presently above criticism. I am therefore unafraid to say that we have to throw all of it out and revisit again how we see ourselves living together in the future. We are in dire need of new systems of cooperation. I encourage those who visit here to share your method of alternative living and any new system which you are presently a part of creating.
I want to close with a story which I initially saw posted on the Facebook page of my dear friend Shakti and that I later found to have originated on Paulo Coelho’s blog. The story is entitled “Paying The Right Price”. I think it to be the most perfect example of the sort of scaling down that is required of us. Don’t think bigger, more growth and more expansion. Think smaller, closer and nearer. By thinking and acting locally, we can stimulate regional networks which can better tackle larger concerns than each smaller organizations acting individually. Grow the village sustainably.
Nixivan had invited his friends to supper and was cooking a succulent piece of meat for them. Suddenly, he realised that he had run out of salt. So Nixivan called to his son.
‘Go to the village and buy some salt, but pay a fair price for it: neither too much nor too little.’
His son was surprised.
‘I can understand why I shouldn’t pay too much for it, Father, but if I can bargain them down, why not save a bit of money?’
‘That would be the sensible thing to do in a big city, but it could destroy a small village like ours.’
When Nixivan’s guests, who had overheard their conversation, wanted to know why they should not buy salt more cheaply if they could, Nixivan replied:
‘The only reason a man would sell salt more cheaply than usual would be because he was desperate for money. And anyone who took advantage of that situation would be showing a lack of respect for the sweat and struggle of the man who laboured to produce it.’
‘But such a small thing couldn’t possibly destroy a village.’
‘In the beginning, there was only a small amount of injustice abroad in the world, but everyone who came afterwards added their portion, always thinking that it was only very small and unimportant, and look where we have ended up today.’