A Virtual Conference: Black Communities 2021

Text image: Black Communities Conference 2021: the Virtual Experience

After viewing the 2021 Black Communities Conference (BCC), presented by the University of North Carolina via Zoom, I felt thoroughly enlightened and was inspired to share my experience.  Held from March 15th to the 24th, the conference featured roundtable discussions, collaborative attendee sessions, and talks by filmmakers and authors.  From their website at https://blackcommunities.unc.edu/2021/index.php/about-us/ : 

“The Black Communities Conference, a.k.a. #BlackCom, is a vibrant and uniquely important gathering featuring panel discussions, local tours, film screenings, workshops, keynotes, and more.  Our core mission is to foster collaboration among Black communities and universities for the purpose of enhancing Black community life and furthering the understanding of Black communities.” 

When the UNC Institute of African American Research and the UNC Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise created the BCC in 2018, their goal was to bring black community leaders from across the African diaspora that were concerned about the future of their communities together with academics from a broad range of disciplines that were also interested in black communities; either because of their research focus, the work they were doing, or because of something unique and special in their goals that was particularly important to these communities. 


Here are just a few of the presentations that I attended: 

Are Anti-Racist Public Schools Possible? 

What would it take to create a school culture that affirms the value of Black life?  Is achieving that culture possible within the American public education system?  This roundtable discussion of four researchers and educators from around the U.S. featured questions such as these. 

While the panelists debated the possibility of an anti-racist public school, the general consensus was that such schools were achievable, with several conditions.  For instance, an anti-racist school could not be predominantly white as diversity is essential in such a system.  Also, the creation of this school or system would have to start as a local initiative, mainly because there are different layers and intensities of racism across America.  Plus, the system’s formation would be a hard-fought battle that could take years on the national level. 

Additionally, panelist Dr. Carol D. Lee (Founder of the Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools (BSICS, https://www.bsics.org/), and Professor Emeritus of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University) mentioned that white supremacy is a huge spider-web of assumptions.  As such, anti-racism culture does not always have to push for the same mindset of western society in education and elsewhere.  For example, at BSICS, educators use an African-centered education that incorporates African cultural elements and influences found on each continent into every aspect of the school environment and curriculum.  From their website, “From inception, our school has consistently produced exemplary, high achieving students who have self-confidence, a strong sense of cultural identity, and a commitment to make positive contributions to their community and the world.” 

Another example came from panelist Dr. Ronda Taylor Bullock, co-founder and lead curator of the non-profit “We Are” (which stands for “working to extend anti-racist education”).  From their website at https://www.weare-nc.org/ , We Are is an “organization that provides anti-racism training for children, families, and educators.”  In Bullock’s words, it is almost like a school for children activists.  Staff at We Are disrupt the biases in small children, and teach them to use their power even in elementary school. 


Film Talkback – “Black Ice” 

In this presentation, filmmaker Johnathan “Malik” Martin discussed his documentary film “Black Ice”.  The movie follows a group of black youth from Memphis, Tennessee who take an unexpected excursion with rock climbing instructors to the mountains of Montana, where mentors Manoah Ainuu, Conrad Anker and Fred Campbell teach them how to ice climb.  A brief story behind the film is available from CBS This Morning: 

The youth start from Memphis Rox (https://www.memphisrox.org/about-us/), a rock-climbing gym in South Memphis, which according to Martin is one of the poorest zip codes in America.  But the gym is more than a place to practice their climbing skills.  It also serves as a community center where no one is turned away regardless of ability to pay, where people give back to the community by giving food, clothes, and volunteer time. 

Once in Montana, the film documents the joy, struggles, and triumphs of the climbers as they come face-to-face with a frozen wilderness for the first time in their lives.  For many of the climbers, the expedition was their first time outside of Memphis.  For Martin, the trip was his first time out of Memphis, his first time on a plane, and his first time to ice climb. 

During the movie discussion at the BCC, Martin said that “Black Ice” is a film that shows the humanity of people from black neighborhoods.  It’s a film that knocks down barriers. 


Future of the Black Commons 

The genesis of this roundtable discussion came from extensive news coverage in Summer 2020 of the Freedom Georgia Initiative (FGI, http://thefreedomgeorgiainitiative.com/), a group of Black Georgians who purchased 100 acres of land to start their own community.  The session featured Ashley Scott, Vice-President of FGI, as well as other researchers and activists who discussed histories of Black place-making as well as the future for Black self-reliance through community building and connections to land. 

According to Scott, the FGI brings back a culture of ownership of land as well as empowerment, healing, and taking accountability for their own community.  Their vision includes food sovereignty, sustainability, and building in a way that’s environmentally friendly.  From these goals, they are able to allow the land to tell them when the community is ready to include more people. 

FGI also has their own government base as a company.  In other words, while FGI serves as a government internally, to the outside they are a company with lawyers and bylaws. 

The discussion session also included Dr. Kofi Boone, University Faculty Scholar and Professor of Landscape Architecture at NC State University, who mentioned that there has been up to $300 billion of land loss in black communities since the 20th century.  This is partially due to a lack of knowledge of black spaces and communities. 

Entrepreneur Patricia Zoundi Yao talked about her ambitious project Canaan Land (https://canaanland.africa/en/canaan-land/) – a sustainable agriculture social enterprise in Côte d’Ivoire.  Its ultimate goal is to feed West Africa by developing its model of local, sustainable agriculture that benefits small producers, with priority given to women on small farms in difficult situations.  Canaan Land provides them with a complete assistance service: cultivable land, tools and inputs, training and access to markets.  In Yao’s words, she would like Canaan Land to be a “paradise for rural women in West Africa.”  Through the implementation of this program, she has seen a change in the economy, education, and quality of life for these farmers. 

While the session included a discussion of many factors that will influence the future of the black commons, one overarching point was that the black community is not just facing a problem of amassing wealth.  Instead, the larger issue is the lack of keeping and maintaining wealth.  And not just capital wealth, but land value, educational wealth, and cultural wealth.  Programs such as the Freedom Georgia Initiative and Canaan Land are well designed to address this issue.