Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Come live in my village"

I spent a day with Naomi Davis (pictured above on the left) in Chicago last week. She introduced me to what seemed like a thousand people (I exaggerate but it seemed like she knew -- and introduced me to -- just about everyone we encountered, either by design or by accident, during my whirlwind visit with her). She has a dream -- vision really -- about transforming Chicago's Riverdale community into a vibrant urban village.

Naomi is an terrific bundle of energy. She is determined to introduce solar panels, wind turbines, organic gardens, cultural pride and other sustainable/empowering tools and concepts to this black community
located on Chicago's south side.

If you spend even a nanosecond with her you cannot escape being infected with her energy and enthusiasm. I came away from my extraordinary visit with her convinced that her dream, her vision will be realized.(GW)

Dreaming in Black and Green

The Chicago Reporter
October 2009

Naomi Davis had a dream.

In it, she drove a bus to a poor neighborhood and said: “Anyone who wants to work and live in a place where culture is enshrined and where you are a vested investor, the economic driver, the government of yourself, walk out [on] your slumlord and come live in my village.”

That dream manifested into a vision for Davis: to develop an affordable, self-contained community with cultural programming, recreation and open spaces. It also would be on the cutting edge of the environmental movement with organic farms, solar panel houses and jobs that support green initiatives.

Davis’ dream sounds like a fantasy, but she sees it as a way to address her concerns about the environment, cultural art and the well-being of the black community. “Most people’s first impression is, ‘Wahoo, it’s so big,’” Davis said. “They think it’s a fabulous idea … but wonder how in the world a project of this size could be achieved.”

In 2002, Davis, who lives in Avalon Park, founded Daughter’s Trust/The Village Builders. The group is organizing a community coalition to develop a sustainable village model. After two aborted plans, Davis is working on her third. It would be located on 1,000 acres on the city’s South Side, in the Riverdale community area.

Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., Davis grew up in an Afrocentric household, attending weekly African-American history classes. The course had been created by her mother in the 1960s after she had unsuccessfully lobbied state legislators to integrate the curriculum in public schools. That would later inspire Davis, who went on to major in English as well as speech and drama at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

She then came to Chicago to attend John Marshall Law School. For a time, Davis worked as a prosecutor at the Illinois Attorney General’s office in downtown Chicago. All the while, she continued to fuel her passion for drama and wrote a three-part musical. It narrates the lives of eight friends raised in a small New England town who drift apart before reconnecting as adults when they get caught up in a series of crimes with life-and-death consequences. “I realized in pretty short order that the practice of law per se was not going to float my boat,” Davis said. “I kept trying to bring [my life] back to something having to do with the creative world.”

Davis became a political consultant before eventually developing her village concept.

In 2006, she launched Blacks in Green, a nonprofit organization promoting environmental awareness in the black community through a weekly TV show on cable Channel 21. In the show’s first season, Davis explored the dimensions of being an environmentally conscious black person with guests such as a vegan chef, an environmental justice scholar, a water management expert and a fair trade organizer. The audience is about 500,000 viewers, according to the broadcast station.

Davis sat down with The Chicago Reporter at her office in Avalon Park to talk about climate change, self-sustaining communities and how the black community can benefit.

Why did you want to build a village in Riverdale?

African-American communities were more often than not colonized communities, meaning we were essentially depending on the kindness of strangers to provide for our daily, regular, ongoing needs and goods. The retailers are headquartered in another state; they are not invested in the communities. You can go there and get a low-wage job, but it’s not a future-builder for you. It is just making you able to be a consumer.

I was whining and moaning about [this] until 2001-2002, when I started specifically researching solutions. I got on the Internet and I started looking at Australia, Canada. All over the world there were models for a self-sustaining community. But as I was doing research, I was noticing that in almost all of them, they were white people. There were also very, very few in urban settings. So I thought, “OK, I’m going to build this village!”

What is a self-sustaining community?

In a self-sustaining local living economy, the stuff that you buy in stores in your neighborhood is essentially produced and distributed locally. Locally produced and bought merchandise cuts all of that craziness out of the loop, but it also refertilizes communities because money circulates within that ecosystem.

How do you think your village would address the larger issues facing black people?

The problem is that we’re not thinking holistically about everyday challenges in the African-American community. A village is a holistic system: You’re looking at the medical, educational, financial, cultural sides—the whole nine yards—and you create a geographically bound zone where this kind of cross-fertilization can occur.

Explain the village model you envision.

Rather than finding a land where we just throw up a bunch of houses and where a developer builds them, makes profit and goes, we have what we call a “jobs-driven process.” You start with an economic epicenter that you either bolster or create, and you build out from this economic epicenter.

For instance, in Riverdale, at the same location of the proposed village, there was the former underground railroad site. It was a main system for moving runaway slaves or captive African Americans out of bondage on the plantations, where they were enslaved, to freedom in Canada. I am the president of C/C.U.R.E. [Chicago Calumet Underground Railroad Effort] and with my partner and Vice President Martha Boyd and the Raising Spirits! Initiative [which is a cluster of organizations Daughter’s Trust is in], we want to create a cultural tourism business as the hub of the village—its economic epicenter. We would recreate the old barn as a state-of-the-art theater that includes a gallery on the history of black theater in America—which I believe would be the first one in the country.

How do you prevent the displacement of lowincome people?

One of the fundamental elements of the Daughter’s Trust model is that you use affordable housing and a conservation land trust. Essentially, a land trust says the community owns the land, and you own the house. This is separated out so that the cost of the building itself could sit in a much more affordable price range. Secondly, the land itself goes into a trust, whereby the real estate taxes and increases that would typically take place in a marketplace don’t end up happening.

In what way would it be a green village?

We could have homes with their own personal energy production system and with negative utility bills because they would use less than they produce and would thus be selling energy back to the grids—[the infrastructure that stores and delivers energy to the neighborhood]. You would get financial credit for it.

Also, if everything could be reinvented so that we were using clean, elegant energy solutions—alternative energy sources, solar, wind, geothermal—that would be enough jobs for hundreds of thousands of people nationwide.

The idea is to take the leading edge technologies that are alive and well in various pieces and parts around the world, and put it in a green village. Even in the most blighted, isolated African- American community, even there, amazing things are possible.

Are African Americans underrepresented in the media in the fight against global warming?

At one level, African Americans are more preoccupied with issues of survival. When you are dealing with asthma or diabetes, you can’t really get esoteric about climate change, especially as it may be represented as shrinking ice caps for polar bears or drought in Africa.

We have been shepherds of the land, have rebuked and revolted against abuses of the land. For instance, the Field Museum will open in February a major exhibition on George Washington Carver. Born a slave in 1864, he believed nature produces no waste, and he used science and his understanding of plants to discover ways to avoid degrading the soil and reach self-sufficiency. It was a very modern way to think about environmental preservation and its relation to wealth and justice. … There’s a rich history of environmental activism by people of color that a lot of people don’t know about. We are active in our own race but underrepresented in the media.

When do you expect the village to be completed?

We are at the stage now where we’ve got enough relationships; we’ve got enough resonance. It’s time for us to look at how we begin generating our own community development corporation and revenue streams associated with a going enterprise. That’s the stage we are now. … My fantasy is that Chicago gets the Olympics, and that by 2016 we are ribbon-cutting.


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