In Neighborhood We Trust

Nia Umoja of New West Jackson, Mississippi, shares how the community is developing its own model for sustainability.
by Sarah Westlake

Youth apprentices harvest greens for the community’s CSA.
Photo by He-myong Woo.

In 2014, ArtPlace America—a 10-year collaboration among foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions that has supported 285 community planning and development efforts across the country—contributed funding to the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson (CCNWJ). The grant helped support this grassroots neighborhood collective, founded in 2013, as they built a new model for becoming a sustainable neighborhood from the ground up and the inside out.

The collective believed from the beginning that the people who live, work, and play in a neighborhood should be at the helm of any community envisioning process and directly benefit from any economic development as citizens, not just as consumers; that self-determination, self-reliance, self-respect, and self-defense cast the vision for the community and determine its destiny; and that every resident has the right to contribute to the Cooperative’s development through participatory democracy.

Nia Umoja co-founded CCNWJ with her husband, Takuma Umoja, and they live in the neighborhood. She explains how this effort represented a first step toward reknitting the fabric of this fractured neighborhood and how the collective has already met and surpassed its goals.

The Neighborhood

Umoja offers a snapshot of New West Jackson. “There are 600 people—about 125 families—in our eight-block area. The whole of West Jackson has a population of 15,000. There is an 89 percent poverty rate in West Jackson, and it’s much higher in our eight-block model area, where 98 percent of residents are black,” she says. “In our neighborhood, everyone just walks to the mailbox to collect their unemployment and disability checks. The education in Mississippi is F-rated, and in this area there are no grocery stores or restaurants.”

At the same time, the collective saw from the beginning that the area had great wealth-building potential because of its central location, inexpensive commercial and residential property, and the unique character of the community. When they started their work, private developers and outside interest groups had already begun exploring the area for eventual gentrification, potentially bad news for local residents. So with local partners and grant money, CCNWJ discreetly began to acquire property.

What They’ve Achieved

In a short five years since its inception, CCNWJ has built a farm and bought 65 properties, including homes, vacant lots, and commercially zoned property, for a total of $100,000. The group has worked on 16 of those properties in the last few years. They are also seeking to hold the properties in trust and eventually all the land in the neighborhood in an autonomous trust. In addition, they have created five guesthouses, including two Airbnb rentals, that now employ local residents as housekeepers and landscapers and have proved an exercise in thrifty good management and keen foresight.

“The Mulberry guesthouse cost $5,000 to buy,” says Umoja, referring to one of the Airbnb properties. “It cost $7,500 to fix up with reclaimed and salvaged materials, with all of the work being done by neighborhood residents and youth apprentices—what we call our neighbor labor crew. In less than a year it has made $28,000 and all the money goes directly back into the project. The five guesthouses alone will bring in $15,000 per month when rented half the month, which will sustain our operations, including the youth apprentice program, and paying $15,000 per year in property taxes. Soon there’ll be a walk-up ice cream parlor, Appleshack (a fiber arts studio space), and a library in a tree. People don’t want to leave anymore. They want to stay here and build and maintain their own homes.”

Nia and Takuma did all this with the community—not for it.  “When we first arrived, we sat down with people and asked them what they needed,” she says. “Overwhelmingly they came up with three things: we need to make money, we need to clean up, and we need to have something for the kids to do. We did a skills assessment and found out that 95 percent had an agricultural background, so we decided to make a farm. We now operate a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture or, as we call it, Cooperatively Sharing Abundance) and have started selling surplus produce to the local food hub. For a two-person share, residents pay $5 for $40 worth of organic produce biweekly. If they work an hour a month their subscription is equally exchanged—they pay nothing. Residents are catching on, now starting to grow vegetables among flowers, planting small plot gardens in their backyards; even the old neighborhood drug kingpin is keeping chickens and growing food for sale. This is the start of what we hope will develop into a cooperative farmers’ market.”

Art in Community

On top of all that, residents are learning how to add their own forms of artistic and cultural expression to the aesthetic of each creative reuse strategy and are beginning to understand that they have the ability to lead their own revitalization efforts. Community is being reintroduced in this area. Residents interact with each other based upon trust, respect, and reciprocity.

“We need creative thinkers on the ground modeling how we turn the place around,” Umoja says. “We are helping people reimagine what the place could be, what they could be. Arts and culture are an intrinsic expression relating people to place, and taking on a character that is dictated by community conditions given its historical and socioeconomic context. Through it, residents share their collective experiences, embrace their past, and determine their future together. Seeing their creative and physical labor put to work to transform their community allows the residents to begin to trust in their ability to develop their neighborhood in the way that best represents who they are. This process to stimulate and enhance creative action is art in itself.”

Nia and Takuma Umoja are leading residents in building a true cooperative by creating an environment where people can work together toward a viable alternative value system for the benefit of the neighborhood. Sounds like the Oxford dictionary definition of cooperative: involving mutual assistance in working towards a common goal.

“We are in the business of shifting people through the path to empowerment, taking them from despondency—living in a state of perpetual hopelessness because your future is uncertain—to determination, the understanding that we control our destiny. CCNWJ residents are creating a cooperative economic development strategy that is building real community wealth and overall wellness,” says Umoja.

“This is a long-term vision, but it does not have to take 30 years. We have made tremendous change in five years. A change in people; how they think and feel. This is part of the artistic work of the creative placemaker. It’s my job to help people see the future. It’s my job to help people to see their potential. I am an artist and visionary, but definitely do not do this work alone! The process of engagement is one that meets people in the place where they are by creating pathways and opportunities for residents to engage in the work in the cultural comfort of their space at their own pace. The values-driven artistic process has made transformation accessible and real for residents, restoring self-reliance, purpose, and creative vision.”

Sarah Westlake is managing editor at ArtPlace America.

This August 2018 article first appeared as “Co-operation, Community and Creative Placemaking” in the ArtPlace blog at artplaceamerica.org. It was adapted, updated, and reprinted with permission of the author and Nia Umoja. Learn more about CCNWJ at www.coopnwj.org.

Featured in Public Art Review #58.

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