Africatown Speaker Series Explores How to Build Thriving Black Communities

by Ben Adlin

A new summer speaker series hosted by Africatown Community Land Trust is bringing together nonprofit leaders from across the country to discuss best practices for building strong, resilient Black neighborhoods in Seattle and beyond.

The goal of the four-part program, “New Models for Creating Thriving Black Communities & Inclusive Cities” — which concludes later this week — is to share community-led models for land ownership, affordable housing, economic development, and arts and culture. Organizers say they want to provide a blueprint for revitalizing Black neighborhoods, and they hope to inspire others to replicate their work elsewhere. 

“Too often community development organizations work in silo, competing for resources, disconnected from other Black-led organizations with experience and longevity,” K. Wyking Garrett, president and CEO of Africatown Community Land Trust (ACLT), said in a statement. “We hope to use this series to convene these organizations, share generational Black wisdom, build collective impact, and raise funds to support our ongoing efforts.”

ACLT has for years worked to revitalize the Central District, the heart of Seattle’s historical Black community, through housing, economic, and cultural development. Earlier this year, the group broke ground on Africatown Plaza, a $60 million project set to contain 126 units of affordable housing as well as an art space centered on Black artists, a community room, and a public plaza. Last week, the organization also announced a $300,000 grant from KeyBank to help incubate and grow Black-led small businesses through the group’s newly created William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation & Enterprise

Three of the four talks have been held so far, each featuring Garrett and a guest speaker tackling a particular area of development. The conversations have been facilitated by local artist and community advocate TraeAnna Holiday.

The final conversation in the series, set to take place at noon this Thursday, July 7, is titled “Healing and Building Community Through Art and Creative Placemaking” and focuses on how art can be “a development tool for healing in Black communities,” according to the event registration page. Mama Shu, founder and CEO of The Avalon Village, a self-sustaining eco-village in Highland Park, Michigan, will discuss blending art and culture with community development work.

The series kicked off with “The Struggle for Land” on June 16, with Shirley Sherrod, a civil rights leader and the executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project who co-founded the New Communities land trust, a project that works to combat Black land loss.

The wide-ranging conversations acknowledge the lasting effects of America’s historical exploitation and mistreatment of Black communities. Redlining, for example, prevented many Black families from amassing land and wealth.

“Coming out of slavery,” Sherrod said last month, “our people were really focused and knew that there were two things especially they needed to do, and that was buy land … and get an education.” By around 1900, Black people owned over 15 million acres of farmland, and there were more than a million Black farmers. 

Since then, however, thousands of Black families have lost that land; for example, through tax liens that bordered on government-enabled theft. Other pressures — for example, gentrification and rising home prices — continue the trend to this day. A 2020 Stanford study found that gentrification disproportionately affects Black residents, tearing apart longtime communities.

“If you look at what we have left today, it’s somewhere around 2 million [acres],” Sherrod said. “We’ve lost much of the base, the land base, that was acquired during a time when it was dangerous, when it was almost impossible.”

Land trusts, like ACLT or the one founded by Sherrod in Georgia, are nonprofit organizations that own and manage land. Community land trusts typically do so in order to promote affordable housing, agricultural production, and land stewardship. New Communities, for example, offers affordable long-term leases for agricultural and residential use, and it works with Black farmers to help get produce to market.

In Seattle, Garrett described land trusts as ways for Black communities to exercise autonomy and develop a self-sustaining economy that helps secure Black wealth. “Black contractors should be building. Black builders should be occupying these spaces,” he said, “and Black residents who have endured all of this harm over the years, which is well documented, are entitled to reparation.”

The second session, “Preserving Cultural Heritage Through Affordable Housing,” featured Christa Stoneham, CEO and president of Houston Land Bank in Texas, which transforms vacant or abandoned properties into resources for community development. Since 1999, the group has reactivated more than 2,000 properties.

While the discussions are intended to be inspirational, they also don’t shy away from challenges. Garrett, for one, noted that traditional land trust models tend to be focused on building single-family residential housing, “which doesn’t get us to the scale in terms of how rapidly the development is happening.”

The cost of land acquisition and development is another big obstacle, Stoneham says. Median home prices have nearly doubled in 10 years, and redeveloping old properties only adds to the expense. “We have to be sure that we’re able to afford the properties in order to reactivate them for that end user,” she said.

Last week’s conversation, “Building New Black Wall Streets,” brought in Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of Hill Community Development Corporation in Pittsburgh. The organization works to revitalize the neighborhood’s commercial corridor, improve access to affordable homeownership, and support business and cultural entrepreneurship. 

The talk focused largely on how to build local businesses and economies that contribute to the development of Black wealth. 

“The fact that the African American community has not been able to accumulate generational wealth has really hampered our current entrepreneurs’ ability, as well as our institutions and nonprofits,” Milliones said. “If you don’t have wealth, you can’t compound it. And you can’t do things like guarantee real estate deals.”

Garrett emphasized that Black Americans were crucial in building the country’s economic engine as well as much of the core of American culture. But due to pernicious racism, the Black community captured little of the resulting wealth.

“We are a rich community, and we’ve contributed significant capital to the American enterprise,” he said, describing the situation as: “You have an inheritance, but then some bureaucratic process is stopping you from getting it. But it’s still yours.”

The virtual events have been held live on Zoom and streamed on Africatown Seattle’s YouTube channel as well as through the Africatown-Central District and Africatown Community Land Trust Facebook pages. The conversations are recorded and posted online.

Throughout the series, Garrett, a third-generation social entrepreneur and organizer, has compared his concept of Africatown to the many Chinatowns, Little Italys, and other neighborhood enclaves across the U.S.

“When we think about any community of Chinese, you know, outside of China, you know what it’s called? It’s called Chinatown,” he said. “And then when we think about our communities of people of African descent, Black people, here in America and other places, what are those communities called?”

So far, the conversations have drawn participation not just from the Puget Sound region, but also from Minneapolis, Boston, Pittsburgh, the San Francisco Bay Area, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Nova Scotia, Canada. Speakers answer questions submitted by chat during a Q&A session at the end of each talk.

Johane Alexis-Phanor, a fundraising and communications consultant for ACLT, says the series is about sharing generational knowledge and creating opportunities for collaboration among sometimes distant communities all striving toward similar goals.

“People are interested in the land trust model and are reaching out to us about replicating our work in different parts of the country and world,” Alexis-Phanor told the Emerald, “including a group of community activists in Southern California doing this work in Watts and Leimert Park and a group from the St. Croix Foundation in the Virgin Islands.”

Garrett noted the turnout so far, as well as the ripple effect ACLT is contributing to. 

“It’s good to hear that our work is resonating and inspiring communities nationally and even internationally,” he told the Emerald. “It’s clear that the return of investment is having significant impact beyond our projects.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured image by Susan Fried.

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