14-1 Advancing Tenant Protections: Refresh, Release, and Refocus

NLIHC’s Inaugural Tenant and Community Leader Retreat Lives Up to Its Theme
By Renee Willis, NLIHC

It was harvest time at the Resora in Albany, Georgia. The main house sat prominently on 1,638 acres and featured a large, stately porch overlooking the rolling fields. This property was once known as Cypress Pond Plantation. Today, it serves as a space for reflection and healing – a place to “refresh, release, and refocus.”

This was the setting of NLIHC’s first Tenant and Community Leader Retreat, held on October 7-10. If this land could talk, one could only imagine the stories it would tell. Yet it was here – in a space reimagined for good – where 15 community leaders gathered to develop solutions to advance housing equity. Together, the members of this cohort helped build out NLIHC’s policy agenda on tenant protections, shape the Tenant Session of the 2023 Housing Policy Forum, and co-create a leadership program for future NLIHC cohorts. In doing this work, they were also creating a new narrative about the transformative and restorative power of this land.

The Land

The Resora was once owned by one of the largest slaveholders in Georgia. in 1999, the Cypress Pond Plantation was purchased by New Communities, Inc., an organization owned by Charles and Shirley Sherrod and widely recognized for creating the first community land trust in the U.S.

New Communities was established in 1969 by several Black leaders and activists in southwest Georgia as a visionary cooperative to support Black farmers and their families. During the 1970s and early 1980s, New Communities owned and operated 5,735 acres in Lee County, Georgia. It was the largest tract of land in the U.S. owned by Black farmers. Between 1981 and 1982, the region where the land was located experienced severe drought. To save their farms, many of the region’s white farmers applied for and received federal funds through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). New Communities applied for but was denied federal funds. As a result of such racist lending practices, New Communities lost all 5,735 acres of land to foreclosure in 1985. Despite this tragedy, the organization did not dissolve. New Communities took legal action and became a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the USDA (Pigford v. Glickman). The plaintiffs asserted that the USDA had systematically discriminated against Black farmers based on race and settled in 1999. Restitution came in 2009, when New Communities was awarded $12 million of a $375 million settlement awarded to Black farmers. New Communities used some of the proceeds to purchase the land that became the Resora.

The Cohort

NLIHC’s Tenant and Community Leader Cohort is composed of people with lived experience of housing insecurity and homelessness. Members of this cohort have become leading voices and advocates in their communities in the fight for housing justice. The 2022-2023 NLIHC Tenant and Community Leader Cohort included 15 members from 12 different states.

The Experience

“Refresh, Release, and Refocus,” a phrase coined by cohort member Ms. Zella Knight, was the retreat’s theme. The hybrid format aimed to introduce or reconnect tenant leaders to each other and provide a forum for discussion about developments in their communities, as well as a space to help shape the tenant session of NLIHC’s annual policy forum and build out NLIHC’s policy agenda regarding tenant protections for subsidized and unsubsidized tenants.

To ensure the group had sufficient tools to tackle its goals, NLIHC brought in several consultants to facilitate conversation and provide training on racial trauma and healing. To facilitate the retreat, NLIHC enlisted Rebeccah Bennett, founder and principal of Emerging Wisdom, to help cohort leaders design and implement a nine-month program that will be used as a framework for future cohorts. Thanks to the incredibly talented Chef Michael Daniels of Imagine Culinary Consulting, cohort members enjoyed a variety of great meals during their stay at the Resora.

On the second day, the cohort toured the Resora, where they learned more about the crops harvested there and the historical significance of the farm and its buildings. Tractor operator Carl Harris led the group in the 25-seat Bird Wagon by the farm’s bee boxes, experiential rice fields, future duck pond, pecan orchard, muscadine grape vineyard, and Satsuma orange grove and stopped alongside the 85-acre pond. Ms. Hudley provided the group with a unique perspective on the land from someone who grew up in Albany.

After the tour, New Communities Program Director Amber Bell met with the cohort and shared how New Communities is advancing real social change in southwest Georgia and beyond. Property Manager Michael Smith, who ensured the cohort leaders were well-cared for from the moment they arrived, also answered questions and provided context for what the cohort leaders experienced on the tour. Mrs. Shirley Sherrod was originally scheduled to meet with the cohort; however, a week before the retreat, Reverend Sherrod’s health had taken a turn for the worse, and, understandably, Mrs. Sherrod was not available to welcome the cohort leaders.

Cohort leaders spent the rest of the day attending sessions during which they could contribute to the creation of the cohort’s vision, mission, goals, and functions. The last session of the day, conducted by Aaron and Janell Lane of Courageous Living, focused on racial trauma and healing. The tenant cohort members discussed how individual and institutional racism deeply impacts the ways they function as individuals, how racism affects their organizing, and how to manage the trauma that comes with institutional racism.

Albany native Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original four Freedom Singers who sang at the “March on Washington” in 1963, spent the evening with the cohort leaders. Ms. Harris, who had just returned to Albany after singing at the investiture ceremony of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson the week before, spoke to the group about the importance of movement songs. She discussed her experiences in Albany and with the Civil Rights Movement and shared the power of her contralto voice and the fortitude behind the Freedom songs with the cohort.

The third day commenced with the second part of the racial trauma and healing workshop, which explored questions like: What does healing from racial trauma look like? How can it be sustained? The rest of the day was dedicated to sharing aspirations for NLIHC’s 2023 Policy Forum including the development of a peer-to-peer network where community leaders could tap each other for insight and expertise on different issues; grant writing and funding resources for tenant-led organizations; resources for tenants regarding tenant rights and legal services; and toolkits for resident actions tailored to residents’ states and communities.

The day ended with a trip to the Vicks Estate, a bed and breakfast in Albany, for a “Taste of the South” experience hosted by Mr. Clinton Vicks, a third generation Black farmer from Albany who is an activist and community leader in his own right. Music, dominoes, and large Jenga blocks entertained the guests next to the smoky aromas from the grill. At the end of the night, Mr. Vicks shared his talents – yet again – by performing an a capella version of “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” from the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha.

While at the Vicks Estate, cohort leaders were able to meet and be in community with local housing advocates based in southwest Georgia, including Ms. Sherrell Byrd, from SOWEGA Rising, and Ms. BJ Jackson, from Albany’s Department of Community and Economic Development. The connections made with local activists and housing practitioners will surely continue as NLIHC expands its network in rural communities. The retreat ended the following day. Cohort members offered reflections about the weekend, provided closing remarks, and discussed next steps for the cohort, and for tenant engagement work at NLIHC.

On October 11, 2022, the day after the cohort leaders departed from the Resora, Reverend Charles Sherrod passed away at the age of 85. To learn more about the life of Reverend Sherrod and the programs at the Sherrod Institute, visit: www.sherrodinstitute.org