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Courtesy photo/SUSU Healing Collective

Volunteers sort CSA shares for Brattleboro families of color.

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Back to the land — their land

A collective mounts an ambitious campaign to raise $400,000 to buy property so communities of color can grow the food they need — and to reclaim their relationship to land

BRATTLEBORO—“‘Black Lives Matter’ is the baseline,” says Amber Arnold, cofounder of SUSU Healing Collective. “We more than matter. How do we make sure our people are not just surviving but thriving?”

With that goal in mind, SUSU Healing Collective started a GoFundMe campaign at the end of May to raise money to buy community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares for local families of color.

In just five days, the campaign surpassed its goal of $12,000, and 22 families were awarded shares of farm-fresh veggies for the summer.

As the donations continued to roll in, Arnold and cofounders Naomi Doe Moody and Lysa Mosca decided to pursue a longer-term vision for nurturing their community: to buy land for Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to grow their own food. They set a new goal for their fundraising campaign: $400,000.

By July 13, 874 donors contributed more than $85,000, including $1,000 from GoFundMe itself.

“When the pandemic hit and things got really serious ... I saw myself being like, I need to get a CSA,” says Doe Moody, who is gender nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.

A CSA was something they hadn’t been able to afford, but this year they were able to buy one using their stimulus check funds. They knew that for many families, however, nutritious local food would still be out of reach.

“These barriers have to be taken down,” they say. “We have to create more access.”

In addition to the CSA shares funded by the GoFundMe campaign, some local farms and businesses made donations of their own to round out the food offerings: farm store credit from Wild Carrot Farm, a flower CSA from the Retreat Farm, milk and meat shares from Rebop Farm, prepared meals from Slice and Pint in Putney, and gift cards from Superfresh Café, among others.

‘A place to build Black futures’

Arnold, Doe Moody, and Mosca formed the SUSU Healing Collective last year as a safe space for people of color and their allies to find healing. Offerings include yoga, herbalism, sound healing, meditation, ritual, and counseling.

SUSU’s physical space in the Whetstone Studio for the Arts building on Williams Street in Brattleboro was open for just a few weeks before the pandemic hit, but the three have continued offering some classes and workshops online.

Part of the collective’s mission is to actively practice dismantling racism and white supremacy and creating a new culture.

In this culture, we spend a great deal of time “learning and talking about what not to do,” Arnold said. “Where’s the [...] embodying and moving toward what we’re saying is important?”

Embodying that new culture is not just about activism and marching in the streets demanding justice, she explains.

“A really important part of what we do is realizing that ... lying in the grass, for people of color, is dismantling white supremacy,” Amber says.

SUSU’s vision, as described on the GoFundMe campaign site, is “a place to connect our children and our people back to the land, a place to heal and reclaim our stories and the wisdom our ancestors left for us. A place to build black futures right here in our own community and create safety.”

Statistics paint a bleak picture: Black children are twice as likely to grow up in poverty and be food insecure. They are less likely to receive a quality education. They are charged higher interest rates on mortgages than white people with similar credit histories.

Black people are more likely to have chronic health issues such as diabetes and depression, and they receive poorer-quality care from health professionals. They are more likely to get COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it.

They are more likely to be stopped, searched, or shot by police regardless of whether they have committed a crime. They are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than white people who commit the same crime, and they receive longer sentences.

Vermont is not exempt from any of these trends. The state is at the top of the list when it comes to the rate of incarceration: 1 in every 14 Black men in Vermont is in prison, compared to the average state rate of 1 in 26.

Meanwhile, according to the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agriculture census, Black people have an ownership stake in only 36 of the 6,808 farms in Vermont — not even 1 percent.

“There’s so much land not owned by Black and brown people,” Arnold says. “There are a lot of us here, and there are a lot of people that are very capable and willing to steward.”

She says she has worked with many white-led nonprofits who announce their support for Black lives but don’t work to redistribute resources to Black communities.

“You have to trust Black people to be agents of change for themselves,” Naomi says. “We can make these decisions for ourselves, we can head our own organizations, without essentially having overseers.”

More than enslavement: reclaiming history

Part of healing for Black and indigenous people, Arnold and Doe Moody explain, is reclaiming their histories.

“In school, we learn that African Americans were slaves, and here are all the things that happened to them, and then these white guys came and ended slavery and did all these amazing things,” Arnold said. “There is all this wisdom and knowledge and experience that is lost and minimized.”

Reclaiming that ancestral wisdom and knowledge is central to the SUSU collective’s work and to the vision behind the GoFundMe campaign.

“[Black people] were forced against our will to work this land,” Doe Moody said. “It’s so beautiful to see Black and Native people reclaiming farming [and] being in relationship with the land.

“Both the enslaved Africans and Native people were banned from practicing tradition, on pain of death in some cases, which results not only in an erasure of our history, but an erasure of our existence,” they added. “The reclaiming of this knowledge is part of how we decolonize and reclaim the traditions of our ancestors.”

“This is also how we heal,” they said.

Moving forward with intention

Although in some ways SUSU’s GoFundMe campaign has grown and changed rapidly, Doe Moody emphasized that the collective moves forward with “a slow and intentional process.”

“We’ve de-prioritized urgency,” they said.

This ethos is reflected in SUSU’s organic approach to raising the not-insignificant sum of $400,000.

“The start of our fundraising is really following the wisdom and the messaging of our ancestors,” Arnold said. “We believe in our community, and we believe that our community is going to hold us.”

The collective believes in reciprocity: the idea that in a healthy community, everyone contributes according to their ability and receives according to their need. Rather than a mindset of scarcity, SUSU cultivates a mindset of abundance.

Hence, their vision of buying land for the BIPOC community.

“This whole process has also opened up doors to other people in our community who also want to support us,” Arnold said. “I believe we’ll do it.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #570 (Wednesday, July 15, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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