Food for Thought: Part II

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Written by Elizabeth L. Carter of Urban Cooperative Enterprise Legal Center

It was an early Saturday morning in April and the room was full of enthused urban gardeners and supporters. I was presenting on food cooperatives and agricultural land trusts. The City of Newark (“City”) had recaptured many of the “adopt-a-lots” that were used for community gardens as part of its Valentine’s Land Sale Day. As mentioned in Part I, this sale made available to the public 100 city-owned vacant lots for only $1,000 in order to attract residents to the city.The gardeners had all come together to learn new ways of gaining political strength in the face of land insecurity and food deserts. This was not the first time the gardeners had come together, but it appeared to be the first time they came together to create a serious collective project.

One thing that I learned in my study of cooperatives is that they are often formed out of necessity, such as when people of color or religious minorities are  locked out of mainstream society and are  required to create their own institutions for living.[1] Although not locked out of mainstream society entirely, these urban gardeners were still shutout of the planning and decision-making processes of the lots’ disposition and as such, they lost a very important asset to their livelihood and communities. This loss created a sense of urgency to form an alliance that would combat land insecurity, food deserts, and community disintegration through urban agriculture.

The alliance started off strong with consistent meetings, but it was not long before the momentum began to slow down. Part of the reason for the slowdown was due to the change in seasons. The  gardeners are busy gardening during the warmer months. However, another reason for the slowdown was, in my opinion, the lack of effective rallying or mobilization of members.

A large part of the Urban Cooperative Enterprise Legal Center’s (UCELC) work is to create cooperative enterprises through the mobilization of community members, especially in areas where cooperative enterprises are not commonplace. The most difficult part in accomplishing this goal is that it requires a level of skill that many nonprofit law centers are not accustomed to: marketing. Marketing is generally a term associated with for-profit business models and involves the promotion of goods and services. However, it became apparent to UCELC that the idea of marketing or promoting was also relevant for its work, especially where cooperatives are virtually non-existent. Thus, UCELC needed to find an effective strategy for creating and supporting a cooperative urban agriculture enterprise within the City of Newark. I realized then that in order to effectively market or promote an idea, the idea must be fully understood by the receiver. As such, one’s marketing plan must include an educational component. It was during this revelation that the idea of adding a Cooperative Academy to UCELC’s work began.

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1. Cited in Carter, Elizabeth L., (2015) “Community Planning, Sharing Law, and the Creation of Intentional Communities: Promoting Alternative Economies and Economic Self-Sufficiency Among Low-Income Communities.” ClassCrits VII Symposium, 44 Sw. L. Rev.,  http://www.swlaw.edu/pdfs/lr/44_3carter/.