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Designing Across Disciplines: Incubating Family Farm Enterprises & Driving Responsible Tourism

By Sarah Trent

This is the second in a two-part series featuring Local Economy Fellow Euneika Rogers-Sipp. Below, read how her organization, Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF) came to be along with a mini case study of their work. In part one, learn about Euneika’s journey to Localism and her work in regenerative, sustainable economic and community development. September 15, join Euneika along with rancher/investor Sallie Calhoun and food systems and social innovation strategist Nikki Silvestri for a webinar looking at the science and what’s possible in using Regenerative Techniques for Soil, Climate, & Community.

Since Euneika Rogers-Sipp founded Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF) in 2009, the organization’s work has gone in two major and interconnected directions. One remains focused on incubating family farm enterprises. SURREF works directly with primarily African American families (African Americans being the majority population of the Black Belt South) to restore and reimagine how they and their land can provide local and ecologically sound products and services. The second focuses on a form of sustainable tourism – Community Based Tourism – creating a regional value chain and sustainable infrastructure that will attract and serve responsible and conscious travelers while showcasing the region’s natural beauty, cultural heritage, and rural landscapes.

Through both focus areas, Euneika and the SURREF team aims to build regenerative land management and business development practices into the ecosystem of the Black Belt – a place whose name-sake fertile soil has been nearly depleted by hundreds of years of exploitive agriculture, where economic development has largely been driven by a small number of large landowners from slave plantations to the international timber and paper industry, and where NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) facilities like toxic waste landfills, prisons, and gambling establishments have been treated as the go-to solution for creating jobs.

In founding SURREF, Euneika says, “I wanted to work with my community to strengthen our network and our knowledge capacity together, so that community development decisions could result in socially, environmentally, and economically positive outcomes.”

From Founding to Fellowship

For some insight into how this work has unfolded, we asked Euneika to share a timeline of her organization and its major milestones.

2009 While pursuing a Graduate Degree in Sustainable Rural Economic Development, Euneika holds interviews with more than 500 African American families across the region about what they and their communities need.

Euneika founds SURREF to incubate sustainable and regenerative social enterprises in rural Black Belt communities that want to “farm for the future.”

2010 SURREF develops the “Donors Ourselves” seed fund with the executive director of the Black Belt Community Foundation in Selma, Alabama and becomes a fiscally sponsored project of that foundation.

In partnership with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, Tuskegee University, and the Alabama Sustainable Agricultural Network, SURREF launches a renewable energy solar irrigation project to address water access in remote areas of the Black Belt. This is the first minority- and woman-led renewable energy/solar irrigation project in the state of Alabama.

2011 Inspired partly by the need to house volunteers supporting their rural solar irrigation project as well as Euneika’s own experience of personal leadership development through travel, SURREF launches sustainable tourism programming in the Alabama and Georgia Black Belt. Through support by the Ford Foundation, SURREF begins a value chain construction project focused on wealth creation and funds leaders from Alabama and Georgia to study community based tourism as a sustainable community economic development tool.

2012 The Black Belt Community Tourism Network is founded in Selma, AL, as a result of SURREF’s value chain construction, participatory planning, and regional convenings with community development and tourism stakeholders in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

SURREF develops a Community Regeneration Education (CRE) program, a comprehensive social enterprise and environmental literacy curriculum, and educates and certifies 17 community leaders from across the region to deepen the organization’s environmental and social impact.

2013 A 17-county coalition is formed at South Face Energy Institute in Atlanta to develop a Black Belt “green” crescent corridor based on cooperative land management approaches in sustainable economic development. CRE leaders begin developing local social enterprises to “green the Black Belt.”

2014 SURREF forms sister company Dig Your Roots Tours which provides education-based tours on responsible and conscious tourism, along with genealogical research for local families.

SURREF begins to restructure its family business partnership model, working on employee ownership and governance models with the vision to establish 10-15 sustainable and partner tourism related businesses.

Euneika joins the BALLE Fellowship and convenes with local economy leaders from across North America.

2015 Euneika enters the Harvard School of Design as a Loeb Fellow, where for one year she’ll study whole systems design strategies and rural community planning to strengthen sustainable development in the Black Belt.

Three Major Programs

As referenced above, SURREF currently has three primary programs in those two focus areas.

  • Community Regenerative Education

CRE™ is an empowering and comprehensive environmental literacy and job readiness curriculum composed of ten modules that are designed to help social entrepreneurs from underserved communities take on society’s most pressing environmental problems, identify innovative solutions, and put their ideas into practice. In order to develop enterprises focused on regenerative development, “we need to increase people’s knowledge, understanding, critical thinking, imagination, confidence, and understanding of financial and business concepts, structures, and systems,” Euneika says. The final module of the program focuses on creating a social enterprise business plan. Additionally, SURREF has certified 17 leaders from five states across the Black Belt who are now implementing CRE in their own local communities.

  • Emerging Technologies and Alternative Renewable Sources

In this research and design project, SURREF leads participatory design and planning of solar-powered water-moving systems to help historically underserved family farmers in remote areas irrigate their crops to produce food more sustainably. They worked in partnership with families to identify their water needs and then designed solar powered systems to move the needed water, installed solar-powered water pumping systems to be used as demonstrations and teaching aids for community workshops, and led workshops to inform potential farmers about these systems. They’ve also led “train-the-trainer” workshops to share the skills necessary to design, troubleshoot, and fix these systems.

  • Community Based Tourism & Wealth Creation

SURREF piloted CBT in Gees Bend, AL, which is globally celebrated for its quilt design and production. Over two years, SURREF worked with community stakeholders to manage planning and map out a value chain for regional tourism, using an intentional and holistic master planning process to empower leaders in their own communities to come together to strategize around local and regional land use and planning. Those leaders – and the Black Belt Community Based Tourism Network that formed as part of this process – have essentially become “developer ambassadors,” Euneika said. “We’re taking on local governance, organizing, and community development in a way that guarantees equitable and fair trade with the whole family and the whole community in mind. Ownership and management of resources this way – which will result in regional branded and officially green products – is something new for the Black Belt region and 9s something I am really excited about.”

What Becomes Possible

Through her work in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and the Carolinas, Euneika is collaborating across disciplines and state lines to develop a regional African American family network.

“What pulls my work is figuring out how to use the resources that people have. This is about a lot more than giving large amounts of money to poor people or communities. In the aftermath of historical oppression, disinvestment, and economic crisis in the Black Belt, we’re trying to change the very processes by which decisions that are made that affect the everyday lives of families and communities. In addition to the business skills, we’re cultivating civic skills and new ways of looking at resource allocation, transparency, and accountability. In the long term, the result of our work will be a level of local governance that is more democratic, along with an increase and strengthening of common land management practices that protect and restore us out of the persistent poverty narrative.”

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