Reflections from the BALLE Fellows Class of 2018’s Third Immersion

by Steve Dubb

The third of four immersions of the 2018 BALLE Local Economy Fellows took place from April 28 to May 2, 2019. The retreat was held at the historic Penn Center in St. Helena, South Carolina. Named the Penn Center because Quakers from Pennsylvania came down to South Carolina to open a school dedicated to providing education for the freed or escaped slaves back in 1862, three years before the civil war ended. In the following 150-plus years, the Center has had many lives.

For a number of decades, the Penn Center served in its initial role as a school. During the 1950s and 1960s, it became an important organizing site for the civil rights movement—a place that Dr. Martin Luther King visited often and one of the few places in the state where whites and blacks could meet together in relative safety. Today, Penn Center hosts an annual heritage days festival that celebrates the region’s Gullah Geechee culture, as well as serving at the home to a museum that tells the story of the region and of the long struggle for racial equality.

As I noted a year ago, BALLE’s vision centers on the notion that building a common culture, rooted in core principles of equity and respect for the planet, is necessary to effectively alter current trends of ever-mounting wealth and income inequality and environmental devastation. That is not to say that specific interventions—such as incubating businesses in low-income communities and communities of color, providing cheaper capital in those communities, and supporting community land trusts and worker co-ops—are at all unimportant. But if we fail to tend to the cultural field, then change efforts are likely to face a pull back toward the norm. In short, changing what is common sense—i.e., what passes for “normal”—is essential.

Correspondingly, the retreat agenda was designed with a mix of personal activities, practical “tools-based” sessions, as well as a considerable helping of theory, history, and culture.

Some of the highlights of the week included the following:

Connecting with Ourselves: Building on the last two gatherings, a number of sessions encourage Fellows to connect at a personal level. At the opening, BALLE fellows heard from staff who had joined BALLE over the past year, including fellowship director Yvonne Yen Liu, chief program officer Amy Kincaid, and marketing manager Kassandra Mayhew. As well, each Fellow shared a brief personal story, rooted in a personal object brought from home.

Understanding the source of one’s personal power was the theme of one session. Moderated by Gibrán Rivera, fellows paired up and explored where they give away, withhold, or deny their own power. Fellows were then asked to consider how they—consciously or otherwise—use manipulative tactics to get their way, whether this involves leaving the room, direct intimidation, or passive-aggressive strategies (among others). This was followed by a brief “shadow party” where Fellows introduced themselves to each other as their “go to” manipulative strategy. This was followed by an exercise where Fellows identified the source of their personal power—what in popular culture is often referred to as your “superpower”—and Fellows shared their “power mottos” with the room.

Other personal activities including a session facilitated by Tuesday Ryan-Hart that explored personal “limiting beliefs” around money and fundraising and encouraged each Fellow to develop their own list of goals for moving through and beyond these limiting beliefs. Fellow Joe Bartmann led the group through a mindfulness body scan and meditation practice—and led a brief discussion regarding how Fellows might incorporate mindfulness activities in their own lives and work. A session led by Gibrán asked Fellows to identify and share a “leading edge” question in their work and organized those into groups that will form the basis for a follow-on session in September. And a session led by Stephanie Gutierrez encouraged Fellows to tap into their creativity and use magazine cutouts and glue to create personal “vision boards” (a few of which are pictured below).






Expanding the Tool Box:  
The retreat also dedicated considerable time to skill building. Before the retreat officially began a pre-session led by Fellow Mike Roque provided a full-day training on the nuts-and-bolts of building local fundraising capacity, building on his own personal experience with fundraising as well as drawing on the trainings of noted fundraising expert Kim Klein. But for those who could not attend the pre-retreat training, there was a briefer 90-minute session in which Fellows rotated into three rooms and heard from Brian Depew about how Fellows can implement sound fundraising practices internally, from Brennan Washington about how to raise federal grant dollars, and from Deborah Markley about the potential for community foundations to shift capital to support community wealth building in rural communities.






At a lunch talk, guest speaker Ed Whitfield discussed some of the projects the Fund for Democratic Communities, which he co-directs, has supported, including the Southern Reparations Loan Fund, a non-extractive loan fund that is providing financing to community-based businesses anchored in marginalized Southern communities. There was also a session, that I facilitated, in which Fellows considered their positions within the larger economy and how they both work within the existing economy while also planting the seeds for more systemic change. Ed was also part of a panel that featured the work of fellow Jennie Stephens, who works in the region to help residents protect land holdings, mostly owned by Black families, that are held in the form of “heirs’ property” (property owned in common by multiple family heirs), and of another fellow, Tim Lampkin, who is supporting small business ownership in a largely Black community in Mississippi. Fellows also gathered in four regional groups—the Midwest, the West and Southwest, the South, and New England—and identified leading efforts in their own regions to foster greater community ownership of the economy and the land.






Diving Deep into the Culture and the Land: At the gathering at Penn Center, considerable time was spent on learning about the local history and culture of the Gullah Geechee, as well as the civil rights movement, of which St. Helena Island and the Penn Center are a part. Dr. Shirley Sherrod, who helped form the country’s first community land trust called New Communities in Albany, Georgia, gave an impassioned address that interspersed her remarkable personal story with the history of the civil rights movement in the South from the mid-20th century to the present. An edited text of her remarks is available here.

We also visited the on-site museum and heard directly at a lunch talk from the museums’ history and cultural director Victoria Smalls, who spoke both about Gullah Geechee culture, as well as openly speaking to the immense challenges of generating the resources needed to maintain the nonprofit-run historical site.







Fellows also went off-site on an extensive tour of the region that included a visit to two heirs’ property sites, a local restaurant, a local gallery, and an organic farm that is providing education and training in horticulture to school-aged children—a tour that lasted several hours and was clearly a major highlight of the gathering.





It is hard to encapsulate in words how powerful it was to see the children reciting parts of a play about the history of the land, to learn from a forester who works with Jennie about how heirs are converting land into sustainable forestry use, and to hear from heirs themselves about their lands. Fellows at the Gullah Grubb also got to consume a meal at the famed restaurant and see the art works hanging on the walls at the nearby Red Piano Too Art Gallery. Some Fellows have already expressed interest in following up and partnering on food and cultural related projects with area residents who they met on the tour.

The day before, some Fellows also attended a packed community event organized by Jennie’s group, the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, held at the local library, where Fellows got to see her work first hand. Heirs’ property, you see, is created in South Carolina when there is: a) no will and b) no filing in probate court within 10 years of the death of the property owner. In many cases, these heirs’ properties are the legacy of the Jim Crow era in the South, when court processes were widely distrusted. Now Jennie’s group provides legal and technical assistance to help families regularize title, generate income (especially through forestry) on existing land, and write wills to ensure the maintenance of regular title after a landowner passes away.

Planning for the Future: On the last day of the retreat, the focus was on the future of the BALLE network and how that network can respond to disturbing trends taking place in US society and beyond—including the open display of white supremacy in government, ever widening gaps in income and wealth, and mounting environmental damage. It is an enormous challenge—and BALLE is not unique in seeking to identify where it can most productively focus its energies in a struggle that evidently lies beyond the efforts of any single organization.

One theme that emerged was the need for greater connectivity. This included fostering collaboration among Fellows, fostering connections between Fellows and BALLE foundation circle representatives, and in mapping the broader social movement infrastructure in which BALLE forms one node.

BALLE has a lot on its plate, certainly. But its willingness to put the big questions on the table, even when answers are unknown, has consistently been among its strengths. As is the BALLE tradition, the gathering closed with a circle and people said their goodbyes. But the Fellows will reconvene once more this September in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, in the rural community of McGregor (population 391)—located a little over two hours north of Minneapolis. And there the fellowship journey of the 2018 Fellows that began in Tennessee will continue.

Categories: BALLE Fellows