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Designing Across Disciplines: Regenerative Solutions in the American Black Belt

SURREF helps families in rural Southeastern communities start their own businesses in collaboration with existing networks to produce locally sourced, eco-friendly products and services, inspiring new relationships to the soil, community, environment and each other.

Themes: Regenerate Soil & Nature

By Sarah Trent

When European settlers arrived in the American southeast, they found, from what is now Virginia down through the Gulf States, a crescent-shaped swath of rich, fertile soil. It was the kind of soil that could grow almost anything.

“The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable,” Booker T. Washington commented in 1901. On the backs of black slaves and that dark, dark soil, the Black Belt – first named for the color of that life-giving, wealth-creating earth – became one of the richest and most politically powerful regions of the antebellum era.

Today, much of the soil has been depleted. Thousands of acres of cotton and tobacco plantations have been replaced by the international timber industry and pine plantations, paper corporations, cattle pastures, and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) facilities like hazardous waste landfills, incinerators, prisons, and race tracks. And the structures where slaves once worked and slept still stand, the collective memory of that system intact.

“In the first half of the twentieth century,” writes Allen Tullos of Emory University, “years of soil erosion, the boll weevil invasion, the collapse of cotton tenancy, the failure to diversify economically, the urban exodus, and the repressive era of Jim Crow all combined to mire the southern Black Belt in a seemingly irreversible decline.”

Today, the region – which is mostly rural and predominantly African American – is one of America’s poorest and among those most impacted by environmental and economic injustice.

“This is what we’ve inherited,” says Euneika Rogers-Sipp, restorative designer and founder of Georgia-based Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF). “It has informed us of everything we know to be wrong about economic development, the environment, and how we manage our resources.”

“What are we to do with that inheritance?” she asks. “How are we to restore what has been broken, restore our relationships to each other and the environment, and create the infrastructure that will keep equity front and center?”

Euneika’s answer is Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF), a social enterprise development initiative that helps rural families in marginalized Black Belt communities restore and renew their land in ways that provide a wide range of social, economic, and environmental benefits.

“I’ve always been inspired by what’s missing from the landscape,” Euneika says. And what was missing here was a collective voice, a coming-together to honor the deeply-seeded legacy of this land, navigate an often-painful past, and move forward toward something greater.

This in part takes the form of supporting sustainable agriculture, she says, but that alone is not enough. “We need a deeper relationship to the land. We need regenerative processes and a consciousness level of responsibility and understanding of how to develop in more compassionate and proactive ways.”

In exploring those needs, the SURREF model was born.

From Fashion to Farms

Euneika’s journey into the movement for a more regenerative, community land-based economy in the Black Belt did not start with farming – it began in fashion.

The first of her immediate family to go to college, Euneika left her rural tobacco and textile-mill hometown of Reidsville, North Carolina, on a scholarship to London’s American Intercontinental University, where she earned a degree in Fashion Design. Early on in that program, she came to understand “the depth of the industry’s contribution to environmental degradation and exploitation in the workplace through just about every phase of the supply chain.”

She was determined not to be a part of that.

Inspired by work she did in London – and aware of continued environmental degradation back at home, which she wanted to be part of reversing – Euneika returned to Atlanta, acquired an abandoned warehouse, and founded the nonprofit Refashion Network and the for-profit recycled clothing company CARE-WEAR. In partnership with Goodwill Industries and a curbside textile recycling company, she also created a series of conceptual art projects including Waste Not Want Not, a program engaging hundreds of design students across the country in creating a sustainable supply chain turning textile waste into custom apparel for hip hop artists, celebrities, and the general public.

The model gained notoriety and Euneika began speaking at conferences, including Bioneers, where in 2001 she heard J.L. Chestnut speak about the Black Farmers Lawsuit and the depth of black land loss in the South. At the same time, she was confronting her relationship to the environmental justice movement, where her sustainable development work was often silo-ed even though she felt that her framework didn’t fit their NIMBY-fighting narrative. But as she learned more about that movement – and realized the similarities across the rural, isolated communities that make up the seven-state Black Belt region – she began to see a common narrative and became deeply concerned that she wasn’t addressing the root causes of poverty in her work.

Taking her experience and passion for creating sustainable processes, value chains, and closed-loop systems, along with her interest in more fully addressing sustainable development, “I examined my personal identity and the historical Black Belt African American identity and began to position my work to reflect both sides: sustainable, regenerative development and African American cultural heritage.”

She found her home at a 40-acre farm in Wilcox County, Alabama, where Ms. Ellen Byrd, a retired preschool teacher, had inherited land, turned it into a living history farm teaching kids the history of the black freedman, and invited Euneika to expand programming.

“The life of the freedman and the Freedmen’s Bureau represents an incredible time in our history,” Euneika says, “when our people were right in the center of their newfound freedom and were applying their collective skills and knowledge to creating a place that worked for them.”

And the Black Freedmen’s Living Historical Farm, she explained, “sought to have children experience those 40 acres with the idea that through their relationship to the natural environment, they could learn just about everything they needed to know about themselves and life.”

Going deeper into this work, Euneika began consulting with Heifer International and the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, but felt their capacity-building and technical assistance programs at that time weren’t catalyzing the long-term sustainability and business development she longed to see.

Working Across Disciplines

At the intersection of sustainable agriculture, community development, and social design activism, Euneika founded SURREF to bring a whole-system approach to reversing economic and environmental degradation and to focus existing resources in a way that increases local sourcing and production that is socially and environmentally sound.

Regenerative development, she says, comes out of reminding individual families (most of which have inherited land and are no longer connected to their farming roots) that today’s sustainable businesses are actually based on their traditional knowledge, teaching them how to access renewable energy and look at water management in intentional ways, and then focusing on how they can plant, cultivate, irrigate, and more in site-specific ways that fit the region and local culture.

What comes out of the program becomes something more than new solar panels or a well. “The larger piece is how we begin working together to facilitate a local economy with strong ecological principles that’s being run by local communities and community-based organizations.”

“SURREF is working to change the very processes by which our families are making decisions and affecting everyday life,” she says. “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.”

“What we see is that families who have this incredible body of land collectively have been fragmented and are working individually. SURREF is growing a knowledge network, putting people together to talk about a regional plan beyond state lines. We’re trying to let people know that you can prevent a lot of the damage that we see. You may not feel like you’re making a difference with 30-40 acres, but if you and 1,000 people with 30-40 acres have the same intentionality, we can begin to make an impact.”

“And in our region,” she adds, “we particularly have that responsibility. We’re known for that dark, rich soil – but we don’t have that today.” This she says, affirms the importance of long term planning.

“I used to think the best way to have an impact within the local economy was by getting a business going and bringing it to market,” Euneika explains. “Some of what we’re doing is just being in the business of taking care, and knowing when not to put a dollar sign on something. That in itself is just as important.”

SURREF, she says, is sitting right on the cusp of that: scaling back from traditional development models focused on growth at all cost, and instead going deeper with relationships to soil, community, environment, and each other – “and it is springing forth something much more powerful. Our network of family farmers are healing the economy while healing the land, moving from food insecurity to food sovereignty, and developing ecotourism that will work to benefit not just the environment, but people.”

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