“The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice”…?

Wednesday 01 July 2020

Stephen Hill, recently retired trustee of the Network, makes a shameless plug for 'On Common Ground', the second edition of the International CLT Reader, published today. Stephen, Catherine Harrington, and Tom Archer have co-authored a chapter on CLTs in England…‘Messy is good!’ Dave Smith, London CLT’s first Project Director has a chapter on London CLT and the importance of community organising. They argue that CLTs have an important role to play in the current crises of democracy, health and wellbeing.

Messy is good!’ has 5 other contributors: Pat Conaty, Kate Braithwaite, Kirsty Tait, Charlie Fisher and Tim Kemp, and there are 18 other chapters written by practitioners and scholars from 11 other countries, tracing the growth and diversification of CLTs from its roots in the Global North to countries of the Global South.


What’s special about this week?

First, the new edition of the International CLT Reader has been published!
More on this shortly, because this is much more important…

Second…this week marks the 9th anniversary of the purchase of Cypress Pond Plantations by New Communities Inc.

If you have seen the film, 'Arc of Justice', you will know about the struggles of New Communities Inc, the first CLT in the USA. Established in Georgia to provide housing and land for food growing for its African American community, in 1970, the CLT bought 5,735 acres of land: the largest tract of land then owned by African Americans. In 1985, the CLT became insolvent during a prolonged drought, as a result of the discriminatory withholding of federal government funds to support distressed farm businesses. 25 years later, the CLT secured $25m in reparations, and was reborn in its new home, on a former slave plantation near Albany.

The question mark of doubt that I’ve added to the title of this blog, at the end of Martin Luther King’s famous words, would have seemed more than justified at any time over those 50 years: as it also does now, in a world seemingly devoid of sufficient order and leadership to make any kind of progress towards justice, moral or economic. 

King’s writings have been back in the news, of course, quoted daily by supporters of Black Lives Matter. We know him as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but his letters and sermons were full of wisdom about the need to know each other and respect our common humanity, whoever and wherever we are, ‘Let us be concerned about others, because we are dependent on others’

Is it too pretentious to represent CLTs as having a significant place in this wider picture of making a better world order? I don’t think so. CLTs are rooted in concerns for ‘others’, both for the individuals who need the kind of affordable housing that the market and the state cannot or will not offer, and for the communities and places that need those individuals. We are thinking particularly about the reawakened public awareness of the value of ‘essential’ workers on whom our communities have depended for their health and wellbeing. In recent weeks, I have spent a lot of time ‘muted’ but nevertheless loudly screaming at Zoom screens… ‘CLTs can do that!’…when listening to people searching for new solutions, when many of the tools already exist. 

That brings us back to the book, and particularly the English chapter, which explains why the famous statutory definition of CLTs doesn’t actually mention the words ‘housing’ or ‘affordable’. Have you ever wondered why? If you don’t know, I’m sorry but you’ll have to buy the book/chapter to find out the whole story!
(Or for free, there is an extended version of the story (pp 247-266) or shorter, lighter hearted, but still serious version, written the week after the Brexit Referendum…so, apologies for the laboured Brexit jokes at the start.) 

But, in a sentence…CLTs are participative democracy at work. CLTs are fundamentally about locally accountable community governance, giving democratic legitimacy to locally identified needs and locally initiated action to meet the social, economic and environmental interests of the community: of which the lack of sufficient or the right kind of affordable housing has been the overriding priority.

In the UK, participative and representative democracy have not been as effective partners for each other as they could be. With the impetus of the Community Housing Fund – a unique national housing policy to enable locally appropriate local housing actions - changes were already happening in the housing world. Covid-19 has brought home to both local and national government how critical community led action is to meet local needs that are now frequently beyond the capacity and resources of the state. Listen to Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, call for ‘locally driven change’ and ‘a new deal for the voluntary sector’. Together the state and citizens can do things that neither can do on their own.

Martin Luther King’s inspiration was Theodore Parker, another preacher delivering a sermon a century earlier, in 1858, during the Civil War: ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.’ Parker hoped that history was bending towards justice, but was by no means certain that it would, even within his life span. 

That uncertainty of progress towards justice is certainly with us now, so we should take courage from another original Parker’ism: this time from a speech to an anti-slavery meeting in 1850, (later borrowed by Abraham Lincoln for his Gettysburg Address): ‘A democracy—that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people’.

So, if we choose not to take the actions we think are needed for our community, ‘by’ and ‘for all the people’, then we can’t blame the politicians if they don’t or won’t either. But follow the recent example of Africatown CLT in Seattle…whose street action finally forced the long promised restoration of public land and buildings to the African American community of Central District…and do a bit more bending toward justice.  

Buy 'On Common Ground'! Share what our colleagues in other countries are doing! Spread the word, and shout loudly…CLTs can do that! 


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