Communities are creative, but our systems need work


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      by Amy Laura Cahn, Esq. | 10/04/2013
      Daily News Staff Writer Wendy Ruderman did a tremendous job with yesterday’s article “To survive, you gotta have a hustle.” Rather than giving us one more article about “vacant” lots in North Philly, Ruderman shows how community and enterprise exist on and around some of those spaces — particularly a few managed as “part hobby, part food pantry for needy neighbors – and part cash crop” by Brewerytown’s Miss Paula Mae Willis.

      The article says what many of us know, but most don’t hear enough in the news — that gardening is a tried and true strategy for self care, food security, and social enterprise in disinvested communities of color. (Even when we call it “urban agriculture,” it’s not new.) And that neighbors often know what neighbors need — sometimes something as simple as “[b]eans and rice and vegetables with smoked turkey necks.”

      Ruderman includes an important perspective from Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, describing how our systems of public benefits deter these very “side hustles” that are so important to both individual and community survival.

      “There are thousands of people who are doing this kind of thing, and, unfortunately, our system, especially our welfare system, discourages this kind of social entrepreneurship,” Chilton said. “The system pushes people to be very suspicious, to stay underground. But if we could find ways to legitimatize this kind of work, this kind of activity and creativity, I think that we could reduce and, in some ways, we could potentially end poverty for people who are able-bodied but can’t necessarily work in a traditional way.”

      We need systems that have the backs of people working to survive and transform their lives, rather than creating narrower and narrower mechanisms for compliance with requirements for public benefits.

      One thing Philadelphia can do better is to remove the many hoops residents face in trying to legally access land for enterprises like community food production. City Council just announced that, on October 28th, it will hold public hearings on Council Bill #130156, which will create a land bank for the City of Philadelphia. Grassroots groups have been rallying around the proposed land bank for two years now. The time has come to make sure we do it right. Let’s make sure these words — transparent, accountable, equitable, accessible, efficient – really mean something when Miss Paula Mae inquires about one of the lots for which she’s already the caretaker.

      And, if individual ownership is not the best model, let us get creative and figure out new models and opportunities for community access, ownership, and mutual aid.

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