By Marisa D. Keller, 350Brattleboro and Writing for Climate Justice member
“‘Black Lives Matter’ is the baseline,” says Amber Arnold, cofounder of Brattleboro’s SUSU Healing Collective. “We more than matter. How do we make sure our people are not just surviving but thriving?”
With that goal in mind, SUSU Healing Collective started a GoFundMe campaign at the end of May to raise money to buy community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares for local families of color. In just five days, the campaign surpassed its goal of $12,000, and 22 families were awarded shares of farm-fresh veggies for the summer.
As the donations continued to roll in, Amber and SUSU cofounders Naomi Doe Moody and Lysa Mosca decided to pursue a longer-term vision for nurturing their community: to buy land for Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to grow their own food. They set a new goal for their fundraising campaign: $400,000. As of July 22, 920 donors had contributed more than $93,000, including $1,000 from GoFundMe itself.
Photo courtesy of SUSU Healing Collective
Creating More Access to Fresh, Local Food
“When the pandemic hit and things got really serious … I saw myself being like, I need to get a CSA,” says Naomi, who is gender nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. A CSA was something Naomi hadn’t been able to afford before, but this year they were able to buy one using their stimulus check funds. They knew that for many families, however, nutritious local food was still out of reach.
“These barriers have to be taken down,” they say. “We have to create more access.”
In addition to the CSA shares funded by the GoFundMe campaign, some local farms and businesses made donations of their own to round out the food offerings: farm store credit from Wild Carrot farm, a flower CSA from the Retreat Farm, milk and meat shares from Rebop Farm, prepared meals from Slice and Pint, and gift cards from Superfresh Café, among others.
‘A Place to Build Black Futures’
Amber, Naomi and Lysa formed the SUSU Healing Collective last year as a safe space for people of color and their allies to find healing. SUSU offerings include yoga, herbalism, sound healing, meditation, ritual, and counseling. Their physical space in the Whetstone Studio for the Arts building on Williams Street in Brattleboro was open for just a few weeks before the pandemic hit, but they have continued offering some classes and workshops online.
Part of the collective’s mission is to actively practice dismantling racism and white supremacy and creating a new culture.
“In our culture we’ve spent a lot of time … learning and talking about what not to do,” Amber says. “Where’s the … embodying and moving toward what we’re saying is important?”
Embodying that new culture is not just about activism and marching in the streets demanding justice, she explains.
“A really important part of what we do is realizing that … laying in the grass, for people of color, is dismantling white supremacy,” Amber says.
SUSU’s vision, as described on the GoFundMe campaign site, is “a place to connect our children and our people back to the land, a place to heal and reclaim our stories and the wisdom our ancestors left for us. A place to build black futures right here in our own community and create safety.”
Statistics paint a bleak picture for the current state of black futures: Black children are twice as likely to grow up in poverty and be food insecure. They are less likely to receive a quality education. Black people are charged higher interest rates on mortgages than white people with similar credit histories. They are more likely to have chronic health issues such as diabetes and depression, and receive poorer-quality care from health professionals. They are more likely to get COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, or shot by police regardless of whether they have committed a crime. They are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than white people who commit the same crime, and they receive longer sentences. Vermont is not exempt from any of these trends. We are, in fact, at the top of the list when it comes to our rate of incarceration: 1 in every 14 Black men in Vermont is in prison, compared to the average state rate of 1 in 26.
Meanwhile, according to the 2017 USDA agriculture census, only 36 of the 6,808 farms in Vermont are owned or co-owned by Black people.
“There’s so much land not owned by Black and brown people,” Amber says. “There are a lot of us here, and there are a lot of people that are very … capable and willing to steward.” She says she has worked with many white-led nonprofits who announce their support for black lives but don’t work to redistribute resources to black communities.
“You have to trust black people to be agents of change for themselves,” Naomi says. “We can make these decisions for ourselves, we can head our own organizations, without essentially having overseers.”
More than Enslavement: Reclaiming History
Part of healing for Black and indigenous people, Amber and Naomi explain, is reclaiming their histories. “In school we learn that African Americans were slaves, and here are all the things that happened to them, and then these white guys came and ended slavery and did all these amazing things,” Amber says. “There is all this wisdom and knowledge and experience that is lost and minimized.”
Reclaiming that ancestral wisdom and knowledge is central to the SUSU collective’s work, and to the vision behind the GoFundMe campaign.
“[Black people] were forced against our will to work this land,” Naomi says. “It’s so beautiful to see black and native people reclaiming farming … [and] being in relationship with the land.”
“Both the enslaved Africans and Native people were banned from practicing tradition, on pain of death in some cases, which results not only in an erasure of our history, but an erasure of our existence,” they write in a later email. “The reclaiming of this knowledge is part of how we decolonize and reclaim the traditions of our ancestors. This is also how we heal.”
Moving Forward with Intention
Although in some ways SUSU’s GoFundMe campaign has grown and changed rapidly, Naomi emphasizes that the collective moves forward with “a slow and intentional process.”
“We’ve deprioritized urgency,” they say.
This ethos is reflected in SUSU’s organic approach to raising the not insignificant sum of $400,000.
“The start of our fundraising is really following the wisdom and the messaging of our ancestors. We believe in our community, and we believe that our community is going to hold us,” Amber says.
The SUSU collective believes in reciprocity, the idea that in a healthy community, everyone contributes according to their ability and receives according to their need. Rather than a mindset of scarcity, SUSU cultivates a mindset of abundance.
“This whole process has also opened up doors to other people in our community who also want to support us,” Amber says of their vision of buying land for the BIPOC community. “I believe we’ll do it.”
Marisa D. Keller is a writer, editor and climate activist who lives in Brattleboro. A version of this story was published in the Brattleboro Commons on July 15.