InterviewArts & Culture

Educate, Motivate, Organize

An Interview with Chokwe Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, Mississippi

Photo by Natalie Maynor CC BY

Chokwe Lumumba

There are not a lot of mayors in this country who are willing to use the word “revolutionary” to describe themselves. But Chokwe Lumumba, the new mayor of Jackson, Miss., civil rights lawyer, and former president of the Republic of New Afrika, comes by the term honestly. At the Neighborhood Funders Group conference this November, he opened his welcome with a story about arriving in Mississippi with a group of African-Americans who had purchased land to settle on in a collective, and having to pass through an armed roadblock of Klan and police first. Lumumba sees his work as mayor as direct extension of that group’s goal—creating a community where everyone’s human rights are respected and the will of the people is honored. He sees what might be decidedly unsexy topics like upgrading the city of Jackson’s sewer infrastructure so it can get out from under an EPA consent decree as anti-imperialist measures to keep control of the city’s land and resources close to home. Shelterforce editor Miriam Axel-Lute sat down with him in November to talk about community control of land, democratic decision making, and education reform.

Miriam Axel-Lute: When you spoke at the Neighborhood Funders Group you talked a lot about the importance of controlling the land. That’s something that we talk about all the time, as well. When you’re in administration of a city, what does controlling the land mean? Does it mean municipally owned or nonprofit-owned, or community land trusts?

Chokwe Lumumba: First of all, I think that it means that recognition that the governing authority has at least political jurisdiction over the land mass that the people of the jurisdiction live in. I think you start from there. You have to make the governing authorities responsive as possible and derivative as possible of the people’s wishes and best interests.

From there, because of the form of economic system we live in, you’re divided into public and private sector ways of dealing with the division of land and the utilization of land, and the ownership of land. America is pretty much dominated by the individual and corporate ownership of land, and the mortgaging out of small pieces of it to people who call it theirs for periods of time while they pay 15- or 20- or 30-year mortgage.

Those of us who are interested in more of a shared form of economic justice are trying to find ways to balance the land usage problem, and some of those things involve the appropriate use of land which is owned by the city. We have stuff like city centers, recreation. We have child development programs and any number of things. The city of Jackson is the third or the second largest employer in Jackson. With that comes a number of physical institutions that we have to work on.

Then, it comes to the question of how to make land more available to people, and that’s a big question for 2013 and beyond. We have available to us some land that we actually own in the city that we can sell to people and/or lease to people. And then, we can get some land from the state and then we can either sell it or lease it to folks. That’s the land that we talk about in the land trust.

We’re in the process now of developing ways to best do that. We have done some of it already, like for instance we’ve given green spaces (or spaces which can be made green spaces; some of them weren’t green spaces until people got there and started planting stuff) to people in the city for $1, or leased it for $1. They’ve actually done community gardens there. We want to step up the pace where we get a very cogent and strong program. I think in the past it’s been kind of haphazard.

What we really need is a massive home and housing development program. And to the extent that we can get city-owned land, or take over land by the city because of its nuisance condition, land where you have dilapidated buildings on it, tear down the debris on it and eliminate that, and then surrender it to people from individuals to actually maybe small businesses, who come up with viable plans for developing, then that’s what we want to do.

That’s our objective—to be able to surrender more land to cooperatives and everyday people who will use it and then allow people to buy affordable homes, and/or to keep it and use it for collective community use, gardens, or maybe they might develop a day care center, or a community center.

I’ve done a lot of organizing and depended upon community centers a lot over my lifespan. We’re always looking for a spot to [set one up].

Miriam Axel-Lute: In terms of long-term community assets, we’ve been observing in the affordable housing world for decades, we see a lot of loss of affordability. With the foreclosure crisis, as you mentioned, people consider they own it, but they don’t really have full ownership.

The land trust model balances community ownership and private ownership. Is that something that you’re looking to?

Chokwe Lumumba: We definitely are interested in that model, where the community ownership can be used to hold onto land and keep land in a good condition, and to make sure that it’s used by the people that need it.

Miriam Axel-Lute: I was struck on our tour of Midtown yesterday that our tour guide said that the collection of eight churches was the largest collective landowner in that area. Are there partnerships with private institutions, landowners like that?

Chokwe Lumumba: There’s private institutions trying to develop partnerships with us now, and vice versa. Part of it is identifying the people in the field who are for real, whose objectives are going in the same direction as ours, not just at appearances or initially, but all the way through the project. Some people are trying to gentrify, and we’re not interested in that. I think the development, or the lack of it, is in the right stages right now where we can intercept a lot of it and lead it in the right direction.

Miriam Axel-Lute: How do you see your role in preventing gentrification or identifying what projects are likely to cause it?

Chokwe Lumumba: Most projects are looking for some kind of TIF and tax break when they come in here. Based upon what we think their design is, that’s going to have a lot to do with how we encourage the council to treat them as far as offering them tax breaks and things of that nature.

The other thing is we have to be proactive. We have to go out and seize the land ourselves, and so we’d be a self-initiator to try to establish major, big projects. It takes big money to do that.

And then, in even areas where we’ve known that a lot of people are settling, like for instance downtown Jackson, you have apartments now which is supposed to have 100 percent occupancy, right? And I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that a lot of those are not the people that look like the majority of people who live in the city.

We’ve got to guard against fraudulent housing practices. And secondly, it depends on what we create downtown. I’m happy that they are creating housing downtown. I’m not disturbed by that at all. But, at the same time, we’re going to have to have the right kind of mix. What we need to bring to the downtown area is affordable housing, some mixed housing.

Right across from the King Edwards is a building where I’d like to create what I call hungry artist lofts, some lofts where artists can come [work] in and live, that are real reasonable. That is on the drawing board to do that.

Miriam Axel-Lute: So many people don’t think of that until it’s too late.

You speak a lot about listening to people, such as through your people’s assemblies, which is wonderful and important. But, I was curious about how you balance that with your perspective as a civil rights lawyer. Certainly there are times when a group of citizens got together, voice of the people, and said that they didn’t want people who didn’t look like them living in their neighborhood. Obviously that’s not something that you want the government to support.

There are examples all over the place where people don’t want affordable housing, or they don’t want supportive housing for people with mental illness, or something like that, in their neighborhoods. How do you balance really taking the will of the people into account, while preserving fairness and integration at various levels?

Chokwe Lumumba: Actually, I’ve experienced that as a city councilman. We try not to break principle, even when it’s painful for us. People must decide. It’s also accompanied with the slogan, “Educate, Motivate, Organize.” That means you have to educate the people, give them a chance to have an exchange, give them the information that you have that makes you think different. Challenge them, motivate them, bring out their anxieties and conflicts and let them debate them publicly.

And then, thirdly, organize, organize in a way hopefully that you can bring together groups that will support the government action. I think, ideally, what we’d like to see here is some kind of community councils, or constituent assemblies, which may be a people’s assembly or it may not. It may be neighborhood assemblies or neighborhood councils, where they elect members which protect their interests, small councils that will have a say, whether it be a veto or at least a screening apparatus on what happens and what gets developed into their neighborhoods.

And then, when you do that and you kind of give them the lay of the land, you have a group of people who are consistently communicating with the people in the neighborhood but, at the same time consistently being exposed to the overall objectives of the city and overall objectives of development. That would help us I think a great deal.

Finally, you have to make tough decisions sometimes. I can remember when I was a city councilperson, I had an area, it used to be a black-owned grocery store, but it’s a whole complex of buildings, and right now there’s nothing in it. A church wanted to develop it into apartments, high value, upscale apartments.

All the people right around it in the immediate area, regular working class people, they were opposed to it because they said, it ain’t gonna work. You don’t have enough people who can pay those kinds of rents that’s going to come in there, so ultimately, what’s going to happen is it’s going to turn into Section 8 housing. It’s going to be run down, and we’re going to have the same problems we’ve got with all these other apartment buildings around here. There’s plenty of apartment space still left in some of these other buildings, so why develop that?

It was a real struggle. The church, which is a real institution in the community, had a lot of members. Their members, however, tended to be more on the bourgeois side, and the people in the community are over on the grassroots side. It was a legitimate conflict of thinking and interest, both sides thinking that they were trying to do a good thing.

They brought a zoning question to the city. We called at least three or four different people’s assembly kind of sub-meetings, where we had them come together and discuss it and vote on it and fight over it. And as it turned out, I actually wanted the church to get the land and develop it the way they wanted to, because I thought they could provide housing for the children of so many of the older people in the community, because one of the things we didn’t have was enough apartment space for them, in my opinion.

But the people circulated a petition, came up with about 500, 600 names, and I told the minister, “You better go out and circulate a petition.” The minister said, no, he didn’t think he had to. So, I voted for the people, you know, even though I really kind of sympathized with the minister. I think some people still haven’t forgiven me for that, but the reality is the reason I made that decision is because I don’t think it was such a decision that we had so much superior knowledge, that we could say that the people were wrong. We just had a view, and the people had a view. And they had to live there, and most of us didn’t live immediately there. That was a case where they should decide, even if we disagree with what they decided. That’s why we did it.

Tough decisions when you start talking about homes and taking care of the mentally ill, and stuff like that. Nobody wants very many of them in their neighborhood. They pose difficulties for various reasons, especially if the supervision of homes are not carefully watched, because sometimes people just get money for allegedly housing and taking care of mentally ill people, and they don’t really take care of them. Those are tough decisions. We know we have to have those kinds of places. The main thing to do is try to make sure that no neighborhood or area is over-burdened with them. In most of the grassroots communities, that’s all they ask. They don’t say, “We don’t want any of them. Don’t bring any of them around here.” But, they say don’t give us 20 on one block, or 10 or 15 or 5, whatever. We’re trying to respect that.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Talk to me a little bit about education. You have this new charter school law in the state of Mississippi that may or may not affect what you’d like to do with those schools.

Chokwe Lumumba: I’m opposed to charter schools, to the extent that they take any money at all from public education system. I’m not opposed to private education. If you can afford it, then go get it. I think that’s OK. But, I’m opposed to taking money from the people to give to folks, for whatever reason, who have decided to go educate themselves outside of the body of the people, because it’s taking the people’s resources and compromising the people’s education system in order to bolster another education system. I think it’s wrong, so I don’t support it. I’m not going to be supportive of raising any kind of charter school here in the city of Jackson.

I’m really trying to, though, approach it and attack it from a proactive point of view. In the school system, we’re trying to do a thing called Alignment Jackson, which is a grafted, to some degree, from Nashville, where they’re supposed to have raised their graduation rates from 53 percent to 83 percent. They convert the high school system into a system where they have a number of [topical] academies.

What appeals to me about it, is it shows a way to be inclusive, again, of what we used to call in the old days vocational skills. Secondly, our people’s assembly has an educational committee, and it’s come out with a very good paper urging a much more thorough look at the curriculum in terms of telling real history rather than make-believe stories about why America’s the way it is. We have to visit all those kinds of things. Also the pedagogy. How to use technology: rather than telling kids they can’t bring cell phones to school, figure out how you can put cell phones into the educational environment and use them. And then, at certain points of course they should put them away. But, if we can use them during the school period, then do so.

We’re trying to engage the whole community in this process: the Chamber of Commerce, the Jackson Public School District, nonprofit organizations.

[Alignment Jackson] has got some good mechanics in it. We’ve got to add the soul to it, though, and the soul is basically the curriculum and the pedagogy. Those are the two things that we’ve got to address.

We need a city-wide education campaign. And we have to engage the grassroots, the students and the parents particularly, but the teachers and the administrators we want involved in this conscious effort to change the school system. It’s got to be a conscious effort, like the civil rights movement. Even though we were just little kids, we were conscious that we were supposed to be fighting for something. We didn’t know what we were fighting for totally, but we knew we were fighting for something. We walked down the street in the middle of the march. We stuck our chest out. We were proud. That’s what we want our kids to do. We want them to be proud of what they’re fighting for.

Miriam Axel-Lute: The places like Finland that have good educational outcomes focus a lot on equity and the economic circumstances and conditions that the kids have coming into their education, as well as the education itself. Are you able to bring that perspective into the education conversation?

Chokwe Lumumba: Well, that’s certainly a concern of mine. I wouldn’t necessarily know that Alignment Jackson is going to help us a lot there. I think that they are going to help in the extent that they recognize a need for early childhood education, and they’re going to put some investment into that.

Are we going to get people to be conscious of the kind of village work it takes to raise children in terms of going into those communities and really doing things for those children? That may be something Alignment Jackson would do, but it’s certainly something that the people’s assembly has to do and the people sitting on the committee have to do. Alignment Jackson is trying to achieve something which requires a grassroots movement, but they’re not really the grassroots movement. What we have to do is add that.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Thank you.

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