Alana Casanova-Burgess: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess, in for Melissa Harris-Perry. The ideals of freedom and self-determination are foundational to America's national myth-making, yet that so-called American dream has been out of reach for many Black Americans who have been systematically disadvantaged through the legacy of enslavement.
It's created a racial wealth gap in which the median white household has 10 times the wealth of the median Black family. In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic and national protests over police brutality, three Black women made the bold decision to shape their futures.
Ashley Scott: My name is Ashley Scott, co-founder of the Freedom Georgia Initiative.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Scott and two of her friends had seen the NBC news headline that claimed.
Male Speaker: You could buy an entire town in Georgia for the price of a luxury apartment in NYC.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: They pooled their money and bought some land in rural Georgia. Their goal, to found a new town that embodied their American dream, generational wealth, environmental sustainability, and safety for Black families, a town called Freedom. Melissa Harris-Perry spoke with Ashley Scott about what it will take for the dream to become a reality.
Ashley Scott: We've got the land. That's one of the requirements. The second requirement is people. You have to have a minimum of 200 people to be incorporated in the state of Georgia, but most cities have much more people than that. You also have to do a certain amount of services. You have to be able to show that you have the ability to provide the needs of your residents and your population.
Whether that's zoning and permitting services, whether that's public utilities, such as water, sewer, and stormwater runoff services, transportation services as far as being able to put in roads, and making sure that there's things like the EMS and the fire services and police services. These are things that when you become a city, you're expected to be able to provide these services. Once those people write a charter and submit that charter and the politicians say, "Yes, you know what? We support this. Let's put it on a vote," and then the people vote, and then you have a city.
Melissa Harris-Perry: So far-- and I'm keeping my list here of things I need to make a town. Land, and how much land do y'all have?
Ashley Scott: We have 502 acres. You technically need 640, which is a mile radius. It doesn't all have to be contiguous.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You need your land. You guys have almost all of it there. You need people. You need a charter. You need the will of the people you need to provide some of these services, and then who is it who votes? Help me to understand again on the vote piece?
Ashley Scott: Yes. It's actually the people who live in that area. That city area, that district is just okay, in this area. This is a referendum that is on the ballot. Do we want to recognize the City of Freedom, and the people who are in that area will then say yes or no.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ashley, hold for me, don't go away because I'm going to be bringing you right back in. I want to add one more voice here to our conversation. I want to bring in now, Dr. Teruko Mitsuhara, who is an anthropologist and linguist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Mitsuhara's research and fieldwork focuses on alternative world-building movement. Teruko, welcome to The Takeaway.
Teruko Mitsuhara: Thank you very much. Very, very happy to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is an alternative world-building movement?
Teruko Mitsuhara: It's exactly as it sounds. There's a particular status quo and there are a group of people who decide that they would like to do something different to that. If there's enough consensus among that group of people, they'll do exactly what Ashley was describing, find that unincorporated land and start building it, building whatever it is there of their community, and it has all those components that she was discussing, so a community.
I think what's important to make the distinction is it's not like having a community center in your own town where you might be offering particular types of services like after-school programs. That's part of it and you can have a utopian theoretical lens for those spaces for people to come together. When we talk about world-building, there's a variety of things that are required to make living together with others, not only humans, but the non-humans in our environment to make that possible.
You think about water, have your building materials, like how are we dealing with trash and cleanliness? How are we dealing with family cohesiveness? What does it mean to-- what are our social dynamics and rules with each other? It's governance on all types of levels.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm not sure I've ever heard someone move as swiftly in a single sentence from utopian theoretical lens to infrastructure. It makes sense to me, if you're talking about world-building, then you both need your theoretical lens and you're really like, "Where is the water coming from and how is the trash getting picked up?" What I hear you offering is there also has to be a reason to do it. Why are you making this recipe for a town?
Teruko Mitsuhara: 100%. That why is what will make or break a community. If people can't figure out what they're doing anymore together, institutions, they can think on the micro level of the family, you could think of it at a company level. If you think of it at the community level, if people can't figure out the why, what their mission is, every other thing begins to collapse.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ashley, let me come back to you. What is your why?
Ashley Scott: For us, it was squarely around the idea of creating a thriving safe haven, specifically for our families and our children, to be able to have good health, to be able to experience generational wealth, and to really create a safe space for other people of color to work collaboratively around these ideas of sustainable development, environmental friendliness, and really creating the kind of cities and communities for our children in a larger scale.
I always lead with the fact like I'm a Black woman, I have a Black family, this is important for Black people. To specifically create this kind of a community where our families, our children can experience a brighter future, Afro future, that doesn't include the poverty and all of the disparities that we currently are facing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Mitsuhara, I want to hear about some of the other communities that you've studied. Those that go before as a model or as a warning.
Teruko Mitsuhara: For my dissertation fieldwork, I lived for up to about 21 months in a community in West Bengal, in Northern India. They're a religious community, and for them, they were looking for a religious utopia. They wanted a safe haven for people to worship their predominating deity, which was Krishna.
I was very fascinated by the everyday workings of what is it for a family to grow up and live and to expand in this 21st-century world, but in a very microcosm of it, where they're creating all of this with the trash cleanup and also working with the Indian government to make this happen. In my studies before going to the fields, these accounts of utopian movements through the centuries are very male-centered, and I was just like, "Mm, I think there's more to the story."
I'm a woman, I'm a Black and Japanese woman, and both parts of my culture are very strong female-centered households actually. When I would talk to mothers and women there and you watch how people are actually making their communities happen, a lot of the work is happening by women. The Freedom Georgia movement has a very similar sense that it's being led by women, mothers. The way they actually just described like the why was about children and safety for children, it's a lot of women's work that make utopia possible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For some folks, as soon as they hear the word utopia, they'll presume that means not real, not tangible. Something that simply by the use of that word, it isn't about sewer and water services. Help us to understand how you're deploying that term, utopia.
Teruko Mitsuhara: If we go from its historical background, it's a progress narrative. It's tied to the conquest of the new world in a 15th-century nation-state formation in Europe. It starts with Thomas Moore's invention of this word during the Renaissance and it's basically defined as a place of happiness and also no place, so it's a double entendre.
It wasn't meant at all to be blueprint or to be an inspiration for blueprint communities around the world, but writers are often not in control of the applications of their words and people were inspired by reading Thomas Moore's utopia to create communities for themselves that would be ideal as they see it. This concept has proliferated globally.
I think that in the time that we live in right now, people feel so bogged down that the concept that you can change your circumstances as a community is a very powerful one that I see in resurgence, and I'm, certainly, not the only social scientists that does because utopia has a power of inspiration throughout the centuries, it ebbs and flows when there are great communities strife.
We see an increase in communities, in people, individuals coming together to create ideal circumstances for themselves when there's great, great political strife, which is what we see now in the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ashley, when you say safety, what are the streets of Freedom like in your vision that are different for your children than the streets of Georgia right now?
Ashley Scott: First off, it's going to start with food sovereignty and sustainability. The ability to look up in the sky and actually see the stars, to be able to walk down a street and pick a piece of fruit from a tree that you might have grown, to be able to grow up around animals, and to be able to jump on the ATV trail and experience hunting and outdoor experiences that are not just reserved for the country, but for everyone to experience.
For me, this utopia that we're building is truly about an integrated life, where my children get to have high-speed access to internet and still be able to go outside and know how to milk a cow and to be connected to where the farm fresh food that they eat come from.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How do you negotiate conflict?
Ashley Scott: With a lot of conversation, Melissa. At the end of the day, we do believe in a democracy. We try as much as we can to build consensus, but there's always someone who just doesn't agree, and so learning to make people who didn't necessarily agree with the outcome to still feel like their voice was heard and that their perspective is valued, but that they have to engage and compromise and sacrifice.
Everybody is not always going to agree. We lean very heavily on the four agreements, don't take anything personal, don't make any assumptions, to give your best, and that has really helped us tremendously because to assume that there will never be challenges or that everyone's going to always get along would be a disservice to progression.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Teruko, can you help us to also understand in the communities that you've studied, how were they mediating and managing conflict?
Teruko Mitsuhara: Yes. Conflict is actually-- it's a huge topic and I always advise all communities that seek out my counsel that that's the first thing to-- first or second, it's on the top three things that should be handled, is knowing how to handle problems before they come up so you have a process. Mediating conflict, you need some rules, you need rules. The way that some of the communities do, you'll either have a very clear hierarchy of who's in charge. If you're voting, who are the voting members of the community, how it's going to be handled.
I would say the biggest conflicts usually arise in terms of child-rearing and family maintenance. These are the actual things that tend to break apart tight-knit utopian or intentional communities, is figuring out family management, family conflicts that will bleed in necessarily into a close-knit community, where everybody feels that they love everybody, but there's just some things that are not reconcilable, so how are we going to get through this? This can be very, very difficult if you don't have, let's say, a religious underpinning or extra land to move people further away or a process to expel.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me about some of the other communities you studied that went in this direction.
Teruko Mitsuhara: I gravitate towards movements that have a very strong family center as what allows them to be cohesive. This particular community is a Gondi version of community in Northern India. It's over 50 years old, they have three generations of children. They're considered quite a success when it comes to religious utopian movements. Utopian movements live in sound religion to get through multiple generations of children who decide they would like to stay, to keep the vision going, to keep the community going. That's very, very difficult to achieve in the history of utopian movements.
To stay in the community confines, to expand it, usually, religion is a very core nexus. Usually, there's a hierarchy. You don't always need hierarchy but there's usually a clear hierarchy. At the end of the day, you're going to have a predominating deity as the fallback reason as to why you're doing something. If you think in a very macro sense of the utopian underpinnings of the United States in this country, it's the constitution. You're going to need something.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ashley, I want to ask you about one more aspect here. The reality that your 100 acres, your 500 acres sits next to and inside of a nation with a brutal white supremacist history, how have you all been talking and thinking about protection?
Ashley Scott: We take that seriously because we know the history of white domestic terrorism on our communities. We take a stance that we have a Second Amendment right to protect our life, our property, ourselves, and that is the tradition of all of our civil rights leaders to see that picture with Malcolm X and a gun because while we do believe in nonviolence, we also believe in self-defense. We're not going to ever be on the offense or attack anyone, but we have every right to protect and defend ourselves.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ashley, I want to ask you just a final question. That is, again, just to go back to the utopia language, sometimes this is thought of as something radical, do you think Freedom is radical?
Ashley Scott: I think that it's a Renaissance. I think that Renaissance is radical, and that's what we aim to do, is to create a space that is, honestly, not radical, but common sense. I think that just speaks to the state of our country and our nation that buying land and working collaboratively and farming and growing your own food and practicing Black joy could even be considered radical. It should be commonplace at this point. I think we should be more empowered as individuals to not be radicals, but to answer the question, how can I be the change I want to see?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love your point, Ashley. Why is it radical to even have joy or think of possibility or imagine creating a world together? The very notion that that remains something that requires radical imagination is indicative of the level of inequality, and with which we currently live. Dr. Mitsuhara, is there any last thing you want to be certain to get in?
Teruko Mitsuhara: It must definitely need to be commonplace to think about what you can do for your local community. Though utopia has this bad rap as being fanciful and silly, that's really unfortunate because the role of the imagination and dreaming and hope is so vital to what allows us to go day to the next day, to the next day, to the next day as humans. It's our most powerful faculty, is our dreams and our hopes and our imaginations, because it propels us to make physical boots-on-the-ground actions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I often will start lectures during the King Holiday. Folks like to do the, "I have a dream," but I'll often remind them that-- I take Dr. King's word when he says that he saw the promised land. He says he saw it, I believe him, but he also never told us what it looked like, and that, presumably, the work that we're all meant to be up to is, at a minimum, articulating what that promised land is. I appreciate your work, Ashley, because you're not just articulating what that promised land looks like, but actually working towards it.
Ashley Scott: That's what it's all about, is the Black radical imagination. If we are going to have a Afro future, it's up to us to create it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ashley Scott is co-founder of Freedom Georgia. Thank you for being here.
Ashley Scott: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Teruko Mitsuhara is an anthropologist and linguist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Thank you so much for being here.
Teruko Mitsuhara: Thank you very much for having me.
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