Green Day speaker Naomi Davis has a plan for reviving communities.
The last time urban theorist Naomi Davis visited Madison, in the early 2000s, she was in search of communities that would help her create a model for revitalizing African American neighborhoods. Eventually, she came up with Blacks in Green, a national network advancing what she calls "green-village-building" in violent neighborhoods haunted by dilapidated housing, vacant lots, a hollow economic corridor and low median household income.
Headquartered in the West Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, Blacks in Green is predicated on Davis' "8 Principles of Green-Village-Building": micro-saving/lending and local currency/wealth; local energy production and transportation; local shopping and waste; affordable green homes and gardens; local news and networks; a village center and borders; hubs for health, education and welfare; and green jobs and enterprise.
"This is a culture-specific description with universal values," she says. "We are out to create walk-to-work, walk-to-shop, walk-to-play villages. We are out to redefine the metropolis as a city of villages. Who wouldn't want that?"
Davis, 58, will speak at Isthmus Green Day, the environmental expo at Monona Terrace, on April 26. Isthmus reached her via phone on a busy day at the Blacks in Green offices.
What is your elevator pitch for Blacks in Green?
I usually say that we are the authors and teachers of "The 8 Principles of Green-Village-Building" and the whole-system solution to whole-system problems common to black communities everywhere.
What are some of those whole-system problems?
Malnutrition, addiction and poisoning; health disparities; self-hatred; miseducation and illiteracy; unprepared parenting and single-mother homes; incarceration, recidivism and violence; and underemployment and unemployment.
How did your career evolve from working in theater to spearheading Blacks in Green?
When I was in my 20s, I said I would never do work that I didn't love. When I graduated from college with a degree in theater and English, it was really because those were my first loves. In about 2000, it looked like my people were sliding downhill and weakening, and I surrendered to the idea that I had to do something. But the idea that there was something I could do, that one person could do, was preposterous.
So how did you even know where to begin?
I began by looking at intentional communities. An "intentional community" is a place populated by people who have come together intentionally to create a specific kind of neighborhood based on shared values, expectations or goals. I looked at communities all over the world, but almost none of them were black. There were even some in Madison that I looked at.
Do you recall specifically where you were in Madison?
I don't remember, but there was one intentional community I liked that was created out of a preexisting community. A lot of intentional communities occur when people build a subdivision or go to the country and create something from scratch, and that's not what I am interested in at all. My mission is to take what is already there and reframe it. In this particular Madison community, a number of families slowly created a concentration of neighbors with the same value system, one with the same expectations and goals.
Blacks in Green puts the onus for improvement on residents, doesn't it?
One of the things we have staked our reputation on is one of our primary goals, which is increased household income. In an economic development paradigm, if you are not aiming to increase your household income, then what are you doing?
That ties into one of your core beliefs: "Nothing trumps self-help."
I'm glad you brought that up. Some of us are certain that help is not on the way. This neighborhood, West Woodlawn, has been deteriorating since 1970. If help is not on the way, what do you do? You self-help. As part of the self-help, we're encouraging young African American college coeds and graduates to move back to the hoods, which have been emptied of their brain trust. We need our brain trust back.
Will that be part of your message at Isthmus Green Day?
Yes. We're focused on repopulating legacy communities with young people who will come together, live cooperatively, buy properties for cash, get married, raise children and be the next generation of stewards. This is a long-term engagement. We didn't get into this mess overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight.
This is not just an idea; it is a plan. But it is a 100-year plan. What will happen is beyond me. I occurred on the timeline of the revival of our blighted communities. I'm famous in the environmental and economic communities, but here in the hood, I'm just another chick working another program.