Concluding the Plot of Land series, we look at the work being done across the United States to repair our relationship with the land, from the Tongva conservancy in Los Angeles to the Sea Islands of South Carolina. What will it take to imagine a radically different future? With the stakes rising along with the temperature, what is the scale of change we need to shift power and build a more just world?
Find the Plot of Land mini-series and all Monument Lab podcast episodes wherever you get your podcasts.
Major support for Plot of Land has been provided by the Ford Foundation.
Jameela:…I am just now exiting Culver Boulevard…
Jameela: Hey, it’s your host Jameela Hammond and we’re starting this final episode of Plot of Land in my home city of Los Angeles.
Jameela: So today we're off to Bruce's Beach. I am accompanied by my lovely, incredible wife.
Jameela: Bruce’s Beach is about an hour south of where my family and I live in L.A. I grew up here in Southern California, but only recently learned the real story behind Bruce’s Beach. I don’t know if I ever would have heard of it if it wasn’t for Kavon Ward.
Kavon Ward: My name is Kavon Ward and I'm the founder of Justice for Bruce's Beach, and I'm the founder of Where Is My Land?
Jameela: Ward’s a community organizer and grew up around here. In 2020 she came across the plaque at Bruce’s Beach. It was placed there 17 years earlier, in 2003, and it describes “tragic circumstances” that led to the city condemning a beachfront resort owned by a Black family, the Bruces. Tragic circumstances…Ward thought that wasn’t quite right. The property was taken — in 1924 at the height of Jim Crow America. So when a local reporter asked her what she thought needed to be done, about the plaque, about the property, Kavon said…
Ward: Yeah, I'm going to push to get the plaque changed, but I want to see policy change that would deed the land back to the Bruce family. And it was just something that was in my spirit that needed to be said. And unbeknownst to me at the time, it was something that would happen less than two years later.
Jameela: On July 20th, 2022, in a historic ceremony, city officials deeded the Bruce’s Beach property back to the Bruce family.
Senator Steven Bradford, KNBC newsreel: This property was stolen from the Bruces. We’re returning what was stolen, what was rightfully theirs.
Supervisor Janice Hahn, KNBC newsreel: We can’t change the past, and we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to your great-great-grandparents and great-grandparents Willa and Charles nearly a century ago. But this is a start.
Jameela: And then, less than a year later, on January 3rd, 2023, the Bruce family announced they were selling the land back to L.A. County for $20 million. The family has said they just couldn’t oversee the maintenance or development of such a prime piece of real estate, which had been valued at $75 million.
For some folks, getting land back is about living on it. For others, it’s about the ability to develop it, or to sell it and make up for lost wealth. In any situation, people are negotiating a complex set of rules and regulations around getting, keeping, and using that land. It had almost been 100 years since Bruce’s Beach was taken from Charles and Willa Bruce, and now, their descendants weren’t contractors or real estate developers, they weren’t in the resort business. They had been forced to move on.
And yet, that $20 million the city is paying them for that returned land…that’s a lot more than most people who’ve had land taken from them have ever seen.
[Plot of Land theme music]
Jameela : Over the course of Plot of Land, we’ve looked at all types of injustices. We’ve looked at the ways people have used land to grow or exert power, the ways race and class have been tied to that land, and the ways that people have sought and fought for justice.
We need to prevent future harm. We need to make better decisions today. But what about repairing the harm of the past? What does that look like? In this final episode of Plot of Land, we’ll be looking at different approaches to repairing past harms. We’ll be talking to people across the country who are drawing on the lessons of our complicated, sometimes inspiring, sometimes terrible histories to envision more just futures.
This is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Jameela Hammond and this is Plot of Land.
Jameela: To ground us in this episode, I want to start with this core idea of repair, or rather core word: reparations. What is it? It feels like everyone’s got their own definition. Like when you say ‘reparations,’ the person next to you might be thinking something totally different than you. In fact, they probably are. So we reached out to Liz Ogbu. She’s a designer, an urbanist, and a spatial justice advocate, whose work centers on land, healing, and repair.
Liz Ogbu: So, there's the very literal definition that many people think of when you say reparations, and that is cash payments as redress for some harm that has been done. I think it’s really important that we zoom out to the root word, and hold more expansive space for this idea of repair. Personally, I believe that reparations are the holistic and transformational set of relationships, services, activities, and resources that enable us to create conditions of repair that can heal a past harm and just as important, ensure that that harm is never repeated.
Jameela: Much of Ogbu’s work centers around this repair for communities, not just one property owner, but dozens, sometimes hundreds. And not always owners either, but just people—mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous—who have had their communities razed, seized, and divided.
Ogbu:All around us, we can see the intersection between race and space. Space has often been used as a tool of racial harm. And the truth is, we will never achieve racial justice unless we also heal how that racial harm has been perpetuated in the built environment.
Jameela: To start thinking about what repairing that harm means, Ogbu said, people need to go beyond the confines of the systems that created that harm in the first place. We need to employ a radical imagination.
Ogbu: My dream for the world is that every single one of us gets to experience a healed and thriving relationship with the land. But for that to happen, we also have to heal our relationships with each other. To be honest, I don’t know if we’re fully going to achieve that reality in my lifetime, but imagining that it’s possible is really what keeps me going. And, staying in that place of possibility, it means not waiting for repair to come in a far-off future. I literally have to find what are the little pieces that are achievable now. What are the victories, however small, that can help me and the communities that I work with start to feel the presence, the radical presence, of that other future.
Jameela: Reparations, spatial justice, radical imagination. How have we, in the United States, tried to navigate this terrain? This is what my colleague Katherine Nagasawa has been looking into and reporting on. Kat, this issue of repair hits close to home for you, doesn’t it?
Kat Nagasawa: Hey Jameela –yeah, so I’m fourth-generation Japanese American and over the past few years I’ve been spending a lot of time digging into my family’s history of forced removal and incarceration during World War II. This isn’t something my family has always openly talked about. When my mom was growing up in Gardena, a city in South Central Los Angeles, she heard my grandma refer to a place called ‘camp’ and she always thought it was some sort of summer camp. But my grandma was actually referring to how in 1942, the U.S. government uprooted her family from their strawberry farm in Sacramento, California and incarcerated them in a concentration camp in the Arizona desert. And this happened to 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry.
U.S. Government Office of War Information newsreel: Military authorities therefore determined that all of them, citizens and aliens alike, would have to move. Notices were posted. All persons of Japanese descent were required to register…
Kat: This mass incarceration didn’t happen in a vacuum. For decades, an anti-Japanese movement had been building because white labor and farming groups resented the success of Japanese workers and farmers. And this exclusion movement was incredibly vocal in lobbying for the forced removal of Japanese Americans during World War II.
While Japanese Americans were incarcerated, the government seized hundreds of thousands of acres of their farmland. And after the war, only a fraction of them were able to return to that land. Luckily for my grandma’s family, their land was watched over and protected by a family friend, so they were eventually able to reclaim it – although the property itself had been completely vandalized by the time they returned to Sacramento.
Jameela: But that was unusual, right? Most families weren’t able to return to their farmland.
Kat: Exactly. A congressional investigation estimated that Japanese Americans who were forced off of their land lost property that today would be worth an estimated $4 billion, and an additional $8 billion worth of income. There’s never been a true reckoning around the amount of family land lost, and what it would take for that land to be returned or for descendants of those families to be fairly compensated.
Jameela: So there’s never been any repair for anything done during that time—the land, the income, the incarceration?
Kat: Well, not exactly. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 compensated each living survivor of the incarceration camps with $20,000. It also issued a formal presidential apology, and created an educational trust fund to support community history projects. But it’s important to remember that in order to make the act a political reality concessions were made – Japanese Americans had initially asked for much more than $20,000 per person, and the Act also limited direct payments to living survivors instead of descendants of those who had been incarcerated.
Jameela: You know, this is exactly what we need to understand about other repair efforts in this country. Japanese Americans are one of the only racial or ethnic communities in the U.S. who’ve actually received monetary redress for a historic wrong. And that’s a big deal. But as Kat said, the devil is in the details—the specific circumstances of an effort to repair harm matters so much— the political strings that get attached—all the qualifiers that come with it—these can actually make attempts at repair fall short.
So let’s start with the root, the original dispossession – the taking of land from Native Americans…What’s it like to try to get that land back? Let’s look at how people are pushing the boundaries of what land-based repair can be.
Kat: Over the centuries, Native American tribes have been dispossessed of nearly 99% of their historical lands – often through violent and coercive means. Land was central to the harm done, and land is central to the repair that many Native Americans are demanding. To help me understand the roots of the Land Back movement, I spoke with Dr. Doug Kiel.
Doug Kiel: I'm a Citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Turtle Clan, and I'm a historian; I teach at Northwestern University.
Kat: Land is not just something Kiel studies in an academic sense – it’s something he engages with on a personal and spiritual level. He says every fall, he participates in an annual community corn harvest on his Tribe’s reservation land in Wisconsin.
Kiel: It's about being something, a part of something that is much larger than yourself, right. And not only larger than yourself, but, you know, much more ancient than yourself. And so, that simple act of heading into the cornfield with the community to harvest corn, that's an important part of what being an Oneida person is.
Kat: Kiel says Indigenous people have been calling for land return for centuries, though ‘Land Back,’ the phrase most people are probably familiar with, is a more recent term. It was popularized in 2018 by Arnell Tailfeathers, a member of the Kainai Tribe of the Blackfeet Confederacy of Canada. Very quickly Land Back became a rallying cry among many Native American activists, and a widely used hashtag on social media.
Kiel: Like in so many ways, it’s kind of…it's regarded as the impossible; it's the part you can't do. You can negotiate for every damn thing else, but they're just never going to give you the land back, right. Which is to say, cut all the BS about all this other kind of stuff that's supposed to, you know, improve Indigenous lives. Just give us the damn land back.
Kat: So how does Land Back even happen? There are several approaches, according to Kiel. For one, it can simply mean the U.S. government honoring the land treaties it has made with sovereign tribes. Over the centuries, many of these treaties were broken to make property available to white settlers and large corporations.
Kiel: Sometimes I think it's easy or convenient for non-Native people to to think that treaties are something that are strictly within the domain of Native people. But these are documents that are ratified by the U.S. Congress, right? And according to the U.S. Constitution, if we're to take these things seriously - the Congress and the Constitution - treaties are the supreme law of the land. Americans don't often think of them that way or treat them that way; as the supreme law of the land.
Kat: Land Back can also mean tribes reacquiring the millions of acres of land they lost through the 1887 Dawes Act. The Dawes Act broke collectively-owned tribal land in the midwest into scores of 160-acre parcels – called ‘allotments.’ These allotments were then distributed to families and individuals that had gone through a government enrollment and assimilation process. The remaining land was quickly bought up by white settlers.
Kiel: Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying that allotment is a “mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” So for some, it is overt and clear what those goals are: it's to bust up everything about reservation and collective, you know, tribal life.
Kat: That “mighty pulverizing engine” was incredibly effective. How do you even fight back against that kind of destruction? That large-scale level of orchestration?
Kiel: We have to be creative as hell…Native people have been using, you know, the U.S. legal system as a way to advance our own causes…virtually from the beginning.
Kat: This strategy really rose to prominence in the 1960s, when a generation of Native American lawyers came of age inspired by the work of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the strategies of the African American Civil Rights Movement. John Echohawk was one of those lawyers – he’s now the director of the Native American Rights Fund and has been called the ‘Thurgood Marshall of Indian law.’
But back in the late ’60s, Echohawk was just starting law school at the University of New Mexico. He was part of a new special program to train Indian lawyers. And it was there that he took one of the first courses ever taught on Federal Indian Law.
John Echohawk: We realized we had all these rights under the treaties and the laws, but they were basically being ignored because we were the poorest of the poor. We couldn't afford any attorneys to help us. And, uh, it doesn't matter what the law is; if you don't have somebody to assert those rights for you, then you don't have any rights.
Kat: And so Echohawk decided to see what would happen if attorneys leveraged those old treaties, if they asserted those rights.
Echohawk: So we determined that we needed to start our own nonprofit legal defense fund, raise money and provide lawyers to our people to enforce their rights under the treaties and laws of this country, and that's what the Native American Rights Fund has done, and it's made all the difference in the world for the tribes and, you know, changed the history of this country as well.
Kat: This generation of Indigenous attorneys had their first big win in 1985 with the landmark Supreme Court case, Oneida County v. Oneida Indian Nation. The Oneida Tribe said that millions of acres of their land had been transferred to the state of New York in violation of three treaties and the statutes passed between 1790 and 1834 in the Non-Intercourse Act.
Echohawk: That was a law passed by Congress that basically said there can be no land transactions with tribes unless the federal government is involved. And this was a law that was basically ignored by many of the original 13 states, the 13 colonies.
Kat: The 1985 Supreme Court decision was the first Indian land-claim case won on the basis of the Non-Intercourse Act. But not the last. The case set a precedent.
Echohawk: This was a model that was followed by other tribes in the East and several other cases that we did for those tribes. And as a result of that, there's a number of tribes now on the East Coast who are federally recognized and have land. That was our big Land Back effort.
Kat: Many tribes aren’t able to win their land back in court though. Instead, Kiel says these tribes have to buy their land back.
Kiel: We're buying back land from non-Native landowners, right, that is rightfully ours, guaranteed by treaty, but because of the Dawes Act, right, we subsequently lost it.
Kat: The Oneida Nation has spent millions of dollars purchasing private land that was taken from them by white settlers through the Dawes Act.
Kiel: My nation is lucky; privileged to be in a position to have a thriving casino that provides the basis for land requisition. In most cases, that's where the resources do come from.
Kat: Even though Kiel says the Oneida Nation has the resources to buy land back, the limits of this model for true justice and repair aren’t lost on him.
Kiel: So not only have we lost land that was guaranteed to us by treaty, that was ratified by Congress in 1838, that should have always been ours, but then we have to buy it back, right. And the way that we buy it back is with, you know, revenue from our casino. But in order to have that, we got to make sure that we give the state of Wisconsin a sizable enough cut to keep them happy so we can continue to have it for ourselves. And then when we go to buy back our lands, sometimes we're maybe not always necessarily getting the best deal out of it, right. You know, sometimes it's above market value even.
Jameela: Hey, Jameela again. I want to pause here for a minute, because this is a really interesting point. Kat, after a tribe reacquires land, what happens to the land’s status? Does the tribe own it outright?
Kat: Yeah; you’re right, that’s a key question. In a lot of cases tribes put the land into trust with the federal government. Here’s Doug Kiel again.
Kiel: What is land held in trust? It's…land that is owned and held by the federal government under the agreement that they're going to manage it in the best interests of the Indian tribe.
Kat: Another way to think about land held in trust is to compare it to National Park land.
Kiel: It's federal land, it's just that it's not federal public land. It's federal tribal land, and it's designated not for broad public use, but for, you know, for a specific community, right. And the expectation of that relationship is that they're going to do so in a responsible way.
Jameela: Got it. So, for example, the Oneida Nation buys land and then goes through some sort of process to transfer that land to the federal government, which then holds it in trust?
Kat: Yeah, and that process is a complicated and multi-step one that can take years. But once land is transferred, it goes from being private property to federal property, and it becomes tax-free, and also protected.
Jameela: Does that mean that it can’t be taken away?
Kat: Kiel said yes. But the history between the tribes and the federal government also makes him skeptical.
Kiel: The nature of what's being done is you're willingly handing over your property and saying, pretty, please don't dissolve this…on our collective behalf. Right. Is there a reason why one should feel skeptical about the possibilities of whether or not that will be honored? Well, yes, they dissolved it in the first place! That’s why we have to be worried about it, we’re dealing with the fact that they did that already.
Kat: There’s another factor that complicates how tribes can get land back though. In order to hold onto reservation land or transfer land into trust, a tribe has to be federally recognized by the government.
Kiel: Federal recognition is hugely, hugely important and, you know, what that implies then is a recognition of that sovereignty and is an indication of a nation-to-nation relationship that the community has with the federal government, right? And that they are recognized as, you know, as treaty partners in that regard, too. I note treaties because that's typically the basis of federal recognition in so many cases.
Kat: That federal recognition heavily depends on a tribe proving its own continuity – in being able to show how it identifies as a community and has governed itself over time. And for many tribes, getting federal recognition is an ongoing fight. The Mashpee Wampanoag in Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island lived as a Native community alongside white settlers since the early 1600s.
Kiel: These are the people that greet the pilgrims when they get off their boats. They don't gain tribal recognition until the 21st century.
Kat: In 1976, the Mashpee Wampanoag filed a lawsuit claiming the rights to 11,000 acres of land that had been taken from them. But the government denied their tribal legitimacy. It took the Tribe three decades before the government finally recognized their sovereignty in 2007.
Kiel: They don't get recognized until pretty recently, right, and that's because of a difficulty of being able to demonstrate, you know – adequate to the needs of the colonizers – that people were able to successfully keep things together and intact as a community despite all of that, right. And so that's really the hurdle.
Kat: Federal recognition has also been tenuous over time. In the 1940s, the U.S. government encouraged Native American self-governance on reservation lands. But in the 1950s and ’60s, the government took away federal recognition for more than a hundred tribes. They also relocated Native Americans to urban areas where they were pushed to assimilate into white American culture.
This was known as the ‘Termination Era,’ a period of time when the government terminated its federal recognition of many tribes, removing in the process those tribes’ land rights as well. More than a million acres of land was taken out of that federal ‘trust,’ which meant that it was not only taxable, but also became available for purchase and development.
Kiel: And what Termination is, again, is even more aggressive because it's not just completely upending the land ownership relationship – it completely sweeps away any relationship whatsoever to the federal government, to the Department of the Interior, to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Kat: This had devastating effects for tribes like the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin.
Kiel: In 1954, the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin overnight becomes Menominee County, Wisconsin. They are still a group of Menominee people, right, who inhabit this corner of the state, and they live in a particular recognized zone, but now that zone is just a county in Wisconsin rather than a federally-recognized Indian tribe.
Kat: Prior to 1954, federal recognition had ensured funding and support for social services, job training, school facilities, and other land and management needs in the area. But without that federal support, the county’s tax base wasn’t enough to provide for all of this.
Kiel: What happened in the community is hospitals go underfunded and end up closing, schools fall into similar disaster, all manner of social institutions, you know, really begin to crumble in the absence of this. Sudden; you know – pulling out the carpet from underneath them.
Kat: The Menominee campaigned for 20 years to reverse the decision and finally, in 1973, the government officially restored their status as a federally-recognized tribe.
Jameela: Okay, so just to recap real quick — some tribes have been successful arguing for their land back in court, while others are buying their land back. And with both of those approaches, when they get their land, they often transfer it to the government to hold ‘in trust’ for them. But they can only do that if they’re federally recognized. And in the past, the U.S. government has withheld that federal recognition, and even taken it away – and then only sometimes given it back.
Kat: Exactly–and let’s not forget that it was the federal government that took the land in the first place.
Jameela: So what happens to tribes that lose their federal recognition status, or never even got it to begin with?
Kiel: In those places where there have been problems with the lack of federal recognition, it's often a lack because of a lack of a paper trail in regards to a treaty history that really comes to create a lot of problems.
When people are not recognized, what is it that they're being kept from, right? Well, they're being kept out of being in dialogue as part of, you know, a partner in larger national dialogues about Indigenous issues and a lot of funding streams that could come to benefit them that are slotted only for federally-recognized tribes.
Kat: According to Kiel, more than any other region in the U.S. the West Coast – and particularly California – has the most tribes that lack federal recognition.
Jameela: Wait, why California?
Kat: Shortly after California entered the Union in 1850, the U.S. Army negotiated 18 treaties with California tribes guaranteeing them land and other rights. But the Senate refused to ratify the treaties, which left most tribes without land or any legal protections. Some tribes were able to obtain federal recognition. But in the 1950s during that Termination Era I was mentioning earlier, Congress revoked federal recognition for 41 tribes in California. And for many of them, it’s never been restored.
Kimberly Morales Johnson: There were a lot of things that were going wrong within tribes within Southern California, but the main vein is erasure.
Kat: Kimberly Morales Johnson is the Tribal Secretary for the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, also known as the Gabrieleño-Tongva, one of 55 tribes in California that lack federal recognition. Historically, the Tribe lived in villages in what we know today as the Los Angeles basin and Southern Channel Islands of Southern California.
Johnson: So if you don't give us land, and we don't have any benefits to being healthy because we are in relationship with Mother Earth, and you don't give us a voice, you don't ratify our treaties, you don't hear us, we’re erased. And now the problem is we have so many people in Southern California, real estate is crazy. Nobody can afford to buy a home here.
Kat: In 1994 the Tongva were recognized by the state of California, a move that has served as a model for other tribes who aren’t federally recognized. State recognition can make tribes eligible for certain resources or even help establish state reservations. But for the Tongva, the definition of Land Back was broader than what the state was offering.
Johnson: It means affordable housing so that our people can be reconnected and rematriated with their ancestral homelands. Land Back means a final burial place for ancestors who have been removed by developers. Land Back to me also means tribal food sovereignty; we can grow our own foods, we can grow our own basketry material, we could grow our own medicine. And the last thing that Land Back means for us is an open space to have ceremony, where we don’t have to pay fees for a park, where we don’t have to worry about permits, where we’re not going to have to worry about being bothered during a sacred time.
Kat: Johnson says land is key to the Tongva’s story, their identity, and their well-being. Without it, the Tribe struggled to hold onto its culture. But that began to change in 2016 when a wealthy woman from Los Angeles learned about the Land Back movement.
Johnson: She sought out Gabrieleño-Tongva people, and she found a family and started to have a relationship with them and said, I have this property. She had multiple properties, so this was only one of them, and it backs up to Eaton Canyon. So she said, I'm, I'm interested in possibly donating it to you.
Kat: The land near Eaton Canyon is northeast of the city of Pasadena. It was family property, inherited from an earlier generation of white settlers in Southern California.
Johnson: We started to meet with them and we started talking about our vision. And we formed a Tongva board to run a nonprofit called the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Land Conservancy.
Kat: Next, the board secured attorneys and the proper documents to transfer the land to the Tribe.
Johnson: We closed the escrow on the first private land donation in L.A. County in March of 2022.
Kat: In this example of tribal Land Back, instead of the federal government holding the land in trust, to protect it, the Tongva used a nonprofit conservancy. So the Tribe still holds title to the land, but because the conservancy is a 501c3 nonprofit, it’s exempt from property tax. Johnson says even if the Tongva were federally recognized and could hold land in trust with the federal government, she prefers the land conservancy model.
Johnson: I don't think that anything that the government has ever put their hands on, they've never given to Native people with the left hand without taking from the right, so the more that we have Native-controlled, that means that we can exercise our own self-determination and make our own decisions because – despite what the government has told us since they've been here in 1850 for the state of California – we are smart and we are scientists and we are educated and we can make decisions on our own without their input.
Kat: One of these decisions that the Tribe made was to implement a “no buyback” policy for land.
Johnson: If you want to give us land because you recognize the injustice and that the land was stolen from us, we will happily receive the land. But if the land was stolen from us, and you've profited off of it, and you want us to buy it back from you, we're not interested, but thank you.
Kat: By operating without federal involvement, Johnson says the Tongva can more easily decide important internal matters, like what happens on their land, or who’s a member of their Tribe.
Johnson: We can say We know your family name, we know what happened, and you've just provided all of this documentation. We know. Or You've been in the community for generations. The government never saw you as a Native person, but the Conservancy can see you as a Native person. Learn our culture, share with us - that’s what this is about.
Kat: While Doug Kiel’s Tribe works within the framework of buying back land and holding it in trust with the government, he recognizes a key benefit of land conservancies is that they operate a lot like private property, and that’s a language that the U.S. government respects.
Kiel: And if we never let the federal government get their hands on that land in the first place, maybe they'll actually be more respected, right? As private property. Federal policy comes after those reservation lands. It doesn't like the idea of collective Indigenous sovereigns claiming collective ownership of those lands, right? That's a completely different kind of political culture that does not mesh well with the broader aims of the United States, right. But private property? That's always in season.
Kat: But the land conservancy model has its challenges, Johnson says – like the donor who’s transferring the land title to the Tongva. There’s some attachment to the land, some strings.
Johnson: That's the problem we had. She had a very strong emotional attachment. It was her grandmother's home. So anything that we talked about changing, we couldn't do it in front of her. And I've heard this story over and over again; that the white homeowner usually has an idea of what they want to do and what they want the Native people to do instead of actually just releasing it to us and letting us make our own decisions to exercise our own self-determination.
Kat: Nevertheless, Johnson says they’re making progress and are working to start an artist residency program that will provide housing on the property. And landscape architects are designing a sustainable garden there too, with plans for educational and ceremonial spaces.
Johnson: For me, it's very emotional to think about what this means. Two weeks ago, we were at the property with my dad, and my dad looked around and with tears in his eyes, he said, I'm really proud of you. I never thought I'd see this happen. And that, knowing what my dad had been through with his family and their trauma; knowing that we're starting to see justices happen – they’re a sliver, but they're starting to happen – and we're part of this momentum that's moving forward.
Kat: Finally having a plot of land for the Tongva to call their own has allowed the Tribe to root themselves in place for the first time in generations, Johnson says. For Doug Kiel, Land Back means fundamentally reorienting our relationship with land. He says while placing land back in the hands of Indigenous communities is essential, the movement goes way beyond that.
Kiel: And so, you know, the basis for Land Back is a call for being able to also go back to doing things our way, because – can we just be honest now – it was better. Capitalism has destroyed the planet. We have to figure out how to go back from this, right? And Land Back is, in so many ways, you know, just ceasing this kind of way in which we relate to the earth as if we hate it. Land Back means beginning to completely rethink what is a toxic relationship with the earth itself.
Jameela: Kat, I feel like the topic of land return and reparations has been in the news a lot lately. There’s the Indigenous Land Back movements and things like what happened with Bruce’s beach, but it’s more than that.
Kat: Yeah. In 2020 California created the nation’s first state-level task force to address reparations for Black Americans, and since then, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco, even Asheville, North Carolina have all launched similar efforts.
Jameela: And then there was Evanston’s program in Illinois, in 2020, where they created a reparative housing program for Black residents who’d experienced discrimination.
Kat: I mean, I’ve seen reparations news coming out of St. Paul, Minnesota—Tullahassee, Oklahoma—St. Louis, Missouri—the list goes on.
Jameela: But they all take different approaches—using different definitions of what repair is and isn’t. And with the exception of California, they’re all happening at the city level. But then there’s H.R.40, the bill before Congress that would create a national commission for studying Black reparations.
Kat: Yeah; and that title, H.R.40, that’s not by accident. It’s named after the well-known promise of 40 acres and a mule.
Jameela: Which, I don’t know about you, Kat, but that’s one of the first things I think of when I think of Black reparations. That promise that was made at the end of the Civil War.
Kat: Yep. January 1865; Union General William Sherman issued Special Field Order 15 after he saw the massive number of Black people escaping slavery. Sherman’s military order granted them hundreds of thousands of acres along the Atlantic coast from South Carolina to Florida.
I talked to Dr. William Horne about this. He’s a postdoctoral fellow at Villanova University and studies land redistribution efforts during the Reconstruction Era.
William Horne: It was supposed to be broken up into small plots of 40 acres, you know, distributed to formerly-enslaved people and their families to work, as a sort of subsistence farming situation, right. The idea is that really this is going to allow formerly-enslaved people to become independent. And so that's the first of the two sort of sets of forces that give us the ‘40 acres and a mule’ expression.
Kat: The second set of forces, as Dr. Horne put it, was the Freedmen’s Bureau Act, which President Lincoln signed into law in March of 1865. The Act set aside land owned by Confederates who had committed treason, what the law referred to as “abandoned land.”
Horne: There is an acknowledgment not only that the U.S. government will sort of be breaking up former plantations into these smaller plots of 40 acres, but also that there is a sort of a debt that's owed, right. And that this is one way of accounting for that debt and creating a new world beyond slavery.
Kat: But then, Lincoln’s assassinated.
Horne: Andrew Johnson becomes president, pardons every single ex-Confederate he can get his hands on…
Kat: President Johnson also signed off on the Black Codes, laws that restricted Black people's freedoms, including their rights to buy and lease land. The result was absolutely devastating.
Horne: …and so there's a walk back of rights, in fact, that free people had already won for themselves in 1864 and in 1865.
Kat: It’s not just the promise of land that’s lost, but also voting rights, legal protections, political representation. Social, political, economic power; they’re all stripped away.
Horne: And there is, just this sort of a wave of white supremacy; the violence that goes along with that.
Jameela: There was another attempt at land redistribution that actually happened during the Civil War though, right?
Kat: Yeah. It was called the Port Royal Experiment. It started in 1861 when the Union Army captured South Carolina’s Sea Islands. The white plantation owners fled, leaving about 10,000 formerly-enslaved Black people free, living on the land they’d been forced to farm for generations.
Initially the Union Army wanted to just keep growing crops like cotton and rice on the land, but abolitionists in Lincoln’s Administration had a bigger vision: what if Port Royal could be a model for what a free Black agrarian society could look like?
Racism was so entrenched in their thinking though, that white officials in the north decided they needed to oversee this grand experiment in Port Royal. So they sent doctors, teachers, missionaries, and ministers. Here’s Dr. Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders. She’s a history professor at University of Colorado, Boulder who researches African Americans and the memory of the Civil War.
Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders: Some of the, like, ideology around it was a little bit condescending, like, we need to teach these Black people to be self-sufficient, right? So some of the missionaries in particular were saying just wild things.
Kat: But none of these people were farmers, or had even spent much time working with the land. It was just completely out of touch with the actual needs and goals of Black people.
Horne: Formerly-enslaved people wanted to be able to provide for themselves and their families, wanted to be able to have some kind of security, some kind of access to stability, to political rights, to an education, to what we would think of, reasonably, as equality. This is what they're demanding when they demand land back, a sort of a stable existence in what they conceived of as freedom.
Kat: In 1862, Congress authorized seizing most of the Sea Islands’ former plantations for unpaid taxes. The government could have ceded the land directly to the freed people living on it, but instead they held land auctions. This not only heightened divisions, but it also invited land speculators, and threatened the Port Royal premise even before it had really got going.
Horne: You know, you're forcing enslaved people who, like, had very little ability to accumulate capital, like, under enslavement, to then somehow have capital to buy land; I mean, this is a nonsense idea.
Kat: Even so, groups of Black people pooled their resources together, and bought six plantations, collectively farming about 2,000 acres. And then comes General Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 in January of 1865, which grants more land to Black people in the area. But just four months later, after Lincoln’s assassination, incoming President Andrew Johnson pardoned most white Confederates.
Lawrence-Sanders: So the owners come back; the experiment ends. They all come back. They're not going to let, you know, these enslaved people just, like, run around on their plantations.
Kat: The Black families who received land through Special Field Order 15 – they’re forced to give it up. But for those who had bought land, either at auction, or as the northern missionaries and speculators gave up their plantation projects, the Sea Islands would provide lasting stability and political standing.
Horne: They gain the title to the land and they hold it, you know, really through the mid-20th century and in some respects, like, through the present. And I think that in that respect, we can see the stability that comes along with Black land ownership. These are stable communities.
Jameela: But the potential was there for so much more, so many more stable communities and much more broad redistribution of land. Dr. Lawrence-Sanders says that what was missing was a legally-binding structure; something to make this repair permanent, and not just subject to whoever’s in office at the time.
Lawrence-Sanders: Without some sort of permanent structure rather than a temporary, like let's just test and see structure on these issues, you can't really do it. And I actually do think that we do still have this culture of like a let's just test and see, you know, how things are going to work when it comes to, like, people of color, or working-class, or poor people because we don't trust them to do things themselves. I think it requires a lot of trust. And it actually, unfortunately, requires, you know, a government of people with actual guts.
Jameela: If there had been substantial land redistribution, Jim Crow voting disenfranchisement might not have happened at the same scale. And honestly, the Great Migration is hard to imagine. We can never really know for sure, but we can know what happened to Black families who got and kept land.
Kat: Dr. Lawrence-Sanders is actually from the Sea Islands, and her family has owned land in South Carolina for generations.
Lawrence-Sanders: And we’ll just gather in this huge space that we have, this huge outdoor space on my family's land, which has, like, been kept pretty empty, where we have cookouts and everything else. And we all just kind of like, gather there. Eat, you know; laugh, music, everything. Oyster roasts, you know, in the wintertime.
Kat: After Emancipation, Lawrence-Sanders’ great-great-grandfather bought a plot of land near the plantation he was enslaved on. And ever since, that land has held the family together, even when people leave.
Lawrence-Sanders: Maintaining that like, the land in the family means that there is always space for people to come back to, right. If we don’t have that land, if there’s not homes, there’s not that establishment, then, you know, you don’t maintain that same sort of familial connection.You know, that's what kept family together – at least in my case I think – throughout the various waves of the Great Migration, is to have that sort of home space.
Our grandparents knew each other, right? Our great-grandparents knew each other. They have literally been living in the same place for now, well-over 150+ years, right….it's just, you know, that kind of communal culture I don't think could be easily replicated. It just, it just can't be.
Kat: Family land has also helped preserve the distinct culture of the Lowcountry, the Gullah Geechee culture that has abundant and clear ties to West Africa. The food, the language, the customs, its preservation of another order.
Lawrence-Sanders: But I always felt like, you know, we had a distinct culture that, like, grew out of this sort of period of time when we were all slaves and, you know, we were trying to maintain and retain a lot of what we had brought with us – religious practices, you know, food, language, all of those things. And it’s meant a lot, I think; it meant alot as far as, like, understanding those diasporic connections, never having to strain to make them.
Kat: That land also brings with it a level of independence, of autonomy and privacy. A landlord with a grudge can’t just kick you off of it. It’s the epitome of safety, of security.
Lawrence-Sanders: You know, when you have your own land and your own property, it has meant like survival and self-sufficiency in many different contexts for Black folks over the time. Not necessarily in the like, you know, I have land. I'm going to get it. I'm going to sell it. You know, I'm going to make like ‘X’ amount of money, right. It’s for survival.
Kat: Lawrence-Sanders’ great-great-grandfather first bought the land around 1870, and back then, many people, especially Black people, didn’t create wills to establish formal ownership of the land for their next of kin. Often they were denied access to the legal system, or they didn’t trust it, or couldn’t afford it. So when her great-great-grandfather passed away, the land passed to his descendants, collectively, becoming what’s known as heirs’ property.
But heirs' property can be incredibly difficult to manage, keeping track of three or four generations of family; that’s dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people.
Lawrence-Sanders: It requires heirs to be in constant communication with each other. Or like, basically it really requires, like a handful of people to dedicate themselves to saying, we want to keep this land in the family and we're going to make sure that property taxes are paid.
Kat: And if family members disagree over what to do with the land, or if they can’t coordinate paying taxes, it can lead to protracted fights, even litigation. In fact, heirs’ property is one of the leading causes of land loss for marginalized and poor communities across the country.
For Lawrence-Sanders and her family, not only have they been able to hang on to their land, but in many ways it’s given them a more communal relationship with that land, precisely because there’s no one, single owner. It forces a conversation, a closeness between each other, and with the land.
Lawrence-Sanders: I think the idea of collective land ownership is antithetical to everything that's American, right? Our individual property rights. Our individual land. Our land, my land. Right? My land, you know, my property; that's so quintessentially American. So the idea of communal land ownership is completely against that, and I think that takes a lot of deprogramming.
Kat: Lawrence-Sanders says that communal ownership and collective use is part of what connects Black and Indigenous Land Back conversations. It’s a vision of land that focuses on maintaining community, tradition, culture, and family – not making money or getting rich. A lot of people have made money and gotten rich off of generations of Black and Indigenous families, she said. And until that history is reckoned with, there won’t be any possibilities for repair.
Lawrence-Sanders: And I think only then can we actually even imagine what a different South Carolina Lowcountry would look like. One that actually, like, is open economically, socially, and culturally to all peoples who want to be there, who have their family legacies there as well. Only then can we have repair.
Kat: For Lawrence-Sanders, reparations in South Carolina means redistributing the land of former plantations, it means cash payments, it means a lot of things.
Lawrence-Sanders: It means investment in the environment. No more placing the worst of the chemical plants in our communities, you know, that, you know, may be driving up cancer rates. It means protecting, you know, the culture of the people in the community. It means community-led educational resources, right. Community-led recreational spaces for young folks, more green spaces for young folks, you know, the protection of, sort of, green spaces and waterways within our communities. It means a lot of things. Cash first and land, you know, for those who want it. It would be expansive. Which is why people say it can't be done. But, you know, I don't believe that to be true.
Jameela: What’s even more frustrating about this, is when you factor in what’s happening with the climate; for marginalized communities, climate change hits differently. So many have been pushed to places where water is scarce or to where sea levels are rising, where stronger hurricanes pose greater and greater risks.
Kat: Yeah. In South Carolina’s Lowcountry, like in a lot of coastal areas, the government’s pressuring some communities to move, a process they’re calling ‘managed retreat.’ Other communities are trying to figure out how to move to higher ground on their own. People are leaving behind homes and cultural spaces where generations of their ancestors have lived.
Jameela: And of course, at the same time, a lot of people, when they think of coastal South Carolina, may think of sprawling hotels, resorts, and plush golf courses. It feels like a new seaside resort hotel is built every year.
Kat: That’s the paradox, isn’t it? How can some people be struggling to survive—their housing, their land, their safety and security all called into question on a daily basis—while others are prospering using industries, policies, and laws that are deeply rooted in extraction and inequality.
Jameela: And this is why, when we think about land justice and repair, it requires us to not just think about past harms and damage, but also the impacts this will have on our future—and specifically the future crises that we know are coming. Not all communities are going to weather these storms the same.
Kat: Exactly. And in some cases, that future is already here.
[music fades into sounds of heavy rainfall]
Jameela: Here in LA, it feels like if it’s not burning, it’s flooding. As I’m recording this, these giant cloud patterns called ‘atmospheric rivers’ are flowing over the state, giving us some of the most historic rains we’ve ever seen. It’s especially devastating in places that experienced recent wildfires. Those fires tore up massive root systems, and without that, erosion and mudslides are everywhere. Houses literally wash away.
On another U.S. coast, Plot of Land reporter Anya Groner lives with her family in New Orleans. Hearing her talk about the weather there makes it seem like they are never not in the middle of a natural disaster.
Anya: Hey Jameela; yeah, that’s exactly it. Almost two years ago, my family and I evacuated for Hurricane Ida. We stayed about 4 hours away in Alabama for 10 days, and for a lot of that time we didn’t know if our house was still standing, and if it was, when our power would come back.
[sound of wind, increasingly loud]
Anya: Hurricanes are becoming more and more frequent, and stronger. Scientists have even proposed a new ‘Category 6’ to describe storms with sustained winds of 185 miles-per-hour.
Jameela: Yeah, a few years ago the Woolsey Fire was raging near our house, and then smaller fires started popping up closer and closer. All of L.A. felt like it was on fire. We had all our bags packed, just waiting to evacuate. You’re just scrambling to pack passports, money, photos, clothes, whatever you can, whatever you might need. You don’t know how long you’ll be gone, or what you’ll come back to.
Anya: And all of this is happening at the same time as the U.S. is experiencing an energy crisis, severe inflation, a racial reckoning, and, of course, a debilitating housing crisis.
Daniel Aldana Cohen: Right now, the climate, the energy, the cost of living, and the white supremacy crises are converging in American homes.
Jameela: Daniel Aldana Cohen teaches at the University of California – Berkeley, and co-authored the book A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. Cohen said our housing and climate crises—they’re expected to get much worse.
Cohen: There's a study out saying that 13 million people will, by century’s end, be living on land that's completely underwater. But if you look at the number of people who will live on land that's going to flood once a year, then it's millions and millions more, maybe tens of millions more, depending on the climate demographer that you talk to.
Jameela: Add to that the millions who live in the areas with extreme wildfire risk, the danger of drought in the Southwest, the regions that experience four or more months a year with temperatures above a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot of people who will be displaced.
Cohen: I think we should actually expect to see something more like two or three Great-Migrations-worth of movement within the United States in the century. And that's not even talking about all the tens of millions of climate migrants that we should be welcoming in this country. So I think we're talking about an enormous, enormous movement of population.
Jameela: All those people will need housing. We talked to Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval about this. He represents the 1st District, which is basically a large swath of Philadelphia, and part of his campaign platform was treating housing as a human right, not a commodity. Saval said existing housing in the U.S. wasn’t built for the climate shifts we’re likely to see.
Senator Nikil Saval: It is certainly not designed to withstand the increase in temperatures. We’re expected to have an increase to about six degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century in Pennsylvania; that's higher levels of annual precipitation, expect an increase of about 8% in that same time period. You know, our housing is not designed for that.
Anya: To complicate things even further, housing in and of itself is a massive driver of climate change—one-sixth of carbon pollution comes from people’s homes.
Saval: Many of, much of our greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings generally - nearly 80% here in Philadelphia of our greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings – overwhelmingly housing again – as well, due to energy use, the fact is that many of our homes are connected to fossil fuels, to gas.
Jameela: It sounds like we can’t address one problem without worsening the other. What about trying to tackle both at the same time—climate and housing?
Anya: In 2022, Pennsylvania passed a bill Saval introduced called The Whole-Homes Repair Act. It allocates $125 million for homeowners and small landlords to weatherize and maintain aging homes. Each applicant could get up to $50,000, but that’s all just coming from the state. Is it enough?
Jameela: When Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, it put $369 billion towards adopting and boosting clean-energy sources, like wind and solar, while making moves to decarbonize the economy. But right now there’s still no overarching federal strategy to deal with housing and climate together.
Anya: So, yeah; right now, that kind of forward-thinking policy is really only happening at the local and state levels. But Saval says he sees the Whole-Homes Repairs Act as a starting point; it passed with bipartisan support and built a wide coalition of organizations behind it. For him, it’s proof that housing and climate can be tackled together.
Saval: I think there are more, more interesting kinds of coalitions to be built in terms that will really tackle the housing crisis as a fundamental part of so many different crises that we face; the climate crisis, the crisis of not caring sufficiently for our elderly population, you know, a crisis of health and safety when it comes to, say, lead abatement or the fact of high levels of pollution in people's homes.
Jameela: Some elected officials are working to make similar changes at the federal level. Dr. Cohen led the research team for the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. So far, only 22 representatives from the House and five from the Senate have signed on. But backers haven’t given up on the proposal, or its premise: to address the converging crises of housing, climate, and social inequality.
Cohen: The basic idea was to do a kind of green home improvement for every single unit of public housing in the country. This would have major health benefits for residents, um, we calculated that in New York it could reduce the incidence of asthma by about a third from stripping all the mold out of the public housing.
Jameela: Just like with FDR’s creation of the U.S. Housing Authority in the 1930s – which provided $500 million in loans for low-cost housing projects across the country – this program is also intended to create new jobs along with new housing.
Anya: Focusing on green infrastructure in low-income and low-wealth communities feels like a big deal. But, I’ve seen reports that show how, for communities facing displacement and gentrification, green infrastructure can actually be a liability.
Jameela: Yeah, Cohen said that in New York City, some of the most powerful and effective green movements are being organized in communities of color. And what happens, he said, is that they’ll win a major victory in their neighborhood…
Cohen: And then the developers come in, take advantage of all that work, and suddenly the very folks who put in that work to restore their communities, to undo some of those historic environmental injustices – now, some of those folks can't even afford to live there anymore. That's a horrible injustice.
Jameela: Unless the government addresses housing and climate together, it feels like these crises may continue to almost be weaponized against each other.
Cohen: And now what we're seeing is that there are a lot of folks in communities who are terrified that green investment in their neighborhoods will prompt displacement and will cause what scholars are terming now ‘green gentrification’. You cannot have racial justice, environmental justice, climate justice without housing justice.
Anya: So where do we go from here? How do we address climate and housing in a way that doesn’t leave anyone behind?
Chant Leader: I believe that we!
Group chants: I believe that we!
Chant Leader: I believe that we will win!
Group chants: [clapping] I believe that we will win! [clapping] I believe that we will win! [clapping] I believe that we will win!
Jameela: That’s KC Tenants, a city-wide tenant union in Kansas City, Missouri. Its founder and director Tara Raghuveer recently worked with Daniel Cohen to write a detailed plan to create more and invest in sustainable housing.
Tara Raghuveer: And we have a plan in there that starts to take a crack at what it looks like to repair the racist – the impacts of racism – in the housing space for the communities that have been the most impacted.
Jameela: KC Tenants has been building momentum. In 2019, they wrote and won a Tenants Bill of Rights to protect tenants facing eviction. And then in 2021, they secured a Tenants Right to Counsel.
Raghuveer: We sort of had to channel the spirit of if we don't get it, shut it down. There were moments that required of us a level of escalation that, uh - that, ultimately had us shutting down City Council proceedings.
Jameela: Then, in 2022, another opportunity to push for affordable housing came along.
Raghuveer: On the November ballot, there was going to be a question posed to residents in Kansas City, about authorizing a $50 million bond for, quote, ‘affordable housing’. And we were like, Okay, that sounds decent. What do we mean when we say ‘affordable’ though?
Jameela: When Tara and her colleagues read the bill, they didn’t think the bill went far enough.
Raghuveer: Because the City Council basically just approved a definition of affordable, that's $1,200 for a one-bedroom. And y'all, I love Kansas City, and ain't shit in Kansas City worth $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment. So, you know, their definition of ‘affordable’ is completely out of sync with what the people actually need.
Jameela: So KC Tenants pressured the City Council to rewrite the bill with them to ensure that whatever housing the city created was truly accessible. And the City Council agreed.
Raghuveer: We worked on this resolution, our leaders actually wrote it, we got it passed through City Council.
Jameela: Then they hit the streets to ensure that the bill would actually pass.
Raghuveer: So we recruited a canvas team, and we had a bunch of volunteers, knocking doors throughout the city for about 6 weeks, and we knocked on over 20,000 doors in Kansas City. And then on election day, we won.
Jameela: Tara’s being modest. They didn’t just win. They won in a landslide. Over 80% of voters supported the ballot measure. And that win means Kansas City now has a $50 million trust to create housing that’s actually affordable for people living at or below 30% of the city’s median income.
Raghuveer: That means around $550 for a one-bedroom apartment, or $750 for a three-bedroom. And that is the kind of housing that our people actually need.
Jameela: Of course, there’s still more work to be done. They have to make sure the money actually gets spent in the right ways. But KC Tenants holds two of the nine seats on the community board that oversees the funding, so the future is looking promising.
Raghuveer: We want Kansas City to be the first city in the country with municipal social housing; thousands of units publicly-financed and managed that are off of the private market and are designed to house the people, not designed to make the profiteers money.
Anya: And they’re planning to scale up this win, too, right?
Jameela: Yeah, exactly. They’re creating a national version.
Raghuveer: We have a proposal for a National Tenants Bill of Rights that would protect tenants, public housing residents, unhoused people in whatever situation they're in, whether it's social or in the private market.
Jameela: And they’re not alone.
Anya: Senator Saval is advocating to continue eviction diversion programs set up during the first years of the pandemic. Pro-tenant legislation like this could really tip the balance of power away from speculators, as could another national platform called the Homes Guarantee. Here’s Daniel Cohen.
Cohen: And national tenant movements like the Homes Guarantee Campaign really had a voice in shaping the conversation in 2020 elections. So I think we're finally at a turning point now, in the early 2020s, where conversations about housing justice are kind of getting their rightful place as a top-tier issue in national politics.
Jameela: Tara Raghuveer said the Homes Guarantee aims to create housing solutions outside of the private market.
Raghuveer: Within the Homes Guarantee, we have a proposal for millions, tens of millions of units of social housing, built and managed forever by the public sector off of the private market, not available for speculation.
Cohen: Social housing means sort of mixed-income housing, high-quality housing at very affordable rates, really targeted to everyone from folks with, you know, little or no money who may even be, you know, unhoused all the way up to people in the middle-class, middle-income levels.
Anya: Social housing, also known as public housing. Today public housing has a bad image, but that’s largely due to disinvestment. When public housing first began in the United States, it was designed to be high-quality housing for a range of income levels. Here’s Tara.
Raghuveer: We started disinvesting systematically from that system, and then perversely, blamed the impacts of that disinvestment on the victims of the disinvestment rather than acknowledging that the disinvestment itself had caused the buildings to fall apart, crime to enter the buildings, etc., right.
Jameela: And then stigma started building around public housing and the people who live in it. But in other countries that have invested in public housing, and have maintained that investment over years and generations, that stigma is basically non-existent. People are excited to live in it. Here’s Senator Saval.
Saval: Cities like Vienna or in Paris, you actually have major investments in beautiful public housing, and much of the best housing is public housing, or social housing, as they call it. And it attracts the best architects. It is often, you know, their increasing emphasis on it being low or low-carbon or net-zero carbon and, you know, just not a burden on the environment.
Anya: The vast difference between American and European public housing isn’t accidental; it’s the consequence of decades of lobbying by the real estate industry.
Cohen: Ah, but of course, what the real estate industry isn't worried about is that public housing will be bad. What the real estate industry is terrified of is that public housing will be good. Because then it’ll have to compete with it.
Jameela: High-quality, high quantity public housing that’s at least as good, if not better, than private housing is exactly what advocates like Tara Raghuveer and Daniel Cohen are hoping for.
Cohen: I think the most powerful form of public policy is policy you can touch. And I think if poor and working-class Americans, and especially Americans of color, can touch affordable housing policy in the form of, like, a really nice, high-quality apartment that is going to help keep them safe from climate change, that does not emit carbon pollution, and that they can afford to live in, then I think that is going to really help build the narrative and help build the political constituency for doing even more.
Anya: Social housing, Tara said, provides a public solution for a public problem.
Raghuveer: We live in the richest country in the history of the world, we can and we must guarantee that everyone has a home. We've become so reliant on the private market, the federal government has absolved its responsibility to house the people, to the extent that now we cannot imagine solutions for housing the people that don't further entrench us in the private market. That's not right.
Jameela: Plot of Land began as a conversation about how we address unjust systems and policies. Right now, throughout the country, our strategies, our funding streams, our collective imaginations, they all feel limited, almost tapped out. And we get it. We’re in such a precarious place on all fronts, I mean it’s everywhere you look, right? And it's scary and, honestly, overwhelming.
So with Plot of Land we wanted to not just show the collective impact of generational harm, but more importantly, we wanted to pull back, and uncover exactly how this harm was created, and by whom. Because what we’re dealing with today is the product of choices, made by real people, people who built systems to serve the few, rather than the many; people who created institutions to uphold long legacies of exploitation and extraction. And people who have made us believe that all of this is the natural working order of things. That all of this, is inevitable.
We realized that to really address these problems, I mean in any sort of meaningful way, we need a massive force. They’re just too big, too entrenched. Solutions to these problems require the force that only governments can muster. And as a country, we can do big things, and we can do big things quickly. We know this because we’ve done them before.
But doing this—creating real, lasting solutions to our current problems—will require us to radically change how we approach policy and practice. It will require us to reckon with, and reimagine, the racist and classist systems that have prevented us from enacting fair and just policies. We can ensure safe and livable homes for everyone. We can protect families and communities in places where they’re rooted and striving to remain. We can ensure that land is stewarded by those who will protect its future.
Plot of Land was created because, if we want a better world, a more just future, or simply a livable planet, we have to understand how we got here. We must unearth and examine the roots of the systems we live with. And we must interrogate those choices and policies governments have enacted. None of this happened by accident. None of this was inevitable. It's been a plot in all three senses. It’s a plan. It’s a narrative. And it’s a claim on earth. It’s a plot of land.