The CNS as Autotopography

The students, faculty, and staff at The Cooperative New School for Urban Studies and Environmental Justice (The CNS) are practicing a form of autotopography. We are creating an educational institution that responds to our needs and interests, and reflects our values. My introduction to the concept of autotopography comes from the book Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City (Reynolds and Cohen 2016, 43-44), in which it is defined as "a practice through which people use agriculture and landscape management to create a familiar space in new surroundings."

Reynolds and Cohen (2016) relate the concept of autotopography to active resistance of cultural oppression through two examples from New York City. Granja Los Colibries, a project of La Unión whose 600-membership is primarily composed of immigrants from the Mixteca region of Mexico. La Unión focuses on the advancement of social, economic, and cultural rights both of its members in New York City and in their countries of origin. Members transformed a lot between two neighborhood apartment buildings into a cooperatively operated community garden. Members' traditional farming practices are adapted to the urban environment and knowledge about farming is shared, especially with the youth who are less experienced with agriculture.

Reynolds and Cohen (2016, 44) write that "Farming and gardening in this sense are important not only because they help the farmers themselves maintain a part of their agricultural heritage (in addition to supplementing fresh food available to their families) but also because they help participants resist the loss of culture-specific knowledge that often follows immigration to a new cultural setting."

A second example comes from Abu Talib of Taqwa Community Farm, who shares with children and adult members alike knowledge from his African American farming heritage accumulated through his early years of growing food in the rural South.

Autotopography is one lens among many to imagine and more effectively communicate new visions for urban places rooted in environmental justice.

It was one of four concepts discussed in the webinar I facilitated for The CNS this past July titled Agroecology in the Context of Urban Agriculture and Food Justice. One of the participants -- and a faculty-owner at The CNS -- Susan Diane Mitchell brought my understanding of autotopography to a whole other level:

According to Mieke Bal, cultural theorist and critic, autotopography is "spatial, local and situational 'writing' of the self's life in visual art." Agroecology can be auto-topographical, as the land, growing cycles of plants, water flows, and color are the art itself, using or collaborating with the elements to form a living expression of culture, and identity. On our very small urban farm, we have formed trellises with bamboo rescued from an alley cut, and cucumber vines trails across them languidly, dripping green vessels of the water rich cucumbers. We take pictures of the farm in all kinds of light and angles, deliberately placing our urbanity and the narrative of Dynamite Hill as the backdrop or canvas. Similarly, the sunflower as our symbol and something we plant and will plant with abundance throughout the land trust is beautiful art against the backdrop of postindustrial Birmingham. The sun shining through the rich stalks of ruby red Swiss chard, beets tops and pokeweed, and the warm richness of eggplants hanging with deep purple fruit is delightful to the senses, healing, and evokes pleasure. I have written myself into the land through the careful placement of growing sites, objects, and the food itself, in the naming of farm from my own lived experience and heart’s desire, creating a symbiosis of the farm, animals and insects, nature spirits, and we humans. The result is magical space, a spot of wild beauty and gifting on land still traumatized by over 20 years of bombings.

I hope you'll join Susan Diane Mitchell on Saturday, August 26 from 1-3pm central time for her webinar titled Cooperatives and Community Land Trusts. As Susan writes in her introduction to the webinar,

This workshop will give an interactive overview of worker-owned cooperatives and community land trusts by chronicling the histories of the cooperative and CLT movements globally, and particularly in the South. We will discuss the real-time journey of the Dynamite Hill- Smithfield CLT, the first CLT in Jefferson County, AL, and to use it as a working model for community development practitioners to "play" with constructing a CLT from a grassroots level.

Don't miss it.