Striving for Reparations: Land, Food, and Self-Determination in the North Philly Peace Park
In 2012, a group of folks from the African American neighborhood of Sharswood, Philadelphia, got tired of walking by trash filled vacant lots and used their creativity, hard work and passions to turn one of them into the North Philly Peace Park. This fence free park built for neighbors by neighbors was founded with giant garden in the shape of a peace sign. Here people could pick food for free and gather in vibrant community to teach children, share wisdom, and connect with each other in positive ways. In this neighborhood with more than 50% of people living in poverty and with an 80% unemployment rate, the North Philly Peace Park became a space for people to help each other out and model the future they want to live in. The park embodies the practices of self determination and cooperative economics, and is an example of reparations in action. It has made the community richer in many ways.
Brother Tommy Joshua Caison is one of the founders, and current Director of this park. Inspired by his sister and their Gullah Geechee heritage, they worked together with a self proclaimed “motley crew of folks” to create the first North Philly Peace Park, and fought like mad to save it when the Housing Authority evicted them in 2015. Brother Tommy, as he is known, became a visible leader for the park and helped to rebuild it on a new plot of leased land a few blocks from their original location. The park and community are still thriving and growing. They will break ground on a new collaboratively designed school house to host their education programs this summer.
In April 2019, Brother Tommy was in New Haven, CT for an Environmental Leadership Residency at Common Ground High School and Urban Farm. I met up with him there to hear more about The North Philly Peace Park; in particular, how their ways of leading from within and their connection with the land are healing some of the harms inflicted on their African American Community.
A Glimpse of the North Philly Peace Park
Pictures and quotes thanks to The North Philly Peace Park!
Below: “Drilling Protest Pic: Friends and Supporters of the North Philly Peace Park gathered on January 6th 2019 for commemoration of the Winter Clash. Back On January 6th 2015, community supporters of the North Philly Peace Park successfully mobilized to repel a team of drillers from the community's land. The January 6th clash marked the first necessity of defense of the park in our then 3 and half year history and was a major turning point in the revolutionary struggle in Peace Town centered around African American community land rights and local democratic community control.”
Above left: The original "earthship” school house built by the community with tires, concrete, bottles and wood. Above right: “Inside school house: Known affectionately as the ‘little hut’, ‘tire house’ even ‘spaceship’ but most popularly as simply “the earthship”, the original Sala Nkrumah Community schoolhouse at the North Philly Peace Park was completed by August/September 2014 just in time for the first Philadelphia Urban County Fair. The ground was actually leveled and staked out at the twilight of the 2013 growing season when the project begin. At that time workers at the park learned about earthship technology and sustainable building techniques from our friend Brother Bonzai Holmes and together with the children, teens adults and seniors of the neighborhood and about a thousand volunteers, we built the original Sala Nkrumah Community Schoolhouse, the first earthship-style construction in an urban environment. Educators were soon hired to teach and 168 youth would eventually receive STEAM-DEK based instructions within and around it's colorful tire circumference. Although the wonderful little structure no longer stands, a casualty of predatory urban redevelopment, the entire experience has been a game changer for the working-class people of North Philadelphia. The people now know the power that lies in their own revolutionary unity and cooperation to make our neighborhoods safe, decent and beautiful places to live.” Photos and text from The North Philly Peace Park
Above: “NPPP Design Team member and Schoolhouse Project Manager Sister Maya L. Thomas at the park…reviewing some blueprints with fellow Peace Parkers. We just don’t talk community inclusion we practice it every single day.” Check out this article on their collaborative design process. and this article on Afrofurtism and the New Era of the North Philly Peace Park
Brother Tommy Joshua Caison’s Environmental Leadership Residency at Common Ground High School & Urban Farm
Reflections from students Dayanara Chacon, Ana Reyes, and DeaMonte Godley - students who were part of the selection committee that chose Brother Tommy to be the Environmental Leader in Residence.
"Tommy was in our unit launch, talking about Earth Ships, sustainability, and the work he’s done in Philadelphia. He talked about repurposing tires to create gardens. He talked a lot about public health. I liked being with him the most -- he talked about how we can fix thing, not just how he’s done it. He’s a good talker." - Ana Reyes
“He came into our guidances and shared some of his experience. He chose me to share out my future dream, how I am doing, and what I want to be. It helped me figure out my senior project -- I want to create a grading app that will help students get feedback faster. His presentation at the community potluck was really good and important.” - DeaMonte Godley
"He taught us about beautification -- how something old like a tire can contribute to a beautiful community. He was talking about a spot in his community where kids used to do bad things, and the changes in that place he made. That inspired me as a senior project. He let us contribute, by putting dirt in the tires, how to make walls out of it. He also taught us some slang from where he’s from … He was good at connecting with the students, he was using slang that I use." - Dayanara Chacon
Many thanks to Brother Tommy for making time to do this interview and sharing so honestly from his heart, and to Joel Tolman at Common Ground High School for making it possible and being an awesome human!