Introducing the Good Ground Initiative

TLC is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of our work. We believe that our goal of sharing land conservation benefits with every single person in the Triangle cannot be reached without actively working to end systemic racism, which for centuries has led to ongoing inequities in access to enjoyment and ownership of land.

North Carolina is home to a long lineage of Indigenous and Black land stewards who, even today, are scarcely reflected in land ownership and agriculture. In 1920, Black farmers owned 14 percent of American farms but own just over 1 percent today[1].

Field at Horton Grove

Horton Grove Preserve – photo by Jessie Birckhead

In 1997, a North Carolina farmer brought what would become the largest civil rights class action lawsuit in our country’s history. Leveled against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Pigford v. Glickman case uncovered systemic discrimination against Black farmers and helped lay the groundwork for two decades of further legal action by Indigenous, Latinx, and female farmers.

While monetary relief flowed from these settlements, structural change was not forthcoming. Today, 98 percent of farmland is owned by white producers and much of it is under threat of development. Without a concerted, long-term effort, this profound inequity will continue to burden not only rural communities but American agriculture and land stewardship for generations to come.

TLC has protected more than 4,000 acres of farmland since 1983 in the Triangle region, which is under enormous pressure from development. Between 2001 and 2016, more than 731,600 acres of agricultural land in North Carolina were developed or compromised.[2] On the 46,000 farms that remain in the state, there are five times as many farmers over the age of 65 as under 35.

In 2016, TLC hired a third party to complete an equity audit, which revealed several areas for improvement that have guided TLC’s conduct as an employer, community representative, and recreational resource. We’ve taken important steps on our racial equity journey, but there is more work to be done to reach TLC’s vision of turning organizational resources and power into equitable access to conservation and stewardship benefits for every member of our community.

Justice Loop Trail Sign

Justice Loop at Horton Grove Preserve. Photo by Don Kinney.

At our nature preserves, we’ve worked to help tell the story of the land. When TLC opened Horton Grove Nature Preserve in 2012, we named the trails in honor of the descendants of enslaved Black people who were forced to live and work on the land for generations. We’re also working to document and share the histories of Black and Indigenous communities at the Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve. Uncovering and understanding this history has made it impossible to ignore the people who stewarded, cultivated, and cared for the lands we now conserve without official recognition in the ownership structure or a share in the wealth that land yields.

After several years of exploring issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion as an organization and individually, TLC staff and board were emboldened by the groundswell of support for addressing racial inequity that resulted from the protests of 2020. Working with numerous partners, TLC is developing a proposal to address three problems in the Triangle:

  • Rapid loss of farmland
  • Land retention barriers and lack of land ownership by African American, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian people
  • Unattainable land prices or leases that don’t provide equity for those seeking farms to grow food

With one solution: using conservation tools to provide farmers and foresters of color access to conserved land at prices unaffected by development potential.

Funding from Self-Help Credit Union enabled TLC to engage outside expertise to conduct a feasibility study and create an equitable structure to serve as the basis of the Good Ground Initiative. After a public request for proposals and careful search, we selected Seeds of Change Consulting to design and carry out the study.

LaShauna Austria, founder and principal of Seeds of Change Consulting, is a farmer herself who has assisted multiple local and state-level food and farming initiatives. She integrates an understanding of racial equity as applied to the food system in order to help organizations develop policies and campaigns that promote equity and inclusion for historically excluded stakeholders. Austria is a co-founder of the Saxapahaw Social Justice Exchange and the Alamance Racial Equity Alliance (AREA), where she currently sits on the board. She also founded Kindred Seedlings Farm, where she produces culinary herbs, seedlings, and herbal teas.

Jean Willoughby, lead consultant, has spent more than ten years in economic development and working with farmers and land trusts around the country. Her work has focused on bringing together traditional conservation tools, new legal models, and innovative investment strategies to support small and mid-scale growers. Willoughby has collaborated with multiple organizations and Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Southeast Asian leaders and organizers on initiatives to support land ownership and retention for growers who represent a wide array of experiences in farming and food business development.

Austria and Willoughby met through training with the Racial Equity Institute and are both deeply involved in community and institutional organizing. Driven by the insights of organizers such as Fannie Lou Hamer and historians such as Pete Daniel and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the two have dedicated their lives and careers to advancing land justice and racial equity.

Ahmad Almakky is a student at Duke University in the Masters of Environmental Management program who will also be joining the Good Ground project for the semester through the Duke Practicum in Community-Based Environmental Management. He has worked on several community-based sustainable development projects and wildlife conservation initiatives throughout Pakistan, where he is originally from. Ahmad will be helping conduct research on the tools TLC could potentially use to address racial inequity in the Triangle.

Phase 1

Austria and Willoughby’s multi-phase approach kicked off at the beginning of this year and will continue in three phases. The focus of Phase 1 is information gathering through stakeholder interviews and data analysis to test the feasibility of the proposed program as well as stakeholder interest and capacity for participation. It will also incorporate partner organizations already engaged in important conversations around land justice and equity in the food systems to ensure that TLC’s efforts uplift and contribute to current initiatives.

Phase 2 will use the information gathered from the community in Phase 1 to inform detailed development of the Good Ground Initiative. Conservation tools will be adapted to address the gaps identified in Phase 1, while conforming to Land Trust Alliance accreditation and IRS 501c3 standards. Pending the results of Phase 1, the Good Ground team and staff will design a structure, identify program partners, develop protocols, and outline staffing requirements for a pilot project.


Help Inform the Good Ground Initiative

If you would like to support our work by contributing information or resources to inform our research, or you know of organizations or individuals you’d recommend we reach out to, please fill out this form!

…A sower went out to sow her seed
And as she sowed
Some fell on Good Ground
From it the plants did grow
From it the flowers bloomed
And in due time
Came forth bearing fruit
A hundredfold

-Toshi Reagon

[1] From 15 Million Acres to 1 Million: How Black People Lost Their Land

[2] American Farmland Trust Farms Under Threat: State of the States Report

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