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Community cooperatives and Black sustainability: an interview with Khadijah Austin

Khadijah Austin (center) with AFSC staff and community members at a community garden work day in Atlanta. Photo: / AFSC

Khadijah Austin joined AFSC’s Peace by Piece program (PXP) in Atlanta in 2015. After graduating from Agnes Scott College in 2011 with a BA in History, Khadijah was a pre-school teacher with the YWCA of Greater Atlanta and taught in a wide variety of other settings. Originally from St. Louis, Khadijah is co-coordinator with Joel Dickerson for Peace by Piece Atlanta. There are also Peace by Piece programs in New Orleans, Baltimore, San Diego, and Mississippi. In late 2015, Peace by Piece received a donation of three houses in need of repair in Baltimore, New Orleans, and Atlanta to be used as hubs for community organizing. The Atlanta house is located in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta. The following is edited excerpts of our conversation.

Genevieve Beck-Roe (GBR): Tell me how you became the program co-coordinator for Peace by Piece in Atlanta.

Khadijah Austin (KA): (Laughs) Everybody usually likes this story. I was volunteering with PXP and all of a sudden they asked me to go to Highlander for an AFSC youth gathering. Of course I wasn't going to turn that down, but I was teaching, and it was difficult because I had a whole classroom full of students. I didn't know how I was going to pull it off. I told my job about the opportunity, and they supported me and let me go which was really great.

While I was there I was surrounded by so many different activists and community organizers and people who were really doing the kind of work I wanted to do, the kind of work I dreamt about doing. I absolutely love teaching, but at the same time, I felt like something was missing. When I was at Highlander I spoke about how I felt I was at a crossroads. I started crying because I saw everyone there doing exactly what they wanted to do with their lives. It was such a loving feeling because we were in a group circle, and I was crying, and everyone was hugging me, and they just told me, “Well, then do it. It’s time for you to do that, it’s time for you to make that change.” It clicked for me, and I realized that if organizing was something that I wanted to do I needed to pursue it at all costs.

When I got back to my job I wrote up a two-month resignation notice. I didn't have another job or anything else in mind, but I knew I wanted to be in this field. I wanted to give back to my community. I wanted to get into activism. Initially, my employer, she didn't really believe it. She said, “Oh, you don't have another job. That's not the smart decision. How about you just stay?” And I said “No, this is not what I want to do.”  After that I was looking for jobs non-stop until a position here opened up. I applied, and I got it, and that happened within three weeks of me putting in my letter of resignation.

It was one of those magical moments. I felt like it was God-ordained, like this was how I was supposed to get on the path of organizing. You don't understand how happy I was my first day here. This was exactly where I wanted to be.

AFSC staff in Atlanta

GBR: What are some of the things you’re currently working on with Peace by Piece Atlanta?

KA:  I'm really excited about the house. It has a lot of potential. There’s a garden that's right next door that’s owned by the city, but we’re the caretakers of the land. I think about what can come out of that. There’s a huge food desert out where the house is. Within that area there is a huge need for some kind of Black-led sustainability movement, for a greater availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. These are places that we can heal.

The house is going to be a community space. If a community member teaches dance and that is something they want to share, this is a space for them to do so. We want the house to be there to empower the community and to give the power back to them. The house is a meeting place for that to happen. I'm excited to really get that vision off the ground.

We've been meeting with a lot of community groups and community members and everyone is excited. Right now we're working on starting a computer coding program, a coding cooperative, and a farming cooperative. Through having these cooperative programs and having this house really centered on community, it shows that we rise together.

Khadijah and Joel Dickerson, co-coordinators of Peace by Piece Atlanta, speaking to the community at the community garden

GBR: What did you learn about youth organizing from your teaching experience? 

KA: My teaching experience taught me about the need for elevated youth voices. I was the type of teacher that listened whole-heartedly to my students and what they had to say. I wasn't one of those teachers that felt as though I knew better.

So many youth are taught, “Oh, be quiet, the adults are working,” as if they don't have a real opinion. What bothers me most is that they are so smart, and they are so capable. They have such strong opinions, and as adults we tend to stifle those. We tell them to be quiet or “it's not the time.” No! It is the time!

Some of the other teachers didn't like being in my class, because my students, if they didn't necessarily want to do something they'd be like “Hey, I don't really want to do this,” and I would listen to them as to why. I wanted them to be able to express themselves and express their opinions. I wanted them to be able to challenge the status quo. If your whole life you've been taught, “No, no, you can't decide what to do because you're not old enough or you're not a teacher or you're not in this position and you don't know better,” then you're going to go with the flow, to go with what's going on, and you’re not going to be able to step outside of that and challenge the world that we live in. How can we make the world a better place if we're not challenging it? If we're not looking at its flaws and speaking to those?

GBR: It sounds like Spirit has guided you throughout this work, but what nourishes your spirit about the work?

KA: Being with the people. My own personal belief is that God is a part of every single last one of us, and we are all a part of God. So to be able to talk to people is just another extension of talking to God. When I talk to people in the community, I talk to them with respect and love and care because they’re a part of God, and I'm part of God. We all come from that same place, we all come from that love, so who am I to talk to you any other way?

AFSC staff from the Southern Region

Seeing people change nourishes me. I watched the interns transition as they went through the program. I saw their spirits activate. I saw something light up in their eyes. I saw them know who they really are and the potential they have. That’s what makes everything worth it. That’s what gets me up in the morning.

With regards to Spirit and what nourishes me, it’s definitely people and interactions because essentially it’s all a connection with God. What I seek every day is to have a stronger and stronger connection with God, and what better way to do that than to be with the people?

GBR: What are your hopes and dreams for the future of Peace by Piece Atlanta?

KA: My hope for Peace by Piece Atlanta is for it to be a model for community cooperatives and Black sustainability. We want to bring people up from inside the community and encourage people to work collectively to bring each other up. It can start in the Pittsburgh community but then maybe it can also go to the Mechanicsville neighborhood or in different communities not just in Atlanta but throughout the U.S. That's how I see it, and that's how I envision it going forward.

I see members in the community really working on the farm and not working on it for us but working on it for themselves. I see us eventually being able to give this to the community and not keep this for our own. I would love for the house to be a youth community center where it is a safe space for youth to come and learn from their community members – for them to learn knowledge from inside, to gain strength, to learn more about their culture, their heritage, to know who they are and their capabilities – to give them the knowledge that, through cooperatives and through changing the way that we work within this economy, we can all come up together. Right now things are fragmented in such a way that we think we can only come up alone because if I help you then I won’t have enough. But that isn’t true. We can all have enough if we work towards it together. My goal for Peace by Piece is to be able to share that with everyone, and let everyone know that this is how we heal.

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About the Author

Genevieve Beck-Roe is serving as the Friends Relations Fellow with AFSC as part of Quaker Voluntary Service's Alumni Fellowship for 2015-16. Genevieve grew up in Chicago and graduated in 2014 from Earlham College.