Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Clustering "Social" Justice in Southwest Georgia

By Christa Tinsley Spaht, Project Manager.

Over Labor Day weekend I ended up taking a last-minute trip to Americus, a small town in Sumter County of southwest Georgia. I spent the rest of September trying to figure out what I had just seen in that place—what was started there, what is growing there—and what it could mean for Americus and for small, rural towns in general.

Americus has a lot in common with its neighboring counties—agriculture as a huge share of the local economy, the challenges of its distance (about 30 miles) from a major interstate, stagnant population change, high child poverty rates, historically uneasy race relations that still linger, retail leakage to bigger cities, and the constant fear of losing the community’s best and brightest talent, never to return.

A few assets like a small university (Georgia Southwestern State University), a technical college, and a steady stream of tourists visiting Jimmy Carter’s hometown (nearby Plains) and the Andersonville Civil War prison make Americus stand out in the region and give it national recognition.

But there’s some even more unusual, overlapping economic and social activity if you can dig deeper than well-preserved Victorian architecture and the signage directing you to National Historic Sites.

Jimmy Carter—arguably (depending on how big a fan of George Washington Carver you are) the world’s most famous peanut farmer—was born and ran his family farm nearby in Plains. But really Americus’ catalyst—what put it on the map before President Carter’s political ascent—was Koinonia Farm, a social justice-driven Christian farming community which inspired the founding of Habitat for Humanity International. Americus is now home to the global headquarters of Habitat for Humanity (while the national headquarters have relocated to Atlanta) and its Global Village and Discovery Center, which teaches about poverty and housing issues around the world.

Beyond the pecans and peanuts Koinonia ships all over the world and the constant influx of individuals and groups coming to work on the farm, the agricultural roots of the region have also grown processed products for distribution, such as the spirits of Thirteenth Colony Distilleries (Georgia’s only craft distillery) and CafĂ© Campesino, a fair trade organic coffee roaster. All of these places are open for tours, exposing to visitors the craft and process of what they make.

In the midst of this socially-responsible coffee bean roasting and egalitarian pecan picking is an active social life in the community that defies the small town stereotype. This isn’t just kid-centered fun I’m talking about. For example, as a source of income, the very involved Sumter Historic Trust runs a members-only “all adult” pool where Americus’ grown-ups can go swimming and sunbathing in peace all summer long. This is a place where judges, business owners, homemakers, teachers, non-profit workers, and executives mingle between laps and over pool noodles.

What does this intersection of social justice organizations, farming and food, and a very social environment mean for a place like Americus? Could a specialty food cluster like Asheville’s or Boulder’s be birthed in southwest Georgia—but this time, with a heavy social justice bent? I can’t help but see the lively interactions of Americus—whether at a Christian farming commune or a strip of downtown bars—as part of the “social” in social justice, and the reason food and drink (which are always better when shared among friends and family) could make it known as an even more special place and ripe for true clustering activity. In the meantime, I’ll hope that maybe one of our hotshot social, economic, and urban theorists--Richard Florida? Robert Putnam?--will study whatever it is that’s going on in Americus.