why we do what we do?
Simply put, we walk the red road like our tobacco-farming ancestors.
Subsistence farming families of the Upper Saura Towns have been tending to fertile river valleys surrounding Joamoke and the “Saura Town Mountains” since time immemorial; utilizing sacred waters to connect the sacred tobacco plant with communities of faith across Abya Yala. The landscapes that we continue to steward have been documented by European explorers, from early Iberian soldiers in the 16th century to John Lederer of Hamburg (1669), as well as men of the Virginia Colony including Peter Jefferson (1753) and Peter “Saura Town” Hairston (1786).
Today, we continue to tend food forests for our community elders, advocating for the soil and water to be free of industrial waste, preserving diverse cultural assets in the region, and maintaining land management traditions as well as cross-cultural, faith-based, relationships that transcend contemporary municipal boundaries. One of our biggest projects right now is our oral history work, capturing our elders’ stories about language, cultural landscapes, and living traditions for future generations.
Development without Displacement
“Our capacity-building work began with families in post-industrial port cities. The goal for us is to create safe spaces for cultural exchange in the public as well as within institutions that are less familiar with the interdependence of the American story. .”
building capacity & self-awareness
Our elders teach us that unprocessed stress has the potential to change us, on an anatomical level, if we are not able to maintain relations with family and a community of faith. We are of the belief that movement without self-awareness, as well as impact awareness, rests at the foundation of so many of the environmental challenges we are faced with today. Poor self-awareness leads to dissociated institutional management of processes that were once managed by people; it is the ‘industrialization of environmental stewardship’ that has an adverse impact on landscapes and cultures.
We continue to see this pattern first-hand in our homelands in the Saura Town Mountains; we stand in solidarity with groups the world over that continue to maintain faith after centuries of pollution due to industrial development, land loss, and erasure.
Our capacity building work began in the port-cities of Brooklyn (New York), Buffalo (New York) and Philadelphia (Pennsylvania); our family has had a presence in Brooklyn since at least 1937, working alongside land stewards, NGOs and communities of faith to ensure safety for underserved families. We saw our fathers, brothers, and sons drafted off to war, under the threat of imprisonment, in the years leading up to WWII; landscapes, agrarian culture, and American families have never been the same since.
As a community of tobacco farmers, only moving away from the lands of our ancestors when we were forced to do so through coercion, we have had the opportunity to see the impact that industrial development has had on people and places over time. It has become necessary for us to work alongside diverse coalitions, located across post-industrial landscapes, to take on the shared responsibility of environmental restoration. The first step in this process, for us, is hearing people’s stories from their own perspectives; our capacity-building work since 2016, in the Historic German Township section of Philadelphia County, has centered on improving access to the institutions (libraries, museums, galleries, etc.) that are invested in creating safe spaces for diverse groups to fellowship around genealogical research as well as landscape history.
The Sally Blagg Family Foundation is named in honor of our shared ancestor (Sally Blagg); a medicine woman in the household of Peter “Saura Town” Hairston. Her son, indentured to his father’s estate by the status of his birth (see “Partus sequitur ventrem”), would marry a woman named Edy of the Saura tradition. The same colonial Virginia law that indentured Sally Blagg and her son Tip, resulted in the de jure freedom of Tip and Edy’s children; their mother being documented as a ‘free person of color.’ The complexity of our story is not unique, all families have histories that are nuanced and our foundation is committed to supporting the telling of fuller stories and the maintenance of subsequent subsistence farming traditions.
Since 2008, our sitting managing director has been convening subject matter experts that live, work and play in urban as well as rural post-industrial communities. The intent was to gain a dynamic understanding of the urban-rural divide as it continues to present itself in Erie County (New York). Our approach begins with our leadership team taking up residence in the places that we seek to build capacity, we then engage institutional partners based on the advice of our neighbors, in this manner our quality of life improves alongside other families inside of the landscapes and our neighbors are able to manage efforts in our absence. We are positioned as strategic partners in the community capacity building process, not to build dependance but to be the support for the natural restoration process as it takes root.
At the intersection of People & Place
Our focus on narrative-keeping in the preservation process is essential as it has been the mishandling of first-person narratives throughout history that has led to abuse, coercion, manipulation, and the ongoing suppression of voices. We commit to the creation of safe spaces for cultural exchange, for accountability partnership inside of our shared narratives, for a better tomorrow.