Gramdan in America

Around 1966, a pair of men who were to become two of the most influential intellectual leaders of the community land trust in the United States were introduced to one another by a mutual friend.  Ralph Borsodi, aged 80, had just returned to the United States after Raplh Borsodifour years abroad teaching economics at the University of Bob SwannAmedabad in India. Bob Swann, aged 48, had spent the previous five years working as a full-time peace activist at the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), while living at the CNVA farm at Voluntown, Connecticut.  The two men formed an immediate attachment.

One of the things they had in common was a keen interest in the work of Bhave, who was doing in India something similar to what Borsodi had tried to achieve thirty years earlier. Vinoba Bhave But Vinoba Bhave was doing it on a massive scale.   His  “Village Gift” program – the the Gramdan Movement – was redistributing land by accepting donations from wealthy landowners, placing those rural lands into a village trust, and then leasing out individual parcels to impoverished families.  By the time Borsodi left India, more than 160,000 Gramdan villages had been established.

Borsodi saw in the Gramdan Movement an affirmation of his own ideas about rebuilding rural economies on the basis of self-sufficient villages on leased land.  Returning to the United States, he settled in Exeter, New Hampshire and began thinking about starting a new organization to provide training and technical assistance for people who were interested in promoting rural development along the lines he had witnessed in India.  Bob Swann proved to be an enthusiastic audience for these ideas and an eager partner in helping to create the organization that Borsodi had in mind.

Ill Officers-1967

In 1966, soon after they met, Borsodi and Swann organized a conference presenting the Gramdan model of rural development and Borsodi’s plans for creating an institute that might seed and supportthat model in the United States. The next year, they founded the International Independence Institute.  Borsodi became chairman of the board and the executive director.  Also on the Institute’s founding board were Erick S. Hansch, Henry Bailey Stevens, Jean Rau, Harriet K. Greer, and Richard S. Dewey.  Hansch, a friend of Bordosi’s from Portland, Oregon joined Borsodi on the Institute’s staff.  He was named “assistant field director for Latin America.” Bob Swann, who continued living at Voluntown after meeting Borsodi, was named the other field director and charged with laying the foundation for a Gramdan Movement in America.

In October 1967, Borsodi and Swann traveled together to LuxembourgFirst III Logo and London. In Luxembourg they incorporated yet another organization to complement the work of the Exeter-based International Independence Institute. It was named the International Foundation for Independence. According to its charter, the purpose of this second corporation was “to promote a world-wide social reformation to be based upon the theory that priority must be given … to the development of agriculture, local arts, local crafts, local enterprises, and local industries, and that the development of these basic social institutions should not be sacrificed to promote urbanism and industrialism.” In Borsodi’s expansive vision, the Foundation would raise capital by issuing “notes and other instruments of indebtedness” and then loan these funds on reasonable terms to agricultural projects and rural villages in India, Latin America, and undeveloped regions in the United States, especially the rural South.

Slater KingBy 1968, Swann was hard at work trying to realize the Institute’s dream of importing the Gramdan model to America.  Several years before, he had met two brothers in Albany, Georgia, Slater and C.B. King, who had shown interest in the possibility of creating a cooperative agricultural community on leased land that could become a basis for economic development in the African American community.  He had met Charles Sherrod, who had arrived in Albany in 1961 as a field organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose interest in community ownership of land arose out a concern for African American sharecroppers and tenants who were being forced off the land in retaliation for registering to vote.

And Swann had met Fay Bennett, executive secretary of the NationalFay Bennett Sharecroppers Fund (NSF) and a seasoned veteran of many struggles for social justice in the South.  She had attended the conference that Borsodi and Swann had organized in 1966 discussing the Gramdan model.  Soon after the International Independence Institute was formed, she joined its board.

These individuals came together over the next few years to begin planning and building the prototype for a new model of land tenure.  Their efforts were to result in the creation of New Communities Inc. in 1969, often called the “first CLT” in the United States.

Soon after New Communities was incorporated, a plan was hatched by Shimon Gottschalkthe International Independence Institute to write a book that would document the experience of forming New Communities Inc, while describing the features of a “new model for land tenure” which New Communities represented.  The lead authors were Bob Swann and Shimon Gottschalk, the two members of the Institute’s staff who had spent the most time in southwest Georgia working with the King brothers, Charles Sherrod, and other local leaders in forming New Communities.  Board member, Erik Hansch, contributed content as well.  Ted Webster served as the book’s editor with the assistance of Marjorie Swann.

The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Cover of 1972 BookTenure in America was published in 1972. The authors admitted that the “somewhat hypothetical model” they were proposing “exists only in the form of various prototypes,” yet they managed to describe many of the key features of ownership and organization that characterize the CLT of today.   

Key Dates

1966:  Ralph Borsodi returns to America after five years in India.  He is introduced to Bob Swann through a mutual friend, Porter Sargent.  Borsodi and Swann organize a conference presenting the Gramdan model of rural development and Borsodi’s plans for creating an institute that might seed and support that model in the United States. Among the conference’s attendees is Fay Bennett, executive secretary of the National Sharecroppers Fund (NSF).

1967:  The International Independence Institute is incorporated by Ralph Borsodi in Exeter, NH.  He serves as chairman of the board and III’s executive director.

1968:  Bob Swann, III’s Field Director, travels to Israel with Slater King, Charles Sherrod, and five others to study cooperative agricultural settlements on leased land.  When they return, Bob Swann and another member of III’s staff, Shimon Gottschalk, spend the next year helping to plan a similar community for southwest Georgia.

1969:  Incorporation of New Communities Inc.

1970:  New Communities purchases 5,735 acres of land in Leesburg, GA.

1971:  III moves its corporate offices from Exeter, New Hampshire to Ashby, Massachusetts.

1972:  III moves its corporate offices to Cambridge, Massachusetts and changes its name to the “Institute for Community Economics.”  Bob Swann becomes ICE’s executive director.  III publishes The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America.

Further Reading

  • International Independence Institute, The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America (Cambridge, MA: Center for Community Economic Development, 1972).
  • Stephanie Mills, On Gandhi’s Path: Bob Swann’s Work for Peace and Community Economics (New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC: 2010).
  • Bob Swann, Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community: An Autobiography. See especially Chapter 18 (“The Community Land Trust – Borsodi and Vinoba Bhave”)  and Chapter 19 (“A Gramdan (Community Land Trust) Movement for the United States” (Great Barrington, MA: Schumacher Society for a New Economics, 2001).

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