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[whitespace] Nefer-Tim Johnson
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Flinging Dirt: Nefer-Tim Johnson, director of the Seventh Harvest Research Institute, a self-sustaining farm in East Palo Alto, says his group has worked for 10 years to transform Nairobi College's former wasteland into a lush agricultural paradise--and resents the college's efforts to sell it to another buyer.

Land War

What's worse than three groups fighting over a patch of scarce agricultural land? Three good, solid nonprofit groups fighting over it, all of whom want to do the right thing for the kids of East Palo Alto.

By Steven Raphael

THIRTEEN TREE stumps are arranged in a circle around a stone fire pit. Close behind, weeds with yellow flowers blooming on top grow as tall as a man. Nearby, rows are dug in the soil for the planting of crops. Ten feet in front of the fire pit stands a Mali African hut with artificial foliage hanging off the roof. Chickens chase each other across the fields. Only the distant view of a large, dirty-white building and the occasional noise of traffic betray the fact that this place is in East Palo Alto.

On one of the stumps, Nefer-Tim Johnson sits with perfect straight-backed posture. A solid black man, 6 feet tall, with speckled, salt and pepper hair and beard, low-cut boots and black Nike socks hiked up over the shin, Johnson seems perfectly at ease with the world and his place in it and the grand vision he has here.

Johnson is the director of the Seventh Harvest Research Institute, fondly known to friends as SHRI. A self-sustaining farm and ecosystem and nature preserve, the nonprofit organization was founded with the aim to "rejuvenate the community by working with youth." From this enclave of green and open space, Johnson and his colleagues hope to help children learn about such practical topics as agriculture, botany, engineering, ecology, theology, biology, mathematics and history.

However, there is a problem: SHRI was built on borrowed land, which the owners have decided to sell--to someone else.

The owner of the land, the nonprofit organization Nairobi College, had been defunct for nearly 20 years, its land sitting dormant until SHRI came along in 1991. Nairobi College allowed SHRI to use the land for free for nearly a decade, but never transferred ownership to them.

During that time, Johnson says, along with co-founder Shadidi Harding and a handful of volunteers, he transformed the land from a gravel pit strewn with weeds and garbage (and housing a homeless guy who slept on the gravel and ate the garbage) into the beautiful landscape it is today: an oasis of nature within the sea of civilization that is Silicon Valley.

AGRICULTURE is a long-term investment, requiring years of hard work before one sees the fruits of one's labor. For SHRI, their decade-long time investment is just beginning to pay dividends--in crops that are earning thousands of dollars every year and fruit trees that become exponentially more valuable every year. So losing that land is perhaps the worst thing that could happen to SHRI. Even if they could find another suitable plot of land, they would still have to start over.

But that's just the risk you take when you farm someone else's land, right? SHRI doesn't think so. They've filed legal complaints for breach of written and oral contract, as well as a claim for damages--money they want to be paid for the improvements they made to the land.

All along, Harding says, SHRI had been operating under the assumption that they would eventually assume ownership of the land. The reason for that, Harding explains, is because Nairobi College promised it to them. Harding cites a 1995 letter from Nairobi College Secretary Kalamu Chache, which states that SHRI will be given "first consideration for further use of the land or to assume the title to the land." He also refers to a conference call that allegedly occurred in 1998, during which, Harding claims, the governing board of Nairobi College agreed to donate the land to SHRI. Harding says this gives SHRI legal rights to the land.

Furthermore, Harding also claims that SHRI put forth an effort of research, paperwork and a payment of $425 to reinstate Nairobi College so the land transfer could occur (this was necessary because a defunct organization is legally unable to complete transactions).

However, Harding is unable to produce proof for any of his claims. He is also unable to explain a lapse of three years from when the land was allegedly promised to SHRI and when sales negotiations began.

The board members of Nairobi College were unwilling to discuss the matter in depth. Nairobi College President Don Smothers denied SHRI's claims. "That's a lie, I can tell you that," he said. "There are no promises that the board of directors ever made to them."

COMPLICATING the situation for Harding is the fact that the would-be buyer of the land is not a wealthy entrepreneur preparing to build luxury offices for profit, but another nonprofit organization trying to do good things for the youth in East Palo Alto, the Eastside College Preparatory School.

A small private school, Eastside was founded in 1996 by Stanford graduate Chris Bischof. His goal was to remedy a major problem in East Palo Alto: poor education. Only 65 percent of East Palo Alto students graduate from high school, and only 8 percent go on to college.

East Palo Alto had been without its own high school since 1976, when Ravenswood High was closed due to a desegregation effort and declining enrollment. Thanks to a donation of 1.66 acres of land next door to SHRI's newly started project, Bischof was able to give students an opportunity to attend a college prep school in their own city. Four years after its creation, Bischof's project was already a success; the eight members of its first graduating class recently moved on to such colleges as Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Morehouse College in Georgia and Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

In order to expand, Eastside needs more land for classrooms and other school facilities. "We'd definitely been looking to develop the school campus," Bischof said. "A goal of ours is to create more opportunities for the students of the community, and we can't do that without more space."

But Eastside is quickly running out of options. Nairobi's contested land is the only available space within blocks. Eastside has already invested millions of dollars into developing its current campus, which began, much like SHRI, as an empty lot.

The deal came about when Nairobi Secretary Kalamu Chache, who was volunteering at Eastside, mentioned that Nairobi College might be willing to sell its land and Eastside jumped at the opportunity, according to Eastside board member Don Vermeil. The two sides quickly reached an agreement and a contract was signed--a contract that everyone (except SHRI, that is) views as legally binding.

There is no doubt that Eastside's mission is a noble one and that they would put the land to good use. But the fact remains that SHRI may have some claim to the land.

Adriana Moore, an attorney who did some pro bono work for SHRI last year, said that during early negotiations with Nairobi College, the organization seemed willing to pay SHRI for their improvements to the land. However, money wasn't good enough for SHRI; they wanted the whole farm. They broke off negotiations and filed the legal complaints.

WHILE SHRI continues to cry foul, both Eastside and Nairobi want to see the land transferred to Eastside, and they believe they have legal documentation to make it happen. SHRI, on the other hand, is unable to produce any documents that could lend weight to its claims, only recollections of verbal agreements. Harding feels the legal system should honor these, particularly in light of the group's decade of labor on this land. "We're just a couple brothers," he said, "trying to help the neighborhood."

There may be more to the story than Nairobi College or Harding are willing to disclose. Smothers, who refused to go into detail because of pending litigation, was quite blunt about it. "At some point," he mused, "we'll tell the whole story."

Yet, with the burden of proof resting fully on SHRI's shoulders, even if they are right, their lack of having an agreement in writing may prevent them from staying in their garden and realizing their vision. Nairobi's Smothers said, "Someone allowed [SHRI] to use the property and they took that as a claim that they were going to inherit it. It will be resolved in court. I have no problems with that."

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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