Brittany Koteles

Wisconsin (Operating nationwide)

Project Overview

At an average age of 80 years old, many of the 300 communities of Catholic sisters in the U.S. are seeking to liquidate expansive properties and estates. With the right framing and technical support, however, sisters can approach asset management as part of their lifelong work for social and ecological justice. Enter the Nuns & Nones Land Justice Project, which collaborates with religious institutions to steer land holdings into environment-sustaining uses while pursuing healing with those most impacted by the extractive economy. If land owned by religious communities were transferred to Indigenous food sovereignty collectives, for example, it would reap environmental benefits while advancing social justice goals that many Catholic sisters have long championed. “Moving land stewardship into regenerative purposes, sisters can transfer thousands of acres into the climate justice movement, while supporting the marginalized communities and ecological repair that they’ve been fighting for across decades,” explained Nuns & Nones director Brittany Koteles. Driven by a reparations ethic, the effort’s overlapping strategies advance not just environmental resilience and social justice, but also conserve cultural heritage on a potentially game-changing scale.

Five Questions

1What needs does your project address and how?

Religious communities across the country are discerning the future of their lands, with many seeking to divest of property. Meanwhile, local expressions of the climate justice movement—Indigenous communities, regenerative farmers, land stewards, permaculturists—find land acquisition to be a critical barrier. Considering that 98% of rural land is owned by white people, this is especially difficult for people of color, and points to the ongoing impacts of colonization. We are trying to create bridges—of relationship, but also of educational, technical and financial support—that might transform religious “property planning” into a process of healing land and lineage.

2Tell us about a moment that helped inspire your idea.

Right now, members of the Shinnecock Nation are launching a regenerative ocean farm on coastal land that’s owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The two groups met at a demonstration organized by tribal members, and when the dream for Shinnecock Kelp Farmers began to materialize, they asked the sisters if the project could live on their land. The sisters eagerly agreed. These two groups came into each other’s lives at the perfect moment—but that’s not always the case. By creating the relational “bridge” and the right technical support, we could see so many more examples like this across the country.

3What is the biggest challenge you face right now?

We need to create the technical and financial supports for communities who want to do innovative things with their land, but whose financial or legal realities might leave them to think it’s not possible. If we can create the right conditions to address those barriers, there is a much deeper sense of possibility. I want sisters to be able to make decisions from a place of abundance, relationship, and possibility—not of scarcity—so we need to find the tools and partnerships to alleviate those real pressures.

4What other leaders have informed your work?

Sisters, for one! For decades, they have put forth a theology that’s about participating in the web of life, rather than dominating it, and have embodied that ethos by creating regenerative farms, permaculture gardens, compost systems, renewable energy projects, mowing moratoriums, and habitat restoration. I’ve learned so much from them. As Diné elder Pat McCabe put it, sustainability is about knowing how to live in the same place for a long period of time, in relative health and harmony. Indigenous people have been doing that since time immemorial. In a time of climate crisis, we need to support the re-membering of Indigenous ways of knowing.

5Describe a participant, client, community member, or someone else who represents what your project is all about.

Martice Scales is a Black farmer from Racine, Wisconsin. Martice had never planted a vegetable when he felt the call to grow food, but he was clear that he wanted to “take the power back” from a time when agriculture was forced onto Black people through slavery or sharecropping. His first land-based job was with the Racine Dominican Sisters, interning at their incredible Eco-Justice Center. Now, he and his wife run Scales Family Farm, distributing across southeastern Wisconsin and supporting other Black farmers. I think of the sisters’ influence on Martice’s life, and how powerful it would be if sisters across the country supported regenerative farmers like Martice through land access.

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