World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Mobile Basin Heirs' Property Support Initiative: Q&A With Dr. Jennie L. Stephens, Center for Heirs' Property Preservation™

  • Date: 14 October 2021

The Mobile Basin Heirs' Property Support Initiative will help families in the Mobile Basin of Mississippi protect and keep their forestland. The two-year project was launched in October 2021 by the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation™ and the Mississippi Center for Justice with support from WWF and Kimberly-Clark.

The new initiative provides a combination of legal services, information, and access to financial and forestry resources to help Mississippians resolve land title issues that disproportionately affect Black families and often lead to loss of property, wealth, and forest resources.

We sat down with Dr. Jennie L. Stephens, CEO of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation™, to discuss the project.

Headshot of Jennie Stephens

Dr. Jennie L. Stephens, Chief Executive Officer, Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation™

Tell us about why you are participating in this initiative and what you hope it will achieve.

The Center for Heirs' Property Preservation™, has been a 501c3 non-profit organization in South Carolina since 2005. The Center’s mission from day one has been to protect heirs' property and promote the sustainable use of land to provide increased economic benefit to historically underserved families, through legal and forestry education and services.

Property matters to people. It’s far more than just a parcel of land. It can be a window to the past that tells the story of a family, a community, or a way of life. Knowing about your family’s history and culture creates a sense of place and belonging. The loss of heirs’ property has impact on the community, not just one family.

At the heart of the Center’s work is the building of trust in the rural, African American communities where distrust and fear of authority and the legal system is still pervasive. Once trust is established, these communities are open to receiving the education and services that the Center provides. Across that bridge of trust, the Center has seen firsthand how knowledge increases confidence, self-determination, better decision-making, and an ability to take action to positively change a family’s circumstances.

We have been very successful with our mission here in South Carolina, and as part of our long-term strategic plan we have wanted to replicate the model of our organization and take it elsewhere, so other landowners outside of our state can receive the heirs’ property services they often seek from us. We believe that with our proven expertise and with the help of our friends at the Mississippi Center for Justice, and support from partners Kimberly-Clark and World Wildlife Fund, we can achieve similar success in the Mobile Basin.

What are the biggest misconceptions about the issue?

Heirs’ property is not just an African American issue in the South. Other underserved vulnerable landowners throughout the country – especially, women, Indigenous people, and the poor – have involuntarily lost their family property through contested claims, unaffordable high transaction costs, forced sales to speculators, and outright fraud. Wherever there are large communities of underserved people, like Appalachia or Native American lands, you can find the dual problems of fractionated ownership and the inability to collateralize land wealth throughout the United States. Although historical origins may differ, heirs’ property and reservation trust lands both share consequences of high transaction costs due to fractionated claims and the inability to collateralize land wealth. This has contributed to underserved landowners throughout the country losing their family property through contested claims of ownership, forced sales and fraud.

Preserving intergenerational family wealth is key in helping to close racial wealth gaps. Whether rural or urban, most family wealth is based on their largest assets—their land and homes. Heirs’ property disproportionately affects people of color, according to housing advocates, partly due to racial gaps in estate planning that transcend education. According to Thomas Mitchell, a MacArthur Fellow and professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, roughly 75% of college-educated white people in the U.S. have a will, compared with only 33% of college-educated Black people.

Poor folks just don’t sit around the kitchen table and talk about estate planning. It’s unfortunate, but nonetheless true. Inheritance and land use can be a difficult conversation to have. Often, these people have been taken advantage of.

What gives you hope?

This project gives me hope. So often in our work we hear people say they are tired of working for their land. We knew that once those families received clear title to their properties, we needed to reverse that statement, so that the land would finally be working for them.

Our sustainable forestry program and our efforts in helping make the land work for the families, have helped create a landowner movement that has the power to unleash the cultural and natural resources of land in these marginalized communities, that creates generational family wealth as well as ecological restoration. We are excited to bring our expertise and replication model to the underserved landowners of the Mobile Basin through our partners at the Mississippi Center for Justice.

This post does not necessarily represent the views of WWF.