Why Urban Agriculture? – Part I

Today I attended the 2nd Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference.  With a full house of 300 attendees, it’s clear that urban ag is a popular topic in the Commonwealth; the audience was full of farmers, policy makers, community members, academics, and food systems advocates all wanting to understand how we advance the cause.  It was certainly an engaging and thought-provoking day for me – touching base with friends and colleagues, connecting with existing and potential partners, listening and being challenged.

The moment that really stuck in my mind came quite early in the day.  Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, has been one of my inspirations since the first time I heard him speak.  Malik speaks frankly about the effects of oppression on the food system and on the lives of many black people in Detroit and elsewhere, and he is unapologetic about naming the forces of racism, sexism, classism and other manifestations of power and privilege used to disenfranchise a particular group.  He was speaking frankly and powerfully this morning, when suddenly he paused.  He observed that he noticed looks on the faces of a number of audience members that indicated that he might need to moderate how he was presenting, and went on to finish his keynote with a slightly more subdued (although no less truthful) approach.

This moment stayed with me and echoed throughout the day.  At the time he paused, Malik was talking about the importance of black community self-determination; of the necessity of those who were experiencing the effects of oppression being the ones to lead initiatives meant to combat that oppression and its effects.  He expressed deep concern with initiatives led by people who come from outside a community to provide “solutions” for those within it.  He argued that such initiatives were far more likely to replicate dynamics of oppression than to eliminate them, unless the people involved did some deep and difficult work to divest themselves of the oppressive mindsets that they brought into their work by virtue of their privilege.

I don’t know what folks in the audience were expecting from their conference keynote – but apparently it wasn’t that.  And while the audience gave a standing ovation to Malik after he spoke, discussions in later sessions made it plain that the core of his message was not something we were going to wrestle with at this conference.  When I asked questions about community leadership, decision-making and self-determination in urban agriculture initiatives led by white individuals working in communities of color, there were a lot of evasions and excuses: “it’s definitely a priority for us to address in the future”; “we’ve tried reaching out but people just don’t come”; “we want to see a more diverse group, but you know, like attracts like.”  There wasn’t going to be any critical reflection on the role racism, classism, or elitism play in the food system or the Massachusetts food movement.  It was a good keynote, but it was time to move on to more practical topics.

And it made me wonder: who is this urban agriculture movement supposed to be for?  It was being lifted up throughout the day as a wonderful opportunity to provide economic  development, community building and  environmental restoration in “underserved” neighborhoods; but it wasn’t always clear exactly how these neighborhoods were being especially well-served by initiatives that maintain the same dynamics of power and privilege that restrict their resources in the first place.  There are, of course, some benefits provided by each of these programs – some jobs, some new gardens, some additional fresh food access for people who are hungry – but that hardly rises to the level of a systemic change that transforms lives and communities.

There are exceptions.  Massachusetts is home to some terrific urban agriculture initiatives that are community-led and community-driven; two of my favorites are Nuestras Raices in Holyoke and the more recently formed Urban Farming Institute of Boston (incidentally, a sponsor of the conference).  But in all honesty, the principles that drive these two organizations are not at the heart of the conversation about urban agriculture, at least not based on this forum.  And if urban agriculture isn’t really about social, economic or  environmental justice, then what are we getting all excited about?  What makes it different from any other business that uses a community’s land to produce resources and revenue for someone else?  What merits this focus of so much energy and attention?

Tomorrow: why the economics of urban agriculture really beg the question …

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