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May
31
2012

Over the past few years, I have attended several national, state and local good food conferences at which various non-profit organizations doing work in schools and/or community gardens in urban communities were featured in powerpoint presentations or slide shows.  Invariably, at least one of the images features a group of inner-city Black children posing in a garden or kitchen with one, two or three young white adults, standing with them, smiling broadly.   The Black children were, of course, receiving the “services” offered by the well-intentioned non-profits, and the white adults were, of course, providing them.
 
On the surface, it may seem noble and admirable that these young, often affluent, suburban whites have come into distressed neighborhoods to provide opportunities for “underprivileged,” “at-risk,” “minority” youth to plant gardens, learn about healthy foods and explore ways to prepare those foods.  But, digging a little deeper reveals a disturbing trend rooted in the on-going legacy of white supremacy and privilege that characterizes American society.
 
First, it is clear to me, as a longtime activist who is from and works in Detroit’s African American community, that our children desperately need role models and leaders who look like them and come from circumstances similar to their own.  Our children (and adults for that matter) need to develop a view of ourselves as human beings fully capable of defining our own destiny.  Just as it is vital that Black children see and interact with Black teachers, business owners, lawyers, doctors and community leaders, if we are to foster self-determination in our communities, it is critical that they see and interact with Black food justice and food sovereignty activists who are shaping a food system that is localized, just, and in which we derive economic benefit from the venues from which we obtain food.
 
Secondly, we must be clear that all non-profits and community organizations are not playing on an even field.  Groups that are well established, with a track record of managing large amounts of funding are usually viewed more favorably by funders.  Additionally, most funders unconsciously feel more comfortable with people who look like them, speak like them, have had similar life experiences and know people that they know.  These factors often translate to white led groups having more finances to operate programs than small community organizations that have grown organically from the communities that they serve.  The irony is that there is a great deal of funding targeted at programs that serve “urban,” “underserved” (translation - Black or Latino) communities.  These predominantly white led non-profits thus need to create a programmatic presence in those communities in order to keep their financial spigots flowing. 
 
Thirdly, the system of white supremacy suggests to people who identify as white, that they know what is best for themselves, and the rest of us (both of those assumptions are often wrong).   It suggests that their worldview should universally be accepted, that their standards of behavior are best and that their theories of change should define how social movements proceed.  It suggests to them that they have the responsibility to fix us.  Clearly such crap should be rejected wholesale, and we should instead ground ourselves in our own history, culture, worldview and values.  We should defend the right to define what is best for our communities based on our understanding of the historical factors that have created our circumstances and on our own lived experience.  We don’t need white people to fix us, save us, redeem us or lead us.
 
Finally, it is not enough to just complain about this disturbing trend of white do-gooders leading food system work in our communities.  What is more important is that we engage in an intensive effort to build Black led organizations, and to identify and train Black people to lead the work of teaching gardening, farming, nutrition, cooking and community food system development in the communities in which we live.  But it ain’t just about food! Our efforts to provide greater access to healthy food in our communities must by necessity boldly address the larger problem of the vastly inequitable power relationships in this country and how race and class help to define those relationships.  Let’s get busy!

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