Author, activist, and farmer Leah Penniman discusses the movement for food sovereignty and building a food system based on justice, dignity, and abundance for all members of our community.
Good evening, everyone. Good evening. Good evening and welcome. Welcome to the Center for the Study of World Religions. My name is Charles Stang. I have the pleasure of serving as the director of this center. It's a pleasure to welcome you all. I'd also like to welcome those of you who are joining us by Livestream and those of you who are in our event overflow space. Everyone is most welcome.
Some others thanks are in order before we begin. First to the center's staff for making this event possible. To my colleague, Dan McKanan for first bringing Leah Penniman and the important work of Soul Fire Farm to my attention. And many thanks to you, Leah. For accepting our invitation and for your patience and flexibility as we brought this event to pass.
You may have noticed that there are more cameras in this room than is usual.
NBC is here filming for a feature on Leah. I know.
It's not normal for us. If anyone would prefer not to be in any camera crowd shot, please raise your hand now and the folks from NBC will do their very best to avoid you. So if there's anyone who would rather not be in that shot, this is the moment to make yourself known. Very good. We're all going to be famous.
Please, please silence your cell phones and don't block the two emergency exits, the one in the back and the one-- I don't know why you would. We all have seats, but there you have it.
Now I have the distinct honor and pleasure not only welcoming, but introducing Leah Penniman tonight. I'll try to keep my remarks short, because I'm sure you're here to learn from Leah, not about her-- or about her, from her, not from me. But I would be remiss if I didn't offer a proper introduction. Leah is a black creole educator, farmer paison, award-winning author, and food justice activist from Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York.
She's been farming since 1996 and co-founded Soul Fire Farm in 2011. She holds a master's degree in science education and dual bachelor's degrees in environmental science and in international development from Clark University. She's also a Manya, or queen mother, in vodun. Her 2018 book, Farming While Black, is the first comprehensive how-to guide for aspiring African heritage growers to reclaim their dignity as agriculturalists and for all farmers to understand the distinct technical contributions of African heritage people to sustainable agriculture.
Her work was honored in 2019 with the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. Leah's lecture this evening entitled, "Farming While Black, African Diasporic Wisdom for Farming and Food Justice" is at the crossroads of two of the center's programming threads-- one on race, religion, and nationalism, and another on matter and spirit, ecology, and the nonhuman turn.
The first of these threads investigates how nationalisms, old and new, have deployed the rhetoric of race and racial hierarchy and of religion and religious hierarchy and wrought great injustice in this world. It seeks insights not only for discerning this twisted logic, but also for discerning ways forward, through it, and perhaps even out of it.
The second thread looks for resources for our own ecological imagination in the so-called non-human, or perhaps better, the more than human world, that world of beings with whom we share this fragile earth, the world of animals, plants, and, yes, spirits, among others. A more than human world, the modern industrial west, has either ignored, derided, or exploited, as it has those folks who take this world seriously.
In my mind, Leah Penniman's work is at the center of both of these conversations. She's been farming since 1996 and teaching since 2002. She's worked at the Food Project, Farm School, Many Hands Organic Farm, Youth Grow with Farmers internationally in Ghana, Haiti, and Mexico. She founded Soul Fire Farm in 2011 with the mission of ending racism and injustice in the food system and reclaiming the inherent right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food systems as black and brown people.
To that end, Soul Fire Farm operates a community-supported agriculture farm share, lack and Latinx farmers immersion training, activist retreats, anti-racism training for farmers and food justice leaders, community farm days, among other programming. That makes our programming look paltry in comparison.
Soul Fire Farm also partners with the Northeast Farmers of Color Network on the reparations map for black indigenous farmers. The aim is to claim sovereignty of the food system that was built on the stolen land and labor of black, indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and people of color, and calls for reparations of land and resources.
The work of Penniman and Soul Fire Farm has been recognized by the Soros Racial Justice Fellowship, Presidential Award for Science Teaching, New York State Health Emerging Innovator Awards, and Andrew Goodman Foundation, among others.
Finally, I'd like to call your attention to an upcoming event at the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School on a topic that is very germane to this evening's lecture. On October 16th from 6:00 to 8:00 PM in the Austin Hall of Harvard Law School, there's going to be a panel event discussion on land loss, wealth, and reparations.
Panelists will include Bryce Wilson Stuckey, Thomas Mitchell, Derrick Hamilton, and Dania Francis. Those last two may be familiar to you. They were both involved in the recent Atlantic Monthly article on the great land robbery. Emma Scott-- Emma, where are you? Emma's in the back with her hand raised. Emma is from the Food Law and Policy Clinic. She's here this evening. If you're interested in learning more about that event or the work of that clinic, please see Emma after the lecture.
Thank you again for coming out this evening. Leah, thank you once again for joining us and please join me in welcoming Leah to the CSWR.
Thanks, family. Y'all know what a PK is? What's a PK
Preacher's kid. I'm a double PK. So I'm really, really, really happy to be here in this like, preacher place. My mom was one of the first black people, the first black woman, to be ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister and she attended school here. She went here for her doctorate in divinity. And my dad is a lay leader, also in the Unitarian Church. Goes around with his guitar and sings as an itinerant preacher on Sunday morning.
And you know, I was raised-- I was the Director of Religious Education for my mom's church by the time I was in middle school. So like, this is my home. I actually-- I was going to apply here and my parents were like, why don't you go into science, you know?
You just might find that it doesn't destroy your faith, you make a living, and so forth. But I found a way to integrate the science back in together with the spirituality, as you'll see. It's really an honor and pleasure to be here with all of you. I feel excited. I feel deeply pleased to talk about two of my favorite things, which are the earth and the ancestors and what they want us to be up to.
So without further ado, anyone Haitian in the house? Krik. Krik. So in Haiti when it's time for a story, there's a call and response. The storyteller says, krik and everyone else says--
Beautiful. And we always began with thanking our ancestors, because none of us got here by ourselves. All of us are standing on the shoulders of those who came before who sacrificed for us. And I want to call into the room one particular ancestor of mine. Her enslaved name is Susie Boyd. Her true name is lost to the seas of time.
But she is my grandma's grandma's grandma, and she was kidnapped from the shores of Dahomi West Africa in the late 1700s, and like so many community members, was living in fear before that, watching her cousins and children and grandparents getting taken. And she made this really audacious and courageous decision to gather up the okra, the millet, the black rice, the molokea, the sorghum, and braid it into her hair and braid it into her children's hair, because they knew that wherever they were going they believed that there would be a future of tilling and reaping on soil and there would be some seed that we all needed to inherit.
That's what our grandmothers did for us. And so when I get discouraged, which I do-- I swear, every year about this time of year I tell my husband, I'm going to go work at the post office.
I'm just done. This is some hard stuff trying to save the world and everything and farm. So when I get discouraged, I think about the fact that they didn't give up on us. And so who am I then, facing relatively light challenges, to give up on my descendants? And so I invite you in this moment to think of an ancestor who put a metaphorical seed in their hair for you to inherit. And at the count of three, we're going to call their names loud and strong into the room.
One, two, three. Samuel Cornelius Smith Ashai. We also, of course, want to shout out the original inhabitants, original stewards and friends of the lands upon which we sit. For us, it's Soul Fire. It's the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican people who were taking care of that place for over 10,000 years before colonizers came and kicked them out to Wisconsin in the 1800s to a swampy, really desolate area in northern Wisconsin that I've had the privilege to be invited to and to start to build friendships and accountability.
Here, you know we give thanks to the Massachusett, the Narragansett, the Nipmuc, and other neighbors-- the Abenaki to the north, the Mohegan to the southwest-- for taking care of these lands and for continuing to take care of these lands. Folks are not extinct. They haven't disappeared. And I think it's very important not just to name, but also to act in solidarity, like find out what's going on, find out how we can all support, because even if we are involuntary settlers to this land, we still are enjoying the privilege of being here and I think need to be accountable for that.
So shout out to the original friends. And then my third and final shout out is to my team, squad. You know, we have this thing called the hero industrial complex. Y'all heard of that? It's like when you put the whole weight of responsibility of the movement on one figurehead or two or three figureheads, like Martin Luther King was the civil rights movement. What is that? Come on.
So it's very, very important to dispel that at every chance we get. The only reason I can be here with you is because Larise is taking care of the chickens and because Leticia is packing the CSA boxes and Jonah is picking up the kids from the soccer game. And so it's always a squad. It's always a team anytime anything worth doing is being done. So shout out to my people.
Anyone like history? All right. Who wants to read this quote?
Truth. Truth. So we're going to take a little journey through some history to understand how we got to be in this food system that we're in today and what we're doing to repair it. This beautiful painting here depicts a moment of ancestor Susie Boyd braiding the seed into her hair. Particularly, that is a black-eyed peas or a cow pea, which is an African crop.
Anyone ever get their hair braided before? Describe the experience. Like what happened? Painful. Definitely. You might even get hit off the side of the head with the brush if you're squirming. It's long. And what happens during those long times between your auntie's knees getting your-- conversations. You're learning. You're passing on stories. Maybe you're singing a song. You're getting to hear the wisdom.
And so I imagine these seed braids getting done. And it wasn't just the seeds that got braided into the hair. It's the stories. It's the, this is what you've got to remember on the other side of that journey so you don't forget who you are. And a lot of folks don't know that as black people, our relationship to land is not actually circumscribed by slavery and oppression.
We got thousands and thousands and thousands of years of noble and dignified innovation on land-- things that so-called organic farmers do today that we take for granted as just what you do, like raised bed, right? That comes from the Ovambo people in Namibia. Transplanting. We think the Menseh rice farmers of West Africa and the Walla farmers.
Things like having a work party where I'm going to go over your house this weekend, we'll plant some beans, and then we're gonna go over to your house next weekend and plant some beans, and then your house, and then our harvest is all staggered. And by the way, the host provides the music and the soup. And if it's a particularly arduous task, the music will be a brass band. Like to keep it going. It's the origin of Ra Ra music.
And so the kombeat, right? The idea of credit unions originated in the Susu with West African women pooling their resources together and taking turns, giving each other loans and grants. Composting. Big ups to Cleopatra. 59 BCE, she made a law, like on the papyrus scroll law, that said, if you kill a worm, you'll be put to death.
Now to be clear, I'm not in favor of capital punishment, but I do think that's pretty bad ass. She actually had a whole cadre of priests whose full time study was dedicated to understanding the habits of earthworms to get them to proliferate throughout the Nile River Valley because she realized that their worm castings made everything fertile, made everything grow.
And of course, Western scientists went over there in 1949 from the USDA, took some soil cores, and they were like, it's really true. The worm castings here are extra. So something was going on back in 59 BCE. Rotational grazing. Permaculture, which by the way is just white college educated folks re-branding our stuff and selling it. But that comes out of indigenous and African traditions.
And so I imagine these braids happening. And it's like, don't forget what right relationship is with the earth. Don't forget how to feed your community. Don't forget how to pitch in work. Don't forget how to pitch in and share resources and all of this coming with us. But of course, the project of colonization isn't just to pilfer and steal a bunch of stuff. It's also to make us forget who we are, because that reduces our capacity to resist.
So let's take a little journey through understanding how that knowledge got suppressed, stolen, erased, and what we're doing to reclaim it. High school US history. What's this? Mm-hm. What's manifest destiny?
The idea that it was our hour--
It was the hour, right?
Right, to kind of take over the land and [AUDIO OUT]
And you see Lady Columbia, and what is retreating in the wake of the manifest destiny. Aboriginal people and--
Buffalo. The ecology. So this idea actually started-- this is an 1800s painting-- but this idea started in 1455 out of the Catholic church. It's called the Doctrine of Discovery. Pope Nicholas put out a papal bull that said, go forth, enslave, colonize, pillage the pagan nations. So white Christian nations were authorized to take the land and enslave the people and were considered doing God's will when they did that.
So it was beginning of the Age of Discovery, the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, 1492, you know, all that stuff came out of this Doctrine of Discovery. And it wasn't over when the United States officially formed. The Supreme Court upheld the Doctrine of Discovery, first in 1823 in the Macintosh case. It's nicknamed the Finders Keepers law.
In other words, if a white Christian puts a flag down somewhere, that land then becomes part of that white Christian person's nation. And so indigenous people are considered domestic dependents. They have the right to occupy the lands that they're assigned, but not actually the right to own their own territory.
And you see the state reservations aren't actually owned by indigenous people. They're in a federal trust under the Bureau of Indian Affairs and indigenous people have the right to occupy it so long as BIA says that's fine. So long as they decide to uphold whatever treaty they're holding at the moment.
The Doctrine of Discovery has been upheld by the Supreme Court many, many, many more times, most recently in 2005 when the United Nations sued New York state and the power company and 20,000 residents for 60,000 acres back that had been taken through breach of treaty. And they were told by Justice Ginsburg that under the Doctrine of Discovery, they had no rights to their land.
So I did go into science. Biology. And so I think about DNA. It's like a double helix. How many strands is that? It's not a trick question.
Two. Two strands double in double helix. So if the food system had DNA, I imagine that one of those strands would be the stolen land. What do you think the other one would be? Exploited and stolen labor. Absolutely. So this picture represents the 12 and 1/2 million African people who were kidnapped from their homes to rot in the bowels of slave ships and forced labor on Turtle Island against their will.
And after I read Judith Carney's book, Black Race, I came to understand that there was really nothing random about the kidnapping, which makes sense. Europe. Northern Europe. Climate. What are we talking about? What's it like? Cold. What's it like in Cuba, Brazil, Florida, Georgia? Who knows how to farm that stuff? Not northern Europeans, right? And so they specifically had to go snatch up the best agriculturalists for the tropical and semi-tropical agriculture they were trying to do.
They stole rice farmers from the Menseh and Walla people to establish the multi-trillion dollar Carolina rice industry, so that they would dig the dikes and make the patties the way that they had back home. And the slavers developed a skill at this in really robbing the very best farmers from their community.
And when I lived in Ghana for six months, I came to understand how that impacted the continent, because what happens to people when you take their expert agriculturalists away from the community, right? So there was deep harm on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
But we're good, right? Because 13th Amendment, Emancipation Proclamation, 1865. We're free. What's the Exception Clause in the 13th Amendment? No slavery is allowed, unless you've been convicted of a crime. Exactly. And so we have the rise of what's called convict leasing after 1865.
I mean, the south is freaking out. We just took the whole labor force. What are we going to do? And so they put a bunch of new laws on the books called the Black Codes. The Black Codes make it illegal to do things that previously were not illegal, such as loitering. What does loitering mean?
What's y'all are doing.
Y'all are loitering. You all are up to nothing. You're up to nothing productive. Vagrancy became a crime. What is that? Vagrancy is not having a job, but specifically not having a year-long contract on a farm. How many people in this room are vagrants?
You've got a year-long contract on a farm? So these things became illegal, and the prisons filled. The prisons filled-- not because of rape and murder and actual crimes, but really because there needed to be a pretense in order to lease people, prisoners, back to the plantation, the mines, and the railroad.
And this was not a tiny footnote in history. During Reconstruction, 73% of Alabama state budget came from convict leasing of black people. I don't know if you looked at the news recently, but with the crackdown on so-called immigration by the current administration, convict leasing is back on the rise. There's a shortage of laborers from Mexico. And so they have redoubled down on the program of having incarcerated African-American men mostly to do the picking on the farms in the west and the south.
So it's still legal. It's still allowed. This is not paid labor. Those who were not convicts lessees were, by and large, doing a debt peonage system called sharecropping. Sharecropping is when you don't own your land or your mule or your sacks for your cotton or your food or your shoes. All of those are rented. They're on lease from the former owner, from the plantation manager. And then they're paid back at the end of the season through a share of the crop.
And Fannie Lou Hamer, one of her famous things that she talked about is how when she was a little girl, she noticed that the plantation owner had fixed the scales so that it was undervaluing the cotton harvest. And as a child, she went and fixed the scales. And that was her first act of resistance and that's what made her the revolutionary that she is.
Most sharecroppers were more in debt at the end of the season than they were in the beginning. Poverty was so rampant that sharecroppers developed a disease that we almost don't even know about today called polagra, which is a niacin deficiency. 100,000 sharecroppers died of polagra during this time because of the level of malnourishment endemic to that type of poverty.
So again, the DNA-- stolen land, exploited labor. We're going to march through history and see if this shifts at all. So now we're up to the early 1900s. Despite being sharecroppers, despite having to go to prison and being forced to work, somehow our ancestors managed to save up their Sunday money to buy some land.
They had really wanted land reparations. They almost got it. There was these 30 black pastors that met with General Sherman back in 1865 and said, you know, all we need is homes and the ground beneath them so we can plant fruit trees and tell our children these are yours. Give us 40 acres and we won't bother you.
But of course, that never happened. It was reversed. We had to buy our own land. So by 1910, black people had to save enough money to buy 60 million acres of property across the south, which was a pretty astounding feat. That was 14% of the nation's farms at the time. They were little farms. They were swampy farms, but nonetheless, it was a piece of ground to own. What do you think happens to the plantations if the sharecroppers get their own land?
They lose their labor force, right? And so black land ownership was, again, a significant threat to the status quo of the sharecropping system. Cotton was king. You know, it's like we need the labor to go ahead and pick those bales. And so we had the rise of the White Citizens' Council, the rise of the KKK, the rise of the White Cap.
These are white supremacist groups that specifically targeted black landowners and anyone who was trying to resist white supremacy in any way. And they would burn down your house, kill you, lynch you, shoot you, block you at every turn if you're trying to get a loan or from the bank or buy some equipment. And over 4,000 black people lost their lives through this terror campaign. The peak of the terror campaign was identical to the peak of black land ownership.
And because 4,000 is a really big number, I want to read you one account of just one of those 4,000 people so that you can understand what life was like. So trigger warning, this does talk about violence against people.
"After midnight on October 4, 1908, 50 hooded white men surrounded the home of a black farmer in Hinkman, Kentucky and ordered him to come out for a whipping. When David Walker refused and shot at them instead, the mob poured coal oil on his house and set it afire, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. Pleading for mercy, Walker ran out the front door followed by four screaming children and his wife, carrying a baby in her arms.
The mob shot them all, wounding three children, killing the mother, the baby, and the others. Walker's oldest son never escaped the burning house. No one was ever charged with the killings, and the surviving children were deprived of the farm their father died defending. Land records show that Walker's 2.5 acre farm was simply folded into the deed of a white neighbor. The neighbor soon sold it to another man whose daughter owns the undeveloped land today in 2019."
So if you learned about the great migration at all, you probably learned about it as a yearning for opportunity of the factories of the north. What I didn't realize until I started digging into this history is that it was a refugee crisis, that it was really actually fleeing literally for your life.
And so we did. Six million of us went to the north. We left those red clays of Georgia behind. My family went to Pittsburgh to work in the factories, left behind their farm in Rock Hill, South Carolina, hoping for something better for their children and hoping to survive. And so there was a labor vacuum in the south again. And you would hope that this would be this come to Jesus moment, that the United States would, you know that stolen land, exploited labor thing? That's like, old. Maybe we should figure out living wages.
To the nation's credit at this time, which is around the 1930s, we were starting to think about that. FDR, Social Security, eight hour work day, child labor protection, right to unionize, overtime, all of these wonderful reforms. And there was these closed door conversations where those Southern Democrats-- the parties were different then-- got in a closed room and they said, we're not going to vote for any of these labor laws if they benefit, in any way, black and brown people.
And so they put these exclusion clauses into the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act. They said, if you're an agricultural worker or you're a domestic worker, you're not covered. To this day, if you're an agricultural worker or a domestic worker, you're still not covered and you're still more likely in those professions to be black and brown. We haven't fixed it yet. There's a whole different set of labor laws for farmers than there are for everybody else.
For example, if I were to get a job on a farm with less than seven employees, which is what's considered a small farm by the federal labor law, there is no minimum wage at all at the federal level. Your state might have one, but there's no federal minimum wage at all. At 12, I can drop out of school and start working. I have no recourse for wage theft, for sexual assault that I may experience on the job, which is rampant. And that's in the US labor law.
And so the United States, true to form, tries to figure out which population we can now move on to exploit in order to eat. So what comes next? What comes in the mid-1900s? Bracero program, right? First it was the Filipino and Chinese workers until the Chinese Exclusion Act, then it was Mexican and Central American workers through the Bracero program, which has now morphed into the H2A program.
But essentially it's a guest worker program where you get these really limited visas to be able to come, do labor at lower wages and tougher working conditions than US citizens with documents would do, and so forth. I just read there was actually an experiment in 1965 called the A Team. Anyone hear about this? It's an obscure moment in history.
But there were protests going on about how poorly workers were being treated. And so because the program was in crisis, they tried to replace these Bracero workers with white jocks from the suburbs-- high school students. They recruited 60,000 white jocks from the suburbs and had them go pick things.
They protested. They rioted. They were like, this is awful. I'm passing out of heat stroke. I can't do it. They were able to say the things that people, that indigenous people, who are essentially forced off their territories to come do labor couldn't say. So again, a footnote in history, but I thought really fascinating. And to this day, this is where almost all the labor comes from, by the way, is through H2A programs and guest worker programs.
Not all the black people left the South, as you probably know. A lot of people held on. A lot of people resisted and protested because what they were up against wasn't just the lynchings and the White Citizens Council and the KKK. It was the federal government itself. The USDA, the US Department of Agriculture is responsible for giving to farmers loans, crop allotments, technical assistance, support with their farms. It's actually one of the most subsidized industries in the country.
But if you were black and you went down to get a loan, time again you would be delayed and denied, especially if you had the audacity to register to vote, to join the NAACP, or to sign a petition. In Pete Daniel's book, Dispossession, he talks about how these USDA loans were sharpened into a weapon to punish Civil Rights activity, and goes through the case studies time and again of, oh, you can't get irrigation. You can't get seed. You can't get equipment.
Meanwhile, these white farmers have access to extension, agents, university, loans for mechanization, and so forth. The end result-- by 1965, the US Commission of Civil Rights said that the federal government was the number one driver of black land loss and would have the blood of the extinction of the black farmer on their hands, because we went from 14% of the nation's farms down to 1% of the nation's farms. Not because we didn't know how to farm, didn't want to farm, but because there was violence against the people.
Oh, yeah. Sure. I will do that. Sorry, overflow people. I wish you were here.
The good news is that these farmers went ahead and sued the federal government and they won the largest civil rights settlement in the history of the United States, the Pigford v. Glickman case in 1999. It's a $2 billion settlement. By then, most of the farmers were in their 90s. The settlement was too small to get their land back, but it was a crucial symbolic victory because it said to America, the reason we've been dispossessed of our land is not because we lack the skill or the heart, but literally because you've taken away our livelihood.
So now most of our people are in the urban North. And racism is weird up here, right? It's tricky and different. They don't just come out and burn your house down. I mean, sometimes they do. My mom's family was the first black family in Newton, Massachusetts and they got a brick through their window. But usually it's not that. It's a little sneaky.
So in 1935, the federal government commissioned these maps to be made of neighborhoods in urban areas, ranking them in terms of best for lending down to least desirable for lending, with the black and brown neighborhoods being outlined in red to indicate undesirable for lending. Banks were not to lend to them, which means that people could not get mortgages, which means they could not own homes and could not build intergenerational wealth.
80% of wealth is inherited. Almost all of that is real estate, is property. And so you wonder why today in the United States a white baby is born 16 times wealthier than a black baby in the same area. And it's not because that white baby worked really hard in the womb to earn that 16 times wealth, it's because of inheritance. It's because of property.
In the community where I live after World War II, when the GI bill was a thing, that's when the federal government was giving zero interest mortgages, they give out 67,000 of them. Less than 100 went to people of color in aggregate. And so all of these ways-- we call this white affirmative action. The GI Bill, the Homestead Act, the Alien Land Acts, the Moral Act-- all of these extra benefits given to European descendant folks that were not given to black indigenous and other people of color.
And they add up. The wealth gap has doubled in my very short lifetime. So we get to where we are today. Again, this food system built on stolen land and exploited labor continues to harm disproportionately communities of color. Where do you think this beautiful young person is? A food bank. One in three black children rely on emergency food to get their daily caloric intake.
In communities of color, we are more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, poor eyesight, learning disabilities, mental illness. All of these are connected to not having access to ancestral cultural foods that are whole foods that are prepared with love. Instead, the corporate package subsidized Hot Cheetos and takis, blue drink, whatever it is on the corner store that you can get with a couple dollars, not this beautiful meal like we just enjoyed together.
The consumer is hurt as well. You have a situation today where 85% of the labor that's done on farms is done by people who speak Spanish as their first language who were born outside of the so-called borders of the so-called United States. Again, not protected by the labor laws that most of us enjoy. You have the situation where 98% of the rural arable land in this country is owned by white people. That is the highest percentage ever in history.
So the land distribution has become more racially skewed in every generation. And you have the situation where the same way that we're treating our human brethren is echoed in the way we're treating the earth. If you all read the IPCC climate report on land-- I hope you did. It's really amazing. It's dense, but you should read it anyway.
Agriculture is the number one driver of climate change, of water withdrawals, of land use conversions. And it's not that we don't know, again, how to both provide nourishment for our human family and also to protect and nourish our nonhuman family, but it's corporate greed, mechanization that has resulted in the destruction of our soil and the destruction of our air.
So I'm gonna talk about the good news. I'm gonna talk about what we're doing, because there is a very strong, very, very powerful movement to heal and repair the food system. But first, I want to hear from you a little bit. I'm going to have you-- encourage you to talk to each other. It's going to be short. It's not like marriage or anything.
Just three minutes to talk to the person next to you about where were your people in this history, how were you connected to these past events. So I'm gonna put a timer on. Find a friend. Don't be shy. And talk to each other.
When I say, free the people, you say, free the land. Free the people. When I say, free the people, you say, free the land. Free the people.
Free the land.
When I say, free the people, you say, free the land. Free the people.
Free the land.
Free the people.
Free the land.
By any means necessary. Thank you. We got some Malcolm X grassroots movement folks. Can we have one or two brave souls to share something that came up in your conversation-- with consent from your partner, of course?
A food chuch.
A food church?
Yeah, i said the same thing--
Do you know Reverend Heber Brown in Baltimore.
No, but I should.
Talk about-- It's the Baltimore Black Church Food Security Network. Really, really powerful work. I don't know if that's what you're talking about, but-- are you going to worship food?
No. It's like a dinner church that you worship-- food is part of worship.
Yeah. That sounds great. I want an invitation. Anyone else want to share?
Hi, everyone. My name is Nadia. We spoke about many different things, but I was excited to hear what you're talking about because part of my history through my mother is that her people are from the Upper Guinean rain forest, which is on the borderland with Liberia, and the Upper Guinean rain forest is one of the largest wet rain forests in the world after the Amazon.
And so my family comes from Upper Guinean rice farmers. There's a lot of deforestation happening. And so there are lots of issues with indigenous rights. People are losing lands and people aren't able to farm, and also flora and fauna that's native to that area is being lost and animals are being displaced and lost, and so that's a little of the history that I carry and I think about.
Wow. Thank you for sharing that. And thank you to all your people for keeping upland rice alive. The original rice. Thank you. And thanks for the courage to share the stories. We're going to keep moving, but I will talk to you after, if you want to share more stories.
So the good news is that there are folks in every single generation who remembered that there was some seeds left in their hair from their ancestors to pluck out, to look at, to consider, to plant for the next generation. And those are the people who are resisting colonization, who are reindigenizing the food system, and those are the people upon whose legacy we build at Soul Fire, and by extension, in the whole black indigenous land sovereignty movements, of which you and your mother are part.
So I want to talk a little bit about what Soul Fire does and what that legacy is that we are leaning on, because I really believe what Fannie Lou Hamer was talking about when she said, if you have 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to do.
And by extension, if you don't have any gumbo soup canned for the winter, as soon as they put chains around the grocery store, you're going to put down your ballot, you'll put down that NAACP membership card, you'll put down your demands because who's going to let their children go hungry for any reason? And so her whole thing was to free ourselves, we must feed ourselves. We need our own institutions.
And so Soul Fire Farm was really built on that vision of how do we train, equip, empower, advocate for, defend black indigenous farmers. And we do that in three basic ways. We run an actual real farm, which I know sounds obvious, but there's a lot of Twitter farms and theoretical farms going on. It's like, but do you touch dirt?
So like a real place in the world in Grafton, New York. We're on 80 acres of Mohican territory. We do training programs and we do a lot of organizing. So you know, the first of the three stones that hold up our cooking pot is to actually feed people and the soil, is to be rooted in a survival program where every single week we are boxing up vegetables, pasture-raised chicken, eggs, herbal medicines, value add products, and we're bringing it to people's doorsteps in the 518-- that's our area code, Albany, Troy, Schenectady-- to the people who need it most at whatever price they can afford.
So we use a sliding scale model, and that sliding scale model allows those who have more means to subsidize the shares of their neighbors who have less means. And particularly, we make sure that anyone who is coming as a refugee to the community or coming back from prison gets a free share. We call that our Solidarity Shares Program and we organize their neighbors to pay for those shares.
So this is what it looks like this time of year. There's melons and Collard greens. And I feel really proud of this, because when we-- we couldn't afford river bottom soil, because we don't have it like that. And all the farmers down in the valley were like, you can't grow food in Grafton. What are you talking about? It's just a rock. But we've managed to use Afro-indigenous technologies to build that soil up and to produce this beautiful food. So yes, we can. And yes, we will.
But we didn't come up with this idea of feeding our community, of course. Here's some rememberers. Here's some people who remembered the seed in their hair. Who were they?
The Black Panthers.
Mm-hm. And this particular program is the Free Breakfast Program that fed 20,000 children every morning in Oakland and became the inspiration for the breakfast program that is in most public schools in urban areas today. So yes to armed self-defense, yes to the 10 point platform. But most of their time was actually running clinics, driving elders to their appointments, helping people visit their loved ones in prison, free groceries, and so forth. And so we really do root our work also in a survival program.
Raised beds, leguminous cover cropping, heirloom seeds, rotational grazing of chickens. All these things have in common that they are regenerative, Afro-indigenous farming practices that do things like sequester carbon, increase the depth of the topsoil, bring the pollinators back, make the soil better every year. Can you imagine?
I read this horrifying statistic that within one generation of white folks arriving to the Great Plains, they had driven 50% of the organic matter out of the soil through aggressive tillage. So you went from an average of around 8% organic matter to 4% in just a generation. And so when we got to our land, it was that 3%, 4% organic matter. It's now 12%. And to us, that number symbolizes the re-indigenizing of the soil. It's like calling the carbon, calling the life back into the land-- out of the atmosphere where it's doing harm back into the land where it produces food and supports that ecosystem.
Our buildings also are made of straw, clay, wood from the land. You know, passive solar, cluster development. These are indigenous technologies as well. But again, we didn't come up with that either. Who are these rememberers, these seed bearers? Anyone know the person on the left? George Washington Carver. If anyone ever went to an elementary school hallway during Black History Month, it was like him and then like a peanut right next to him, because he made all these inventions with peanuts and stuff.
But a lot of people don't know why this brother was obsessed with peanuts. Does anyone know what family they're in? There legumes. Legumes are the best BFFs in the plant kingdom. They literally know how to make friends with bacteria. So a legume will be like, hey, rhizobial bacteria, I want to hang out with you so I made you a little pad in my roots and I put some sugars in there and it's warm and cozy with just the right mix of gases. And if you come move in, all you need to do is inhale the nitrogen from the sky, turn it into an organic form, and give me some. And they've been doing that for thousands of years. It's why there is nitrogen in the soil.
So he knew this and he knew that these depleted soils of the south-- see, science nerds over here.
I'm like, I see you. These depleted soils of the south needed legumes. They needed the black-eyed peas in order to heal. They need the peanut in order to heal. People thought he was nuts. I mean, think about this-- you plant cotton, you harvest it, and then you sell it and you get money. You plant peas and then you till them into the ground. That doesn't make any sense.
So he had to pull out his Biblical knowledge. He was like, it says in Proverbs that whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me. And God is talking about the soil life, and so you need to feed the soil life. And he convinced a whole generation to go organic. He was the first ag professor to teach regenerative farming. He was telling people to compost, mulch, all this.
And then this is the next generation at Tuskegee University, Booker T. Whatley. Anyone ever heard of farm to table? CSA? So again, people thought he was also nuts because wholesale was really hard for farmers. Black farmers were getting pushed out of markets. So he's like, I have an idea. I have a theory that city folks are yearning for country life. They miss it.
So we're going to make them have a little taste. We'll make newsletters for our farms. We'll have these days you can come out and pick crops, and you'll actually pay the farmer to pick the crop and then you'll take some home with you. And, again, people like, what? Pick your own. Has anyone ever gone apple picking? Strawberry picking? You've been had. You've been had.
That was his idea to make you feel like this little taste of country life. But it worked, I mean, most farmers going in today into the diversified horticulture have some kind of CSA, pick your own membership newsletter, something like that to make people really feel that country connection. So thank you, Booker T. Whatley, for farm to table.
But perhaps more important when we talk about farming techniques is the spiritual dimension. So I'll tell you this quick story. I studied with the queen mothers in Ghana. That's a whole lecture unto itself. They're amazing. They're like the conflict mediators. They do all of the storytelling for the whole community. They raise the orphans. They run a boutique business. They'll do your wedding, your funeral, circumcision. Queen mothers do all the things.
But they had a fun game they liked to play with me to try to understand the strange customs in America. And so they'd have a daily question. So one day they'd be like, Amirade, which is my name there, come. Is it true that in the United States a farmer will put a seed in the ground and they won't pray or poor libation or dance or sing or even say thank you to the ground?
I was like, it's true.
It's true. They said, that's why you're all sick. You all sick because you treat the earth like a commodity from which you can extract without limit and not as the living, breathing, or veshalua spirit that she is, deserving of consent and reciprocity.
So we might be looking a little silly, but we just planted seeds, so we're dancing to give thanks for the soil and to pray for the rain, to sing our ancestors songs, to feel our ancestors movements in our bodies. We have a rain festival. We have the harvest, the yam festival. We make offerings of corn meal every Tuesday before the harvest day. And that's real, real important, because the Earth actually is alive. Memo. She's alive. So that's the first thing, the farm itself. That's the main thing.
Two more things we're up to. The second one is training farmer activists. We have some alumni in the house tonight. What's up?
Because here's the thing-- it's real hard for us. I can't tell you how many of our people try to get into an incubator program, they get denied. They try to do willing workers on organic farms and some racist farm owner asks them why black men abandon their families over bean picking. And they want to go to an ag extension university, but they're in these rural communities that are hostile or they can't get a scholarship.
It's very, very, very difficult to get into farming. And a lot of folks think we don't want to farm, but I'll tell you, created this little program called BIPOCFRE-- Black Indigenous People of Color Farming and Relationship with Earth. I put a Facebook post up back in 2013 and it was full in five minutes. Our waiting list for our training programs is years long. Our people are yearning, because we-- some of us confuse the scene of the crime, which was the land, with the crime.
But the fact is, the land has always had our back. Always, always, always had our back. In fact, we survived because of that connection with the land. So when we fled to Pittsburgh, to Boston, when we fled to Philadelphia and DC, we left a whole piece of ourselves back there in that soil. And I think our generation-- I call it the returning generation-- is we're realizing there's something to go pick up in order for us to be whole, in order for us to fill that aching, nameless space right here of like, what's the meaning of all this space?
We come to the Earth and it's clear what it is. We started doing a lot more programs in Spanish, because it would be be super duper whack to exclude 85% of the actual farmers in this country. So we just finished a week long Spanish immersion that was my whole life. It was my whole heart. Folks from Vieques were there and Mexico and California who were farm workers yearning to actually be their own bosses, which they have the right to be.
These are our alumni, some of them. They're super dope. You know, I think about like, well, if you have a long waiting list, why don't you just be bigger, like a Soul Fire franchise. Like super capitalist. I'm like, well, let's think about this. We always copy the forest, so in the forest if a tree has access to a little more sunshine because it's on the edge, it doesn't actually grow like six times as tall as the other trees. It simply takes the extra photosynthate that it makes, dumps it into a network of mycelium, and feeds it to the other trees.
So they all grow together and then they can all have their mass here together and overwhelm the squirrels and all the things they need to do. So like, the trees-- these are our trees, they are our trees. And so whatever comes our way, we're trying to share and support. And so one day, it'll be so commonplace to have black indigenous-led food sovereignty projects that it's like, why would you invite them to Harvard? Because it's been done.
So shout out to the Catatumbo Co-op in Chicago. It's an indigenous-led business. Lovefed in New Haven. These are beautiful folks who are turning-- they will turn your lawn into a home farm.
My kids gave me the back to school cold, man. Metalize, who's doing a whole in Spanish immersion in the Bronx. Keisha, who's working with livestock farmers in Georgia, helping them transition to organic grain, and so on. And our babies. We have these youth. They're like our black FFA-- Future Farmers of America. We've been working with them for three years. We're going to do four year cohorts. And these are the young people who just watch out, because they're going to lead the way.
Here they are with their ancestor staffs, because when anyone asks them what their goals are, what their dreams are, they know that they should check in with their ancestors for some instructions first. And so here they are learning how to do that. I kind of mentioned that. But again, this whole idea of a farm that's also education, we didn't come up with that either.
Anyone recognize these seed rememberers? Fannie Lou Hamer. Anyone else? The Sherrods, yep. So Fannie Lou Hamer, we already talked about her gumbo soup. but she wasn't just talk. She started Freedom Farm Co-op where she brought together sharecroppers who'd been kicked off their land that they were living on because they'd registered to vote, brought them together, formed a community. They had a livestock bank that the Heifer Project kind of copied-- the whole pig bank situation, right?
Shirley and Charles Sherrod started the first ever community land trust in the United States. It's called New Communities. They had 6,000 acres in Georgia. And the idea with the land trust is it's communal ownership. It's like returning to the pre-- what do you call it in Europe when they broke up all the lands?
Pre-enclosure, where we can own land together, but still have the ability to own our homes as a family and pass them on.
And the third and final thing we're up to is try and change the system, which is not a small thing. One of my elders, Boba Halfkenny, a civil rights movement veteran, and he was talking about how during the Civil Rights Movement, the black farmers were the backbone. And you think about it, it's not like the Hilton is going to put you up for your SNIT conference. It's not like you can go have tea with Black Panthers in some corner shop.
So they had to be clandestine. They had to have places to meet, places to eat. So the black farmers put up all of the meeting space, the food, the fixing your shoes, the armed protection, the I'm going to leverage my land as collateral for bail money to get you out of jail. And they literally held these fake Bible studies in their houses and inside the Bibles would be the pamphlets for voter registration.
My mom was one of those people who went down and stayed with black farmers. They would keep a lookout. If the Night Riders were coming to lynch somebody, they would cut a tree down across the road to give you time to escape. But in the daytime, they pretended they didn't know you to keep you both safe. So without black farmers who owned their own land, there would have been no civil rights movement.
So Boba Halfkenny is like, what are you doing again? Some youth programs and carrots? That's cute.
Time to get busy. So we've tried to be accountable to community. A few of the movement building projects that we're up to, one is this reparations map where black indigenous folks of color can put their farm and food justice projects on the map and receive land and money in the spirit of reparations from those who've inherited it. That's stolen land and labor returned, and we've had over 20 people get farms or significant capital through that project.
Reparations is a hot topic now. It used to sound really radical, but now y'all-- it's regular. One of my mentors, Ed Whitfield, explained reparations probably the best I've ever heard it. He said, you know, imagine that your neighbor stole your cow. Two weeks later, your neighbor comes back over to your house, tears in his eyes, remorse in his heart. I'm so sorry I stole your cow. It was super wrong. I really didn't mean it. I know everybody saw it, too. There's no question. But I'm going to make it up to you. Every week for the rest of this cow's life, I will bring you half a pound of butter. What would you say?
Give me my back. But look at how we're treating this whole situation of having stolen the whole continent from indigenous people and having stolen at least seven trillion dollars of labor from black people. It's like, oh, but we'll put a scholarship fund for you at our institution so you can come. That's the butter. So we really, really have to be looking at how do we fundamentally shift.
We helped form the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which will be going public in probably 9 to 12 months. And we'll make it very easy to make tax deductible donations of that stolen land to be returned to indigenous and black communities across the Northeast. Check it out. We tell stories, which I used to think was a waste of time, but I will tell you that every single one of those land donations came from some storytelling.
So griot has been our way, being preachers that's been our way. It's how we motivate and catalyze our folks. And so we have 30 plus alumni who are part of our griot collective and go around and talk about this work. It's super beautiful. And we do international work, too. We have sibling farms in Vieques, in Ghana, Mexico, and Haiti. And we don't go and try to tell them what to do, like some weird, whack international extension agent.
We just figure out what they need and how we can provide the resource-- whether it's expertise, labor, money for them to do it. So case in point, after Hurricane Matthew really devastated the community of Leogane in Haiti, they needed an irrigation system so they could plant a second crop so they could eat.
A pump costs $300. We buy the pump, and by the end of the day, over 20 farms are irrigated because they all worked together digging the channels so everyone can plant. It's an example of that kind of project. And then trying to-- Ocasio Cortez is asking us to help with the Green New Deal and all these things, which is an honor. But these laws fundamentally are what underpin the system, so we got to be working on that, too.
We didn't make that up either. Organizing. Who are these people?
Chavez got it started.
Chavez, Delores Huerta, Larry Easleon, the Emacali Workers, right? The Haitian Peasant Movement. The Haitian Revolution. This idea of really resisting to actually fundamentally change the system. The Haitian Peasant Movement is one of my favorite. They don't get shout-outs enough, but we talk about GMO seed and Monsanto. They literally block Monsanto shipments of genetically modified seed at Port-Au-Prince and burn them.
They're like, no, you're going to try to displace our indigenous seed. We know what you're up to. You give free donations of seed and the associated chemicals for two years, which is long enough to deplete our native seed stock, and then we're dependent on your corporation. Like here's the fire. They won a global food sovereignty prize for their resistance.
So I want to-- we'll leave time for questions and also just mention that there is always a what you can do piece that's really important. Like how many people eat food in this room?
How many people live on land? Anyone live in a boat? It's like, always got to be one person.
I'm not a kind of over the land thing, right? So then in some ways, we're all complicit with a system that fundamentally relies on stolen land, exploited labor, and those fruits of the labor are disproportionately beneficial to one company. And there's lots of things we can do, because the food system, as my daughter Nasheema puts it, everything it takes to get sunshine onto your plate. There's a whole lot of points of intervention.
For some of us, it's about creating school gardens for our babies to learn how to grow food. For some of us, it is about calling our congresspeople and being like, so what is up with the H2A program? How can we create pathways to citizenship for these folks, right? For other people, it's about educating your family and friends.
But the good news is that you don't have to make it up, and shouldn't make it up, because who is expert in racism in the food system? People of color in the food system. And the good news is people of color in the food system have created action steps for all of us. We have them on our website on take action, so you should definitely take a look at that, because you don't want to be one of those people that's like, I know what you all need. It's like, kale salad classes. I'll teach you. You don't want to be that, right? And so really following the lead of the impacted communities. This is super important.
And here are some faces of some of those food system leaders. Karen Washington, Malika Keeni, Dennis Derek, Gail Myers, all these beautiful people. So don't let anyone tell you that black and brown folks aren't doing the work. It just often gets obscured. More organizations to support. And there's a full, full, full list on our website.
But I wanted to end with my all-time favorite quote. And this is especially poignant now because this person has recently transitioned to the next realm. But I need a ovolunteer to help me read it, because we're going to go back and forth. Anybody? Come on. My voice is going to make it all the way.
All right, so here's what we're going to do. I'll read a line and then you read a line or a stanza.
It's two pages. Here we go.
See. See what you can do.
Never mind you can't tell one letter from another. Never mind you born a slave. Never mind you lose your name. Never mind your daddy dead. Never mind nothing.
Here, this here is what a person can do if they put their minds to it and they're back in it.
Stop sniveling, the land said. Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can't take advantage, , take disadvantage.
We live here on this planet, in this nation, in this country, right here. Nowhere else.
We got a home in this rock. Don't you see?
Nobody starving in my home. Nobody crying in my home. And if I got a home, you got one, too.
Grab it. Grab this land.
Take it. Hold it, my brothers. Make it, my sister. Shake it, my sibling. Squeeze it. Turn it. Twist it. Beat it. Kick it. Kiss it. Whip it. Stomp it. Dig it. Plow it. Seed it. Reap it. Rent it. Buy it. Sell it. Own it. Build it. Multiply it. And pass it on.
Can you hear me? Pass it on.
Oh, thank you.