Saturday, June 25, 2011

New sites and strategies of resistance

Reconsidering What Resistance Looks Like

Many academics have focused on pickets, marches and boycotts as strategies of social movements and resistance.  Charles Tilly defined a social movement as, “a series of contentious performances, displays and campaigns by which ordinary people make collective claims on others.”  Tilly and other movement scholars have focused their attention on formal, structured, and organizational strategies as demonstrations of resistance.  In the process, they have missed some strategies that are defined as such by those who participate in them.

Gardening is one such form of resistance that has completely flown below the radar.  Six years ago I was laughed at when I told folks that I studied urban gardening in Detroit.  When I talked about my research on black farmers and the struggle for the right to grow food, people often asked me, “What are they fighting?  How is this resistance?  Where are the picket signs, the protest marches and the rallies?”  Allowing activists to define their own behavior and connect their actions to causes unearths a significance and a meaning to their behavior that would otherwise go unnoticed. 

Freedom farmers in Detroit challenge current definitions of resistance. Their work demands that movement scholars reconsider what resistance looks like and how it is performed.  Farming and gardening are not directly confrontational with the power structure, however freedom farmers define gardening as a resistance strategy.  Their work is internally transformative not only for themselves, but for their families and their communities in three ways:  healthy living and the production of healthy food, building community through the food system and cooking as resistance.

Healthy Living as Resistance

In a sedentary culture where people drive to get across the street, healthy living can be seen as resistance.  These farmers resist by exercising on the farm, a type of exercise that was universally apart of human existence before handing the provision of food to big agricultural companies and the popularity of manufactured environments like health clubs.  Freedom farmers direct their attention inward, toward repairing their health by growing healthy food using sustainable growing practices, and by transforming neglected, abandoned lots into healthy, vibrant, green, urban spaces developed for exercise and healthy food.  These lots were once overgrown with weeds and unkempt.  People walked out of their way in order to avoid them.  Today, they are filled with artwork, children’s gardens, laughter and play.  

Community Building as Resistance

People would never see a group of gardeners and think, “Wow, I wonder what they are protesting?”  The question should not be what are they fighting, rather the question should be what are they building.  They are re-building the community around a food system.  One way of doing this is by working the garden/farm and producing healthy, organic food.  Another way of community building is by working together and getting to know their neighbors.  They participate in collective decision making about what should happen in these new “common” areas.  It is in this movement that we witness the process of moving from individuals who live in the same neighborhood, yet who barely know each other, to people who have become neighbors.  They start talking to each other, they engage in collective problem solving, they develop a sense of social responsibility.  They come together and begin to search for ways that they can help each other…not to mention intergenerational interaction in one space where youngins’ and elders come together.  Elders offer a wealth of knowledge and kids keep them young… now that’s revolutionary!!! 

Another community building strategy through farming is in knowing, supporting and buying from folks in their own neighborhood.  Freedom farmers prioritize respectful and mutually rewarding relationships with the people responsible for the food they eat through all of the various stages of the food system.  The slogan, “know your farmer” for them is revolutionary.  We are so disconnected from the names, the faces and the stories of those who are responsible for one of life’s essentials, our daily bread.  Other behaviors they consider as resistance include buying and growing wholesome foods, neighborhood and communal dining experiences are examples of resistance for them. 

Cooking as Resistance

Freedom farmers also define other food-related behaviors, not traditionally identified as a resistance strategy, as such.  Americans dine out an average of 4-5 times a week.  The numbers are higher for poor people and communities of color.  Freedom farmers define cooking as an act of resistance.  They see the dinner table as an everyday harvest festival to pay homage to all who played a role in bringing the food from field to plate.  They see the act of cooking as a labor of love, saying to all who dine here, “I love you so much I cooked for you.” It would be safe to say that if you cook as a display of love, the food, in some way, is not only an expression of that love but also, in some way, feeds you almost like Popeye and his spinach.  

Growing up, my mother always told me to be conscious of those who prepared your food.  Their energy, she said, would be transferred to you.  I remember a scene in the book, Like Water for Chocolate where the emotions of the chef were transferred through the food to the consumer literally!!  If you look in the kitchens of many restaurants people work in challenging conditions, they are often not treated with respect.  They do not earn a living wage and there is often an impermanence in their employment.  Can you imagine the 
emotions that they experience???  

I have always found the garden as a place of peace and tranquility.  I love that the garden is a site for resistance and the act of gardening, now defined as a resistance strategy.  It is powerful to witness people create systems and structures that work to their benefit instead of participating in systems that were developed to oppress them.  I’m sure that in many ways this gardening revolution and the creative strategies that people enact in order to transform urban spaces will have academics coming up with new questions and innovative ways to address them. 

Most academic discussions portray oppressed people as being reactionary, implying that people react to conditions like police brutality, the foreclosure crisis, or even the location and health implications of an incinerator.  It describes a model that shows activists as waiting for something to happen and then they react.  This model neither appreciates nor does it respect a community’s ability to address community problems using community-based solutions.  What I LOVE about this work is that given the city's history, Detroiters brilliantly finesse a series of unfortunate situations and are currently using these conditions to their advantage and improvement.  By creating alternative systems of food delivery, one in which they are in control, they will not have to “react” to a lack of food, nor will they be at the mercy of the market, contractors or opportunist politicians who see this as the cause célèbre.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sisters of the Soil

A recent program on NPR discussed the growing numbers of women farmers in the US.  I guess for some that might be news.  For those of us versed in African/African-American history or engaged in urban ag in Detroit, this is far from a public service announcement.  Historically, Black women’s participation in agriculture has until recently been consistent in the struggle to provide healthy food for their families.  Black women have fought for the right to grow food to supplement the diets and the pocketbooks of Black families for many generations.  Unearthing herstories of black women farmers allows us to recognize the work of some of the sistahs engaged in the urban gardening movement here in Detroit.

The women active in the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) have been affectionately, and even secretly, called, “the Queens Council.”  If the mainstream newspaper or television is your source for information, you would most definitely miss them.  If you are waiting on the documentaries on agriculture in Detroit to tell their stories once again, the voices of black women will be notably and noticeably absent, but we don’t need traditional media to tell us who our sheroes are.
The “Queens Council,” teaches us a few lessons about gardening as resistance through understanding their work in the current urban agriculture movement.
Redefining Resistance
The women of DBCFSN define gardening as an act of resistance.  The lack of access to healthy food in Detroit, combined with the amount of available vacant land, and the agrarian roots of the African community, these women activists take matters into their own hands, both literally and figuratively.  Instead of going to the local government or to market officials, (ie.,those who make decisions on store locations based on demographics) these women view gardening, taking unoccupied land and turning that land into a community-based food system as a demonstration of agency and a response against the various forms of racial and class oppression that a lack of food access demonstrates.
What Do They Resist?
The Queens Council resists the “frankenfood” that is found in the neighborhood liquor, party, and convenience stores, the food that is killing us.  They resist fast, fried food, unhealthy processed food, packages with ingredients that cannot be pronounced, translated, or defined.   They resist food grown with, cooked with and preserved in chemicals whose health implications are still undetermined making us the first generation of gastronomic guinea pigs.  They resist the sense of abandonment that our neighborhoods, with vacant houses and empty lots and absent services illustrate.  They resist apathy.  They resist not being asked about the kind of food local stores should carry and about the process used to grow and deliver the food to market.  They resist markets that carry food that mysteriously will not rot, that lacks an expiration date and that may ultimately outlive us.
Planting gardens demonstrates agency by creating options, healthy food options, where previously few existed.  They are co-opting a part of the food system by placing themselves in control of determining what they eat, what their children eat, how that food is grown and prepared and who benefits from the sale of it.  They resist by transforming neighborhoods and communities, they create safe, greenspaces, places where there is laughter, learning, healing and living.  They resist when they use the garden to teach young children to hear and fall in love with the sounds of their voices, voices of laughter and resistance.