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.


  1. Yes yes yes and right on! Monica. Was just thinking the same thing myself the other day--eating healthy is an act of resistance. Loving and not competing is as an act of resistance. Slowing down and savoring the moments in our rush rush world is an act of resistance. Living in the country in our urban world is an act of resistance, a setting of our agenda and work toward the paradigm shift of how we are going to live. Right on and thank you.

  2. Thank you for adding these to the list, Maria.