By Dara Cooper, Contributing Editor, Environment, Food, and Sustainability
* This post is in honor of freedom fighter Yuri Kochiyama. May she rest in peace and power.
“I want to first acknowledge that this conference is taking place on colonized land,” said Dr. Angela Y. Davis as she began her remarks at the Freedom Dreams Freedom Now conference hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Social Justice Initiative. This conference, co-sponsored by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership and others, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer by asking participants to explore what freedom is.
Dr. Davis noted that one of her freedom dreams is: “…for us to develop what food justice activists call ‘a deep sense of place.’ That whatever we do, we never allow ourselves to forget the lasting effects of settler colonialism and its genocidal violence on the original inhabitants of this land.”
Later, she encouraged us to “learn how to eat consciously, to understand the implications of how we eat, to take care of our bodies and our spirits.”
As Dr. Davis connected the dots between the civil rights and abolitionist movements and dropped truths about issues related to education, Palestine, mass criminalization, political prisoners, trans phobia and immigrant rights, her remarks spoke to the heart of the food justice and sovereignty movement: our quest for full liberation through the decolonization of our minds, schools, bodies, spirits, land, our people and even our palates. Some of the foods we crave most, by design, tend to lend to our greatest destruction as well as the destruction of our planet, the security of our food system, and the violation of almost every human right imaginable from child labor to harmful work conditions and worker exploitation to land theft.
According to an online post about a Social Justice Teach-In at UC Davis earlier this year, Dr. Davis shared that “the food we eat masks so much cruelty. The fact that we can sit down and eat a piece of chicken without thinking about the horrendous conditions under which chickens are industrially bred in this country is a sign of the dangers of capitalism, how capitalism has colonized our minds. The fact that we look no further than the commodity itself, the fact that we refuse to understand the relationships that underlie the commodities that we use on a daily basis. And so food is like that.”
This sentiment was reinforced at the session on “Food Sovereignty, Environmental Justice and Racism” at the Chicago Freedom Dreams conference. Dr. Antonio Lopez of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LLVEJO) recounted one of the first strategies that Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortés employed against the Aztecs to colonize Mexico—dominating the food supply and destroying water aqueducts in Tenochtitlán. Dr. Lopez then made the connection to Chicago communities lacking community control over their food. Detroit activist Myrtle Thompson-Curtis of Feedom Freedom Farm relayed the urgent financial crisis in Detroit impacting the city’s population with dire food access and land rights issues, over 120,000 water shut offs, and the appointment of an emergency manager all but eradicating the city’s democratic processes. Neo-colonialist strategies to capture land and water with no regard for Detroit’s majority black population harken back to the Spanish colonization of Mexico referenced by Dr. Lopez.
Baba Fred Carter of Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living offered some critical thoughts on our collusion, be it voluntary or involuntary, with the colonization of our communities—particularly as it relates to food and sustainability:
“We have to figure out how we are [part of] the cause of what’s going on. Somehow in how we frame our own relationships, we’ve lost our understanding of ourselves and the land. We live in a way of extraction. We violate ourselves because we look at each other in terms of how we can extract from each other. We extract until there is nothing left to extract. We have to learn how to extract ourselves from this [capitalism]. Because it’s collapsing.”
He went on to say, “We’ve outsourced everything – water, pleasure, food, housing and education – and we’ve allowed these ‘brokers’ to come in the middle of all that,” listing grocery stores, local boards of education and energy companies as examples of brokers.
Even though neo-colonialist assaults glaringly persist in our communities, colonialism is rarely, if ever, discussed within mainstream discourses surrounding so called “food deserts.” Often, the problem of food “justice” is reduced to the lack of a “grocery store” presence, the need for people to learn to eat properly, or, at best, the need for an urban garden. While geographic access to food is critical, its presence isn’t nearly enough. Cost, relevance, ownership and conditioning are key factors in whether communities will be able to truly access the food. That’s why the panel’s analytic offerings on colonialism, extraction, and food justice are so critical at this juncture in our movement.
Even if physical access to food were to be solved, issues of power, agency and self-determination of Black, Latino and Indigenous communities would need to be addressed. We all deserve the ability to employ our most basic human right—to feed oneself. Moreover, without first understanding and recognizing how we have been and are colonized, we won’t be able to understand how to be truly free. As scholar activist Robin D. G. Kelley said at Freedom Dreams, “you can’t imagine a world without oppression without understanding all the ways in which we’re oppressed.”
Lending to the theme of the Chicago Freedom Dreams conference, Baba Fred Carter shared his dream of a sustainable future. “Imagine a world where we didn’t outsource everything. Where we didn’t need Pepco (energy company). Why would you want to outsource your food to someone whose primary intent is to make money and exploit?”
Black Oaks Center is working to provide this sustainable alternative. With the creation of the Healthy Food Hub (celebrating its fifth year) in Chicago and 40 acres of completely off-grid land in Pembroke, IL, this “eco-campus” teaches thousands of people how to live sustainably. Black Oaks teaches in four tracts: sustainable agriculture, i.e. organic seed saving and learning to grow food; sustainable building; renewable energy; and resiliency, i.e. working with communities to become more sustainable, including in relationships with one another. According to Baba Fred, “we need to learn how to compost the past. We need to learn how to compost the pain.” Turning negative or unhealthy energy and matter into healthy matter is one of our greatest assets in our freedom struggle.
It’s clearly time to change the discourse from examining the symptoms to addressing the root causes of food and environmental injustice—and that means the eradication of exploitation and extractive based systems. As we work to “compost the past” and struggle for better days, understanding our place in relation to the land is critical. “One of the things about indigenous communities is our balance to the land,” offered Dr. Lopez. “We are children of the sun.”
Dr. Davis offered some final words about how we understand our movement towards liberation. She encouraged us to “think broadly and think deeply. We always need a deep sense of our struggle so we don’t make the mistake of assuming that we start right now as if we today produced the only histories that matter.
As we struggle towards realizing freedom, let us never forget settler colonialism. Let us learn the ways of our ancestors and “compost the past,” reclaiming our power, turning destructive matter into healthful possibilities. And let us always remember that we are indeed a part of a long history of freedom fighters with a long history of freedom dreams. In the spirit of the recently transitioned Baba Chokwe Lumumba, Mabel Williams, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, General Baker, Sam Greenlee, Vincent Harding, Stuart Hall, and Yuri Kochiyama…we will continue to be.