Trains are the perfect time to reflect. Headphones on, scenery rushing by. This week I have crossed vast amounts of this huge country. Starting in Detroit, I’ve Amtrak-ed myself west (Amtrak is the U.S. passenger rail system), with a little detour in to Wyoming to see an old friend. The train system is fairly scarce in the U.S., it’s all about the car here – individualism and cheap gas. But the lines that run do it in style and I’m taking advantage of that. Double decker carriages with a lounge cart that houses huge windows that run up into the roof. My first long train journey (Chicago, Illinois -Salt Lake City, Utah) took 34hrs and my second leg to San Francisco on the west coast is taking another 17hrs. Time a plenty for reflections.
It’s got me wondering about the threads which run through the projects i’ve visited and the things they’ve taught me, and how that relates to resilience.
Out on the east coast I hit a vein of amazingness, hugely open people who somehow all seemed connected. As I ventured from one project to the next, I journeyed between a network of peers and friends. Similarly, Jerry Hebron in Detroit gave me a glimpse of the urban ag networks in Detroit. It got me reflecting on our networks in the UK, the friendship and camaraderie built through the collective mission. I think this is something which brings us a huge amount of resilience in the UK, just as here in the U.S.. These are our networks of support, of shared learning, our points of inspiration and challenge, and our centres for reflection and celebration. These things are vital and they make our projects and movements stronger.
Through my journey to date, I’ve been lucky to encounter folks who are making the links between farming and systemic oppression, recognising the ability of farming to challenge power imbalances and make genuine social change. Understanding that we need to centre people of colour, queer people, low income people, in the work that we do. Holding spaces for the collective trauma of oppressed groups. Serving to normalise practices which make beginning steps to repair, thanks giving for the stolen land of indigenous peoples, teaching of the historical context of the unjust food system, seeking to elevate the work of people facing oppression and support them in stepping into leadership positions, pronoun check-ins as the norm, and solidly attending to many aspects of our organisational structures and cultures. And understanding that this makes the work that we do stronger.
The centring of food justice and politics (historical and current) in the work that people do has been a huge inspiration. Farm school, East New York Farms!, Soul Fire Farm all centring this in their work creating future leaders. The CSAs at Rock Steady Farm and Soul Fire Farm, making genuine change through their low income shares.
I’ve enjoyed conversations as I’ve moved around on the issue of self-care and boundaries as vital in supporting people in this work. Because if we don’t look after ourselves our projects can’t be truly sustainable. This seems especially important for the projects which are establishing when it feels like so much additional energy is required in building anew. For me personally, a newer part of self-care is a process of attempting at times to sit in my body and see the physical reactions I have (to our history, our present reality, to the work we do), because this presence connects me to the work I do from a place of heart rather than head, and that feels important. I somehow feel that the connection to the self supports the connection to others (past, present and future, human and non-human).
A recurring theme through projects has been the desire for movement away from grant funding, to have more independence over the direction of their work, to avoid the mission creep which can result from bending the work we do to the current desires of funders. At Rock Steady Farm and Truelove Seeds this has resulted in a decision to set up for-profit enterprises (whilst maintaining partnerships with non-profits to tap in to those worlds). At Oakland Avenue Urban Farm there is a movement into sales to restaurants to expand income and the % of their budget which they have more control over. East New York Farms! Operate a different tactic of patching together smaller grants in which they feel there is more flexibility. This highlights an over-arching challenge for funders which we also see in the UK. I understand that our projects need to be held accountable, but fundamentally, it is those on the ground who can better understand where the priorities are for the communities they work in.
A final thread running through the first part of my trip is gentrification. East New York Farms! in Brooklyn, NYC, Oakland Avenue Urban Farms in The North End, Detroit. This will continue to be a theme with my next stop being Planting Justice in Oakland, CA. Urban farming projects which make communities more resilient can be hugely powerful in opposing gentrification or limiting it’s impacts on existing communities. But we must attend to the fact that community gardening is not always a benevolent force in fighting gentrification, we must attend to the ways in which it can be co-erced and co-opted and how we resist this. How do we build community and beautify without raising house prices and pushing people out? As a food grower working in London, the issue of gentrification and urban agriculture has huge relevance to the movement I operate in. I haven’t gained a sense of the collaborative fights here in the U.S.A. but something that inspires me a lot in London is the bringing together of urban gardening and housing struggles to enhance the common struggles and to focus them on community control and the issue of land and control over land.
Many musings when passing peopled lands but fundamentally it all comes back to the land and the people. Wandering wonderings.