Seeding Food Sovereignty: Black and Indigenous Farming Leaders Share Their Strategies
A food sovereignty movement is sprouting on the trail of colonialism and white supremacy, which have unknowingly planted the seeds of their own unmaking. This multigenerational movement is being led by colonized people uprooting global systems of privatized land ownership and environmental degradation. In confronting this system of exploitation, we can transform the underlying relationship of extraction to one rooted in kinship and reciprocity.
In this panel conversation from the Bioneers 2020 Conference, BIPOC leaders share food sovereignty strategies rooted in cultural knowledge, as well as the rematriation of land and dignity to colonized people who overwhelmingly represent the number of exploited laborers working on stolen land. Moderated by Naima Penniman, an artist-activist and educator, with: Rowen White, a Mohawk farmer and seed keeper; Reverend Heber Brown, a community organizer and social entrepreneur; and Leah Penniman, a farmer and food justice advocate.
This discussion took place at the 2020 Bioneers Conference. Watch more panels, keynote addresses, and performances from the conference.
NAIMA PENNIMAN: Peace and greetings. Welcome to the BIPOC Leaders Share Food Sovereignty Strategies panel. I’m honored to be moderating this conversation with our incredible panelists—Rowen White, Reverend Heber Brown, and my dear sister, Leah Penniman. Before I introduce them, I will share a little about myself and where I think we’re headed.
I am the daughter of Reverend Adele Smith-Penniman, a Haitian/Black American spiritual leader and civil rights activist, and Keith Penniman, an environmental activist and librarian of European descent. And like so many of you, I am a lifelong lover and defender of the Earth, devoted to healing injustice for all her inhabitants, and am giving my all to do my small part. I’m honored to serve as Program Director at Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous community training farm, and also a founding member of Wild Seed Community Farm and Healing Village. I’m also an artist and poet. You may have heard my poetry before. You may also have seen my sister Leah Penniman’s soul-stirring keynote earlier today that still has me swirling with conviction and possibility. I’ve been part of Bioneers for several years, and I’m incredibly grateful for this community of visionary “solutionaries,” so I want to give a warm, heartfelt welcome to everyone who is listening and to thank you for taking time to show up and listen in to this important discussion.
I’m thrilled that we’re having this conversation today about strategies for food sovereignty, (which is deeply connected to seed sovereignty and to land sovereignty) because it’s hard to think of anything more important than figuring out how we can nourish all members of our communities in a time of immense food insecurity; how we can feed ourselves without trashing the planet; how we can restore Black and Indigenous land stewardship; how we can create safety and dignity and pathways to leadership for Latinx agricultural laborers who grow the majority of the food we eat in this country; and how we can restore and protect a diversity of seeds for future generations. All these struggles are crucial to our collective survival and the health of our shared planet.
And if there was ever a time where the cracks in our industrial food system were laid bare, it is now. We need to be living into the solutions and taking the lead from Black, Indigenous and other people of color on the frontlines whose labor and brilliance have too often been ignored, exploited, subjugated and co-opted, if we are going to be able to define pathways forward.
I have immense respect and gratitude for each of our panelists for their enduring devotion and leadership in these realms, and I will introduce them now, one at a time, and then pass it to them for brief opening words. Rowen White is a seed keeper and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, and a passionate activist for Indigenous seed and food sovereignty. Rowen is the founder and Director of Sierra Seeds, an innovative, California-based organic seed stewardship organization, and the Program Director for the Indigenous Seed Keeper Network, which is an initiative of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
ROWEN WHITE: Greeting, relatives. My name is Rowen White. My Mohawk name means “She Carries the Snow.” I’m a farmer, seed-keeper, mother, storyteller, and a passionate activist for the dignified resurgence of the relational foodways of Indigenous Peoples. I come from a small community called Akwesasne, which is right on the New York/Canadian border. In fact, the border crossed us, so to speak. We have relatives to the north and south of that medicine line, and we’ve been in relationship with the land here on Turtle Island since time immemorial, so I’ve sought to apprentice myself to the Earth, to my ancestors, my living elders, my children, and to the amazing network of people that I have the honor and privilege of working with to work on finding my way home back to a sense of what it means to be a modern Indigenous farmer and woman who is both a good future ancestor and a responsible descendant. It’s a real honor to be here amongst so many wise visionaries and good people.
NAIMA: Thank you so much, Rowen. Next is Reverend Heber Brown, a multiple award-winning community organizer and social entrepreneur who is the Senior Pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, and the founding Director of Orita’s Cross Freedom School, which works to reconnect Black youth to their African heritage while providing them with hands-on learning opportunities to spark their creativity and build vocational skills. In 2015, Reverend Brown launched the Black Church Food Security Network, a multi-state alliance of congregations dedicated to creating a grassroots community-led food system. Reverend Brown, thank you for your work and thank you for being here.
Rev. HEBER BROWN: Thank you so very much. I’m a third-generation Baptist preacher and returning grower. This year has slowed me down enough to invest in the quality time that I needed, my soul needed, with the land, even as we do the important work of the Black Church Food Security Network, which essentially is working to remember the Black Church to our agrarian and land-based legacies, and in addition organize and marshal the resources of Black church spaces in the direction of food and land sovereignty, which has a long history there. I’m excited about ways that our team can steward that history and also in an Afro-futurist kind of way, look on how to build an additional room onto that legacy as well, so I’m really grateful to be part of this conversation.
NAIMA: Now I have the honor of introducing Leah Penniman, who I can testify is a phenomenal sibling in addition to an incredible mother, daughter, and ancestor-in-training. Leah is the Co-Director and Farm Manager at Soul Fire Farm and has over 20 years’ experience as a soil steward and food sovereignty activist. She’s worked at the Food Project Farm School and Many Hands Organic Farm, Youth Grow, and with farmers internationally in Ghana, Haiti, and Mexico. Leah co-founded Soul Fire Farm a decade ago with the mission to reclaim Black and Brown people’s inherent right to belong to the Earth and to have agency in the food system. Leah’s areas of leadership at Soul Fire include farmer training, international solidarity, writing, speaking, making it rain, and anything that involves heavy lifting, sweat and soil. And her book, Farming While Black is a love song for the Earth and her peoples. Welcome, Leah.
LEAH PENNIMAN: Thank you, dear womb and soul sister, and thank you Reverend Brown and sister Rowen. I have a deep heartfelt respect for both of you and all that you have taught me, both through our relationship and through your example in the world. And Naima, I was going to say pretty much the exact same thing you said about our parents, so I’m going to extend the calling of lineage by inviting in, in this moment, our ancestor Mary Jane Boyd, our grandma’s grandma and her own grandmother, Susie Boyd, who was one of the thousands of women from Dahomey who had the audacious courage to braid seeds of okra, cow pea, millet, black rice, and egusi into her hair before being forced onto a transatlantic slave ship, believing that we would exist to inherit the seed. And I also want to call in our Grandma Mi Brown Lee McCullough, one of the six million Black folks who were refugees during the Great Migration, fleeing white racial terror that dispossessed them of lands. Our grandma held on to the agrarian tradition that she had learned in Rock Hill, South Carolina by keeping a strawberry patch and a crabapple tree in her yard on the outskirts of Boston, and that is where Naima and I first learned to garden, to preserve our own food, and to listen to what the earth had to tell us, so a big shout out and much gratitude to our lineage.
I was reminiscing with Naima yesterday about when we were very, very small children, how we thought that we had invented a religion of Earth reverence, and among our spiritual practices was to go outside and hug Grandmother Pine and imagine that our exhale of CO2 would be absorbed by her and returned to us as oxygen, and that in this embrace, we would have a mutually supportive exchange of life-giving gases. This is, you know, 4 and 5-year-old Naima and Leah, and while our activism has matured, I guess you could say, and become more strategic in terms of the way we engage with policy and institution-building and healing from trauma, and frontlines work, etc.; that fundamental yearning for intimate connection with the earth remains unabated.
NAIMA: Ashe. Thank you, Leah, for drumming up those memories and for calling upon our ancestors. We call upon all of our ancestors to support us in these beautiful and challenging conversations that we’re about to enter into. May they help to guide us. I give thanks to my ancestors, to your ancestors, to all of our ancestors. Ashe.
So I’m going to start it off with a big question for each of you: What is wrong with the food system, and what are some of the strategies and community solutions that you are engaged in to intervene? Rowen?
ROWEN: That is a big question. I think all of us ask big questions here in this circle, which is a blessing and a curse sometimes, but I think we find our way through by the hope that this work brings.
I’m here representing Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, which is a national organization. There are over 560 unique tribal nations across Turtle Island with so many magnificent and exquisite kin-centric relational foodways, and every single one of these communities has endured the ongoing assault of the violence of settler colonialism that has resulted in catastrophic land loss, cultural memory loss, dislocation, assimilation, acculturation, and genocide. But amidst that there have been countless courageous ancestors and foresighted elders who took seeds into buckskin pouches when they were put on trails of tears and relocated from the lands that held their umbilical cords and their ancestors’ bones and bodies, and they shared this cultural memory and these seeds down the generations in subversive and revolutionary ways. We Indigenous Peoples are woven into a tapestry of story and identity, and we’re nothing without a sense of who we are, which includes the foods we eat and the relationships we have to those who sustain us.
So we’ve endured countless atrocities over the last 500+ years, but these ancestors that I speak of and invoke and call in, they sowed seeds of resilience and vitality into the very blood and bones of our bodies. Some of those memories and those seeds and those prayers have lain dormant inside of us over the last many decades and centuries, and what we all are collectively working on now is a dignified resurgence of those traditions: those seeds are finally sprouting in this time.
We’re seeing a multigenerational movement of Indigenous seed-keepers and fishermen and foragers and hunters coming together, knowing that our strength is in our ability to restore vital kinship and trade routes, our intertribal connections. One of colonialism’s tools was to divide and conquer, to cause us to fight among ourselves, but now we are coming together and rising up. The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance has been around since 2015, but it is riding upon a movement that has been sprouting for generations, but hidden. Now is the time it’s ready to sprout, and here we are. We have vibrant Indigenous food sovereignty bubbling up all over. We are working with a cartography of kinship and trade routes and connections and relationships in a vibrant seed-to-table approach to help create mentorship opportunities and to grow the vibrant food sovereignty initiatives that are needed.
We use a number of different tools. We seek to support, empower, and uplift emerging multigenerational leadership that draws on the inherent strength of our ancestral wisdom and traditions but also embraces the resilience, wisdom and dynamic capacity of our peoples to adapt. We work with those emerging leaders, by, for example, teaching them how to host community listening sessions and to do seed sovereignty assessments. We create mentorship opportunities for seed-to-table projects in which farmers can connect with Indigenous chefs. We are looking at regenerative Indigenous cooperative economic development models that align with our cultural values instead of having to rely on extractive, exploitative capitalist models. We are reclaiming “Indigenomics,” as my sister Lyla June calls it.
We often say in our circles that we carry our nations as we carry our children. At the very heart of the work that we do, we center culture, spirit, and emotional, mental and physical well-being. We work together to uplift one another. We are catalyzing the inherent resilience and creativity of Indigenous peoples to dream a future of food sovereignty that is in solidarity with our Black and Brown brothers and sisters.
Rev. HEBER: When you asked what was wrong with the food system, my brain did something interesting: it actually inverted the question and asked: What’s right with the food system? And it’s difficult for me to find anything right with it when I think about the exploitation, the pursuit of excessive profit instead of people’s well-being, the model of control over others instead of one of relationship and solidarity with others; when I think about its impact on the Earth and the soil and the ways in which local communities are suffering; when I think about the ways that the food system has been used as a tool of racism and white supremacy both here and around the world. As I have studied this system more and more, I have come to feel that gradualist approaches to tweaking and reforming this system are a dead end.
I’m inspired by so much of what sister Rowen has shared. We at the Black Church Food Security Network seek to honor that part of our story that precedes the enslavement of African people. We have a relationship with land and soil and water that precedes our enslavement by Europeans in this country, and I love being in my position as a pastor so that I can help create space not only for the study of that history, but also for a re-engagement with sacred scripture. So many in the church read scripture with a capitalistic Westernized white lens and miss so much of what is a dynamic agrarian story. We preach about, for instance, the parable of the mustard seed. We’ve been preaching and singing about that parable in Black churches for years, but a whole lot of folks who’ve heard the sermon or sang the song have never seen an actual mustard seed.
We’re in a position with the Black Church Food Security Network to remember and reintroduce and reconnect our folks with that sacred history and to marshal the resources of Black church spaces. Black churches have been in this country for 300 some years, since the late 1700s with the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and other independent Black Baptist churches. We’ve had these spaces that are autonomous, have some economic strength, and are places of culture and advocacy, places that have great distance from the domination of local white power politics and racism, so we just need to see what we can do with the kitchens, the land, the church vans, the classrooms that the Black Church is currently stewarding, and what it looks like when we are pollinators and connecting all of this together.
LEAH: My personal hypothesis is that the food system is working as it was designed, which is to concentrate wealth, power, and resources in the hands of the few at the expense of most of us, and that its DNA is fundamentally stolen land and exploited labor, so we need a complete redesign.
I’m going to share with you a quote from Wendell Berry that I’ve been meditating a lot on: “The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land to a people he considered racially inferior. In thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of meaningful contact with the earth. He was literally blinded by his presuppositions and prejudices. Because he did not know the land, it was inevitable that he would squander its natural bounty, deplete its richness, corrupt and pollute it, or destroy it altogether. The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal.”
We can’t divorce the way we treat the Earth and the people of the Earth. Farm workers, as they’re called (who are really agricultural experts, i.e. farmers who happen to be employees), are 85 plus percent people of color, mostly Spanish-speaking and born outside the borders of the so-called United States. A lot of them are Indigenous people. And in this time of COVID, when we say that the people who grow food and process food are essential, what the society is saying is that their labor is essential but not actually the lives of those who tend and till the earth. We’ve had over 900 COVID outbreaks in meat-packing and processing plants. We’ve had over 200,000 cases of COVID amongst farm workers. There are high levels of homelessness among farm workers and children out of school going to work in the field with their parents. 50% of farm workers are not authorized to work, so they’re not receiving the unemployment benefits that have been part of the stimulus packages, and they’ve even been excluded from the free COVID testing.
Certainly, we at Soul Fire Farm are engaged in the small and humble ways that we can be engaged: we do doorstep delivery of food, build urban gardens, train farmers, do root cause advocacy for justice for Black farmers, etc., – but to really transform the food system in the ways that we need to, we have to have a holistic picture. There’s a very powerful metaphor for this in the form of the four wings of transformative social justice depicted as a butterfly. Butterflies cannot do what they do without all four of their wings. When we talk about social change and social transformation, these four wings are: resist, build, heal and reform. Resist refers to that direct confrontation of injustice, with boycotts, civil disobedience, protests, non-cooperation, walkouts, strikes, all the forms of non-cooperation with oppression.
Then there’s the wing of reform. Those doing reform work are some of the most courageous folks in some ways, because they’re going into the belly of the beast, into these institutions to do policy change, to transform public schools from the inside out, to run for elected office, to work within the published media with all of its complexities and problematic ways of being, etc. The builders, which is where we at Soul Fire Farms squarely put ourselves, are the ones who are creating institutions that strive to represent the world that we want to create, such as freedom schools, land trusts, seed-saving networks, co-ops, churches, farms, community clinics, sanctuaries. The final wing is healing, because there’s no way we can go through centuries if not millennia of land-based oppression and not be scarred, not to carry this trauma in our DNA, which sometimes results in lateral violence among ourselves, impeding our own progress, so we also need therapy, ceremonies, plant medicines, stories, art, vigils, prayers, all of these aspects of healing. There is no way that one individual or one organization or one strategy is going to win this. We really need to figure out how to collectively make our butterfly fly with all four wings working together.
NAIMA: Reverend Brown, could you share a story of a specific experience that gave you hope around the power of community-owned or community-controlled food systems.
HEBER: I decided to establish a garden on the 1500-square-foot front yard at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church here in Baltimore. The way it happened was that I didn’t know the first thing about growing anything and had never thought of gardening, but I saw members of our church, folks I share a life with, going in and out of the hospital for diet-related reasons. And we were priced out of getting anything that the health food stores had. That made me mad. There was nutrient-rich food not far from us, but we could not get what we needed for our people to stay healthy, so I came back to the church full of divine discontent, and I saw our front yard in that moment, and I said, you know what, if we can’t afford what they’ve got, guess what, we’re going to grow what we need ourselves, so that’s how it started. But I didn’t know the first thing about growing food, and it was a senior member of our congregation, Maxine Nicholas, who said let me help this boy out; he got heart but he don’t know what to do.
Maxine grew up in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina with a bunch of brothers and sisters on a farm, and she’s the one who transformed that space and helped me to see it was so much bigger than what I thought. She took 1500 square feet and started leading the effort to grow tomatoes, herbs, okra, and so many other things. She showed me that there were people right around us, in our community who had the skills and knowledge. Maxine Nicholas has passed, but she is a dynamic ancestor and a patron saint of the Black Church Food Security Network.
NAIMA: Sister Rowen, could you share a story with us as well?
ROWAN: We’ve been working over the last decade on an intercultural seed “rematriation” project involving Indigenous people and non-Indigenous seed-saving organizations. Many important species that were part of our Indigenous cosmo-genealogies, plant relatives that have been with us since the dawn of time, have, through displacement and acculturation, left our communities. Our food systems were violently dismantled, and a number of these seeds moved outside of our communities, but some of us are hearing the message from our ancestors that the revitalization of our culture is inextricably linked to the revitalization of our foods, so we’re calling on the spirits of these seeds who are like long lost prisoners of war who were taken from our communities, and we are now inviting them to come back home.
We found an old plant relative from the Taos Pueblo at a seed bank in Iowa. It had been there for multiple decades and it had been long gone from the Pueblo. The foundation of food sovereignty is seed sovereignty. It’s having access to culturally significant varieties that nourish our bodies in ways that modern hybrid and genetically modified varieties can’t. So we forged relationships with the folks at Seed Savers and with the Field Museum and with some other entities, including some universities, in refining these seeds and bringing them home. And in October 2018 under a beautiful snow-capped mountain in Taos in the fall, we had a ceremony in which we officially brought this squash variety back home. We presented a bag of seeds to the elders at the Taos Pueblo. In our traditional cultures we’re bound in reciprocal relationship with these plants, these seeds, since time immemorial, and now those agreements are getting rehydrated. Those plants are our relatives. Many of us even see our people as lineal descendants of those foods who give their lives so that we can have life, so we came into an agreement as Indigenous peoples a long time ago, that the seeds would take care of us and we would take care of the seeds. Because of countless adversities, it’s been difficult to be able to uphold those agreements for a few centuries, but this rematriation is a beautiful, magnificent, healing endeavor to purposely restore into our communities the heart, the spirit, and that holy mother of the wild who wants to nourish and feed and sustain her children, and has never forgotten her agreement to do that.
If you’re interested in learning more about our rematriation efforts, we’re going to be launching an action guide and a video this winter in which we will share a little bit more about how people of all different diasporas can start reconnecting to the seeds of their ancestors in this way and begin to rematriate seeds back home.
LEAH: That reminds me, sister Rowen, of a piece of our own cosmology, those of us who are descendants of Yoruba people, of the first plants, including the tete, which is a type of amaranth, being considered the ancestors of all of us.
For so long and continuing, Black farmers in particular have been engaged in a struggle with the US Department of Agriculture around its long legacy of discrimination and exclusion. Pete Daniel writes in his book Dispossession that during the Civil Rights Movement era the USDA programs were sharpened into weapons to punish people for the audacity of registering to vote, so that has led to a new generation of folks deciding to try to create our own institutions.
In the Northeast, there’s this emerging network, Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trusts, which started in 2017 as a collaboration between Indigenous and Black Earth stewards, farmers, and seed-keepers deeply committed to permanently securing land tenure for folks of all backgrounds who’ve been dispossessed. That is a lot harder than it sounds. One of the projects of settler colonialism has been to divide and distract our communities and to convince us that we are each other’s enemy, so lots of relationship-building and learning one another’s histories and traumas and pains is needed to overcome that.
There is the Black Farmer Fund, which is a finance vehicle finding non-exploitative ways to make capital available in the form of non-exploitative loans and grants to farm and food workers in the Northeast who are trying to be land-based entrepreneurs. There are farmer training programs, such as the rural one at Soul Fire Farm and an urban one at Farm School NYC that are supporting thousands of returning generations of Black and Brown people to get back on the land in a good way.
There is the Corbin Hill Food Project, which feeds 80,000 people every single year in the most vulnerable communities in New York City through a food hub model: they’re able to purchase food from our farmers, aggregate it and distribute it to folks who need it. These, and others, are all part of a very nascent network, but what’s so powerful about it to me is that it’s pushing beyond the idea that any one individual or organization needs to have it all figured out. It’s all about how we can all collaborate and put our puzzle pieces together, so that we can build a food system, from sunshine to plate, with our own institutions coming from a land and food sovereignty frame, building those services for our communities.
NAIMA: Another important question from the audience is: “What are some of the main obstacles to your mission? And how can people who are watching this support your efforts?”
LEAH: Well, the Empire is really powerful, so there are many, many obstacles, and I appreciate how Reverend Brown is getting us focused on our asset-based community development because it can be quite overwhelming. People have asked me: “Do you really believe that we’re going to win?” (mostly in the context of climate chaos), and the honest answer is “I don’t know,” but I think we’re all going to live much more honorably on this great blue Earth if we behave as if we will win, so keeping that hope alive, even knowing that we might not get to the mountain or see beyond it in our lifetimes and thinking in generational rather than quarterly returns is really important.
One of the many obstacles that we face is the savior complex, which is rooted in the idea that we, the folks who are most impacted by these issues of racial injustice in the food system, don’t know what we’re doing or how to solve it, so someone outside of our communities needs to come educate and guide us. They somehow think that people of color communities need someone from the outside to come tell us how to make kale salad as part of our kindergarten curriculum, and that’s what’s going to solve our problems, and they’ll write grants and pay themselves to do that in our communities when in fact we have the institutions, we have the answers, and we have the ancestral knowledge. The problem is that our knowledge is mostly ignored, appropriated, or under-resourced. The solution will come when society is willing to transfer power, dignity, and resources to Black, Indigenous and people of color leadership when it comes to solving these food issues.
ROWEN: I think unfortunately and ironically, Indigenous peoples are some of the most invisible to the national eye even though we are the original peoples of this land. What we also have to remember is that Indigenous peoples as well as Black folk already live in a post-apocalyptic reality. We already survived an apocalypse, so in some ways we are already fortified with the resilience and adaptability we need in the face of climate change because we’ve already been through it and are coming back stronger in lots of ways.
Our communities struggle with resources. We lack the financial capital to rebuild facilities and farms to help us reclaim our food traditions. We’re not stuck in a past reality. We are amazing at carrying our ancestral brilliance forward while also integrating modern tools of science and technology. Indigenous peoples have always metabolized new things that came along and “indigenized” them for the benefit of our people, but too often the grants and funding sources we do have access to have many restrictions on how we can spend those funds, not permitting us to use them on capital investments and infrastructure, for example, and that makes it really difficult. We have massive land loss that has impacted our communities’ abilities to hunt, forage, farm and fish.
Please feel free to visit NativeFoodAlliance.org and all of our social platforms to see what we’re doing. If you have visibility and can help amplify our efforts, if you have access to resources or funds, if you have volunteer skills and you want to get involved, we welcome you, but what we don’t need, as sister Leah said, is saviorism. Our communities understand our vision; we just need the resources to nourish our dreams and visions.
Those of you who are listening to this who inhabit white, cis, hetero male bodies in agriculture, it’s time for you to pass the mic. It’s time for you to listen now, and it’s time for BIPOC people to be able to center our vision and thought leadership on what the future of food can be, because we have this radical remembering of what it was before and we have this amazing capacity and creativity to dream what’s possible on the horizon.
Rev. HEBER: So, you know, it’s not lost upon me how centrally the ancestors have factored into this conversation. One obstacle I encounter is that there are times when I and those I share community with have to resist the driving impulse to consistently push, do, go, out of recognition of how gargantuan the challenges are, but I’m recognizing that this never-ending urgency is one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture that only values productivity. Reflection upon the ancestors is helpful to get away from that mindset. The more we can sit with them and glean from the dynamic wisdom that they have to share with us, the better off we’ll be. Let me invoke a few ancestors whose wisdom I seek to draw upon—Reverend Albert Clay, Jr., Thomas Sankara (editor’s note: influential socialist revolutionary President of Burkina Faso in the 1980s), Kwame Nkrumah (editor’s note: leader of independence movement and first President of Ghana in the 1950s), Queen Nanny of the Maroons (editor’s note: 18th Century military leader of Jamaica’s Windward Maroons, i.e. a community of rebels formed of escaped, formerly enslaved people). These ancestors know the way.
In terms of how to help support our work: BlackChurchFoodSecurity.net is our website. I ditto everything that my siblings have shared about not needing a savior, and I’m not sure if we all want your support. We need to have a relationship first. We need to sit together first. I don’t want to invite somebody in who might have the right check, but they’ve not done some work on themselves. We’ve got to do some journeying together first. If you can commit to do that work and come alongside us, fine, but I’m not here to do that work for you. None of us can do that work for one another.
NAIMA: Is there a lesson or a teaching from your work that you want to pass on that feels especially relevant for these times? Sister Rowen, why don’t you start us off.
ROWAN: What I want to do in this moment is really just call us all in. I want us to all remember that not a single one of us is untouched by the great disconnection of this time but that all of us in this circle, both on the panel and those of you listening, have ancestral brilliance and agreements and memories that run like wild rivers in our blood and our bones. So many of us have ancestors who have endured incredible adversities and prayed that we descendants would have good foods to nourish us and an understanding of the relationships that we need to sustain us, so the time to start is now. It can be something like a tiny little seed. It doesn’t have to be big. If each one of us apprentices ourselves to the land, to a seed that fed our ancestors, to that deep inner knowing, to carve out that space, as the Reverend said, to listen to that ancestral brilliance that is inside of us, then we will spark the revolution that’s needed for us to be able to hand a bundle down to our children that’s better than the one that we received. That’s the call of these times, to become those good future ancestors and those responsible descendants.
Every single one of us in this circle, no matter our skin color or cultural background, has ancestral brilliance inside our body, but there’s been this spiritual virus of selfishness, what some Indigenous people call Wetiko, that has been working its way throughout the globe, getting us to disconnect and think that we can be self-sufficient without working for collective care. Now, on this edge of incredible transformation that we’re in, is the time to reconnect and to remember what really matters.
HEBER: Colonial Christianity has done such damage to the globe and to African people. Christianity has been a handmaiden to white supremacy in so many ways, a perverting of the followers of the way of Yeshua, but it’s important to me to make sure y’all know that I’m not alone, that there are many other pastors, religious leaders, ministers in churches who recognize and acknowledge the historical harm done by Christianity and the Church. This is a time for that acknowledgement, and it’s the time for reconnecting with our great ancestor Yeshua in a way that is not a partner to legacies of domination and exploitation as well. So one lesson I’m learning is that as faith-based organizations, whether churches or synagogues or mosques, as we acknowledge the ways that there’s been harm in the legacies of our churches, that this is an opportunity to be transformed. We preach about repentance and baptism, and this is that opportunity, and I’m inspired by that opportunity and the lessons that I’m seeing and learning from pastors all over the country, and from Black farmers and Black pastors who are pointing to another way that we can pursue.
LEAH: Amen. I have tears in my eyes, Reverend Brown. Naima and I have two preacher parents. And I’ve never said this in public, but one of the reasons I left Christianity is because of exactly what you’re talking about. If I had had a reverend like you in my life who was willing to take accountability for that history and willing to really look at what is that true gospel, I think I would have been in a different relationship with the church.
I had a conversation with our mother recently. She was just heartbroken by the lateral violence in our movement, and she said that the biggest difference she sees between the Civil Rights movement and the movements that we have right now is that she doesn’t see where the love is in our current movement, so I’m going to read a poem that I think speaks to this yearning for us to do our work with love.
This is a Khalil Gibran poem: “And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. It is to build a house with affection, even as your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. And it is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit, and to know that all the blessed dead area standing about you and watching. Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, he who works in marble and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone is nobler than he who plows the soil; and he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of a person is more than she who makes the sandals for our feet. But I say not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noon tide that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of the giant blades of grass. And she alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by her own loving. Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy, for if you bake bread with indifference you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half a person’s hunger, and if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine. And if you sing though as angels and love not the singing, you muffle a person’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.”
NAIMA: A question from the audience asks how we can integrate food sovereignty and justice into our jails and prisons. Food is medicine, and access to nourishing food is often not an option for our incarcerated siblings, so how do we work to change this while also working for total abolition?
LEAH: Mass incarceration is very much rooted in the history of oppression of Black people. The 13th Amendment has a loophole that allows people to be enslaved if they’ve been convicted of a crime. If you go back to 1865, new laws made it illegal to loiter, which is basically to hang around if you’re Black. They made it illegal to be a vagrant, which is to not have a job if you’re Black; they made it illegal to be not industrious and honest, the punishment for which was to have your children taken away; and, of course, there’s a parallel, horrible genocidal history with Indigenous communities having their children stolen. But this is not over. There are many, many examples of corporations taking advantage of neo-slavery, of prison labor, for example. We need to end that system of neo-slavery. We need to end penal farms and the exploitation of labor. Also, a lot of the food that goes to reservations, to schools in poor communities, to prisons, is throwaway and highly processed food. Changing that is going to require a restructuring of the Farm Bill, of the USDA and of the entire food system.
ROWEN: I’ll just speak to that question from a little bit of a different angle, which is through the lens of healing. Many of our Indigenous and Black and Brown relatives have fallen victim to a very carceral system that’s cruelly unjust. One of my original seed uncles who really took me under his wing and helped me uncover the foods and seeds of my ancestors, actually works in a federal prison across the border in Canada, and he works with Indigenous inmates to restore their connection to their cultural and spiritual lineage, working with them to get their hands in the earth, getting them invigorated to carry those skills and that way of moving in the world once they can move beyond those walls. So I think about creating healing spaces that enable those brothers and sisters to connect in meaningful ways to their cultural inheritance, so that as they move into the world, they’ll be strong in spirit and heart.
NAIMA: (going through audience questions) Folks are really wanting to know how they can support this BIPOC-led movement for food, land and seed sovereignty, and folks want to know if there is an Indigenous-led or land-back organization they can support, and folks who are white and cisgender and want to support these movements, want to know how to go about that without venturing into white savior mode.
ROWEN: NDN Collective is one Indigenous-led group that comes to mind, and NEFOC (Northeast Farmers of Color) is co-led by an Indigenous woman, Stephanie Morningstar. There are a lot of different angles. I grew up in the land sovereignty movement because my father’s an attorney who does work for land and water rights for Indigenous peoples, so there also are legal defense funds such as the Native American Rights Fund and other entities that help to restore Indigenous treaty rights, fishing rights, land rights, and water rights. There’s a lot of advocacy that needs to happen on that federal level to reclaim broken treaties, etc.
HEBER: Regarding how to help without falling into “saviorism,” Leah earlier talked about how, if you are trying to learn about an issue, you go to the affected community, and you sit and you listen. And I think that could be a good start right there: just showing up and establishing relationship, be invited into spaces where your only agenda is to listen, and really listen to what’s already going on in that community. Don’t bring your agenda, don’t bring your project, don’t bring your research, nothing you’re trying to do. That community is already working on stuff. If you are fortunate enough to be invited into circle, listen, and then where your hands can get behind what it is that’s already been established, you can, if invited to, then try to pump some wind into the sails that have already been erected. Start there. And it takes a lot for those who are used to being in control, those who’ve succumbed to the illusion and the fallacy of white superiority, to show up in a different posture, but the more you show up in that posture, where you are not the expert, you are not the thought leader, you are not the person resourcing, supporting, none of that, you’re showing up to listen first and then take instruction, I think more and more those muscles start to get stronger and stronger, and that can ripple out into other aspects of your life as well.
NAIMA: I want to uplift a really incredible resource that Soul Fire Farm developed. It’s the result of hundreds of conversations with Black, Indigenous and other people of color formations, land stewards, agricultural workers. It’s a multi-page document of action steps that are divided into categories from reparations and rematriations to dignity for farm workers, to policy actions, to institutional purchasing power, and things that we can do for our continued self-awareness and education. It’s available at SoulFireFarm.org/take-action. And as Leah said earlier, the food system is the sum of everything it takes to bring sunshine onto our plates, which means that there are so many ways that we can intervene, so many opportunities to really make a difference in healing the food system and redistributing the land, agency and power.
We have time for a couple more audience questions. Here are two: If someone doesn’t have a significant trace of Native blood in their ancestry and feels a sense of loss when it comes to connecting with ancestors, or feels anger knowing their ancestors were probably colonizers, what do they do? So how is it that we can define ancestry, especially for people struggling to connect to theirs? And the other question is how we can best cultivate “beloved community.”
ROWEN: We’re all in a time of reckoning with violence, and not one of us is untouched by the evils of empire and imperialism. BIPOC people don’t get a free pass either. We have plenty of [oppression and things we need to work through because trauma begets trauma. For some white folks you can start by changing and breaking intergenerational curses, working to begin to unpack that superiority and that supremacy inside yourself so that you can become a descendant worth descending from. We have to work on ourselves to digest and metabolize trauma like compost. We have to compost those past failures so seeds can sprout from the soil that runs beneath our feet. We all have some ancestors that were problematic and some that were wise and amazing, and we just have to reckon with that, all of us.NAIMA: Yes. We’re in partnership with the Earth every day to compost and transmute it into something new. Ashe. Thank you all so much. This was incredibly deep, powerful, enlightening, illuminating. I’m so grateful that we’re in this work together, and in this time of intensifying violence and climate calamity, we know every seed saved will set us free. Thank you. Deep, deep gratitude to each of you.
Rev. Heber Brown, a multiple award-winning community organizer and social entrepreneur, is Senior Pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, MD, and founding Director of Orita’s Cross Freedom School, which works to reconnect Black youth to their African heritage while providing them with hands-on learning opportunities to spark their creativity and build vocational skills. In 2015 he launched the Black Church Food Security Network, a multi-state alliance of congregations dedicated to creating a grassroots, community-led food system.
Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, mother, Vodun Manye (Queen Mother), and award-winning food justice activist who has been tending the soil and organizing for an anti-racist food system for over 20 years. She currently serves as founding Co-Executive Director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color led project that works toward food and land justice, which she co-founded in 2010. She is the author of: Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.
Rowen White, a seed keeper and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and a passionate activist for Indigenous seed and food sovereignty, is founder/Director of Sierra Seeds, an innovative California-based organic seed stewardship organization; and Program Director for the Indigenous Seed Keeper Network, an initiative of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Naima Penniman, an artist, activist, healer, grower and educator committed to planetary health and community resilience, is the co-founder of WILDSEED Community Farm and Healing Village, a Black and Brown-led intentional community focused on ecological collaboration, transformative justice, and intergenerational responsibility. She is also: Program Director at Soul Fire Farm, dedicated to supporting the next generation of B.I.P.O.C. (Black/Indigenous/people of color) farmers; the co-founder/co-artistic director of Climbing PoeTree, an internationally-acclaimed performance duo; a Thai Yoga Massage practitioner; and a member of Harriet’s Apothecary, a collective of Black women-identified healers.