Liberation is Growing: The Urban Farmer’s Perspective
by Jacob Blizard
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” - Lilla Watson.
This quote lay brightly across the screen of my first-semester social entrepreneurship course. Many students interpreted it in different ways, but I came to understand her words two-fold.
First, the “helping” mindset is rampant in activist spaces today, as it often carries a negative connotation of assisting for self-gratification instead of facing the immense inequities faced predominantly by low-income people of color. The legacies of poverty and systematic racism appear as stagnant realities through this “helping” framework. I’m sure most of us learned this the difficult way, even unintentionally Working at soup kitchens, neighborhood cleanups, etc., may address immediate community needs but does not challenge the pre-existing foundations of racial and class injustice.
Second, I do not intend to minimize the efforts of thousands of organizers working tirelessly to provide essential resources in their communities. However, as Watson expresses, activists must understand that liberation does not come about from this white-driven savior complex model of symbolic solutions designed to maintain the unjust status quo.
The question should no longer be whether to use immediate or long-term solutions but rather how to shift the spotlight to communities that lead impactful work for systematic change.
There is no one-note solution that can tackle the racist, classist, and other intersecting realms of inequality. There is no one way to highlight sustaining grassroots efforts. There is no one simple answer, especially not something I should have the platform of writing about with a position as a white male. The intimate stories and intersecting facets of identity cannot be diluted to one “best” solution or effort that all activists and organizers can take.
Instead, this space can be better purposed with a conversation that took place with my supervisor, Allison Dehonney, about her work in the food justice field, as reflected by Lilla Watson, to unite the common humanity of her community. [Allison DeHonney has over eight years of experience with urban farming as CEO and founder of Urban Fruits and Veggies LLC and Buffalo Go Green.]
Allison recently told me: “I am one of 139 African Americans farmers in New York State out of 57,000”... and while white farmers make an average of $40,000 a year, Black farmers make -$1.05.” These realities are far from new. Food systems, something sacred to generations of agriculturalists of color, have been weaponized by corporate greed. The destructive legacies of capital and colonial expansion disrupted generations of wisdom and knowledge tied to food and land practices, building exclusionary political and social frameworks that keep land and agricultural access in the hands of white industrialist corporations. And for those that can access land, the blood, sweat, and tears that go into agriculture to feed communities are deemed insignificant compared to the profit of corporate chains whose non-nutritious foods uphold a sleuth of grotesque profit for white landowners and disproportionate health and social inequities for people of color.
And so, Allison challenges capital-driven agricultural process by initiating efforts that tie together the community’s collective liberation and local food systems. Allison says Buffalo faces a growing disconnection with local food systems and education surrounding healthy lifestyles. But contrary to the supposed immutable status quo, she fully utilizes the power of food to heal and empower communities from systemic harm. Urban Fruits and Veggies grows organic produce daily through sustainable agriculture techniques. Urban Fruits and Veggies’ partner organization, Buffalo Go Green, either donates the produce to local community-led organizations or sells it at the farmer’s market at a low cost. These efforts, along with wellness workshops and community needs assessments, allow Urban Fruits and Veggies to reclaim land access for farmers of color and create a community-voiced activist space focusing on the politically and socially structured food apartheid on Buffalo’s east side.
The beauty of food does not lie in the binary of short vs. long-term solutions but rather in place-based efforts and knowledge systems. Food is much more than sustenance; food is more than a product. Local food systems mean nutrition, medicine, power, autonomy, and tenacity for collective community resistance against racist structures. In Buffalo, the food justice movement has endless possibilities with fourteen urban farms, including Allison’s, and dozens of activist spaces.
When the community's liberation is bound together, the promise of the future seems one step closer to reality.