Special Report – Voices of Justice: Women for Agricultural Transformation

Matthew Rose-Stark | 12.23.2016

Author’s note:

I was invited to attend “Foundations and the Future: Women’s Leadership in the Food Movement” on behalf of Food First. I was initially hesitant about how appropriate my presence as a man would be in a woman-centric space. Hovering near the back of the room, I listened, took notes, and learned immensely from the inspiring women leading agricultural transformation—but was careful to not impose. As the day unfolded, I found myself drawn in and invited by the kindness, passion, and insight of the attendees and speakers. I was honored to feel so welcomed into a space that was not only composed almost entirely of women, but which had been intentionally created as an alternative, powerful space to the often male-dominated world of agriculture. I feel it is the responsibility of men to learn from women the way forward and stand in solidarity with their work and vision for a transformed future—and in this case, that meant humbly listening to their histories, challenges, successes, and plans for the future.

This Fall, a powerful multi-generational convening transpired. Farmers, activists, and organizers met to learn from the past, ponder the present, and plan for the future of women on the frontlines for agricultural transformations.

On Saturday, October 15th, Caitlin Hachmyer of Red H Farm convened nearly 100 women at the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol, California for the first ever “Foundations and the Future: Women’s Leadership in the Food Movement” conference.

Through a series of panels, talks, workshops, and art instillations, the conference sought to elevate and amplify the voices of women working to transform our food and agriculture system. The eclectic mix of people and perspectives lead to enlivened discussions on everything from GMOs to cover crops and food justice. The “Voices of Justice” panel provided a platform for women who are working to build an equitable and sustainable food system to share their stories.

The panel was moderated by Miriam Volat, the Policy Project Facilitator at Occidental Arts & Ecology Center.

Panelists included the following women:

Phanie Maldonado is an Oakland based Urban Ecologist. She is part of a greater Land Liberation Movement that addresses the use and access to land. Phanie works with the Mandela Marketplace and offers a body of knowledge that is rooted in spirituality and sacredness of all relations between people and the land.

Suzi Grady is the Program Director of Petaluma Bounty. Previously the Bounty Farm Manager, she has over ten years of experience in building community around food access, gardening and food system collaboration

Jocelyn Boreta is an activist and herbalist who has partnered with community health and immigrant advocacy organizations to expand access to healthy food and herbal medicine. She helped to organize Farming for Health at Land Path’s Bayer Farm in Santa Rosa, which brings together immigrant women across generations to get their hands in the soil, share the knowledge of their grandmothers, and make medicine from common weeds

Angeles Quinones is originally from Mexico and has been volunteering at Bayer Farm in Sebastopol for 3 years.

Trisha Chakrabarti is the Program and Policy Manager at Mandela MarketPlace, where she directs community-based programming and research in food access, clinical-community linkages, and healthy retailing. She has worked in community food programming and organizational capacity building for the last decade, and has led participatory food access research and advocacy initiatives with restaurant workers and systems-impacted youth. .

The discussion covered a wide array of topics, moving fluidly among the women. The questions and analysis posed around gender, race, capitalism, land access, and community were grounded in personal experience.

Many women discussed food as an instrument of social change both practically and symbolically. For Trisha, a first generation immigrant, food was always an expression of cultural pride, community, and connection.

“…food opened up a space for us to talk about our experience as immigrants and as people who were straddling this double world… food from an early age has always symbolized a step in the direction of like greater self empowerment and self knowledge and like rootedness regardless of your physical or temporal location.”

From this foundation, Trisha began to look at food as a tool for something greater, as a way of building stories to explain and understand things such as the link between inequality and underinvestment. She sees food as a lens through which to view larger issues, like our increasing complacency around inequity. The lack of access to healthy food in many low-income neighborhoods in Oakland reflects the general lack of self determination in the lives of the people who live there. Her work around Food Justice directly addresses this; “You can build economic and political self sovereignty by allowing people the chance to make their own decisions about what they eat about when they eat, about where they buy the food they want to buy, and providing increased access and affordability options to make those choices the easy ones.”

This idea of food as a vehicle for the understanding and discussion of larger issues, a microcosm to reflect the macrocosm of injustice in our society, as well as the potential solutions and alternatives to it, has been central to Trisha’s work with Mandela Marketplace:

The impetus for creating stable communities was about not just jobs; it was about business ownership and creating connections between marginalized communities of Colors in urban areas and marginalized communities of Colors in rural areas and there was an understanding and acknowledgement that we’re going through a lot of these same systemic oppression together… the tool that we use to sort of galvanize that energy and momentum was food, so we have a produce distribution network, we incubated and continue to incubate small retail food businesses owned by people of color, we provide food access points, we provide interest free loans and loan products to businesses… But… If people were like ‘we’re like interested in, we noticed that there was a like a sewage problem in West Oakland, there’s trash everywhere and we want to clean that up,’ then our work would have been to create an economy around trash and around sewage. It just so happened that food was the tool that sort of rose to the top.

Jocelyn worked for ten years at Global Exchange, a fair trade non-profit, with peasant farmers in India, Peru, and Guatemala. After agrochemical companies destroyed their sole source of income through soil degradation and manufactured dependence on purchased inputs, she helped them create alternative sustainable livelihoods. Returning home to Sonoma county, she sees striking similarities in the exploitation of farm workers in the U.S. and “…still want[s] to be working against neoliberal economic policy which creates forced displacement, which is happening all over the world.” Working in Sonoma with immigrant populations, she sees food as a way to continue this fight. Her work at Bayer Farm is to be a part of “forming connection to earth with displaced peoples through access to nourishing food and also the celebration of traditional knowledge.”

Similarly, Phanie sees her work with urban gardening as a way to connect people not just with the natural world, but also with their past. She tries to “…create a safe space and a safe container for people to have this journey of remembering. What nourishes me in my work that I do in West Oakland in particular is just being able to hear these stories of how they are remembering, and how their aunties used to make these fried green tomatoes, or remembering how they used to garden in the garden with their grandparents.”

The problems addressed by panelists include the role of non-profits in food justice, systemic racism and gentrification, and lack of access to land for low-income urban residents. The solutions presented were equally diverse. Yet, there was an appropriate suspicion of quick fixes and an understanding that some so-called solutions do more harm than good.

As the program Director of at Petaluma Bounty, a non-profit organization, Suzi had some poignant criticism of the way non-profits attempt to address concerns such as food insecurity.

Some non-profits and approaches continue to perpetuate a power dynamic in which those of us that are in a position of privilege give our extra to people that don’t have enough, and it can start from very good intentions, but if we don’t check how we do our work we end up perpetuating the exact problem that we came into existence to fight.”

She provided a poignant example of this, explaining that 90% of farm workers in Sonoma County have to supplement their income with food from social services or food banks. These food banks transition from a place to go in an emergency to a staple in people’s diets. Then, because the food banks are trying to feed more people than they’re set up to, they buy the cheapest food they can find, which is essentially subsidized by the low wages of the farmworkers producing it. This ultimately creates a cycle of dependence on these well-meaning organizations.

Phanie voiced her agreement, saying that solutions need to come from inside the community instead of being imposed from the outside. She warned against the “solution-oriented mindset” that can cause people to perpetuate a “certain kind of colonialism.”

Trisha looked at it as a systemic problem, wherein non-profits, and sometimes the private sector, end up doing the job of what should be the public sector. She went on to critique social enterprise as “really just a mask… for free market capitalism.” All of this leads to “further bifurcating of our country, our society, and our neighborhoods… If you’re wealthy you have the options and if you’re not, you don’t and you’re forced to do whatever the market tells you to do. You’re forced to move to Antioch if you live in Oakland and are displaced, you’re forced to close down your business if the landlord sells to a private developer and you can no longer afford to be in that space, and this is the very real work of food access and food sovereignty has to do with allowing people to make those choices.”

Though these critiques rang true, the solutions seemed more elusive. The central problem that Suzi articulated is that “low-income folks can’t afford locally-grown sustainable food, and most small scale farmers can’t afford to feed low income folks because they are low-income a lot of times themselves, and that’s not either party’s fault.” Though specific systemic ways to address this remained largely unnamed, one central component to building an alternative food system that arose again and again was the cultivation of community.

Angela, speaking in Spanish, described volunteering at Bayer Farm with immigrants from Mexico, Cambodia, Germany and Peru who all come together to share their food and their cultures with one another. This culture of sharing and community is central to her life and her culture in Mexico, and is something she thinks is sorely missing from, and maybe even antithetical to, the individualistic capitalist structure of the US economy.

Jocelyn adamantly agreed, smiling as she recalled seeing baby showers at Bayer Farm for families who had left their communities in another country and eighty-year-old women who cooked lunch for the farm, sharing recipes from their homelands. Reclaiming this sense of community is essential to her work.

Though gender was the unifying theme of the conference, discussion of gendered oppression took a back seat to issues of race, class, and immigration until the moderator asked the panelists about it directly, inquiring about both the joys and the challenges of being a woman with her “boots in the soil of social and cultural change.”

Suzy addressed this question head on, focusing on the benefits and necessity of women in agriculture:

“The fact that I loose my uterine lining once a month, I think is a fucking [sic] amazing thing and it’s really powerful because it reminds me that I’m not in control of this, you know, let alone the world or anything else, I have to give myself up to natural cycles monthly. . . It’s really important for us to acknowledge that I’m not all powerful and from there there’s a different kind of strength that comes about. . . That way of thinking, of not assuming that I’m at the top of whatever food chain or hierarchy I also find is similar to what I love being around farmers, is cause they understand that they’re up against the weather, or things they have no control over, and so there’s a lot of common ground and common understanding there”

Jocelyn agreed; “There’s a reason why so many cultures around the world refer to our earth as a mother, as a feminine thing. And I know that being a woman, being human, connection to mother earth, the closer I get to her the stronger I become as a woman, and the stronger I become as a mother, and the stronger I become as a community member.”

Trisha challenged this narrative, saying that she has struggled with having been socialized to think of herself and other women as especially nurturing people:

“I’m very fortunate that that I’m surrounded by a strong family of women, who are grappling with this question of having to fight our own urges in the way that we want to present ourselves to people so that we are taken seriously, so that we are seen as forces to be reckoned with, and also wanting the world to be more nurturing.”

Suzi’s experience as a woman in agriculture reflected a similar internal struggle:

“It’s often still looked down upon if you’re in a position of leadership and you acknowledge that you don’t know the answer, or if you pause and take time to listen and think things through, and I really want to challenge that cultural norm, because we’re facing unprecedented challenges and anyone that says they know the path forward is lying to themselves or to other people.”

Phanie ended the panel, leaving us with what for her is the central difficulty in being a women working to change our food system:

“The challenge is… how do I show up as a woman full of love, full of intuition, full of wanting to be nurturing, but not getting, not having that nurturing be abused… So for me it’s like a very fine line that brings me joy to be a woman, and also brings me sadness because I realize that I perceive myself as woman in certain way, and I then also have to also hold the weight of how the world perceives me and then on top of that you have to add all these socially constructed layers of race, gender, class and all of that just creates a very heavy weight to carry.”

For more information on Caitlin Hachmyer of Red H Farm, the convener of “Foundations and the Future: Women’s Leadership in the Food Movement,” click here.