If we are to create a society that values black life, we cannot ignore the role of food and land.
Leah Penniman, Yes! Magazine (Sept. 05, 2015)
In August, five young men showed up at Soul Fire Farm, a sustainable farm near Albany, New York, where I work as educator and food justice coordinator. It was the first day of a new restorative justice program, in partnership with the county’s Department of Law. The teens had been convicted of theft, and, as an alternative to incarceration, chose this opportunity to earn money to pay back their victims while gaining farm skills. They looked wary and unprepared, with gleaming sneakers and averted eyes. “I basically expected it to be like slavery, but it would be better than jail,” said a young man named Asan. “It was different though. We got paid and we got to bring food home. The farmers there are black like us, which I did not expect. “I could see myself having my own farm one day,” he added.
As staff at Soul Fire, we were attempting to meet a challenge presented to us by Curtis Hayes Muhammad, the veteran civil rights activist: “Recognize that land and food have been used as a weapon to keep black people oppressed,” he said, while sitting at our dinner table months earlier. “Recognize also that land and food are essential to liberation for black people.”
Muhammad explained the central role that black farmers had played during the civil rights movement, coordinating campaigns for desegregation and voting rights as well as providing food, housing, and safe haven for other organizers. With his resolute and care-worn eyes, immense white Afro, and hands creased with the wisdom of years, this was a man who inspired us to listen attentively so that we might stand on the shoulders of activists who had gone before. “Without black farmers, there would have been no Freedom Summer—in fact, no civil rights movement,” he said.
Arguably, the seminal civil rights issue of our time is the systemic racism permeating the criminal “justice” system. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to national attention the fact that people of color are disproportionately targeted by police stops, arrests, and police violence. And once they’re in the system, they tend to receive subpar legal representation and longer sentences, and are less likely to receive parole. The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown were not isolated incidents, but part of a larger story of state violence toward people of color.
And yet, that state violence is only one among many dangers. The biggest killers of black Americans today are not guns or violence, but diet-related diseases, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. These illnesses affect minorities at greater rates than white people, in part because of a broken food system that allows only certain populations to access healthy food while subsidizing low-quality food for the rest.
Black youth are well aware that the system does not value their lives. “Look, you’re going to die from the gun or you are going to die from bad food,” one young man said while visiting Soul Fire Farm. “So there is really no point.” This fatalism, a form of internalized racism, is common among black youth. It’s a clear sign that this country needs a united social movement to rip out racism at its roots and dismantle the caste system that makes these young people unable to see that their beautiful black lives do matter. Because society’s racism is glaringly apparent in the criminal justice system, many activists are building the foundation of the movement we need by starting there.
Jalal Sabur stands in front of the cooperatively owned, vegetable oil-powered bus he uses to drive families and food to prisons in upstate New York. Photo by Crystal Clarity.
Combining prison visits with farm-fresh food
In 2009, black farmer and prison abolitionist Jalal Sabur helped to start the Freedom Food Alliance, a collective of farmers, political prisoners, and organizers in upstate New York who are committed to incorporating food justice to address racism in the criminal justice system.
Sabur says he was inspired by conversations with the political prisoner Herman Bell, who has been incarcerated 40 years for his role in the Black Liberation Army. He was convicted of killing two police officers, although he continues to maintain his innocence. While incarcerated, Bell collaborated with others to start the Victory Gardens project, which brought urban and rural folks together to plant, grow, tend, and harvest organic fruits and vegetables in Maine.
Between 1995 and 2005, they distributed food for free to political prisoners and community residents around Maine and New Jersey, as well as in Boston, Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. Bell has said that the Victory Gardens Project is based on the idea that only through collective self-help can people improve their conditions. “I wanted to find a way to recreate that transformative work,” Sabur says.
One of the Freedom Food Alliance’s central efforts is Victory Bus Project, a program that reunites incarcerated people with their loved ones while increasing access to farm-fresh food. The New York State Department of Corrections once operated free buses for visitors to all 54 facilities across the state, but shut the program down in 2011 for budgetary reasons, leaving many of its 2,120 monthly passengers with no way to see their family members.
Sabur purchases produce and eggs from local farmers and puts together large food packages, which families of prisoners can purchase for $50 using SNAP/EBT (formerly known as food stamps). Once they purchase the food, families get a free round trip to visit their loved ones at correctional facilities in upstate New York. Families may choose to give the food to prisoners as a care package, take it home, or both. While on the bus, Jalal facilitates conversations about the prison-industrial complex and food justice, using texts such as Michelle Alexanders’s The New Jim Crow.
For Sabur, one of the most powerful moments in the history of Victory Bus Project was the reunion between political prisoner Robert Seth Hayes and his granddaughter, Myaisha Hayes.
“It was the first time she had seen her granddad in years,” Sabur says. “It was really powerful to witness this, not only the connection between them but also knowing he was getting the fresh food that he needed to manage his diabetes.”
Teaching convicted black teenagers how to grow food
Soul Fire Farm joined the Freedom Food Alliance in 2014, supporting the Victory Bus Project with produce and providing a place to work and learn for young people enrolled in Project Growth, Albany County’s new restorative justice program. Advocates of restorative justice argue that incarceration and other forms of punishment brought by the state against an assumed or convicted offender escalate a cycle of violence, and that it makes more sense for a person who has harmed another to restore the relationship. The only problem is that it often means paying out. A teenager who’s damaged a vehicle, for example, would need to pay the owner for the cost of repairs. These payments are known as restitution.
A longtime friend of mine and customer of Soul Fire Farm, Jillian Faison works as an attorney for Albany County. She says that restitution was the main sticking point when she advised the county’s Department of Law to try out restorative justice. The courts hesitated to require teenagers to pay restitution because they had no means to acquire the funds. It was simpler to mandate more punitive measures. “There needs to be a way for the youth to earn money to compensate their victims and have a meaningful work experience in the process,” Faison explained. After researching the strongest restorative justice programs in the United States, Jillian helped to create Project Growth in 2013 and brought Soul Fire Farm on as the pilot partner.
The following year, Project Growth brought small groups of convicted teenagers to nonprofit organizations such as Albany City Rescue Mission, Senior Services of Albany, and Soul Fire Farm for internships where they learned job skills and earned money to pay their restitution. Most of them owed their victims less than $500 and kept their wages once those obligations were met. Project Growth’s pilot year was funded by the Albany County Legislature and designed by Mission Accomplished Transition Services and Soul Fire Farm.
For the staff at Soul Fire Farm, Project Growth was about more than just restitution. We agreed with the position of Malcolm X in his “Message to Grass Roots,” a speech he delivered in 1963. “Revolution is based on land,” he said. “Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” We saw Project Growth as an opportunity for these young men to heal relationships with their communities, the land, and themselves, as well as to recognize their potential to be agents of change in society. We wanted to make sure the participants knew we saw them as valuable human beings right from the start. So, on the first day, we began by asking for their stories. [….]
[cross-posted at the Agricultural Law blog.]