Bringing Race, Racism, and Critical Compassion into Focus at Food Justice Events

By Zoe Jeka, GJLI Summer Intern

Earlier this month, Kirtrina Baxter, from the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, and I went to an event at the Schuylkill Center called “Food for Thought: Connecting with the Land of Philadelphia”, where she was on the panel. The flyer advertised an “evening in the forest with delicious local foods and drinks and a roundtable discussion about the future of Philadelphia’s land and food systems.” Over time, I have become skeptical of these kinds of gatherings. They are usually expensive (this one was $15) with mostly White folks attending, making them inaccessible to both poor people and People of Color. This is a huge problem, as middle-upper class White people are not typically who food injustice is about.

As a White, middle-upper class person, I have abundant access to fresh, local food. In many ways, the current food system works very well for me, my family, and other people like us. So, when the attendees of an event about the future of food systems are almost entirely White folks who can pay $15 to have a discussion over cheese and crackers, I become skeptical about motivations. When White folks pay money to talk about a food system that disproportionately directs food away from poor communities and Communities of Color, and toward rich White communities, are we really resisting or rethinking the current food system? Or, are we just perpetuating this inequitable system under a facade of change?

Besides the lack of community representation at the Schuylkill Center discussion, there were a few conversations around “wild” spaces and “greening” Philadelphia that disturbed me. Viewing green, open space as “wild” is ahistorical and violent. No space in the United States can be absolved of its genocidal history. The land at the Schuylkill Center was previously inhabited by the Lenni Lenape indigenous peoples, who were brutally murdered by White Europeans (whose ancestry was very well represented at this event). To think of these spaces as “wild” connotes innocence. Let’s start by at least acknowledging that we continue to do violence, historically and presently, by occupying this land, as indigenous communities continue to exist.

Connecting this to the present, I see the common language of “greening” spaces in a similar light. At the Food for Thought event, I asked a representative from the new Rail Park in Philadelphia if the organization had thought about or prepared for the inevitable gentrification pressure the project will cause (the park will run through parts of Chinatown and North Philly, two Communities of Color). She responded with some concern, although viewed the certain rent hikes as good for the area’s business, and said the “greening” would come with “some good, and some bad” effects.

The language of “greening” (when used by White folks) is often a code word for gentrification. Gentrification is never good. Displacement of people is never good. Gentrification is a modern form of occupation. White people have been forcibly removing people of Color from the lands for centuries, and continue to do so.

I am trying to point out here that what may have felt like a pleasant, comfortable, and fulfilling night for some of the folks who attended Food for Thought was actually an active perpetuation of a systemically racist structure. As long as explicit knowledge and conversations about race and racism remain absent from White gatherings such as Food for Thought, this systemic racism will continue to go unnoticed amongst White people in the food movement. Excessive amounts of resources will remain in the hands of wealthy, White communities, and the “food movement” that White people participate in will continue perpetuating injustice over liberation.

I want to close with an appreciation of Kirtrina’s comments at the end of the night. Throughout the event, there were many conversations about community projects, such as the Garden Justice Legal Initiative and the Rail Park. As the night came to a close, Kirtrina highlighted a crucial aspect of any liberatory movement - interpersonal relationships. She talked about how we must not only fight for revolution among society at large, but also revolutionize the way we interact as individuals. Kirtrina’s comments encouraged me to continue thinking about the way I’ve been raised in a White supremacist, capitalist society, and how I have been conditioned over time to act in tandem with these violent structures. For me, this means that I have learned to value objects over people, the production of my own wealth over my relationships with others. I have learned to value individualism and competition over compassion and kindness. I notice this in simple, day-to-day tasks - when I walk around the grocery store looking at my list and putting items into my cart without talking to the people around me, or when I feel resistant to give my brother the last bites of a meal I’ve cooked.

Reimagining the way I interact with the world as an individual is just as important as participating in organizing meetings and going to protests, among other day-to-day resistance work. If I am not resisting my personal conditioning, I am actively perpetuating the violent system I claim to work against in other ways. My resistance must be whole, not fractured. I deeply thank Kirtrina for bringing this essential conversation into focus.