Menhuam Ayele wants to build an Ujamaa Village—“a sustainable human habitat for black people”—in Oakland. In fact, he wrote a book about it, which he’s currently trying to find a publisher for. The book’s main thrust is that black Americans need to be able to build naturally-demarcated, ecologically-sound communities on their own terms, which reflect their own values. “I’m not talking to white people anymore,” said Ayele, a carpenter, gardener, and philosopher with masters degrees in ecological design and architecture. “They say they’ve got a job for you—‘Sure, come put a solar panel on this prison I’m fitting to put you in.’”
Ujamaa villages were one of the many topics Ayele covered in his 90-minute lecture on “Urban Farming for Cultural Intervention and Future Survival.” When a member of his audience answered a question correctly, he rewarded them with bounty picked from an Oakland community garden—enormous collards, a dried corncob, a small clump of okra. “For a pumpkin in this piece, who knows who Fred Patterson is?” he asked. (The answer: Patterson founded the United Negro College Fund).
Ayele was one of the dozens of panelists at last weekend’s Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference, held on the campus of Oakland’s Laney College. Organizers for the Black Urban Growers (BUGS) wrote in the welcome packet that their fifth annual conference was to be “all-encompassing: touching on a diverse range of topics” and intended to “explore ways to build a burgeoning and healthy black farming movement.” One of the major themes of the panels was a need for cultural, commercial and community models that are determined within the black farming community and mirror its experiences.
Over the course of three days, hundreds of attendees from upstate New York to Oakland gathered for panel discussions and lectures that covered everything from backyard beekeeping to Brazilian food sovereignty. There was a brunch featuring DJ CAVEM Moetivation, and a session devoted to the power of the super-nutrient sweet potato camote powder. The Student Center at Laney, a large, windowed space, was full of farmers and nonprofit workers standing behind plastic folding tables holding expo-style posters. You could buy a DVD about the Black Panthers, a vial of home-harvested herbs, or an apron made of kitenge, printed African fabric.
BUGS is a volunteer organization run out of the New York metro region; the goal stated on their website is to “build networks and community support for growers in both urban and rural settings.” This year’s host committee was made up of representatives from Stockton, California’s Central Valley Neighborhood Harvest; Oakland’s Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm project; and Pollinate Farm & Garden, also from Oakland.
Kevin Cartwright, a communications strategist who has worked with Acta Non Verba in the past and organized communications for the conference, said that Oakland was an obvious choice for this year’s BUGS convention. “Oakland is important in a historical perspective, because of the Black Panther Party and what they were doing around food, food sustainability and independence. There are a lot of small farms popping up in and around Oakland now,” he said. “We cannot allow for the Burger Kings, McDonald’s, and Taco Bells of the world to be our only option in terms of our food nutrition. We need to have farms in neighborhoods where black people live.”
Cartwright echoed Ayele’s sentiment about the need to protect the integrity of black neighborhoods, saying, “Black people and black neighborhoods have been left really vulnerable to anybody’s activities and actions. There has never been any kind of thought about how we are able to maintain our communities without these kinds of impositions—in West Oakland, they built the BART tracks, the freeway, the huge postal center. It’s this thing we’ve seen year after year after year. There isn’t a lot of respect for our places. It’s happening in East Oakland as well and people are feeling really vulnerable, and they feel like they’re getting screwed.”
One panel, titled “Prisons NOT Farms,” was led by farmers and entrepreneurs who came to the profession after being incarcerated. While the conversation shifted focus several times, as the moderator tried to coax the panelists and audience members to get specific about what a prison abolition movement would look like, the panelists largely discussed how they’d used their own experiences to address issues faced by formerly incarcerated people or the families of those currently in prison.
Jalal Sabur, the founder of Sweet Freedom Farm in Germantown, NY, talked about his work with the Freedom Food Alliance and its Victory Bus Project. “The Victory Bus Project is bringing families to visit their relatives inside [prison], but they’re also getting a package of food at the same time,” he said. “If you give them a package of food, they get a free ride. Because we’re selling food, you can use food stamps and EBT to get this ride, so it could be free that way.” New York had a free bus service that took people to visit incarcerated family members until 2011, but after it ended service, his group stepped up to fill the void, Sabur said.
Region Lewis cofounded Oakland’s Full Harvest Urban Farm after serving a prison sentence. “When I got out, it was very clear to me that there was something very wrong with the system that just took eight years of my life. When I got out I was so shell-shocked in terms of my mental stability; I was there, but it did something to me,” said Lewis. After undergoing training at the Center for Third World Organizing and learning the principles of the land, he saw that farming “was all about doing stuff together.”
In prison, he said, he’d spent most of his time alone, avoiding confrontation. “When you talk about getting out of prison and working on a farm, that is a cultural shock,” Lewis said. “You’re talking about working together, building, sharing your life with the next person in a positive setting to bring out the best in you, your family and the community.” He said that helping people to build a relationship with the earth after they’ve been in prison can “wash some of that residue off of being in a bad situation.” Lewis says he works to “give formerly incarcerated people a space to be themselves” at Full Harvest, where they are welcomed as contributors and community members.
Another panel was called “Our Black Farmers: SANKOFA Past, Present, and Future.” Sankofa is a word that originates from the Akan language in Ghana; it refers to the process of reclaiming one’s past in order to move forward. Ben Burkett, a fourth generation farmer and coordinator of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives for the state of Mississippi, talked about the personal and political power of growing food, saying, “Food is something we’ve all got in common. You’ve got to eat if you want to stay here.”
Panelist Will Scott talked about being the great-grandson of slaves and the grandson of a sharecropper. He recalled how his grandfather was cheated by the white man who owned his land, because his grandfather didn’t have the education to understand the accounting ledgers. “I think what we’re going to come to grips with pretty soon is: How can one person own so much when there are so many who need it?” Scott said, referring to the idea that few African Americans own farms in California. “California has over 80,000 farmers and, of that number, [black farmers] are a little over 400. But we have a part to play in this food system. Not only the quality of this food, but the availability of the food.”
Aaron Coleman, the marketing manager of the Richmond Farmers Market, spoke on the panel about the need to connect black restaurant owners and black farmers in order to make these farmers less vulnerable to dips in the market. “My market right now is a multi-diverse market, and this community depends on this market to be here. The market is 35-years-old,” he said. “Our black clientele … if they don’t buy, those black farmers don’t make any money because other nationalities don’t buy from black farmers. We need the consumption.”
Chanowk Yisrael, owner of the Yisrael Family Farm in South Oak Park, CA and the final panelist, agreed with Coleman. “We need to be producers of our future, rather than the consumers of someone else’s,” he said.