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Offerings From the Fourth Annual 21 Day Racial Equity Challenge
This post was originally published on the Interaction Institute for Social Change blog by Curtis Ogden on May 14, 2018.
On April 22nd, the fourth annual 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge wrapped up. This Food Solutions New England project was originally conceived as a “network innovation” to spread and deepen the conversation about and commitment around addressing race and racism in food and related systems. This year the organizing team sought to go deeper, noting how much the national conversation has evolved in the past year. And we were heartened by the numbers (over 3,000 people from all 50 states and parts of Canada signed up) and by the quality of the conversation on-line and in different in-person venues where we met people who were participating. Certainly no one is under the illusion that the Challenge is enough, but we have heard that it is changing the way many see their work in food systems. Below you will find some of what was generously offered on-line in response to the daily email prompts and associated resources (readings, videos, audio clips).
History of Race and Racism in the Food System: What is the history you hold in your head (and heart and body) about our current food systems?
“In my work at a non profit in the ‘good food’ movement, we constantly use language like ‘fix the broken food system.’ Reading these pieces on the historical underpinnings of racism in our food system illuminated for me just how much that statement (almost a throw away now) is situated within a racial caste system. To presume that ‘we’ must ‘fix’ a system ignores (by not naming) the racism present in that system. It lumps the goals of racial and food justice in with other, non-racialized issues (like soil health) also plaguing our current system, thereby continuing to perpetuate injustice through silence.”
“The consistent glorification of a food system, broken or fixed, imagined or real, that has systematically ignored the people that make it function, throughout the past and yet still in the present, is something I think I unknowingly participate in. Will naming this, calling it out, help us to change the structural racism that fuels this reality? How? I hope that by learning, studying, reflecting, and communicating that this group can indeed be somehow change-making, but it’s challenging to see a positive horizon when the change to be had is so large and primarily resides in legal, political and social institutions and structures. Forgive me for being still inside a state of feeling overwhelmed.”
The Colonization of Indigenous Land Rights and Food Ways: How does colonization continue to exist in our food systems and how can you support decolonization and celebrate indigenous rights and food ways?
“I just finished listening to The True History & Foods of Thanksgiving. My immediate reaction is shock and shame. I accepted Thanksgiving as an American celebration without ever wondering about its history. The podcast is a great conversation that educated me about how interwoven food, land, location, spirituality and culture are for some traditions within Native Americans. I wish we treated our lands and environment with the same care that many people were able to do before they were colonized.”
“In my state, treaties still continue to be broken with Native American communities, the most recent agreement being broken in 2015. State programs aimed to “help” are rooted in white supremacist ideologies. I think of Audrey Lorde when she declared, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”
Disaggregate the Data!: Are you analyzing data by race and ethnicity in your work/volunteerism/studies? When you do, what story does this tell and how are you responding?
“Data can be a powerful tool or can be weaponized against us to shield us from reality. I think we need to destigmatize conversations about data and race so we can leverage it to demand equity. It’s an especially powerful tool in today’s data driven world, and I’m always digging for & imagining ways we can use it as a tool against the oppressor. Data and data collection/analysis as a tool can be an empowering way to see, name and demand change for systemic oppressions, especially when it is nonextractive and people/community driven.”
“I’m glad we are looking at the necessity of disaggregating data in the food system, especially as the Farm Bill – our food bill – is in a contentious reauthorization process. Now is the moment when we all must provide our elected officials (even the ones who are vocal about hunger and equity) with stories and data about how SNAP, the Healthy Incentives Program, Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, Farm to School all impact our communities of color in building food resilience. The economic class argument is a way of shying away from looking deeper at how racist policies and systems have prevented communities of color from building wealth and health.”
Levels of Racism: Are you seeing and addressing how racism operates at different levels?
“One of the biggest areas I struggle with is the area of scientific research. Many aren’t even aware of the racism inherent in our research system. I struggle with recommending what I believe are best practices for nutrition and health when I know that our research system does not incorporate different racial groups or even women at representative rates. Much of our research is done on white, middle aged men and newer research is showing that those scientific conclusions may not transfer across different genders and ethnic groups. This is just one small example of systemic racism that I personally struggle to balance on a daily basis.”
“One way I see of addressing structural racism in my work is to bringing awareness to the historical context of racism. For example, in my work addressing health and health disparities in my state, it is acknowledged through the data that negative health outcomes disproportionately impact people of color, which includes the Native American communities. However, what is left out of this narrative is the historical context as to why this is. For example, the history of colonization and how forced relocation to geographically isolated areas negatively impacted food cultivation, economy etc. as well as how historical traumas increases vulnerability to health problems. In the needs assessment of these communities, instead of just stopping at identifying the health disparities through data, also identifying the historical context surrounding these inequities can help bring awareness to the structural racism that exists and frame the problem in terms of structural racism.”
Trauma to Healing (Internalized Oppression and Internalized Racial Superiority): How can you contribute to shifting consciousness about and transformation around the internalized and traumatizing impacts of racism?
“As if it weren’t hard enough just being a human, with all our self-doubt and fear of judgment and the many struggles along the long hard road to self-acceptance! The reading today broke my heart for my fellow humans who have to confront many more dragons than I, vicious and pernicious ones, as we trod through this broken world and try our damnedest to heal it and ourselves, which I believe is everyone’s purpose in this existence. What can I do about this? Have a hell of a lot more compassion for the people of color in my life, and commit myself, and the resources I have access to, to creating safe, nurturing, healthy, liberated spaces for retreat, self-care, support, and solidarity among peers and comrades working on food systems change.”
“As a brown woman, I have felt the impacts of racism and micro-aggressions, and have yet to speak up at the moment they are taking place. I really appreciated the reading by Dr. Williams, because there’s so many instances where the person receiving the micro-aggression wonders if she/he is wrong… But I think the moment one starts to speak up, change starts happening all around us –from our own self-esteem to the person who consciously or unconsciously committed the aggression.”
Interrupting Inter-personalized Racism: How can you stand up to and eliminate subtle and overt racist behaviors?
“Unfortunately, I have not had the courage to interrupt racist micro-aggressions when they have been directed towards me. I think the hardest part is that they always catch me by surprise and make me very confused. An internal dialog begins, and I catch myself thinking that there is no way the other person just said what they did, or that they said it on purpose. I also think about how it will sound when I confront the person, just like one of the videos mentioned: ‘I’m going to sound like an angry brown woman.’ But I think it is important to stand up, it is essential to make people understand that these comments or actions, deliberate or not, are wrong and unacceptable.”
“Yes, checking other people’s racism is important, standing up, taking a position, showing allies you’re here to do the work. Yes! AND, I think, as a white person, addressing other white folks, another important tool here is having a personal work practice of addressing our own ‘oppressor material’ and reflecting on how our actions as white folks may be informed by recordings we’ve internalized in our upbringing or learned experience living/working within white supremacy. I find myself constantly checking whether my actions are authentic or informed by my internal recordings, and reflecting on how my actions can be more conscious.”
Institutionalized Racism: How can you advance racial justice in your organization, community, school, and other institutions?
“Last year, our organization did a training with Leah Penniman from Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, NY (their website is here: and Leah is an incredible facilitator and educator). Leah shared with us the following rubric which we used to self-assess our organization’s development towards embodying anti-racism on different fronts. We also individually thought about whether or not the organization embodies or lives elements of white supremacy within our work culture, based on this document.”
Addressing Structural Racism Through the Power of Narrative: How are the food system-related stories that you take in and tell perpetuating the status quo or advancing justice?
“Stories are essential to understand the world around us. They are many times dismissed as not important since the white-male institutionalized world we live in gives more weight and legitimacy to science and facts. However, storytelling is an essential part of knowing and creating knowledge, and oftentimes the way that is most accessible to communities worldwide to understand their situations and challenges.”
“It’s striking to me how often the stock story of [1862 Land Grant University] formation is peddled as being founded to ‘expanded access to agricultural education.’ These stories neglect infinite narratives of access, colonialism, slavery, and oppression. Just the other day, a friend shared this beautiful video I’d never seen before. What strategies do you have for elevating these stories of your own large institutions and organizations as someone employed there? I’m still working on mine.”
Addressing Structural Racism by De-Centering Whiteness: How can we dismantle white supremacy and appropriately leverage privilege for racial justice?
“Busyness becomes a support for holding white supremacy in place. Thus, the antidotes to busyness are where I see an opportunity to focus: realistic work plans; leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects; discuss and plan for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time; learn from past experience how long things take; write realistic funding proposals with realistic time frames; be clear about how you will make good decisions in an atmosphere of urgency.”
“Everyone uses language, but not everyone writes for an audience. Also, I’d add that there is worship of college degrees as a prerequisite for working with most organizations which is a form of white supremacy given the number of highly intelligent folks who have got more common sense and compassion then most of us who’ve graduated from these colleges.”
After the second week of the Challenge, which solutions to racial injustice in our food systems seem most promising and powerful?
“We should be able to address the underlying causes of racism:
Structural and institutional racism must be addressed to correct historical inequity and injustice. Otherwise, the persistent inequality and structural poverty will continue.
-Special and redistributive treatment and measures should be in place to address different sections of marginalized people.
-Intersectional approach (race-class-gender…..) also matters to address intra-discrimination and inequality (elite capturing of resources and services)
-Non-violent approaches and measures should be in place for promoting social harmony.”
Reparations: Are you looking at ways that reparations can be made to address economic and other forms of injustice in our food and other systems?
“The tools we’ve been provided with in this challenge can get us started on a path to dismantle entrenched white supremacy and enable innovative and pragmatic steps toward reparations. For example, Day 10 has some useful tools around institutional racism. Day 18 talks about intersectionality. Nice is good. Addressing violence in our food system is better.”
“We used to have an agricultural legacy initiative program (and are looking to relaunch it once if we get more funding) that connects beginning farmers with land, and I think this is an area that could … facilitate land redistribution. Our organization also needs to do a better job of celebrating all people in the food/ag landscape. There is definitely room for us to spotlight farmworkers more.”
Intersectionality: How can you support and collaborate with other movements in your work for food justice and racial equity?
“I’m finding intersectionality a useful concept in conversations to help people draw upon their own identities and the experiences tied to those identities to prompt a curiosity about someone else’s experience. So reading how intersectionality can also be applied to issues and solutions was a good expansion of the concept for me. For me, that specifically means building relationships with groups that have intersections between food, community, race, and justice.”
Building New Economies: How can you support new economic models that promote justice and sustainability?
“What seems clear … is that large-scale, highly centralized systems are not the solution, and following on from yesterday’s focus on intersectionality, I think real solutions will be far from one-size-fits-all, but will focus on similar desired outcomes rather than on similar processes.”
“My question becomes, what is the alternative to corporate? What is available or can be created to provide these same benefits while protecting farmers’ freedom, land affordability/ownership, a sense of belonging that is respectful of history, traditions and culture? What is the alternative that respects the land and natural resources while providing a good livelihood for farmers and society?”
Summary Reflections, Most Important Learning, and Commitments
“I’m deeply thankful for this Challenge. It provided a place and a time to reflect and look genuinely at my views and beliefs. I found biases and privileges in my life. I also found new courage and vision to act and transform my views thanks to the resources shared in this challenge.”
“My biggest lessons have been about specific actions that are being put forward as reparations at various levels.”
“Thank you to the organizers at UNH and New England Food Solutions for providing this opportunity. I have been inspired by the breadth of your work, which has broadened my vision. Keep up the good work. We need to pass on the ideas presented to many more people and put them into practice for a better and peaceful world.”
Curtis Ogden is a Senior Associate with the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC), on the advisory board of EmbraceRace and a member of the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics. He is facilitator for the Food Solutions New England Process and Network Teams and supports a variety of food system-focused networks through his work at IISC. Curtis lives in Amherst, MA with his wife and three daughters.