By: Yuki Kato
On October 17th, we traveled to the organic garden site of Dreaming Out Loud in SW Washington DC. The garden is located at Blind Whino, a historical Friendship Baptist Church building that has been converted to an art and event space.
There we met first with Chris Bradshaw, founder and the executive director of Dreaming Out Loud, and Joanna Williams, who is an Emerson National Hunger Fellow currently working with the organization. We got a tour of the organic gardening at the back of the building to learn about their growing methods, where the food goes (farmer’s markets, CSAs, and restaurants), and who works in the garden. While on site, we also got a chance to meet, Ms. Sumayyah Muhammad, a neighborhood resident who is an on-site grower assistant, who was tending the garden. While informing us about the type of herbs they grow and how the composting bin works, Chris interweaved stories of nearby residents coming by to share the neighborhood’s history (including a reference to Marvin Gaye and Thurgood Marshall!), and how much he appreciated learning about the community as he is not from DC.
There was a brief walking tour of the neighborhood, which included another community garden nearby, and then we sat down to have a discussion. At this point we were also joined by Jeremiah Lowery, who is a DC activist working primarily on issues concerning environmental and food justice. He provided insights on his current involvement with Metro’s plan to discontinue late night services, pointing out that while the topic may not readily appear to be about environment, but it strongly resonates with the core concerns of environmental justice; how structural inequalities produce and reinforce social injustice. He also mentioned the high lead content found in DC’s public water system that still receives much less media attention than the lead water crisis in Flint, MI, as a reminder of the prevalence of environmental injustice. His introductory speech highlighted the intersection across environmental justice and food justice, and the importance of getting involved at a local level, especially in DC where the local politics are often overshadowed by the national politics and policies.
Subsequent conversations with Chris and Jeremiah focused on the roles that environmental justice activists play in the communities. They offered very insightful and encouraging observations based on their experiences. Chris founded Dreaming Out Loud 8 years ago, and Jeremiah has been an activist for as long as he could remember in DC. They each had a unique positionality as insider/outsider in the communities where they work, and emphasized the importance of listening to what the residents and the local organizations have to tell you. Both speakers pointed out that most communities already have individuals and groups that have been working on multitude of issues, and it is best to approach them to learn from them, and find out how best you could work alongside them or in support of them. The key, as Jeremiah pointed out, is not to try to do everything, because there is always so much that’s already going on.
The importance of coalition building and collaboration can be seen in both of their works. Chris’s relationship with the neighbors in SW to learn about their community, as a part of the everyday interactions, is certainly a part of these approach. Jeremiah working with the local Sierra Club to set up the first Environmental Justice Committee in DC is another example. Chris described some of his collaboration with local organizations and groups as functioning as a “conduit” for these projects, so Dreaming Out Loud can shed light on them in order for them to tell their own stories, rather than Dreaming Out Loud dominating the spotlight.
The activists’ well-intended attempt to be a “hero” sometimes does more harm than good, especially when they do not recognize what Alkon and Agyeman (2011) call “food sovereignty,” or the community’s power to define and shape what kind of food is available and how it is grown and distributed. In order to practice food (or environmental) justice, then, one must be highly reflexive of his or her own “positionality.” The concept leads us to use critical reflection on how one’s social position (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality) has granted him/herself a unique set of privileges and disadvantages, which, in turn, forces us to understand “the problem” as a part of the larger system of which “we” are all part, rather than those that are viewed as the victim or the marginalized. To this effect, Chris point out that when activists or organizations fail to consciously addressing these concerns, the projects often fail. But the more damning outcome of these failures is how it affects these communities, who are now left without any improvement in the community and feel taken advantage of by those Chris suggested have been described as “the poverty pimp.” Some may be simply well-intended and poorly executed while others may simply view food or environmental justice activism as ways of raising one’s or one’s organization’s profile. Regardless of their intentions, these failed projects creates additional hurdles for the subsequent organizations or projects to regain and re-establish trust with the community.
To the question regarding what college students can do, both Chris and Jeremiah pointed out the importance of starting close to home, such as supporting the food workers’ rights on campus. Many college campuses have student groups that have organized in support of workers’ mobilization, including Georgetown University, and Chris suggested that such activism can be practiced with great consciousness to work “with” the existing workers’ groups rather than to mobilized “for” them, and could have a real consequence that relate to the students’ everyday experiences. Jeremiah also encouraged the students to get involved with the local DC activism, even if the students are here during the college career. And he ended with one of the most poignant advice to the students; Take care of yourself. It is easy to be burnt-out, and he is aware of the high turnover among DC activists, many of the are also transient. In order to sustain social justice activism, the activists themselves must be sustained, and this advice also underscored the importance of collaboration and coalition building.
I think we left the space with a lot to think about, and the site visit and our conversations with Chris and Jeremiah will most certainly shape our discussions during the latter half of the semester. We thank Chris, Jeremiah, and Joanna for taking time out of their busy schedule to join us on a hot October day at Blind Whino. Being reflexive of our positionality, we must at the least acknowledge our privilege of being able to travel to the site and learn from their experiences.
Alkon, Alison Hope, and Julian Agyeman, eds. 2011. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.
(Photos by Yuki Kato)