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Justice Communicator Column: Let’s talk about interdependence and unity in the Detroit food system

Published in the Michigan Citizen
• Sun, Dec 11, 2011

By Gregg Newsom

This week, I shifted my focus to the first Environmental Justice principle and began to consider its relationship to the grassroots food justice movement in Detroit. The principle reads, “Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.”

The status of our local environment and the quality of our local food are intricately linked. The health of the soil, water and air is important in growing good food. But what stands out for me in this principle are the concepts of unity and interdependence and how within Detroit’s burgeoning local food movement the connections between race, class and food, which I see as manifestation of this unity and interdependence, are overlooked and often intentionally veiled.

Just as the political landscape is changing rapidly, Detroit’s “foodscape” is as well. The number of gardens and farms are growing. During the summer, the number of produce markets jumped dramatically and Detroit-made and branded foods are on the shelves across the region and nation. In the past month, there have been an increasing number of articles adding to the discussion of race and food in Detroit. A few of these articles that came across my desk questioned the dominance of white-led organizations and businesses associated with growing, producing and distributing food in the city and have sparked debate and, I hope, a greater desire for discussion and meaningful change by these organizations.

Returning to our environmental principles, I found myself respectfully reading more about the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, where the principals were drafted. The summit itself emerged from the gap between predominantly white-led conservation clubs and societies and Black and people of color communities directly impacted by exposure to inhumane levels of injustice and toxicity.  Since, in the Detroit food system we are experiencing a similar situation with dangerously similar effects, I was looking for potential tools and strategies that could be applicable.

What stood out for me in the letters and articles documenting the emergence of the summit is the powerful stance taken in addressing the “Group of Ten,” the 10 biggest environmental organizations. A letter from the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) to groups like the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, while expressing “the belief that through dialogue and mutual strategizing we can create a global environmental movement that protects us all,” makes strong and clearly defined demands. (read March 1990: Southwest Organizing Project letter to Big 10 environmental groups at ejnet.org/ej/swop.pdf)

The letter reads, “people of color in our region have been subjected to racist and genocidal practices,” and goes on to share horrific examples. Those who drafted the letter state frankly, my emphasis added, “Although … the ‘Group of Ten’ often claim to represent our interests, in observing your activities, it has become clear to us that your organizations play an equal role in the disruption of our communities.” I think that’s deep and it reveals the fact that the actions of these well-intentioned groups, due to their privileged reality tunnels and inability to connect with people of color communities, had become as equally destructive as the toxins these communities are exposed to. I cannot help but draw comparisons between the potentially equally destructive effects of white-led organizations and businesses that currently hold the reigns of our food system.

The “SWOP letter,” as it came to be known, was signed by 100 people of color community leaders and made many demands. It called upon the big ten to “cease operations in communities of color within 60 days, until you have hired leaders from those communities” amongst others. The letter struck a nerve in many of the big 10 environmental organizations, provided push-back and, with the Sierra Club for example, helped to establish people of color led environmental justice programs across the United States, including here in Detroit.

In closing, the signers of the SWOP letter invited the big ten organizations to a frank and open dialog and stated that: “It is our opinion that people of color in the United States and throughout the world are clearly endangered species. Issues of environmental destruction are issues of our immediate and long-term survival. We hope that we can soon work with your organization in helping to assure the safety and well-being of all peoples.”

What excited me as I read through this history are the similarities between the struggles in Detroit and the struggles documented in the SWOP letter and that we are all, by our presence here in Detroit, connected to this struggle for self-representation, for the right to a healthy environment and access to fresh and just food.

While recognizing my own place in this equation, being a white “foodie” in the city, I consider having frank and open discussions about the proliferation of white-led organizations and businesses in Detroit’s food system to be vital. Especially when we consider this in conjunction with motions by the state to establish an emergency manager, the efforts to privatize our water system under the guise of regionalization, the hijacking of our public education system and other motions to strip power and representation from poor, Black and people of color communities.

We need to talk.

 Gregg Newsom is the communications coordinator for the Detroit Food Justice Task Force. The Task Force is a consortium of Black and people of color led organizations and supporters that share a commitment to creating a food security plan for Detroit that is sustainable; provides healthy, affordable foods for all of the city’s people; is based on best-practices and programs that work; and is just and equitable in the distribution of food, jobs and economic benefits. Visit www.detroitfoodjustice.org for more information.

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