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Organizing, Food, and Justice

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by Lorenzo Jones

6.20.2024

I feel like there is this throwback, distinct trajectory for community organizing that requires us to revamp our development of organizers, like having to develop organizers differently for drug policy reform, sentencing, housing and other problems. I don’t think our organizers in the country understand how to make changes to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the same way they know how to influence the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In 2022, I conducted nearly 100 one on ones with folks who are Millennials and Gen X, about where their organizing homes were. What orgs did they think were organizing the way we were doing it? Not like Alinsky but the way our generation had learned and applied it.

The basic takeaways were interesting; the younger folks (the millennials) were hostile to Alinsky style but wanted to do direct action work. Millennial responses were about building statewide advocacy strategies, some local campaigns but only towards state policy coalitions and collectives of other like-minded groups. 

Some older folks doing “organizing” for criminal justice reform had not worked on other issues or campaigns outside of ending mass incarceration. Nearly all the issue cuts they had were driven by having a charismatic leader or a “trusted messenger”, not a leadership team with shared decision making.  These Gen X responses were about rebuilding strong community relationships like back in the day of block club meetings and neighborhood cookouts.  

Across both generational groups, the thing people were talking about was “urban farming.” That led us to people in Black and Brown neighborhoods.

Urban farming will not change the food system or end food insecurity.  With food and housing being the core problems people want to address, building leaders and training organizers to go after the USDA is imperative. We know how to do this for healthcare, housing, transportation, and corrections, but not the USDA. 

In order to change the USDA we have to be able to influence the federal Food and Farm bill. The Food and Farm bill is almost $1 trillion dollars with over $800 billion funding for nutrition, food programs, and meals on wheels, school lunches, and all our food.

By 2023 we had learned about the AgCensus that is conducted every 5 years. It informs spending in the Farm and Food Bill, but also government spending in transportation, manufacturing, and much more.  But because there are only about 40,000 Black farmers in the entire country, Black and Brown people have no voice in how our food is determined! In Connecticut, where we’re based, it’s even worse: 98% of all registered farmers in Connecticut are white, even though people of color make up 1/3 of the state population.

Over the last few years, we’ve built Chicks Ahoy Farm  and Cultivating Justice  because we need organizations and groups with agriculture reform to train this new type of leadership. Our statewide workshop series is called Growing Power there are pics on the website too.

We kept training people in organizing but added learning and practice for Black and Brown people. This included teaching people to not just grow food but build power by farming with the goal of reforming the USDA. This led us into a legit local fight about land use and we are building power for other issues this way. This has helped us do leadership development that produces organizers who know how to bring system change to the USDA from local neighborhoods.

In just one city with 50,000 residents, we’ve been able to produce approximately 35-50 people weekly to participate in our farming, outreach, training, and actions. We have been able to work on and win housing issues, business development, and food justice without having to go to the state capitol until we are ready.

Lorenzo Jones conducting a day-long BLOC training in Middletown, CT – June 15, 2024

In my professional opinion, community organizing has been hampered by the growing narrative that not for profits (501c3’s) are not good for Black and Brown people — while charismatic rappers, actors, and social media influencers have become the “Superstars” for social change. This has been facilitated by philanthropy as a cheat code to jump start their policy initiatives by providing money and capacity for people directly impacted by system problems to be recruited to support famous people’s plans with billionaires. With criminal justice reform no longer a viable political position the funders have begun to seek more favorable priorities based in the elections.

Food Justice is on the table, literally, to build the power, we need to address food security the same way we have taken on sentencing reform, housing, and public safety. We need to revamp our door knocking and reincorporate food and housing questions alongside the interests in criminal justice reform. We need to do this in parallel to our work with the local political machine, the town committees, commissions and task forces.

Do not have faith in the local politicians – instead have well thought-out demands with timelines. Hold people accountable for the jobs they are supposed to do and build the power necessary to make them do it when they don’t. Remember wherever you find people directly impacted by the failed food system you will find people who are probably impacted by all the other systems that make up the social safety net.

Community work is great, and we follow the core principle of harm reduction – Meet people where, they are without judgement, but do not leave them there. Community organizers would be served well to apply this principle in door knocking, phone banking and one-to-one meetings.

As conditions continue to change, community organizers are asking what’s next. We have learned a lot over the past three years, and one lesson is that community organizers must get back to the basics of relationships around shared interests in local neighborhoods.

 

The Cultivating Justice team with our partner at Lovie’s Farm, 2024

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