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Right Relationships in Urban Gardening - Overcoming the Race/Class Divide

phenoms's picture

     The difference that Humbach makes between rights and right relationships can be teased out within the debate on food security/sovereignty. Food security, as an ideal, is the right for all people and communities to have enough culturally appropriate food. Food sovereignty builds upon this by accentuating the importance of process in food acquisition. It places importance on community food systems, non-exploitation, and health.
      The issues of food justice and food security have always been important to me. On the surface, they are merely about food: having enough, access and availability. And on the surface, these are simple problems to fix, right? To fix hunger, farmers should plant more. Grocery chains should build stores in neighborhoods that lack them. But relationships always prove to be more complicated than their surface implications.
     If the root problem behind food security (or the lack thereof) really is simply the amount of food available in the world, then GATT and the WTO would have fixed that by making cheap food available on a global scale. However, these treaties/institutions have rather deepened existing inequalities: By making available cheap food from anywhere, local food and agriculture systems are unable to compete. By valuing rights (food security) over right relationships (food sovereignty), what was hypothesized as a solution to food security, actually became one of the problems. But, as Americans are starting to relearn, food is not merely a commodity, but rather deeply representative of the human relationships on either end of the chain.
     Local Foods movements, and in particular urban agriculture is a fascinating example of the intersection (or perhaps intra-action) between the discourse of rights and that of right relationships. They frame the necessity and vitality of right relationships within the discourse of rights. The Local Foods Movement describes the imperative of communities to build their own self reliant food economy, a closed (or at least less open) loop between producers and consumers. In fact, the language of ‘local food systems’ privileges close relationships between consumers and producers.
     Although Humbach supposes that it is not “possible to produce a right relationship by following a declarative knowledge of the rules of right and wrong” (11). While I agree that the justice of rights does not automatically lead to right relationships, I think it is important to create in order to force a right onto the cultural discourse.  I think there may be a more nuanced relationship between the justice of rights and the ethics of care. The framework behind many local foods groups is reliant on small infrastructure that relies on relationships rather than rules. There has often been a fear that a focus on large-scale production will inherently prevent growers from interfacing with local neighborhoods. This is essentially the basis of our current agricultural system now. We have the national laws because the current system (excluding local establishments) cannot function on the basis of right relationships.
     I’ve been thinking a lot about the current divide within the local/urban agriculture movement, largely taking shape in differing resources and race. Community gardens began in many underserved urban neighborhoods as a supplement to the weekly food budget. They were born out of necessity, and soon developed into a more holistic approach to fighting neighborhood blight. They represented a productive and cheap use of vacant lot property that required little infrastructure change. Although not exclusively, the majority of these community gardens cropped up in primarily black areas like Harlem and Detroit.
     However over the past decade, as the local foods movement has gained popularity a much wealthier, and whiter, citizen has become the face of local urban agriculture. Although both groups espouse many of the same values, there remains a palpable divide between the farmers and consumers of both. The fact remains that the wealthier operations have the backing of a non-profit - meaning they have both funds and a more transient relationship to the community. If the project fails, they aren’t stuck living in its ruins.
     This problem can be contexualized in the city of Detroit. In recent years there has been an influx of white urban farming projects in Detroit (a city that is over 80% black), which leads to “a common perception... that this is a pet project to make them look and feel socially responsible.”
     The rights framework is not enough to transcend a population carrying centuries fraught with contentious race relations. The only way to affectively overcome a divide so wide is to focus on a right relationship approach that views our entanglement as inescapable. We are morally obligated to one another. Our actions must move beyond the bland language of legality, and maintain a dialogue of curiosity and care between two separated populations.  
     Two summers ago I was fortunate enough to receive CPGC funding to apprentice at a non-profit urban farm in North Philadelphia. Out of the eight other farmers there, I was the only self identified person of color. The farm had two sites. The produce from one went to a co-op in Mt. Airy (a wealthy and diverse neighborhood of Philadelphia). The other farm was located at a state run homeless shelter in Germantown, and the produce went to the kitchens.  While the organization was strongly devoted to social justice, and the people comprising it were devoted, caring, open, and honest, I felt uncomfortable with the stark differences between the populations of workers and communities.
     In mid July, about half way through the summer, three young black men came onto the main farm site. They lived in the neighborhood, and had been trying to create their own plot of productive, food-giving land. They brought a video camera, hoping to record certain practices to return to at a later time. The initial meeting was a little awkward, but we showed them around, and invited them back to work and learn with us. Over the next month, the three of them would stop by at least three times a week. It was obvious that our backgrounds and resources were very different; most of the time we inhabited completely different worlds.  But we worked together, sharing tips and stories. Ours was a more formalized, institutionalized organization, not only helping to disseminate healthy food, but creating capacity building possibilities on a truly grassroots level. By the end of the summer the urban farmers and the community gardeners had succeeded in creating a network that bridged the two groups. We met each others’ families, were present to help with their first harvest, and introduced them to more institutionalized forms of government help available. Contentious feelings of legitimacy and representation fell by the wayside through continued interaction in a way that the justice of rights could never accomplish.
     Oftentimes the rights framework used in urban gardening stresses right to food, and even, in special circumstances, the right of community development through direct grassroots involvement. But you can’t mandate relationships, and those rights manifest themselves in a diversity of hierarchical and horizontal patterns.  Although historically, there has been tension between “wealthy” urban gardening and the “community” urban gardening, coexistence is possible if both groups make the effort to collaborate and foster connections. We all want the same things, and both groups bring valuable perspectives and knowledge to the table. One of the most valuable aspects of growing food, is the fact that knowledge is passed down and across people - you really can’t learn it from a book. Right relationships are inherent in this movement, because the movement is built upon a practice that values human and species interaction.