It is those that work in the sun that make it possible for those that work in the shade.Malik Yakini
On March 5, Texas Christian University invited Malik Yakini, the founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) to speak about his success as an urban farmer and community organizer in Detroit. Below is a short summary of Yakini’s remarks on the work of building a more just food system.
Beginnings and A Need
Malik Yakini started D-Town Farm in 2006 in the height of the recession and just a year before Farmer Jack, the last chain supermarket to operate in Detroit, shut its doors. It’s creation, he says, was largely one of necessity; a former principal of schools and longtime community member, Yakini (who is 63) could remember a time when fresh food was always within walking distance. Concerned about food access, Yakini and a group of citizens went to the city government in 2006 to complain that the city had no food policy. The council appointed them on the spot to create one, and so the Detroit Food Policy Council, an advisory body to the mayor and council, was born. Yakini noted that food policy councils across the nation are typically staffed by academics and policy wonks—this one held chairs for community members, making it notable across the country.
A food council is one thing, and a farm is another. DBCFSN, which produces thousands of pounds of vegetables a year for sale, raise bees, and boasts a water retention pond, an off grid solar unit, a tractor, and multiple greenhouses, was more than 10 years in the making, and not without multiple setbacks. In 2006, with the support of their local 4H club, Yakini’s group started guerrilla gardening a neighborhood vacant lot. (“We gangster’d some land” he says). By the end of the growing season, the land had been sold to a developer, who wanted them out. In 2007, they popped up again on a church-owned lot, where they deployed the lasagna method (newspaper, compost, leaves, repeat) to built up fast garden beds. Evicted again, they became farmers without land until they struck a deal with the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department in 2008 to utilize 2 acres of the Meyes Tree Nursery in Rouge Park. Approximately a month after settling into their new location, the then mayor of Detroit (Kwame Kilpatrick) was indicted, and some of his appointees—including the head of the Parks and Rec Department—were in trouble. DBCFSN weathered the political storm, but Yakini also learned the importance of acquiring documentation showing his groups right to farm the land. Though he mused philosophically on the impossibility of ever really owning land, Yakini notes that in times of necessity it is possible to hold contradictions: thus, he went ahead and got the deed.
The Help: Neocolonialism vs Mutual Liberation
At the time that Yakini started DBCFSN, there was a small urban ag scene in the city already, mostly run by white non-profits. This was a problem, particularly in Detroit, a city which is 83% black. The community’s perception, which Yakini shared, is that predominately white outsiders had become the litigators of food access and food security projects within the city. They themselves were not the recipients of this aid, and nor did they have to live with the consequences—either of unfinished or failed projects, or initiatives that did not directly meet the needs of the community. Yakini points out that the paradigm of white people capitalizing on underserved areas of color to make a name for themselves by ‘doing good’ is endemic to non-profits and a form of white paternalism that does little to solve structural issues of power and access to food. “Lots of well-meaning white people utilize our oppression to get careers and tenures and grants, and we ain’t with that.” When black people have little capacity to refuse ‘help’ and no control over their own resources, their neighborhoods become opportunities for extraction. He considers this type of one-sided relationship a form of colonialism. “That bullshit is over. We ain’t having it, we ain’t going for it, period.”
For this reason, Yakini says, it was critical that the community pushed back to regain control over their own food system, to acquire resources directly and to organize their own solutions moving forward. Food security would not be solved by simply coaxing a Walmart into the neighborhood; Yakini believed people needed both choice and participation in their food production and consumption, and to build the knowledge about how to create it themselves. He says in a city that’s weathered a troubling history of emergency managers, re-establishing participatory democracy in ordinary life was especially important. When a white audience member asks Yakini how white people can be good allies to his agrarian cause, Yakini replies that the most important work of allies is recognizing white supremacy, supporting black projects (while taking direction from and following the lead of black people) and being accountable for all actions—in that order.
The Long Revolution
Yakini is a long-time student of the Black Liberation movement. He spoke at length about how its leaders, such as Kwame Ture, influenced his activism. It’s clear that working on food security issues is a way in which Yakini is able to realize in practice (however slowly) a vision for a more equitable world. He’s working on overturning established racial, gender, and class hierarchies like a pile of hot compost. (In between slides, he casually drops in his opinions about private property—we shouldn’t have it—and the patriarchy—bee societies, which are led by females, can show us the way out). His 1960s training in the Black Liberation movement is also echoed in his discussion about the importance of collective rather than individual action. He notes that the ‘free radical,’ a progressive individual that acts alone, is not as powerful as the group: “If you are serious about social change, you have to do it as an organization.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Yakini spoke at length about the importance of self-determination. “The solutions to problems any community faces lie within that community—we just have to access them.”
He notes, too, that this is easier said than done, and talked about how his experience with setbacks over time has also framed his thinking about activism and longevity. “During the 60s, we thought the revolution was going down now” Yakini says. “We were young and short-sighted”. He says no one really knew how robust these oppressive systems (like structural racism) would be, or how long government and policy would take to change. In the meantime, he says, people can’t wait on government, and if the revolution is to be a long and slow one, it will always need to be training up the next group of young food activists to lead it forward.
Malik Doesn’t Buy Tomatoes
Another audience member, herself a food activist and educator, asks Yakini how to engage young black children to get excited about farming when it has been stigmatized in our present culture as an undesirable form of labor. Yakini responds simply that’s there no fast way around these perceptions, and that examples of black agrarian success are the best way to combat these stereotypes. He points out that even within his circle of friends, its taken some people years to see what he was about and what he was doing. He then tells the story of a friend who used to visit him on the farm in the early days (now over a decade ago), making small talk with him as he hoed or weeded, but never picking up a tool or helping out. He says this same friend, upon running up a bill at the grocery store recently, reached out to him with a revelation: “I said to myself–Malik doesn’t buy tomatoes!
Today, DBCFSN runs on a 5 person staff and a rotating group of volunteers and interns. They partner with Forgotten Harvest, a food rescue operation, to generate their compost, provide support to other Detroit grow operations such as We the Peoples Grower Association, and are in the process of starting a co-opt grocery store. They continue to spread seeds of what Yakini refers to as “black agrarian joy” in and around Detroit, as well as the wider U.S.
For more DC posts about community farming, race, and food, check out the following posts:
Header Image: Care of Christina Xu, 2012. https://www.flickr.com/photos/crimsonninjagirl/7848044364/in/photolist-pNP1br-pNSrmt-nFuBC6-nGs7cy-nFMtXM-cXvhaJ
Special thanks to contributing scholar Jamie DeAngelo for the production of this work.