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Farming While Black: Moving toward justice with Soul Fire Farm

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Farming While Black: Moving toward justice with Soul Fire Farm

[Photos courtesy Soul Fire Farm]

Soul Fire Farm is coming to Portland for a series of events and workshops as part of their Farming While Black book tour.

BIPOC-centered, Soul Fire is a non-profit farm community in upstate New York committed to shutting down racism and injustice in the food system. Their strategic goals are to “end inequity in access to land, sustenance, and power in the food system, reverse industrial agriculture’s damage to the planet and harm to vulnerable communities, heal from a history of oppression that has disconnected our communities from land.”

Soul Fire has advanced seeks to achieve these goals with programming like Black-Latinx Farmers Immersion, a farmshare CSA which uses a sliding-scale model, and Youth Food Justice leadership training. In addition to this work, they grow produce for over 80 families in Albany and Troy counties in New York. Co-founded by farmer, activist and author Leah Penniman, whose book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land was published in October, Soul Fire works to increase stewardship of by land to people of color.  


Before a series of discussions and workshops this weekend produced in part by For Us, By Us (an initiative with which this writer is an organizer), we spoke with Ashleigh Eubanks, a food justice organizer and facilitator with Soul Fire Farm, about the importance of food sovereignty and people of color’s connection with the land.


LaLa Drew: Why is it important to center food justice/food sovereignty work around the African wisdom which sprouted many sustainable farming practices?


Ashleigh Eubanks: Because of the way labor and the contributions of people of color — black folks; people that are native to this land — the way much of our knowledge, our ancestors’ knowledge and wisdom has been co-opted, exploited, stolen; it is important to for us to know that history. It is important for us to acknowledge the contributions that our ancestors have made to our lives today. It’s important to return to that wisdom as a way of recognizing and resisting colonization.

Much of the sustainable ag movement is about white people and often framed as knowledge that is newer or innovative...brought to us by contemporary white folks which is another form of colonization and imperialism, and contributes to the erasure of black and indigenous folks.

People were stolen from Africa for their very knowledge and wisdom of how to cultivate the land and how to grow food in warm and challenging climates. Because of that power and gift, that motivated the whole history of the slave trade. To move towards justice is to acknowledge truth.


LD: You have participated in a Soul Fire Farm program, how did this action affect your life/change your work?

AE: I participated in Soul Fire Farm’s farmer’s immersion, I think in summer of 2014? Up until that point, most of the work that I had done had been social justice-related but it was more like racial justice. At the same time I had a personal passion for food and wellness. I always saw them as two separate things — my love for food, my love for health wellness, my personal politic. I was doing paid work as a community engagement coordinator and connecting people with public access to green spaces in the city. One of those spaces was also a rooftop farm. Going to Soul Fire was the first time I saw what that work looked like, what it meant to be doing work around food and wellness, work that was already rooted in a deep politic that centered black people and folks indigenous to this land.

Much of the food work I encountered was very white, nutrition-based, all about health in this way that was Eurocentric, and blamed poor people and people with ill health for their wellbeing, which was often people of color. It lacked racial analysis. So it was pretty transformative for me to be on land and involved in this project where black people were building communities, practices, and programs that really centered on returning to our ancestral foods and practices. Not only to heal our bodies and minds, but to do emotional and generation healing by connecting with the land. I got a job as a food justice organizer probably a year, or less than two years, after my first experience at Soul Fire.

LD: Farming While Black, written by Soul Fire Farm’s co-founder Leah Penniman, is a comprehensive manual for people of African heritage to reclaim their connection with the land. How does this work forward the mission of food sovereignty and food justice?

A: So many black folks — especially those of us who grew up in the North — have this understanding of the land and farming as oppressive work, and view the land as our oppressor. Part of our own healing and liberation is to understand it isn’t the land that oppressed us, but this history of white supremacy, colonization, and imperialism. In fact our ancestors were brought to this country, brought to this land because of their wisdom and the natural gifts they had to cultivate land. Much of the spirituality and health and wellbeing of our ancestral people was tied up in the land. We have actually been disconnected from that, and therefore have been disconnected from a part of ourselves.

On a healing level, and on a spiritual and even physical wellbeing level, it is so important for black folks to reconnect to land because it is so much a part of who we are. We need to liberate ourselves and really begin to do the intergenerational work of healing from this history of slavery.

One of the things Leah writes about in Farming While Black is that to have access to land and to have ownership over land is to have wealth, and wealth is power in this country. If you think about colonialism and so much of the violence many people indigenous to and who have native connections to land are dealing with, is the removal. The forced removal, being stolen from the land, having land stolen from them because having access to land and this relationship to land is powerful.

Much of food sovereignty work is specifically saying we deserve to have ownership not only over the food that is going into our bodies but of the land the food is grown on. We have a right to have relationship to this land. Justice is sometimes writing a wrong but sovereignty is about self-determination and being able to move from a place of power.

If we don't have any sense of ownership — and not ownership in the capitalist sense but of personal, intimate, powerful relationship — if we don’t have that that relationship to the land, the basis of our food justice work is not as strong.  

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"Farming While Black: Uprooting Racism, Seeding Sovereignty," Afro-indigenous farming practices discussion with Amani Olugbala | Feb 28 | Thu 5:30-8 pm | Hannaford Hall, University of Southern Maine, 88 Bedford St, Portland

"Undoing Racism in the Food System," workshop with Soul Fire Farm | March 1 | Fri 9 am-4 pm | Hannaford Hall, University of Southern Maine, 88 Bedford St, Portland |

d “Undoing Racism in the Food System,” workshop for people of color | March 2 | Sat 9 am-4 pm | St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, 208 Bates St, Lewiston |

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