This is part of a series for Black History Month on Black scientists, activists and entrepreneurs who are tackling the greatest problem of our time.
Half a century ago, the world saw a seismic shift in agriculture, as farmers began planting high-yield crops and using synthetic fertilizers to grow more food. The Green Revolution, as it’s known, saved hundreds of millions from starvation, but it also ushered in an era of industrial farming that has eroded the health of people and the planet. We may now be on the cusp of another agricultural revolution, one that makes up for the sins of the last. The leaders of this movement are farming in concert with the earth and delivering wholesome, nourishing food to communities long deprived of meat and produce. They are doing so at a time when rising temperatures threaten to cripple agriculture, shrinking the supply of fresh food. To learn more about the mounting fight for food justice, we spoke with five Black farmers, activists and researchers about their work to protect the land and its children.
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Frances Perez-Rodriguez has dedicated her career to making sure everyone has access to nutritious, sustainably grown food. Perez-Rodriguez is a member of the La Finca Del Sur Community Farm, an urban farming cooperative led by Black and Latina women and a market manager at Rise & Root Farm, a farming cooperative in Chester, New York.
On community organizing
“I was introduced to community organizing after seeing a documentary on the Central Park Five and learning about the ways the NYPD — and the U.S. criminal ‘justice’ system at-large — mistreats people of color. I felt a sudden shift within and soon after attended a Know Your Rights training, wanting to understand how I could better equip myself and others in my community around police brutality. The killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, soon after, solidified in me the need to better grasp white supremacy, racism and international struggles for self-determination and against oppression.”
On environmental justice
“Environmental justice is when people’s race and class status do not determine the quality of air, water, food and other natural resources they have access to. It’s when folks in power… stop putting garbage dumps in our hoods and allowing factories to continue releasing excessive toxic chemicals into the atmosphere that mess with the climate and hinder our crops.”
Her advice to young Black farmers
“Be wary of folks and organizations who want to supply Band-Aids in response to our struggles instead of reimagining alternatives and doing the hard work of actualizing those alternatives. Read Octavia Butler, Grace Lee Bogg, and Assata Shakur’s autobiography. Know who the Young Lords are, watch Winona LaDuke’s TED talk and support a community garden ASAP.”
A lifelong New Yorker, Karen Washington is a farmer, activist, physical therapist and board member of the New York Botanical Garden. Through her work with Farm School, she is teaching young New Yorkers about gardening and community organizing. And, as a co-founder of Black Urban Growers, she is working with Black farmers on growing fresh, nutritious food for underserved communities.
On why she farms
“As a physical therapist, I saw firsthand the relationship to food- and diet-related diseases and the impact it was having on marginalized communities of color… I realized that growing food in my community garden was one way to address the lack of healthy food access in my community… After 37 years in a health system that was based on treatment and not on prevention, it was time for me to follow my passion: farming.”
“The term justice has been co-opted, people use it to feel good. For me, justice is transformative, an action. You can’t work on justice if you are not actively working on injustice.”
“Unless people with power are willing to either share or give it up, it must be taken.”
On Black farmers
“Know your true history. We are an agrarian people. We were brought here enslaved not as unskilled labor, but as skilled and knowledgeable farmers.”
“Long ago we were told to leave the land for a better life. Instead, we forgot it’s the land that gives us our power. Now we know, as Mother Nature calls us back to where we came from, to once again become stewards of the land.”
Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, activist and founder of Soul Fire Farm, a community farm in Petersburg, New York that trains people of color to farm and provides organic produce, eggs and meat to families without access to fresh food. She is also the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.
“The elegant simplicity of planting, reaping and providing food for the community was a beautiful anecdote to the confusion, identify crises and desire for belonging of my teenage years.”
“Our 12,000-year history of noble, autonomous and dignified relationship to land far surpasses the 246 years of enslavement and 75 years of sharecropping in the United States. As Black farmer Chris Bolden-Newsome explained, ‘The Land was the scene of the crime.’ I would add, ‘She was never the criminal.’”
“Our ancestral grandmothers in the Dahomey region of West Africa braided seeds of okra, molokhia and levant cotton into their hair before being forced to board transatlantic slave ships… The seed was their most precious legacy, and they believed against odds in a future of tilling and reaping the earth.”
On racism in the food system
“Beginning with the genocidal land theft of First Nations people, continuing with the kidnapping of our ancestors from the shores of West Africa for forced agricultural labor, morphing into convict leasing, expanding to the migrant guest worker program, and maturing into its current state, where farm management is among the whitest professions, farm labor is predominantly Brown and exploited, and people of color disproportionately live in food apartheid neighborhoods and suffer from diet-related illness, this system is built on stolen land and stolen labor, and it needs a redesign.”
“We will not let the colonizers rob us of our right to belong to the Earth and to have agency in the food system. We are Black gold — our melanin-rich skin the mirror of the sacred soil in all her hues. We belong here, bare feet planted firmly on the land, hands calloused with the work of sustaining and nourishing our community.”
Greg Jenkins, a Philadelphia native, is a meteorologist at Penn State University studying how pollution aggravates lung illness in West Africa. He is also working to better forecast extreme weather events in West Africa, which threaten farmers in the region.
On climate change and West Africa
“During the 1970s and 1980s, West Africa was experiencing below-average rainfall, driving farmers into large cities for food aid. Some hypotheses were presented as to the cause of the drought, such as desertification from land-use change potentially linked to pastoralism with livestock denuding the land. However, there were also notable changes in ocean temperatures linked to the drying conditions. We now believe that sea-surface temperature anomalies are linked to anthropogenic climate change which was directly or indirectly responsible for the 20th-century drying.”
“Environmental historians probably have underestimated the extent to which low-income and communities of color have been impacted by industrialization. This includes land, water and soil issues during slavery, post-slavery, segregation, civil rights eras, and up to the present. During these earlier periods, low-income and Black, Native and Hispanic-American communities had minimal power to stand against the industrial expansion.”
“Climate justice cannot be a top-down process.”
His advice for up-and-coming Black researchers
“The most serious and pressing problems cross disciplines. This means that you need to know more than your parents or older siblings. Don’t confine your learning to narrow disciplines, instead look for connections.”
“Learn about the connections that exist between consumption, politics, health and the environment.”
“Adaptation strategies must be implemented soon for the children and grandchildren of today’s generation of young people. Even if mitigation strategies are put in place, we are seeing the impacts of climate change today and a world that is increasingly urbanized and growing rapidly.”
Karissa Lewis is an activist and farmer in Oakland, California. She is the executive director of the Center for Third World Organizing, which is training young Black and Brown organizers. She is also the co-founder of Full Harvest Farm, a cooperative farm growing fruits, vegetables and cannabis.
On growing cannabis
“When I first started to grow cannabis, our plants suffered from disease and pests. Understanding I had much more to learn, I began to study ways to mitigate those impacts naturally and came upon companion planting. When our farm was at its peak, we had dispersed orchards, vegetable plots, eight goats, 40 chickens, 40 ducks, 15 rabbits and a pig named Pumba, all in East Oakland. I call cannabis the gateway plant for a different reason — it kickstarted my love for the land, for food and for reciprocity with the earth.”
“To me, environmental justice is layered. It’s fighting to stop the extractive practices and policies that are enacted around land, food and water that disproportionately impact Black folks, Indigenous folks and other communities of color.”
“Intentionally depriving Black communities of healthy food and clean water is not natural. It can be stopped, and we must fight with courage, determination and some damn good strategies to stop it.”
Her advice to aspiring Black activists
“To folks not sure if this is their lane: come fall in love with the movement. Fall in love with the late night strategy conversations, the direct actions that speed up your heart and humble your spirit. Fall in love with the beauty of our resilience and the strength of our coalitions. Fall in love with the collective visioning and the freedom dreaming. There is a new world waiting for us. We must be the doulas, the birthers, the caregivers, the protectors, the conjurers and the guides. Our lives depend on it. And so does this land.”
Nexus Media is a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. Markeya Thomas, Shravya Jain-Conti, Mina Lee, Celia Gurney, Bartees Cox and Owen Agnew contributed to this report.