As part of WhyHunger’s celebration of Black History Month in the United States, we’ve shared stories of just a few of the important contributions Black Americans have made to our food and agriculture systems and the struggle for food justice. There is so much to celebrate; it could not possibly be contained in one month or year. I’d like to take this moment, in honor of Black History Month, to offer my own reflection and share my perspective.
I believe, as is reflected in WhyHunger’s Theory of Change, that we cannot work on the issues of hunger and poverty without working at the intersection of hunger and race. Through more than 40 years of work, we know that racial injustice and privilege are at the root of economic injustice and that economic injustice is a root cause of hunger. When we define the problem of hunger as one of food distribution, we mask our ability to see the root causes that perpetuate the problem and leave us with this chronic social condition that is in fact solvable.
In my work at WhyHunger and in my everyday life, I am encouraged by the continued awakening that is occurring around the deep inequities, structures and systems that keep people of color oppressed in the U.S. We need to further this spiritual transformation through action and a rallying conviction that building racial equity is our great moral imperative. We need to be bold in the certainty that my freedom is tied directly to the freedom of my Black neighbors and friends. By confronting our history of racism and acknowledging the racism that is still prevalent today, we can take an initial step to heal as a nation and embrace our shared humanity.
I know in my own life that difficult conversations are happening to better understand how racism’s painful roots run deep into the systems and institutions that shape our world today. For example, our agricultural system that puts food on our tables was built on the backs of free human labor in the form of Black slaves ripped from their homeland. And we’ve constructed countless other systems and practices that are wrought with inequities to offer opportunity and privilege to some, while holding others down based on skin color. By talking about that painful truth and holding space for it in our work and lives, we can better understand the struggle for Black freedom and support it in meaningful ways. I have found in my own life it is essential to acknowledge that racism exists and to talk openly about it without fear of judgment. Those conversations need to happen first and foremost with White people and they need to be coupled with action.
As a White mom, executive, friend, advocate and student of history, I know that I have benefited from systems and institutions that offered me privilege and opportunity because of the color of my skin, and yet I am committed to trying to change those systems. I hold a deep conviction about the need for racial unity and equity so that we can fully prosper as a people and as a country. White people need to start talking to other White people without being afraid of feelings of guilt or shame and be cognizant of what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “silence of good people.” By being silent we are complicit in accepting the structures that keep people of color down. This is a blind spot for many of us. But there is no denying the truth when you examine things like the industrial prison system, the prevalence of redlining, and how discrimination in the workplace and hiring practices persist.
I will never know what it is like to be Black in America. I was born with the privilege of being White. I don’t fear being stopped by police. I was taught they were on my side and will help me. I don’t have to worry about being turned down for a job because of the name on my resume. I remember decades ago being in one of my first deep conversations about race in America with several colleagues and being struck by how different the daily experience of walking down the street was for my two Black male co-workers. Their stories conveyed a palpable sense of fear and unease that shook me to the core. The daily struggle for Black Americans is real. Why do they experience life so differently than me? While we may never share the same experiences, we can work together to build a just world. How can I use my power and privilege to truly be an ally? How can WhyHunger be an organization that follows anti-oppression practices and builds racial justice throughout our work both internally and externally? How can I, as a White woman, champion racial justice?
There is not one answer or one quick fix. I know that this work requires continual analysis and growth. That it demands partnerships built on trust and respect with Black leaders and Black communities. That it requires White folks to step back and listen, and to create the space for Black leadership and self-determination. That it requires the courage to talk and act in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. That is what allyship looks like to me and I know we can all do better in working to create a just world where everyone thrives.
A month ago, I got to attend the Facing Race Conference in Atlanta with several colleagues two days after the election and it could not have been timelier. After this long election, many were exhausted, panic-stricken and scared and this was the perfect place to heal and find opportunities to learn and collaborate together. From the beginning to the end, the theme of this space was clear; the importance of collaboration amongst racial justice groups and the need to have conversation. Race Forward: The Center For Racial Justice Innovation advances racial justice through research, media and practice and they host Facing Race, the largest conference for racial justice movement-making, focused on alliance building, issue framing and advancing solutions. This year’s conference had over 50 workshops. The opening plenary, ‘Multiracial Movements for Black Lives’ consisted of Michelle Alexander as the moderator and Alicia Garza, Founder of #BlackLivesMatter, Judith LeBlanc of Native Organizers Alliance, Isa Noyola of Transgender Law Center, Zon Moua of Freedom Inc. & Chris Crass, a longtime leading voice in white communities for racial justice anti-racist organizing. This intersectional conversation was powerful because it highlighted the importance of building deep alliances that are inclusive so all voices are heard.
Alicia Garza, the co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter pointed out the importance of having deep multiracial and multinational alliances that practice real solidarity. Crass was one of the last speakers of the opening plenary and used humor to connect with the audience, showcasing his passion about addressing racism and making sure that white people have conversations with each other about white privilege. This was essential in that it highlighted the importance of white people in racial justice movement work and reminded individuals to not only learn but to hold each other accountable to grow together. By calling out white people and what it means to be a white ally, Crass highlighted the enormity of the work ahead.
Again and again throughout the weekend, we were reminded that open conversations and the need for unity is key to this work because we are stronger when we are united and coordinated. Facing Race is a solid model of holding space to discuss our struggles and the difficulty of the fight for rights. It allows participants to reflect back on what has been done and is being done to build racial and social justice and continuing to fight and grow together.
The conversations in workshops were wide-ranging and touched on topics from implicit bias to power inclusion to racial equity plans, structural racism, systems change, activist philanthropy, mass criminalization and more. These workshops exemplified how critical it is to take the time to listen and learn from different voices and experiences.
Here are my 4 key takeaways:
1. When it comes to implicit bias, we might think that our actions and decisions are not harmful but choices that are invisible have visible consequences. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Some biases are obviously wrong such as treating equally qualified applicants differently in hiring’s and promotions. Every day biases, like making assumptions on an applicant based on their name, are hard to point out because they’re so personal so it’s up to us to hold each other accountable and be aware of what we do to each other. One phrase I heard at the conference, ‘if we had the ability to make the invisible, visible’ is intriguing in that if we were faced with these unconscious biases, would one recognize they were coming from you? ‘Who’s telling the story and who has the power?’ was a clear theme of this conference and how meaningful and essential the power of narrative is.
2. Conversations about power inclusion and equity are challenging but necessary. As our society becomes more and more fractured, we must not exclude but rather engage all communities to get people in the room that have different experiences, strengths and blind spots. Creating the space for human connection to share and listen to one another’s stories is in itself a healing process and essential in challenging times.
3. Show up in spaces you don’t think are connected to the work to do. Social justice has many layers and as Roxane Gay said during her keynote speech ‘it is simple and complicated in that it’s just common sense.’ We need to continue to discuss the economic realities that make it so that people cannot feed themselves. We tend to just focus on what is oppressing us and we need to discuss how power and privilege play a role in our lives, because having privilege does not mean that we’re not disadvantaged elsewhere.
4. Advocating & supporting each other is crucial. Getting to hear from activists and elders that have been doing this work alongside those that are just starting the work at this conference was so powerful. There’s much to learn from each other and from what’s happened in the past. The intentionality when it comes to bridging the gap, perceived and actual, between communities that seem unlikely to collaborate shows that we all have the power to affect change. Being willing to get past preconceived notions because ‘often it is us that is dividing and conquering’ is something an elder said during one of the workshops that also stood out because it is important to pair intersectionality with intentionality. Find the movements and shakers in each community because we’re not starting from scratch.
Going forward, this experience adds fuel to WhyHunger’s motivation to continue expanding our learning and growth around the issues of race and privilege with ourselves and with our partners.
In order to learn more about Facing Race and Race forward, go to their website here.
This is a guest post originally published in the Kids Make a Difference Newsletter a couple years ago. Written by WhyHunger's longtime friend and Board Member Jen Chapin, in this honest reflection Jen wrangles with questions about racism that many have and reflects on America’s racial legacy, how it affects her son (who is now close to 11 yrs old) and what she’ll teach him. Unfortunately, the same questions and racial justice issues persist today so we wanted to share.
I have been wrangling with this essay in my head for months, as I’ve struggled to find the right words to respond to a question that just won’t go away. The stubborn question: In this day, when an African-American can be elected twice to the highest office in the land, is there still such a thing as white privilege? When we can point out so many black Americans among the most wealthy and powerful in media, entertainment and sports, isn’t that proof that the nation has evolved beyond its racist past?
I finally started writing down some thoughts last week and now can’t locate them, which is probably a good thing. This question is so vast and unwieldy, rooted in centuries of slave-trading and terrorism, naked violence and hidden theft, that I couldn’t manage to wrangle these thoughts into concise cohesion.
So I’ll just write about me. Or rather, about my 9 year old son. Or more precisely, about the ways I don’t have to worry, because he and I are white, and privileged.
Our neighborhood public school is 4 blocks away, a pretty straight shot from our apartment along a pleasant residential Brooklyn street. My son has started to walk himself to school sometimes, which is OK with me. He’s careful with cars and crossing streets, and the neighborhood is a pretty safe one. I remind him that my concern is less about him making a mistake than a driver doing so.
I don’t warn him about the police. If he were black or brown, I would. I’d likely say something like the mother character in the Springsteen song “American Skin (41 Shots)” does: “you have to understand the rules / If an officer stops you / promise me, you’ll always be polite / and that you’ll never ever run away / promise mama you’ll keep your hands in sight.”
My son is smart and sensitive. He has a tendency to be dramatic in self- denigration, to loudly berate himself as stupid – “I’m an idiot!” -- for an unspecified trespass. I recognize this a bit from my own childhood personality, and I console him without worrying too much. If he were black or brown, I would worry. I would worry that a teacher or other authority figure was failing to see his gifts, his potential, or even his humanity. I would worry that he had internalized the ever-present if often tacit message in our culture that black boys are intellectually and morally deficient, with certain mystical talents in sports and music but not many in school or the workforce.
When he does enter the workforce, perhaps I should worry, actually. My son’s given name, inspired by a beloved saxophonist, is rare and most often found among African-American men from the South. His surname comes from my husband and is also rare in the Northeast, and most often found among African- American men from the South. On a resumé, this sort of name is 50% less likely than a resumé with a white-sounding name attached to get a response from a potential employer. Or at least it was in 2002, when the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted their experiment. Are things different today, or will they be in the 10 years or so when my son is looking for a job?
Of course, the reason my son has a “black” name is that his ancestors owned many slaves who took that name as their own, as was the custom. My mother’s ancestry is more obscure to me, but she has indicated that her maiden name is also linked with many black Americans, and that there is likely slaveowning in her paternal family’s past as well. Today among our furnishings are several antique items inherited from both sides. Was this furniture made by slaves? Perhaps not, but there is no question that part of the wealth that paid for mine and my husband’s expensive liberal arts college educations – wealth measured both in dollars and in generations of inherited literacy – came from the labor of captive workers. (My alma mater, Brown University, was founded in a major slave trading port, by a major slave-trading family that also included at least one prominent abolitionist)
The fact has been deliberately buried from our national consciousness, but indeed the larger part of America’s wealth was built on slavery and genocide, and continues to build on habits of systematically separating black and brown (and white) people from the fruits of their labor. To acknowledge this is not to swim in guilt, but to be empowered by knowledge and the tools to move us all forward.
And what of my son? The conversations have begun, often prompted by his own questions and observations and a child’s fresh eye toward justice. He’s not quite ready yet, but in a few years I’ll have him read the excellent and exhaustive recent piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”, and perhaps (I still have to get this and read it myself) the new book by historian Edward E. Baptist "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," so he can understand where we all come from, and play a clear-eyed role in where we are all going.
At a national gathering I participated in with 500 community organizations and food access groups like soup kitchens, food banks, and food pantries a bold, collective statement emerged from the people working on the frontlines of hunger. I look to their experience as a grounding force in our evolving strategies to end hunger. They stated: "Racial injustice and privilege are at the root of economic injustice. Economic injustice is the root cause of hunger. The only way to end hunger is to end racial injustice." This analysis emanates from communities gripped by the harsh realities of hunger and poverty. When I stand side by side with community leaders experiencing their work firsthand and talking with people who participate in their programs, I believe this to be true and bear witness. When Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres founded our organization so many years ago they knew that hunger was a symptom of poverty and social injustice including racism. Today we carry that work forward informed by our partners and inspired by our founders.
Here at WhyHunger, we are deeply troubled by the escalating violence in America and around the world. We need deep reflection and positive action. Now is the time to put in motion the healing we still must undertake to address the historical roots of racism perpetuated by the systems, institutions, and policies that are its legacy and keep us from reaching our full human potential. We must end violence in all forms if we are to create a peaceful future and one that is free from hunger and poverty. We have to ask ourselves why people of color are disproportionately living with hunger and poverty and why their communities remain under-resourced and marginalized. Racial inequity and hunger are deeply connected and addressing these disparities is critical to building a better future for all Americans. We are not free until all are free; we are not healthy until all are nourished.
With support, dedication and an unwavering commitment to social justice, WhyHunger knows we have a critical and unique role to play. We work in partnership with communities of color who are working to achieve land access and ownership to grow and produce bountiful food. You can see some of that work in our "What Ferguson Means for the Food Justice Movement" series, in which Black leaders discuss and analyze the ways in which Black communities are oppressed by our current food system, and solutions led by those communities are lifted up. Together, with thousands of diverse grassroots partners around the world, we are transforming our food system so that it is economically just, environmentally sound and addresses oppression at home and abroad. This journey is long and hard, yet indispensable to a peaceful future. We cannot do it alone. We need the leadership of people most affected by the injustices of poverty, along with grassroots organizations and champions of our work, like you. The change we seek is possible and that more peaceful future is ours to create.