Voices that Make a Difference: Erika Allen

An interview with Erica Allen – this interview is part of the original “Voices that Make a Difference” series written by Andrea King Collier for the Food Security Learning Center’s Race in the Food System topic.


Erika Allen, project leader for Growing Power’s Grant Park community garden project in Chicago, is a young woman with old school passion for the beloved community. She was one of the founders of the Growing Food and Justice For All Initiative (GFJI), which grew out of the Community Food Security Coalition’s committee work on race.

Allen, who is the daughter of Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power in Milwaukee and a 2008 MacArthur Fellow, spent much of her youth being around all aspects of farming including managing farmer’s markets. In partnership with the Chicago Park District and Moore Landscapes, Allen’s Growing Power site (one of three in Chicago) created a 20,000 square foot urban farm on Chicago’s lakefront adjacent to Buckingham Fountain and Lincoln Memorial in Grant Park.   Allen says they grow over 150 varieties of heirloom vegetables, herbs, and edible at the urban farm in the heart of downtown Chicago.  In addition to regular farm activities, farm interns experience marketing produce and value-added products at small community farmers’ market building customer service and entrepreneurial skills needed by both farmers and area artists.

“Food is the next frontier of the civil rights movement,” Allen says. “As a child of that movement, I think about it a lot.”

Moving to form a new organization that would put its primary focus on dismantling racism in all aspects of the food system wasn’t a resurrection, according to Allen.  “It was an epiphany,” she says. Breathing life into a new organization helped to remove some of the institutional roadblocks to doing the work, Allen says.

The GFJI vision of tearing down the walls of racism reached a new level of reality in Milwaukee in September 2008, with the first Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative conference. Allen sees the conference as “a space for real dialogue.” She says “September set the tone for how things move forward,” she says. The event was designed to bring people together to network and forge new partnerships around issues of social justice and racial equality. 

“This is an experiment. It offers a space and an initiative to move forward,” Allen says. “And it also offers an opportunity to accept and work with people where they are.”  It is also about shifting and sharing power and self-determination around the food system. “Look at who is most often at the table making decisions for the low income people. They are usually academics,” Allen says. The GFJI efforts are designed to level the field and give everyone a voice.

The same principles that guide Allen’s Growing Power work in the community gardens of Chicago, also keep her focused on the larger structural issues that make the work of GFJI so important to the food equity and security movement. “Everybody eats,” Allen says. “So why don’t people have access? And why haven’t farmers of color been able to tap into the resources they need to grow good and fair food?”

Her hopes for GFJI and the conference are clear. “We want people to take the information and trainings home and heal. In the longer term, Allen would like to see people get empowered and challenged to help do the work of removing the obstacles of racism and the other “isms” that stand between all people and a fair and equitable food system.

Our thanks to Andrea King Collier for writing and sharing these powerful stories. For more information about Andrea’s work, visit www.andreacollier.com.