This post is part of an ongoing project by PAN Farmer Justice Fellows who are working to uplift the many different voices of farmers in California. The mission of this work is to broaden the narrative of what it means to be a farmer participating in the state's agricultural system by sharing the wide spectrum of relationships that growers have with land.
Christina Perez is a Latinx woman urban farmer working with the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) in Inglewood, Los Angeles. In addition to digging, planting and harvesting across seven different community and school garden project sites, Christina also puts together community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes for weekly and biweekly subscribers. The contents of each box are influenced by community member input, in an effort to ensure cultural relevance of the food. Christina uses a survey system to “see what [participants] need and try to match what we have to their needs.”
Lessons from the land
As a person with Latinx roots, Christina remembers experiencing “racial shame,” feeling different in her community with an overarching pressure to assimilate. “Connecting to this work has helped heal my relationship with my self-identity.” Urban farming and related food programs provide an opportunity for young people from diverse backgrounds to connect with their roots, and not have to grow up with a sense of a "lost culture."
Christina expands on how farming has changed her way of thinking and where she looks for solutions:
“I sit in the Earth, I focus in and realize that I need to pay attention to the life around me. What are these plants saying to me? How can I create a healthy space for them to grow? How will the consumers get a health benefit as well?. . . And that’s also my Indigenous ancestors speaking to me. How can I not blemish [the plants] with toxic fertilizer, but really pay attention to potential solutions by listening to the plants and life around me? Nature has the answers. It has always had the answers”
With increasingly expensive city landscapes, urban farms are constantly under threat of developers taking over community space. Christina expands on the dynamic of being a nonprofit "leasing [land] for free from the city.” While it is nice to not have to pay rent, which is the only way the nonprofit can subsist, there’s an added layer of instability that arises from that power dynamic. The foundation feels shaky even if the nonprofit is experiencing success because historically, “when urban farms look good, they get taken [by the developmental ripples of gentrification].”
Along with their urban farming program, SJLI works on nutrition education, health equity, housing justice, college access and more. The programmatic work is influenced by community members, including youth, but the nonprofit structure presents challenges, Christina sharing that “grant money is so politically driven and reactionary.” This constraint leads to selective wording and messaging about the organization’s work for external funders, and therefore creates possible limitations on the impact of the nonprofit’s work.
SJLI's campaigns, rooted in the mission of improving the health, education, and wellbeing of young people and communities of color, need systemic prolonged support in order to create sustainability in their outcomes. The organization’s dependence on external stakeholders, like funders and property owners, generates stress and is built on a capitalistic system of racial and wealth disparity.
These challenges to achieving equity and their potential solutions should be examined by the communities experiencing them with support from allies and their privilege.
Opportunities for solidarity
Feeling overloaded with farming and organizational work, Christina explains, "I’m buried in weeds, but I know there is policy work that will help us be genuinely more sustainable.” She highlights the importance of stretching the concept of allyship beyond the common racial connotation, in which white folks do outreach within their communities to analyze and address institutional oppression.
“There’s a level of allyship we need as farmers from policymakers.” Folks with the appropriate resources should intentionally create spaces where “farmers of color can come together, talk about and notice issues with common threads.” It is with this dialogue and the uplifting of voices and knowledge of lived struggle, that “policymakers can represent us, [farmers and communities of color], rather than present for us."
“In this rushed food system and society, we want cabbage and broccoli now, but we forget it actually takes 60 days to grow. I see the same thing happening with policy, being too quick to implement solutions without really understanding the problems. It takes time for things to develop, grow, mature, and blossom. That is the essential nature of life.”
But busy farmers like Christina can’t always be present at the policy table in Sacramento. The California Farmer Justice Collaborative exists to account for this and explore farmer capacity to engage in these conversations of social and political change. Christina recognizes that the policy world too has its own, different set of weeds to navigate. By coming together and out of our own silos, we can work to design new systems built by all peoples, for all peoples.