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.
Roosevelt Tarlesson has a vision for healing, training, community building and empowerment. Tarlesson and his family, originally from Liberia, are known figures in the African and refugee community of California — since arriving in California in the 1970s, Roosevelt has been uplifting farming as a tool to reconnect California-based African refugees with their cultural roots and provide a means of economic development. Roosevelt has been involved in a long list of community projects, and is also politically engaged, participating in United Nations gatherings to advocate for refugee work programs. As an active member of the California Farmer Justice Collaborative, he was also involved in passing California’s Farmer Equity Act.
Roosevelt’s current project comes in the form of 156 acres of newly-leased land in Vacaville, California. This land will serve as a base for organic farming incubation on parcels of land, and will provide cooperative support for marketing farm products and other services.
Support for underserved communities
Thinking about the connections he has made with African and African-American populations in California, Roosevelt shares, "The black community is me. I’ve been here for 42 years.” Roosevelt emphasizes that his vision is not to exclusively work with black folks or refugees, but also to broaden opportunities for youth, especially from inner cities, houseless and formerly incarcerated persons, veterans, and public welfare recipients. It is vital for the programming to put people to work, but also to holistically address individuals’ circumstances by healing from past experiences — like dealing with issues of displacement, trauma with law enforcement, houselessness, etc. — as well as providing support with English language resources and childcare service.
Roosevelt’s priority is to create something that works for poor folks. He sees good intention in farmer support programs from Agriculture Land-Based Training Association, Center for Land Based Learning, and others, but wonders whether these programs are “designed for poor people.” His sense is that programs like these work best for folks who already have some level of connection, and often some level of capital or farming exposure; participants join to seek more formal training and then start up a farm business for production. This doesn’t work for houseless urban folks, or people who don’t know anything about farming because they have been displaced from their lands or are dealing with historical trauma related to farming and violent systems of oppression. “I’ve seen the refugee crisis,” Roosevelt says, “I’ve seen how the Iraq and Bosnia wars and conflicts have devastated my community’s experiences.”
Roosevelt thinks that state governments should address assistance needs by giving refugees and other underserved groups opportunities to work for themselves. He critiques relief groups who bring in supplies that don’t reach people appropriately. “Instead of funneling money for aid, money can go to empowerment.” Empowerment can look like uplifting marginalized folks with land, resources, and farming opportunities in California that will stimulate sustained economic stability.
Equity at the forefront
Roosevelt is thankful to have temporarily secured the land for his community farm project. He paid $33,000 for a 1-year lease on the Vacaville land, but believes this investment should be a government-funded project because it is rooted in service, development, and equity for the people of California. There is potential for support in California, as an ally state in the movement for equity. But Roosevelt is cautiously critical. He worries that “farm service providers mask themselves under words like ‘equity.’ They say things like they want to work with black people, and they give out their business cards to me. But then they don’t follow through with any actual support.”
Roosevelt is determined, rooted in his interest in expanding relationships and support from every direction. He recently requested a loan from California FarmLink to cover the upfront cost that he put down for the Vacaville land, including financing for tractors, equipment, and seeds needed to work the land. And he continues to seek partnership from trusted organizations who are willing to work with him in these beginning stages of the project, and will eventually want to put more sustained energy into it while he settles down.
This project is part of a bigger picture for healing, training, community building and empowerment, as well as the cultivation of food sovereignty and local economies. Roosevelt shares: “I’m here; I have a project. I want to train and work with my people!”
If you would like to learn more about this project or connect with Roosevelt, please contact him at: rtarlesson [at] yahoo.com