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Saturday, March 2, 2013

In Durham, activist Maya Wiley connects food, racial equality

Posted by on Sat, Mar 2, 2013 at 10:26 AM

Maya Wiley delivers the 2013 CEFS Annual Sustainable Agriculture Lecture at the Durham Armory on Feb. 27.
  • Raymond Goodman/CEFS
  • Maya Wiley delivers the 2013 CEFS Annual Sustainable Agriculture Lecture at the Durham Armory on Feb. 27.


Although we're well into the 21st century, people of color continue to experience discrimination in regards to food: access to healthy choices, the treatment of farmworkers and land ownership.

“Race is a very dark place,” food activist and former civil rights attorney Maya Wiley said at a lecture Wednesday night in Durham. “We need to acknowledge how the food system is not working in ways that aren’t always visible to us. When we’re talking about race, we’re talking about all of us. Because we all have one.”

At Center for Environmental Farming System’s 2013 Sustainable Agriculture Lecture, Wiley retold the story of the 21-year-old man who left a life of gang violence and became a food activist. Now he grows and sells produce in his neighborhood through SWARM (Students Working for an Agricultural Revolutionary Movement), a program supported by CEFS and directed by Shorlette Ammons.

“We have to shine a light in dark places,” she recalls him saying.

Wiley is president of the Center for Social Inclusion, a national public policy strategy and research organization based in New York City. She works to protect the rights of disadvantaged communities through policy change. Many of the Center’s programs focus on social disparity in the South as it relates to improving a food system rife with racial inequity.

“People are struggling to help their communities survive,” Wiley told INDY Week in an interview prior to her speech. “Survival in the sense of having healthy food. Youth are in literal, physical danger to gun violence and gangs. It’s about saving the community. And all of their stories [in Goldsboro] were about how they were trying to recreate a sense of community and community connection, and how food was a theme in that.”

Wiley spoke comprehensively about what food justice means to communities, particularly communities of color as both farmers and consumers. In 2007, black land ownership in the U.S. increased, but, North Carolina experienced a drastic dip due to unfair or no opportunities for farmers of color.

The message she delivered was familiar to the audience. The free, public event included scientists, agroecologists, local government officials, university professors, high school teachers, farmers, chefs, community organizers and other local food advocates who have been part of a movement for a more fair food system for decades.

But what was unusual was that race was broached outside of activist circles or conferences, and instead brought up explicitly in a public food-focused event.

Wiley’s candid approach emphasized the inclusion of all underrepresented minorities.

“You can say that some white farmers are sharecroppers,” she said. “We want to pay attention to the white farmers enslaved by the contract of a stateless corporation.”

“We want to pay attention to 90 percent of migrant farmworkers who speak Spanish,” she continued. “And their children who, while we have child protection laws in this country, can legally work in the fields. That migrant farmworker makes about $11,000 a year. That is not enough to feed their family.”

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