How to Teach for a Revolution

July 5, 2013

Janet Fiskio, Young Kim

Photo credit: Scott Goldsmith

This essay is excerpted from the Spring 2013 edition of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, which is devoted to the issue of food. Read editor Jeff Hagan’s introduction, “Food is the Issue”, and explore the rest of the magazine.

“The good food movement is now a revolution.”

—Will Allen, farmer, founder, and CEO of Growing Power

How do we teach for a revolution in something as ordinary and essential as food? The revolution that Will Allen refers to is often described as a social movement for “food justice.” Food justice means that everyone, regardless of social or geographic location, has access to fresh and culturally appropriate foods, and, even more, that communities have control over their food security.

In the summer of 2011, Janet, along with students and interns from Oberlin’s George Jones Memorial Farm, visited the Fondy Farmers Market in Milwaukee. Given the rising popularity of foodie culture over the past few years, “farmers’ market” may evoke images of elite spaces offering organic produce to affluent customers. But Fondy is different: It’s in an urban neighborhood, and most of its customers are African American. Hmong Americans and African Americans are among the farmers who sell gorgeous collards and glowing bulbs of garlic. The market accepts food stamps, and in 2012, despite a drought, processed nearly $41,000 through the program. This kind of access to fresh food is essential because many lower-income neighborhoods, both urban and rural, are “food deserts”—places without grocery stores and farmers’ markets, and where residents pay more for less at corner stores and gas stations. But the true goal of the food revolution is to facilitate self-reliant communities, and Fondy’s support of local farmers is the next step in creating food security for this neighborhood. To make this move from access to justice means asking why some communities are food insecure, what structural forces are creating this insecurity, and how we can change things. The food movement becomes a revolution when we demand social change; teaching for a food revolution starts with asking these kinds of questions.

Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry, a leading thinker in contemporary agrarian philosophy, has written about the failure of the agricultural university to create food democracy and the importance of valuing the experiential knowledge of small farmers. Oberlin’s college seal depicting harvested crops next to classroom buildings, with the words “Learning and Labor” written in plain English rather than Latin, symbolizes the college’s commitment to the knowledge that comes from working with our hands and the importance of reflecting on this labor in critical, creative ways. The Oberlin Student Cooperative Association—formed in 1950— thrives today with a renewed focus on supporting local agriculture through its purchasing policies. Oberlin’s commitment to sustainable agriculture has gained momentum through the years, with Professor David Orr’s leadership in agrarian philosophy and pedagogy, the formation of the New Agrarian Center and City Fresh at the George Jones Farm (with the help of Brad Masi ’93), and now the Green Belt envisioned as part of the Oberlin Project.

Oberlin is not a land-grant institution. Our students aren’t designing the next generation of genetically modified seeds. What students do learn at Oberlin is critical thinking. When it comes to confronting the exploitation of immigrant farmworkers or ensuring that all families have a quality grocer nearby, the food justice revolution needs people versed in the liberal arts who can learn on their feet, buoyed by that Oberlin outrage and energy, so they see the broader social justice and historical contexts that others have missed. All of us need to know why before we learn how.

Here in the “Rust Belt,” food justice is being created in abandoned lots and kitchens, in farmers’ markets and fields. The people who have taught us the most—both the why and the how—are the urban farmers and community activists who are creating this revolution. Engaging students in learning from the communities themselves is a complex, difficult, and thrilling experience. We believe these kinds of collaborations are essential to educating food citizens—people who take seriously both their right and responsibility to participate in creating a more just food system. English writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy to have a revolution.”

The food movement is full of idealistic college grads who want to go into food deserts and fix things. But some food activists lack awareness of their own privilege. They want to teach urban communities about gardening, but don’t realize that many people moved to the city to escape agriculture in the first place. They teach recipes to children that require ingredients available only at Whole Foods. Those of us who are outsiders seeking an invitation into a community need to proceed with care.

The antidote to privilege is humility. We need to be willing to take risks and learn from our mistakes. Justice isn’t about rescuing people from themselves, as the media’s focus on “the obesity epidemic” implies. It’s facilitating a resident-driven solution and then getting out of the way. Those of us who are truly interested in food democracy must learn to work with people, not on people. Communities are the subjects and verbs of the change that happens in their neighborhoods and lives, not the objects of our “help.” This also means that food activists need realistic goals. We need to know that these are deep, systemic problems that were generations in the making, and that it will take generations to undo them. As much as we all want to be the silver bullet, we’re usually not.

In the spring of 2011, Janet led a field trip to Naoma, West Virginia. Students from her American agricultures class had received grants from Oberlin’s Green Edge Fund and the Bonner Center for Service and Learning to purchase fruit trees (with help from Alan Leonard ’91 at Cummins Nursery) planted at a community center where Emily Arons ’10 was helping to develop a community kitchen. As the students started clearing brush in a field behind the center, one shouted, “learning and labor!” It was a sentiment that persisted throughout the semester, leading these students to engage in ongoing, intense discussions about race, class, and structural injustices in the food system, discussions in which Janet was learning along with and from her students. The students asked questions that lacked easy answers—questions about privilege, how to work with communities as an outsider, and the meaning of food justice.

Our hope is that through collaborating with communities, we can point students in the right direction—to the people who are generating grassroots knowledge. We’re honored by the patient willingness of community members to engage with us; they teach us how to teach. Part of the work of teaching is knowing that we are students as well. The classroom, the farm, the urban garden, the nonprofit office, and the farmers’ market become places where we learn with and from our students, and where we try to reveal and understand this learning process.

Janet Fiskio is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Oberlin. Young Kim ’85 is executive director of the Fondy Food Center in Milwaukee, which runs the city’s largest farmers’ market. The authors thank Tania Boster, director of Oberlin’s Community Service Work Study Program, and John Petersen ’88, professor of environmental studies and biology, for helpful comments on drafts of this essay, and Eboni Johnson, reference and instruction librarian, for research assistance. In addition, Janet thanks the Bonner Center for ongoing support and dialogue in developing community-based learning collaborations.

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