“It’s Those Who Work in the Sun that Make It Possible for Those Who Work in the Shade” Thoughts on SSAWG.

Malik Yakini

Malik Yakini. Image by Matthew Baker

The annual SSAWG (Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) conference took place last weekend in Little Rock, Arkansas. A full three days of lectures, discussions, and dialog, the conference aims to “empower and inspire farmers, individuals, and communities in the South to create an agricultural system that is ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, and humane.”

Acadia Roher is a solutionary living and working in Little Rock and offers these reflections on the conference, highlighting the work of Malik Yakani and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. 

As a supporter of the Good Food Movement, but not a farmer, I found SSAWG to be welcoming, energetic, and diverse.  While I soaked in a few details about soil science and post-harvest handling from my excited farmer friends between sessions, most of my attention during the conference was focused on learning about community food system infrastructure and anti-oppression work within the movement.

Malik Yakini from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network stood out for his fearless challenge to the conference attendees.  He used his powerful presence to impress upon an early Saturday morning crowd the message that growing food sustainably is not enough.  Those engaged in the Good Food movement must simultaneously seek to end oppression of all kinds, especially white supremacy, if we are to move toward justice.  I was so stirred by his plenary address that I made it a point to attend his later session on dismantling racism in the movement.

Though the content of “Combating the Myth of White Supremacy” was fascinating, it was the engaging style in which Mr. Yakini ran the session that stood out most.  He transformed a room of 60 people seated in stiffly-organized rows barricaded by tables into a functional dialogue that dispersed power and attention around the room.  Mr. Yakini issued a call immediately after approaching the microphone for critique and questioning, and suggested that the room be reorganized to allow for small group discussion later in the session.  He warmly welcomed input and sought feedback from the attendees throughout the session so that people became more and more comfortable speaking up. I felt increasingly connected to the other people in the room and the information presented at the front, deepening my sense of urgency to learn more.

Detroit Black Community Food Security Network Market . Photo by Matthew Baker.

I was excited to experience immediate resonance with the ideas and goals of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and other projects for community self-determination through agriculture that were presented during the conference.  One such project is SEEDS in Durham, NC, a town that many say has striking similarities to Little Rock.  SEEDS runs a number of programs that work to retain community ownership and growth in various urban farming pursuits while integrating outside knowledge and effort.  The organization uses a great deal of innovation and creativity to overcome challenges.  For example, the organization runs several gardens, each with a different focus and mission.  Some are collectively managed and open to harvesting by anyone, while others are designed for teaching or youth programming, and still others give neighborhood residents ownership over their own small garden plots.  The diversity of different garden styles ensures that the needs of a variety of Durham residents are met.

My head is swimming with ideas such as these from almost all of the sessions I attended.   I’m thankful to have felt so welcome in SSAWG’s dynamic setting.  Applying the new connections and knowledge will be a worthwhile challenge.  I now have some very practical steps and ideas to apply to the community food hub under development by The People Tree, as well as youth programming ideas that would fit well with Summer of Solutions.

More than anything, I feel I’m uniquely poised to begin intentional work to bring anti-oppression into the conversation of the food movement here in Little Rock.  The growing group of Central Arkansas farmers, food entrepreneurs, artisans, and organizers needs to move beyond the diversity conversation to an exploration of the deep shifts in consciousness that will be necessary if we are to work toward justice rather than simply shoring up the status quo with our well-intentioned but ignorant actions.

While heeding Mr. Yakini’s insight that “it’s those who work in the sun that make it possible for those who work in the shade” by showing respect for the people currently building the Good Food movement, I can challenge those same folks (myself included) to think more critically, study, and act so that our community can move as a whole toward liberation.

Did you attend the Southern SAWG conference? What stuck out to you about the event? What are the take-home messages for your own work? We’d love to hear about it. Email us at the “Contact Us” link above.

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Acadia2A recent graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service, Acadia Roher works as a community organizer to advance environmental justice in Central Arkansas.  She grew up in the Little Rock area and feels strongly that this is the community where she is meant to do the majority of her life’s work.  Acadia is active in various community organizations, including Village Commons, Little Rock Stories, and The People Tree.  When she’s not organizing, Acadia really likes exploring the Ozark and Ouachita mountains.You can read other pieces by Acadia here.