Recently, we gave a workshop on the KI approach to urban agriculture at the National-International Urban and Small farms conference held at Growing Power in Milwaukee. Growing Power is a non-for-profit organization that gives trainings to urban farmers, gardeners, and anyone interested in creating community food systems and growing food in a sustainable way. I personally have done a few Growing Power trainings and have gained a lot out of them.
Our workshop at the conference was titled Urban Ag Wit Hot Sauce. The hot sauce part of the title is a bold expression of our perspective on agriculture and food justice that reflects urban culture. We had a panel of young black men from our Bold&Clear lecture series speaking about the roles we play in KI Urban Ag.
Diop, one of our social entrepreneurs and community teachers, talked about the history of the Kheprw Institute, the philosophy of our bootstrap model and touched on some of our plans to develop an agri-business incubator in the future. Chinyelu, a student at KI Community School, spoke about becoming our 12-year-old lead Aquaponics expert. Kevin, another student, talked about his experience in the summer program where we hosted a food justice summit and canvassed in the neighborhood interviewing community members about food and gardening.
I ended my presentation with a poem about my personal perspective on urban ag work. For the most part it was received well but there was some controversy behind my choice of words. In the poem I described how people in the neighborhood, where I run a composting operation called Kheprw Compost, perceive me and the work I do. The line went:
Me and my little compost cart, zoomin’ and boomin’ through Highland like a determined yellow jacket
While everybody on the block stares and says “Who is this nigga I keep seeing with the yellow wagon”
During the Q&A a few people asked questions about agricultural approaches and how to engage youth from the inner-city through gardening. We shared our lessons and experiences, but the main focus turned to my poem. At this point in the workshop there were about six participants in the Q&A. Some of the African American elders who attended the workshop didn’t appreciate the fact that I used the word nigga. And because of their strong resistance to the use of the word, they missed the context it was used in.
One of the black elders in attendance expressed his frustrations with my use of the word nigga and asked whether I knew how destructive that word can be.
I responded by saying, “Yes, I understand the historical context and different connotations of the word. If you listen to how its framed in the piece you could see that I was using it in a certain way to drive home a point.” The gentlemen’s reaction to my comment was that the word nigga can’t be used in any other context without invoking its historical baggage and to think otherwise is foolish. A few of the other black elders in the room cosigned.
The gentleman went on to connect my use of nigga to hip-hop and how hip-hop is to blame for the problems in the black community today. The man gave a passionate speech about how his generation died for us to live a life of dignity and respect. He claimed every time a young person uses the word nigga or acts outside their expectations we spit on the progress they fought to push forward.
This ignited a spirited inter-generational discussion about the role of elders and youth in bridging gaps of understanding between different value systems and perceptions of problems. At KI we have a open forum style discussion that we call “Real Talks” where we sit in a circle and have honest conversations about issues and challenges. So in the middle of this lively debate we rearranged the room from a panel-audience set up to a circle.
When we opened the circle it helped release some of the frustration and pain that people had around the subject.That same energy from the KI Real Talk then animated the workshop. By that time attendance went from six to 20 people due to people walking by hearing the emotion and subject matter of the discussion.
Although the dialogue had strong positions on either side there was a common baseline of resistance and a desire to want to see things change. I always find it interesting to to be apart of conversations where people who lived through the turbulence of the 60′s and 70′s have talk with youth making their way through the dynamic evolution of the 21st century. Two of the most pivotal and radical times in recent history, both sides presenting their their take on what the solutions should be from the wisdom of their generation.
The youth felt that they were more than aware of what they are up against and, because of the rawness of the times, were making a conscious decision to take power in their own hand instead of just reacting what systems say they are. Trying to find ways to express that self-empowerment through mediums like music and language i.e. the redefinition of nigga. So seldom do communities actually get a chance to flush out the wounds in their communication and just talk to one another, especially in the black community.The elders, so often not listened to, felt that young people don’t understand the struggles that their generation went through for them to be able to live the lives they do today. In their eyes, the way that the black youth have chosen to respond to the systematic hardship placed on them further perpetuates the strife.
The dialogue was cathartic for everyone. I feel like people walked away from the discussion feeling heard. I don’t think everyone left agreeing with each other, but it was an opportunity for people to express their experience and gain insight on a perspective from another time.
In a conventional or linear sense this doesn’t relate to urban agriculture at all. In regards to the work we do at the KI EcoCenter this honest and critical approach to communication is integral to our approach to urban agriculture (hence hot sauce). We focus on raising awareness/educating about the health and nutritional problems in our community and how they relate to to the food we eat.
We don’t expect someone in the neighborhoods we work in, who eats fast food and candy daily, to all the sudden have a desire for a locally grown organic eggplant. We see it as a journey, we walk with people through the process of eating healthier foods and living a healthier lifestyle.
No one guessed that the workshop would have manifested like it did. The dialogue of the workshop was so important because mediums like that allow for us to communicate and teach one another. Agriculture is a place of commonality for all people and ages. None of the work of KI Urban Ag happens without a strong sense of community. There is no culture without agriculture and vice a versa. I had a very insightful time in Milwaukee and was glad we got a chance to expose our young people to the larger movement for sustainable agriculture.