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Ami McReynolds | Chief Equity Officer, Feeding America: Chances are you’re familiar with the term “food desert,” but what about the term “food apartheid”?
Naima Penniman | Program Director, Soul Fire Farm: My people know what it’s like to eat and still be starving. So we’re turning hardship into harvest, lawns and schoolyards into gardens, homegrown bounty in our palms. We come from soil and stardust. And so we conjure.
Ami McReynolds: That’s the voice of Naima Penman from Soul Fire Farm, one of our guests on today’s episode. Join us as we talk about food, land and liberation. Welcome to Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. I’m Ami McReynolds, your host and chief equity officer at Feeding America. Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger is a series of conversations with individuals who are disrupting the status quo and building more equitable futures to improve food security all across this country.
Today we’re joined by two leaders from Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm located in Petersburg, New York. Soul Fire Farm has a mission that is focused on uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty—sovereignty—in the food system. I have been following their work for a few years and recently had the opportunity to participate in their Uprooting Racism in the Food System workshop.
Welcome Naima Penniman, program director, and Cheryl Whilby, communications director. Cheryl and Naima, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate having you with us.
Cheryl Whilby | Communications Director, Soul Fire Farm: Yeah. Thank you so much for having us.
Naima Penniman: Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thank you.
Ami McReynolds: So as we get started in our conversation today, can you share with our listeners a bit of an overview of the work of Soul Fire Farm?
Cheryl Whilby: Yes. So Soul Fire was really founded out of a need that was expressed by the community that our co-founders, Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff, the community they were living in—the south end of Albany—which is a community where folks are living under food apartheid. You know, the nearest grocery store is over a mile away. And if you don’t have a car, it’s really difficult to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. So folks in their community found out that Leah and Jonah actually know how to farm. So they just simply asked them, “Hey, why don’t you start this farm for the community? Why don’t you grow this food for us?” And Leah and Jonah heeded that call and went out to this really marginal, rocky, sloped land out in Petersburg, New York, in 2006 and purchased what is Soul Fire Farm.
It took about, you know, about four years to really build up the soil infrastructure and allow us to grow on this land. But, you know, when we first opened our doors in 2010, we opened up with the idea of you know, really feeding the people; that was the foundation of this work. And we started out with our CSA, community-supported agriculture, program, where we were doing a doorstep delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables to our communities living under food apartheid.
And from there, we really just expanded to include so many other services and offerings really based around the three pillars of our work, the first being feeding the people and the land, which includes our CSA program I mentioned, which has actually transitioned into our Solidarity Share program where we’re doing the same doorstep delivery of fruits and vegetables from the farm. But instead of it being a sliding scale pay, what you can, it’s actually free of charge for our community members.
And jumping into the second pillar, we have our work of training up the next generation of BIPOC—Black, Indigenous POC—farmers. And that looks like our farmer immersions as well as some of our virtual offerings which we pivoted towards, in light of COVID-19, where we are really just giving our folks the tools necessary to become farmers and food justice leaders within their own communities.
And then the last pillar I just wanted to touch on is our movement work. So that looks like our public speaking engagements, really getting out into community and talking to folks about the injustices experienced by Black, Indigenous, POC farmers and really inspiring people to take action. We also offer trainings in that regard specific to food-based organizations to really support them in this important work.
Ami McReynolds: Thank you so much for sharing that, Cheryl. And what experiences brought you to your engagement with Soul Fire Farm? I’d love to hear from both of you, Cheryl and Nama.
Cheryl Whilby: So for me, I feel that it’s important to name that, I think my calling to this work really stems from my own lived experience of food insecurity. Growing up, just really witnessing the impact of this on my community and especially my immediate family. My father has diabetes. My grandmother had diabetes—this chronic, diet-related illness that’s found at higher rates in our predominantly Black and brown communities. And I truly believe that if my family had the ability to afford healthier options, that really would’ve helped us and other families experiencing food insecurity to lead healthier lives and ultimately healthier communities.
So that being said, growing up, I thought that, you know, everything was, actually, all good in our household because we had food to eat. We were never hungry by any means, but it wasn’t until I started studying food systems in college that I even started to just understand and develop the language to articulate what it was my family was experiencing. And, and once I had that understanding, I think that kind of catapulted me into wanting to make a difference in addressing food insecurity.
So prior to joining the Soul Fire team in 2019, I worked at another nonprofit recovering unwanted produce from local farms, wholesalers for redistribution to food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. And while I was doing this, I was also managing a regional farmer’s market which I still manage to this day. And I believe that these work experiences really supported me in developing my understanding of our food system and also played a significant role in leading me to the work that I’m doing with Soul Fire today.
Ami McReynolds: You touched on a couple of words or phrases that I want to come back to, but Naima, please share with us, share with our listeners.
Naima Penniman: Thank you. I’m so happy for this opportunity to connect and be in conversation. And so, so honored to be part of the sacred work of Soul Fire Farm that feels like deep partnership with the land and with nature to build sustenance and resilience and power for our extended communities.
My journey into the work was really shaped, I think, at a young age, from feeling a real sense of collaboration with the natural world. I was fortunate to have the experience growing up of being in a very rural, if not wild, environment and to be surrounded by forests and grasslands and lakes that were a source of fresh food when often our pantries and fridges, you know, left to be desired. Learning how to garden, learning how to fish, learning how to forage wild edibles from the forest were all part of me building a sense of empowerment and reliability, you know, to be able to feed ourselves when we got home from school.
And growing up as a multiracial Black child who had an experience both in a very rural area and an urban area, I quickly developed consciousness of how different our realities can be depending on the ZIP code we were born into and have always felt a real yearning to bring about more justice and equity, more fairness and self-determination for our communities. And that has evolved with me throughout my life.
But being able to build power in collaboration with nature, the way that our ancestors have done, you know, over generations. When I think about, you know, folks who escaped slavery using the cover of the woods, or who formed autonomous, close-knit Maroon communities, or who were able to develop medicine using herbal remedies, to being able to create provision gardens to support neighborhood with less access to fresh food. I feel incredibly inspired about what is possible when we strengthen our movements to really be able to reclaim our rightful relationship to land, you know, knowing that there’s so much trauma in that history. And especially when it comes to growing food and agriculture, you know, being built on so much exploitation and forced labor, it feels like a real power to be able to be in a relationship of dignity, to be able to provide for one another.
Ami McReynolds: Thank you both for sharing. I feel the power in both you Naima and Cheryl, as you both speak about your connection to this work, your deep connection to this work. And I know that my listeners will feel that, too.
You know, earlier when I introduced the show, I talked about the fact that Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm committed to uprooting racism. You know, Cheryl, you mentioned this earlier, I wanna just connect back to, you talked about the term food apartheid and in your description, you talk about seeding sovereignty. So I’m curious, why is it important to use terms like food apartheid and food sovereignty and how does that really shape your work?
Cheryl Whilby: Yes. So first I want to give credit to Karen Washington, our board president and co-founder of BUGS, Black Urban Growers for really coining this term food apartheid. And the reason that we use a food apartheid as opposed to food desert is to really recognize the fact that this system, where some folks have a lot of choice in what they get to eat and others have little choice is really a man-made system. Saying that it’s a food desert suggests that this is something that’s naturally occurring when it’s not.
So by using this term, we’re also acknowledging and calling in the role that systemic racism also plays in the way our food system is structured. When we think about things like redlining, where the federal government commissioned maps in the 1930s to really have areas marked out in red that are being recognized as least desirable to lend to and others that are desirable.
When we have systems like that, we think about the fact that these systems were created to make it difficult for Black and brown folks to become homeowners in their own communities. And these same maps are also what were being used to determine where grocery stores were built. No one who is looking to build a grocery store is gonna look to build their grocery store in a low-income Black and brown community because of systemic racism that’s involved within our food system.
So when we think about that, we are also thinking about the fact that our Black and brown communities were basically made to live in these areas where they have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, whereas if you go to a predominantly white community there’s a lot more option in what you’re able to eat; there’s more nutritious food options. So it’s important that we use that term to really call that in.
And jumping into food sovereignty. I think with food sovereignty, what comes to mind is really thinking about the fact that no one is going to save us and create the change we want to see; we have to do that ourselves. So when I say that, I’m thinking about the fact that a lot of the farmland owned in this country is predominantly owned by white farmers. Over 98% is owned by white farmers, whereas less than 2% is owned by Black farmers. And when you think about that difference, you’re also thinking about the fact that white farmers can control the narrative of our food system because they own so much land. So when we think about food sovereignty, we’re thinking about that collective agency for Black farmers, as well as our Black communities to really have a say in what our food system looks like.
And with our programming at Soul Fire, I think it’s important to call in the different programs that we have surrounding that food sovereignty aspect. So that’s our immersions and our skills shares that I mentioned earlier, where we are training Black, Indigenous, POC folks to be able to grow for their selves and for their communities, to take that knowledge and share it with other Black, Indigenous aspiring farmers. We’re also talking about our gardening program, our Soul Fire in the City program, where we are going to low-income communities and Albany and Troy and building raised beds in the backyards of our community members. So really just providing that opportunity for people to have the skills to grow for themselves is really important.
This also makes me think of a quote that our co-founder Leah always uses frequently, which is, “To free ourselves, we must feed ourselves.” And I feel like that really encapsulates what we’re talking about when we say food sovereignty in our work.
Ami McReynolds: Earlier, in your introduction, your formal education gave you language to describe what you experienced growing up. And you used the term food insecurity. Did phrases like food apartheid and food sovereignty come into play in your formal education?
Cheryl Whilby: No, not once, not once.
Ami McReynolds: Naima, you talked earlier about the rightful relationship to land. What’s the work that Soul Fire Farm and others are doing in this space around reparations?
Naima Penniman: Yes, absolutely. Reparations is so important. And I know to some that might sound like a scary word, but reparations essentially means to repair what is broken. And we know that the agricultural system in this country has been built entirely on stolen lands and stolen labor. And we have never seen wholesale restitution or redistribution and only widening racial wealth disparities, right? Because in order to build the $10 trillion agricultural industry of the quote “New World,” that was amassing fortunes for not only the slaveholders, but their descendants. And 40 acres and a mule was a broken promise, you know.
Despite that, our Black ancestors were able to amass, at its peak, 15% of the nation’s farmlands, but through discriminatory practices, through racial terror, through us and equities most of that has been lost. Now we’re around 1%. And we know that property is a number one way that wealth is generated in this country, right?
Ami McReynolds: That’s right.
Naima Penniman: 80% of wealth in this country is inherited. Most of that is through property. And land loss alone has cost $120 billion of intergenerational wealth from the Black community. And until we address that, we’re gonna only see a widening wealth gap in continued generational poverty and dispossession. And so redistributing the stolen resources is necessary work of our time.
Until the government catches up and passes HR 40, which would create a commission to study a comprehensive reparations plan, we and others are doing people-to-people reparations, and being able to work in a solidarity model in order to start redistributing what has been unjustly amassed in some hands and taken from others. And so we’re part of a regional coalition called the Northeast Farmers of Color Network. And we started a reparations map where Black, Indigenous and other people of color land projects can get on the map, share what their resource needs are, whether that be land or tractor or capital to grow their farms.
And folks who have inherited stolen wealth or stolen land have the opportunity to make a donation, make a gift and be part of that redistribution work. And we’ve already had dozens and dozens of successful matches that have really made a difference for supporting BIPOC land stewards in having what they need for their projects to thrive.
There’s also a national effort for reparations that’s being coordinated by the National Black Food and Justice Alliance that I would encourage folks to check out. And it’s really personally inspiring to me to see ways that, you know, until we figure it out on a systems, national level, that we’re organizing within our communities and people are waking up and saying, “Oh yeah, this, you know, this inheritance that I’m bound to get when I turn 25 actually, you know, doesn’t rightfully belong to me, and how can I, with the agency that I have, support in redirecting that to make a difference in my community?”
Ami McReynolds: Wow. I’m just, I’m thinking back to sovereignty, right? This idea of creating the change and what you both have just talked about is such important work. What are some of the things that give you hope for the future?
Cheryl Whilby: For me, one thing that comes to mind that I’m really excited to share with you today is a recent partnership that Soul Fire became a part of. As Naima mentioned earlier, we are a part of a network and ecosystem of other BIPOC-led organizations. And through those partnerships, we have opportunities to help with distributing land, wealth and resources to our aspiring Black, Indigenous, POC farmers. And one of those opportunities looks like the food and land justice fund where we are in partnership with the Jubilee Justice and New Communities to redistribute $1 million to Black, Indigenous and POC color-led efforts really specifically focused on food and land justice and sovereignty in the United States.
So as a part of this partnership, we’ll be serving on the advisory council for the fund. So there is of course gonna be an application process. And the intention here of this grant is to really give funds to BIPOC coalitions and organizations working in the field of food or agriculture with a focus on BIPOC community, food access, advocacy, supporting BIPOC farmers, among other things. But really just trying to focus on organizations who are working towards creating systemic change to build Black Indigenous, POC, political, social and economic power and sovereignty as well.
Ami McReynolds: Thank you, Cheryl. Thank you. That definitely is a bright light. Thank you for sharing that. Naima, what about you? What are some of the things that you’re seeing that give you hope for the future?
Naima Penniman: I brim over with hope when I experience the power of our Black, Indigenous, people of color farming immersions, where we’re together for a week on the land and really learning from each other, both the hard skills of how to grow our own food and medicine, from seed to harvest, to preservation, and also working to heal our relationship to land, lifting up our songs and our culture and our spiritual practices and imagining bolder futures than when we first came together. And I’m just lifted every time we’re together in these groups of 25 on the land for a week, it feels like a month, you know. So rich, our time together, and then people who’ve gone through these programs have continued to carry the seed, the flame into their communities in ways that gives me so much hope. We have, at this point, thousands of alumni, and they have gone on to seed an array of beauty and power.
I’ll shout out Green Acre Community Garden. That’s transformed an underutilized lot into a flourishing farming green space in urban New Jersey and Catatumbo Cooperative Farm, that’s a worker-owned farm, that’s raising vegetables in South Chicago. Some of our alumni found Love Fed, which is a group of Black and brown neighbors growing their own food and supplying gardens to folks who need it in New Haven, Connecticut. Shout out to Percussion Farms. That’s working with folks who are leaving the prison system and growing healthy food in Seattle. Seeds of Osun that centers Afro-Indigenous folk medicine and root work to heal generational trauma. And I could go on and on and on. There’s so many examples and that makes me think, oh, it’s not just Soul Fire alone in isolation. We are part of this vast network that continues to grow and multiply.
I’m also so excited that this past year in 2021, we were able to launch the Braiding Seeds fellowship in order to provide funding and land and mentorship to BIPOC farmers and, you know, through some wealth redistribution we’ve been able to, you know, support an inaugural cohort where every fellow receives a $50,000 stipend, thanks to this reparations funding that has come through, in addition to professional development opportunities, workshops, business plan support cohort gatherings, promotional services, and more. And it’s really, really inspiring to see what this first cohort is doing.
And this is a project we’ve been able to develop in partnership with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an amazing legacy Black organization in the South to really carry on the legacy of, and we call it, I’ll mention briefly the Braiding Seeds fellowship, because we’re really inspired by our ancestors who had the foresight in the face of the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade to gather up the seeds they had been saving in their communities for generations and to braid those seeds into their hair before boarding those ships, you know, as social security for this uncertain future, believing that their descendants, believing that we would exist to inherit and pass on that seed.
And that’s the image that I have as I see our ecosystem grow, is all these seeds multiplying the generations and spreading wider and farther, and also on healthier and stronger soil. So my hope is how we continue to steward and water and cherish and pass on those seeds.
Ami McReynolds: Yes. Both so inspirational. And I can see why both the fund and the fellowship evoke hope and excitement and inspiration for you in many ways.
You also talk about uplifting radical community care as one of your key goals. So I was really drawn to this because a lot of people are talking about wellness and community care, but “radical.” So what does “radical” mean in this work for you and, and how have you seen the importance of bringing the community together in supporting this work? And then also, what does it mean for you to support one another in this work?
Naima Penniman: So radical to me means at the root, like we all get into the root of the issue and tending to the roots. We need strong, healthy roots for the plant to survive. And when we think about not just addressing the symptom, but really getting at systems change is so important. And so our program areas that we’re working on through Soul Fire, I feel like address a number of different places inside of the food system. Like through our Solidarity Share program, the way we’re working for radical community care is to deliver food at no cost to those who are surviving food apartheid in our region. Last year, we were able to get a thousand boxes of food for free delivered to the doorsteps of those who needed it most. And including heritage crops like amaranth and kusa squash and other crops that our community that includes a lot of refugees and new Americans are asking us to grow.
And then it’s not only the giving of the food. It’s also teaching, how do we grow our food? So we have the Soul Fire in the City program that Cheryl mentioned that supports our neighbors in establishing their own home gardens. Last year, we established 40 vegetable gardens and offered, you know, the seedlings, the soil, the labor, the materials and ongoing guidance to support people who are impacted by COVID and mass incarceration and unemployment or chronic illness to be able to grow their own. And in addition, we see radical community care as how we resource our movement, you know, really thinking of ourselves as part of something so much bigger.
So it’s been really important for us to be generous with our curriculum and our resources on how we grow food. We’ve been referencing the programs we have where people come to the land to learn with us, but we also do virtual programming and make how-to videos that really uplift the brilliance in our Black and brown communities and share that at no cost to tens of thousands of people every year who get to benefit from the educational resources.
Because again, if we’re talking about root work, it’s really about being able to empower us with the knowledge so that we can create more sovereignty in our communities. As well as the resources of relationship and of funding, you know, we’re directly moving tens of thousands of dollars of funding to BIPOC farming and food justice organizers and advising donors to move money to Black farming organizations in the South, supporting rematriation work and collaboration with the Mohican Nation who are the original stewards of the land that we’re on.
So those are some of the ways that are coming to mind, but really seeing, you know, seeing ourselves as part of something so much bigger, knowing that we’re in this together. The only way that we’re gonna be able to transform the food system is when we all play a part. And, and so we really try to make those avenues accessible in all the ways that we can with the resources that we have and to help to spread them around.
Ami McReynolds: Yes, yes. And Cheryl, what does radical community care mean for the folks at Soul Fire? How you take care of one another?
Cheryl Whilby: Yes. So the Soul Fire team is also a community in itself. And we need care as well. And for us that looked like last year, really just taking a step back and reflecting on how we show up in this work, in this movement, and reevaluating the spaces and responsibilities that we’re currently holding in this work that maybe we don’t necessarily need to hold anymore, right? We talked about all of these other BIPOC-led organizations within our network, our ecosystem, who are also doing important work. So taking the time to think about that and thinking, maybe another organization might be better for holding certain aspects of this work instead of us trying to hold everything. So that’s one part of our radical self-care, thinking about where we can leave space open for other organizations who are doing this important work.
And that also looks like thinking about the platform that we have to share the message of food sovereignty and educating folks on injustices experienced by Black, Indigenous, POC farmers in the food system. We have plenty of opportunities to, you know, talk to media and also do public speaking engagements around the country. But we’ve been taking some time to redistribute that stage, that platform, because again, there are other folks in our networks who can also talk about this work. They are also brilliant experts and we want to leave space for them as well.
I will also say that on a more internal-facing note, recently over the past couple of months, we’ve been making a lot of internal HR policy changes. We brought on a managing director who’s really been able to provide that one-on-one support for individual team members to make sure that everyone feels supported and held in this work.
We also more than doubled paid time off and increased our salary step by a third for all team members. But also working to maintain our equitable wage commitment that no employee earns more than two and a half times that of another staff member. Another thing I would share is that folks on our team generally seem to be happy about these changes. In an annual staff survey that we had this past year, 2021, around 80 to 90% of employees said that they felt like they had a living wage and adequate days off. But we still also increased folks’ paid time off as well, because there of course were people who didn’t necessarily feel that way and we wanted to make sure their needs were also met.
So also just thinking about building out redundancy in our work has been another focus point for Soul Fire over the past couple of months. We are obviously a pretty small team holding a lot of things and we are trying to work towards making sure that everyone feels supported in the responsibilities that they’re holding.
And that looks like maybe the program team feels like they need more support with handling the administrative side of scheduling programming, the logistics. All right. That means we’re gonna bring on someone to support with that, an administrative program manager to make sure that those pieces are being held and distributed equally and folks feel supported.
So that’s a bit of what radical self-care looks like for our team. And it’s just been really amazing to see how leadership of the team in particular has really taken the feedback from all team members as to what would make them feel supported in this work and work to implement it over these past couple of months.
Ami McReynolds: There’s so much you all are doing, right. Soul Fire Farm is doing amazing work. So how can our listeners, what can we do to take action to join with you and support your mission?
Naima Penniman: Hmm, thanks so much for asking. We take this question seriously and we have actually compiled a list of over a hundred action steps to uproot racism in the food system and to seed sovereignty. And folks can find that at SoulFireFarm.Org/Take-Action. And I can highlight some examples just to get your juices flowing.
We already spoke a bit about reparations and I wanna add rematriation to the conversation as well, which is really about giving land back to native communities. It’s really a femme- and trans-centered way of thinking about land back for Indigenous people, that questions the patriarchal way of enclosing land in the first place. And it’s about turning over the control of the deed, the title on the terms of the original peoples, transferring that to tribal governments or native land trusts. And I’ll shout out the Eastern Woodlands Rematriation Collective in our region who are Nipmuc, Wampanoag and Wabanaki nations that are working towards this land back.
The Nipmuc only hold onto less than three acres of their entire ancestral land for their entire nation. And so this is really important as we’re thinking about how we redistribute land to be, to be thinking about the Indigenous people who are still in existence despite so much that has happened to create a sense of erasure and invisibility. And we have a lot of responsibility there to make things right.
I also wanna lift up that we’re living in a really alive time, and showing up for frontline organizations like the Black Farmer Actions and farm workers and the Movement for Black Lives, whether it be a rally or a protest, campaigns, initiatives—we don’t have to be in charge. We can be one in a number signing a petition, endorsing a policy platform on the terms of communities who are most impacted.
I think how we invest our money is another important action. You know, a lot of us have bank accounts. Some of us even have stocks and bonds and mutual funds, or the organizations that we work for have some type of investments. And we can challenge ourselves to think about putting money into community development loan funds, into Black-owned banks or Indigenous-owned credit unions, investment funds like the Black Farmer Fund that really recycles our hard-earned money back into the community, as opposed to lining the pockets of those who already have resources or who are investing in the further degradation of our planet and her people.
We can work to source from BIPOC producers, buy Black, buy brown, support the businesses of impacted communities—from where you get your eggs to who you hire for public speaking. And those of us who have capacity to become employers, really thinking about creating good jobs and hiring equitably. Having fair and open hiring processes is really important. Particularly as we’re thinking about the labor that grows most of our food is over 80% Latinx guest workers who have little pathways to management and leadership and a lot of wage theft.
There’s a lot of work to do in the realm of labor and there’s more insights in the food sovereignty action steps that I mentioned, including a lot of policies. Policies and laws get things done, you know. Migrant Justice, Immokalee Workers, Black Farmer Fund all have policy platforms. And the 2020 Justice for Black Farmers Act is an amazing example of a recent policy that’s shifting a lot in the field. And so, you know, we have the opportunity to really put our voice behind the policies that will make a difference to change some of the structural inequities and racism that exist in the law. The whole guide we’ve created, which is a result of hundreds of conversations from folks on the frontline. And again, it’s SoulFireFarm.org/Take-Action. I believe it’s take, dash like a minus sign, take dash action.
Ami McReynolds: We will include it in the notes for this track so we get it right. Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that. I mean, so many ways that as an individual, I can step into this work more deeply as organizations step into this work more deeply.
You know, I’m curious, you all are sowing many seeds here, so close your eyes and dream big, right? What do you hope to see happening as a result of the work that you’re engaged in at Soul Fire Farm, as a result of the work that this ecosystem that you are a part of is engaged in. I’d love to hear, what does it look like 10 years from now for you? What do you dream?
Cheryl Whilby: Yeah, for me, it looks like us really thinking about how we really heal and repair the food system, which is going to take more than just the effort of a single organization, right? We’re coming back to that ecosystem, our network, again, all of us collaborating together to work towards our collective goal of food sovereignty.
And coming back to what Naima was talking about in terms of our immersion, our farmer training program, we at Soul Fire, we’re working to scale out our programming, not up, meaning we wanna see our programming replicated by our alumni all over the country, because that means that there are other outlets for folks to learn how to grow and provide for themselves and for their communities. So when I’m looking 10 years from now, I wanna see hundreds of other emergent programs around the country and us working to see more Black and brown folks on land.
Ami McReynolds: Naima, what about you? What do you dream big about 10 years from now?
Naima Penniman: I just wanna say asè to that vision, Cheryl. I’m with you and so grateful. Yes. So we have a North Star goal, which we call our kind of long distance, big picture goal that we write in numbers. Just like the strategic goals we map out for every year. And I’ll just share that with y’all so you can help amplify that this is gonna come true. That by 2050, U.S. Black farmers will regeneratively steward 100,000 farms on 10 million acres of rural and urban land and 400,000 BIPOC farmers on 200 million acres, providing food, habitat, medicine, ecosystem services, and healing to our communities. And we’re experiencing agency and societal support for our honorable work. Asè.
Oftentimes I find my voice expressed most through poetry. And so I would love to answer this question by sharing a poem that I conjured on the land at Soul Fire Farm, if that’s okay.
Ami McReynolds: Absolutely. And more than okay, I welcome it. Thank you. Thank you for sharing your gift.
Naima Penniman: Oh, my honor, thank you for receiving, okay.
Every patch of earth, unencumbered by concrete, where soil and atmosphere meet, is a portal to presence, a terrain, a remembrance, a vote for survival in an unpromised future.
These gardens are blueprints of interdependent destiny, intergenerational memory, saving seeds for food as remedy, reclaiming our great, great, great grandmother’s recipes. Our ancestral technologies, Afro-Indigenous agro-ecology, dirt under fingernails, no shame or apology.
See, my people know what it’s like to eat and still be starving. So we’re turning hardship into harvest, lawns and schoolyards into gardens, homegrown bounty in our palms.
We come from soil and stardust. And so we conjure to feed the soil as we feed ourselves and bow down to the microbes and mycelium, universal network of net worth rebirth brought forth from decomposition.
We pause to listen, trust transformation through transmissions we’ve been given, then give props to the magicians who grow provisions for our kitchens.
We smuggle spinach into prisons, transform the places that we live in. Trade what broke us for symbiosis and stay focused. We sprout sunflowers that tower on neighborhood blocks, harvest raindrops on rooftops to water our crops, propagate plant medicine for the metropolis, guarding our plots, ’cause our gardens are not for profit or loss.
Cross-pollinate the promise, fam, we got this. Take a deep breath, restore calmness.
With lemon balm bounty in our palms, hot peppers in our pockets, black-eyed peas spiraling up Lenape blue corn stalks with buttercup squash carpets, three sisters symbiotic. Talking stories of solidarity on native territory, migratory monarchs transcend borders, morning glories ascend fences.
Pay attention to the lessons Mother Nature keeps expressing: how to multiply our blessings for justice and sustenance amid glaring disparity.
Every seed saved will set us free. In a time of opulence and scarcity, every seed saved will set us free. In a time of intensifying violence and climate calamity, every seed saved will set us free. Hold on tight to the source. We have all that we need.
Ami McReynolds: Wow. Snapping—I had went on mute so that people could hear you, so that people could hear your voice, Naima. Thank you feels so inadequate to say, but thank you.
Naima Penniman: Thank you, Ami.
Ami McReynolds: Naima and Cheryl, I am so grateful for you all spending time with me today, talking about the work of Soul Fire Farm, talking about the work of creating and dreaming a new possible future for BIPOC people and communities all across this globe, all across this country. Thank you so much for joining us here on Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger today.
Naima Penniman: What an honor to share this time together. Thanks to everyone who’s listening for carrying the seeds forward.
Cheryl Whilby: Thank you so much for having us, Ami. It was truly an honor.
Ami McReynolds: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. Join Soul Fire Farm’s movement for food sovereignty at SoulFireFarm.org. To learn about the work that Feeding America is doing to address equity and food insecurity, visit FeedingAmerica.org/Act. Thank you to our podcast producer, Rivet 360.
And don’t forget to share this show with others. Be sure to subscribe so that you can get new episodes as soon as they’re available. I’m Ami McReynolds, and I look forward to continuing our journey together in the next episode.