I want this piece to show how and why local food activism represents a richly compatible and exciting partner field for public history in a time of shrinking funding and heightened concern about the kinds of social and environmental questions that have long motivated new and experienced public historians. All good so far, but the hole I just fell into was this: I realized that the local food movement, at least in its most high-profile dimensions, too often reproduces almost exactly the same demographics and dynamics that characterize public history itself--it's the same white, liberal, professional world all over again, with people of color and/or working class people tending to appear as interesting but usually marginal Others with experiences and practices that public historians love to collect and represent but generally do not share. So while I do genuinely believe that allying public history with local food efforts is an exciting opportunity to make our work more useable within a set of urgent questions, I also have to wonder what would keep the same old demographics (which have bedeviled liberal social movements from settlement houses to feminism to Occupy Wall Street) from reproducing themselves yet again.
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which runs the D-Town Farm and focuses on issues of food security (sociologist Monica White has written about them). Earthworks Urban Farm, another Detroit project, connects the dots between racism and multiple forms of injustice and insecurity; see their page on Food Justice issues for a good articulation of these connections. Growing Food and Justice for All also has a good page on Race and the Food System. New-York-based BUGS (Black Urban Gardeners) has convened a wide-ranging annual conference in the past couple of years that centers around issues of race and equity (here's the 2011 schedule); this group particularly caught my eye because it's supported in part by the Open Space Institute, which has been instrumental in preserving the farmland around Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, which I've been studying recently. Another New-York-area work in progress is the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, which preserves and interprets a mid-19th century African American neighborhood and incorporates a farmer's market and farming/gardening activities into its programming.
So there's lots of great stuff going on. And there's much here for public historians to contribute to in terms of tracing the histories of migration and labor (as the exemplary Bracero Archive project does), the politics of land tenure, changing urban and rural demographies, and so on. Still, the stubborn reproduction of whiteness and middle class tastes and values in so many areas of cultural and knowledge production does give me pause (or maybe the pause is just from avoiding getting back to work on my article!).
|La Finca/Land of Providence farmland in Holyoke, Mass.|
The relationship is a recent one and I'm assuming there may be more going on socially than is turning up on these two web pages. But at a glance, my sense is that the focus on the politics of food and migration isn't yet being integrated with the production of knowledge about the various histories connected with this site and the people associated with it over time. That's where there's work for public historians to do--and I hope we find ways to do it that don't just put these cultural and occupational "Others" on display, but create working partnerships around the production of both food and knowledge. Given that people on both sides of the equation are usually strapped for time and money, how can we foster this additional layer of engagement and push beyond our existing networks of social service and farming, on the one hand, and preservation and research, on the other?
This isn't the only quandary I'm in at the moment--stay tuned for more of the tough questions in the next couple of posts. In the meantime, if you want to look more deeply into issues of race and food justice, geographer Rachel Slocum has written well on the topic, and here's another good roundup of posts, ideas, and articles relating to white privilege and the local food movement.