You Belong to the Land: A Conversation with Karen Washington and Leah Penniman

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When the Center for Humans and Nature set out to shape a question on farming for its Questions for a Resilient Future, we asked grower-teachers Karen Washington and Leah Penniman if they would be willing to have a conversation about their work. In the midst of their full days of growing food and community and traveling to teach and share their experiences, we gathered on the phone for a conversation. Sharing is a core part of both Karen and Leah’s philosophies around farming.

When we spoke, they were just back from the Black Urban Growers (BUGS) conference, an organization that Karen helped to found focused on strengthening the network of Black farmers and food justice advocates. They shared open-heartedly about their journeys back to the land, the lessons they have learned from the land, and their visions for farming and our food system. Karen and Leah affectionately refer to each other as “mama” and “daughter.” Bound by the land and their work of reconnection, they are part of a chosen lineage.

Soul Fire Farm, by Neshima Vitale-Penniman courtesy of Leah Penniman

Kate Cummings (KC): I want to begin by asking about this question of what it means to be a farmer in the twenty-first century: What do you think about it? What does it mean to you?

Leah Penniman (LP): Elders first.

Karen Washington (KW): Okay, thank you. Well, first of all, as a Black woman, I feel, in the twenty-first century, the fact that Black and brown people are starting to realize their connection to their past and the importance of land. However, in this century, the struggle continues. I mean, there continues to be racism; it’s difficult for farmers to get land. It’s still difficult to make a living. Most farmers still must have a second job, and there are still many obstacles based not only on race but based on gender and ethnicity.

LP: I’ll say everything Mama Karen said. Mama Karen is a mentor and dear friend of mine. I would not be a farmer if it was not for her because when I was a young woman—I was a teenager just getting into farming—I had a lot of doubts about whether I belonged in that movement as a Black woman, looking around and seeing a lot of white faces at the sustainable farming conferences and in the rural landscape. I had no idea that Black folks had any relationship to land that was not circumscribed by the oppression of enslavement and sharecropping.

So it was Mama Karen bringing us all together as the returning generation of rural and urban Black farmers that really made me realize that, as farmers, not only do we have a noble legacy thousands of years old going back to the continent, but we are the stewards of the future. We are the ones calling the life back into the soil and sequestering the carbon from the atmosphere and providing food to those who would never otherwise have access, those who are living under food apartheid, which is also a concept Mama Karen taught me.

And so I really feel like farming is one of the most important things that we can be doing. And it is one of the great tragedies of the twenty-first century that we have so undervalued farmers that well over 80 percent of the people who are actually doing the farm labor are folks who are here on a guest worker visa and who are treated with horrendous working conditions and unequal pay, wage theft, and abuse. And so we really need to rethink how we are conceptualizing farmers and treating farmers in this century.

KC: You both talk about food apartheid. How do you see the role of the farmer in changing that kind of systemic violence? I guess more specifically I could ask: What are you each doing on your farms and in your work, both as farmers and as leaders, to shift some of these historic injustices?

KW: Well, I can say I still live in the Bronx, even though I also farm upstate. The fact that you look at the food system in my neighborhood. It’s modern day slavery, and I say that in terms of what the food system looked like back during the enslavement of Black people, in some instances we were given the leftovers that nobody wanted. If you look at my food system in my neighborhood, we have the leftovers that nobody wants. We have the processed food. We have the junk food. We have the food that nobody else wants, and so for me when I look at the food system, to me it’s like, “Wait a second. What’s happening here?” It’s like a genocide of people that is happening all over again. So when we talk about food apartheid, the reason why we bring it up is because food desert doesn’t cut it. Food desert doesn’t open up the conversation that we need to have when it comes to race, when it comes to income inequality, when it comes to so much.

And so the food system, when people say that it’s broken: No, it’s not broken. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, really, in terms of the caste system, keeping people down, keeping people sick. As a matter of fact, last night one of my students was talking about the food system in jails. The food system within the jail system is another form of oppression that needs to be dealt with. We need to have a conversation around our food system because at the end of the day, it’s the food system that is killing us. And for me, and I’m going to shout it out: It’s modern-day genocide and modern-day slavery.

LP: Mama Karen pretty much laid it out. To answer the second part of your question about what are we trying to do about it, there’s a Jewish teaching from Pirkei Avot that says, “You are not obligated to complete the path, but neither are you free to desist from it,” which is something we talk a lot about at Soul Fire because it can feel like we’re just up against empire, you know—the beast—because we are, and what can we do as one farm or even upholding a natural network of Black farmers? But it is imperative that we do whatever small part we can.

What that looks like at Soul Fire—which is a small, community-run, people-of-color-run farm in upstate New York—is we have an ujamaa farm share. Ujamaa means cooperative economics in Swahili, and we box up all the produce and the chicken meat and the eggs and herbs and fruits from our farm every Wednesday and we deliver it to zip codes that are labeled by the USDA as food deserts, which should be termed “food apartheid.” But people can pay whatever they can afford for those boxes, and many neighbors pitch in for the cost of the shares, especially refugees, immigrants, new Americans, and folks impacted by mass incarceration.

So in that way, fresh food is getting to the communities right around us—Albany, Troy, and Schenectady—where there are not grocery stores, there are not farmers’ markets, there are not acceptable community garden plots, and so on. While we reach a few hundred families with this program, it’s certainly a drop in the bucket. We did take some time this past year and wrote out a step-by-step manual of how we do this program, what types of funding are out there, what are some other models. And we’ve been training farmers in our area and encouraging farmers like, “You don’t have to go broke to help your community. There are strategies and ways that you can take a portion of your harvest and share it with those who need it the most.” That’s important to us. We have a couple farms who are on board, setting aside some solidarity shares or some donated shares to make sure that we’re not treating food as a privilege but really what it should be, which is a fundamental human right.

Soul Fire Farm, courtesy of Leah Penniman

KC: That’s really beautiful, and that’s something about your approaches that I really admire. A lot of people are working at various levels of the system, but you both went to the land and to—literally—the root to shape change. Why did each of you take up the work of farming? What was your avenue into it?

KW: So for me growing up, the message for farming was always in terms of slavery. It was something that people frowned upon, people ridiculed, they laughed about it. And so, growing up, no one spoke about farming because farming was like “you’re working for the man, you’re picking cotton.” And so, again, there are these stories that have been put in my mind and so many other people’s minds, in terms of really getting us away from the land. It wasn’t until I guess I was in my mid-thirties and moving to the Bronx, where I had a backyard, that I decided to grow food. Once I tasted the food that I was growing, right then and there I knew something was up in terms of the food that I was getting from a grocery store. My relationship to food prior to that was from a grocery store. I never questioned where my food came from, never questioned the fact of who was growing it. Was it sprayed with pesticide or insecticide? How long was it stored?

The real reckoning came for me, I would say, a couple of years ago while standing in the midst of the land and looking at the color of my skin. I realized that the color of my skin is the color of soil, and so putting my hands in that soil and finding that connection, right then and there I knew I belonged. And so what I try to speak to young kids out there [is]: look at the hue, look at the skin color; that should let you know that you have a belonging to the land.

So what I’m starting to see is that the connection of young people understanding, and Leah can speak to this as well—the energy—the young people are starting to understand the connection to land, the value of their power, the value of history, of storytelling, which is now moving, I mean, fast speed within the Black and brown community.

LP: That’s really beautiful. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, for me, it’s sort of a trauma-rooted connection to land in some ways just because I grew up rural in a really white, very conservative, poor New England town. It was a hostile place to be a brown child and to be a poor brown child, and so my siblings and I, nobody would play with us. People beat us up. It was a hard time socially in the schools, and we didn’t understand why. We thought something was wrong with us. It was not until later that I developed a race analysis to understand what all those names meant that kids were calling us. So we just spent all our time in the woods. We played in the forest; we played with each other. We thought we invented Irreechaa religion, African traditional religion, because we would pray to Mother Earth and stuff, and we didn’t learn until later that we were just channeling our ancestral ways of knowing the divine.

Because of my passion for the Earth, I started being an environmental activist at age six, picking up trash and going up to loggers in the forest and telling them that they needed to not cut down the trees or not hunt animals just for sport. My sister and I were very bold, trying to interrupt what we saw as the exploitation of our dearest friend. So when it came time to get a paid job, I was looking for something connected to the Earth, and The Food Project had a job. My mom lived in and around Boston, in different projects and temporary living situations, so I would spend the summer with her when she was able, and so that’s why I was looking for a job in that area. The Food Project hired me. I got my hands in the soil for the first time as a farmer, harvesting cilantro and hoeing rows of peppers and bringing that food to pantries and soup kitchens where we were feeding people who needed it. And I just felt in alignment. I was like, “I am outside. I’m using my body. I’m getting to take care of the Earth. I’m getting to take care of my community. This is the thing!” And I just kept farming after that.

I went on to work at The Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts. Many Hands Organic Farm co-founded an urban youth program called Youth Grow in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then I moved out here and started Soul Fire. It definitely was not an easy road, choosing that path in the rural northeast, but it’s always felt for me like the Earth and the ancestors are not giving me an option. I have a requirement to do this work and to also be part of the homecoming of our people to a dignified and autonomous relationship on the land, so you will see me here on this land for as long as my body is doing me right.

KW: I love you.

by Capers Rumph courtesy of Leah Penniman

Soul Fire Farm, courtesy of Leah Penniman

KC: Not just in the United States but around the world, people are moving into more built spaces. What are your dreams for how people return to the land? How do you see this kind of healing and this movement going forward in an urbanizing world?

KW: So—and I guess I get this from Leah—it’s basically that a lot of white people got to give up their land. I mean, basically. There’s a lot of land, and there’s a lot of stolen land, and so let’s not talk about pushing people away from the land in urban areas. Let’s talk about: How do we bring people in urban areas back to the land, especially land that was stolen?

And so, we’re starting to have that conversation of reparations. I’m still waiting for my forty acres and a mule. I think my ancestors deserve that, and I think that the conversation needs to be less about what’s going to happen as more people come into urban areas. It’s about how are people in urban areas going to have their land restored, and that’s a conversation that we continue to have and are beginning to have amongst people who have land, lots of land, and most of it is stolen. How do they now return that land?

Because I tell people—this is my sort of mantra that I tell people when it comes to power—either you’re going to share it, give it up, or I’m going to take it. In essence, this is what we’re starting to feel as Black and brown people. Our land has been stolen, so you got three things: Either you’re going to share it, you’re going to give it up, or eventually we’re going to take it. So that’s the conversation that we’re having within our communities, in urban communities, is going back to the land, not about trying to continue to find places in cities as more people come in. It’s like, “You know what? We got land. Where is our land? There’s stolen land.” So how do we have that conversation of returning back to the land instead of thinking about trying to build and find more land here in urban cities.

LP: Yeah, Mama Karen pretty much said it all. Nature exists under and between the concrete, so I also don’t want to say that just because you live in a city, you can’t have that connection. Another one of my mentors, in blessed memory, Brother Yusef Burgess, he actually grew up in the Prospect Park area of Brooklyn, and he found his whole world of nature in the acorns that he collected from that park. After a lot of traumatic experiences in his life, he went back to nature as a way to attain healing and ended up coordinating a whole statewide—through the Department of Environmental Conservation—urban youth program that took young people out to the wilderness. So you would see Brother Yusef always with a kayak and a bunch of children in tow taking the kids to the Adirondacks or the Catskills or out to Soul Fire Farm, and he was committed.

So there is something about that dandelion in the cracks, the bird that comes to the feeder in the window outside of your elementary school building. It’s not that you have to be in a completely wild space to be able to access the wisdom of nature. It doesn’t mean then that that absolves white folks from giving up their land, so I’m not saying it contradicts Mama Karen, but it’s just not like all hope is lost just because you don’t have your forty acres yet.

KW: I’m still waiting for it.

Soul Fire Farm, courtesy of Leah Penniman

KC: I know a lot of people are looking to both of you right now. Your leadership, the clarity, the love, the strength with which both of you speak and live is really inspiring. I’m wondering, what are your sources of inspiration, and where do you look in this work that you’re doing?

KW: Oh, definitely towards the youth. I had an emotional—like, I don’t know—feeling of awe when last year I was on a panel and I was leaving, and this woman and her five-year-old Black child comes running. “Ms. Washington! Ms. Washington, I know you’re busy. Can we take a picture with you?” And I said, “Sure, you can take a picture.” And then she turns and says, “You know what my daughter said at five years old? She says, ‘Mommy, when I grow up, I want to be a farmer.’” The tears just came. I mean, five years old saying that she wanted to be a farmer. That is what I live for. Whenever young people come up to me and tell me that, “It’s because of you,” or, “I want to be like you,” that’s where I get my inspiration and my strength. When the Creator says, “You know, Karen, it’s time to go,” I can say, “You know what? I think I’ve done good. I think I’ve done good because I never never kept my knowledge, my resources, to myself.”

I said, “You know, I feel that I’m blessed to be on this Earth, but I have to be intentional in owning the fact that whatever wealth that I have, whatever knowledge that I have, that the Creator gave it to me to share. Not to keep it, not to own it, because I can’t own anything. The only thing I can own is myself.” And so for me the biggest thing, my inspiration, is the youth, the youth of today. That’s where I get my encouragement. That’s where I get my strength. That’s where I see the possibility of changing the food system in such a way that when it talks about sustainability, when it talks about equity, it shows the faces and diversity of people.

LP: What you’re saying, Mama Karen, it reminds of this really beautiful moment at the Farmers’ Conference we were just at this past weekend. When I ask at the beginning of my talk, I ask for everyone who’s Black and loves the Earth to stand up, and I later heard from a parent that their five-year-old child stood up on the chair with two hands in the air. I was like, “Yes.”

KW: You go.

LP: You get it, babies! And so, yeah, definitely the next generation—and it’s also the ancestors that came before us, Fannie Lou Hamer, Booker T. Whatley, Ralph Paige, in blessed memory. So all these folks, George Washington Carver, all these folks who really were visionaries way ahead of their time in terms of thinking, “We need to diversify our agriculture and conserve the soil and rotate our crops and have cooperatives.” All these things now that people are thinking are new and hip, these folks have been doing this for a long time.

Sometimes when I get discouraged, I think about that and what they were up against, the kind of ridicule they faced, and how they persisted, and so I just say, “Well, if they didn’t give up on me, I’m certainly not giving up on that five-year-old child who was standing on the chair going, ‘I’m Black and I love the Earth.’”

KC: That’s so beautiful. Thank you both, so much, for sharing all of this.

Image credits

Photo 1 by Neshima Vitale-Penniman courtesy of Leah Penniman 

Photo 2 courtesy of Leah Penniman

Photo 3 by Capers Rumph courtesy of Leah Penniman 

Photo 4 courtesy of Leah Penniman

Photo 5 courtesy of Leah Penniman

  • Katherine Kassouf Cummings

    Katherine Kassouf Cummings is an editor and writer. She serves as Managing Editor at Humans & Nature Press Digital, where she leads the Questions for a Resilient Future series and the Editorial Fellows program. She coedited the book What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be?
  • Karen Washington

    Karen Washington is a farmer and activist. She is Co-Owner/Farmer at Rise & Root Farm in Chester New York. As an activist and food advocate, in 2010, she co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS) an organization supporting growers in both urban and rural settings. In 2012 Ebony magazine voted her one of their 100 most influential African Americans in the country and in 2014 she was the recipient of the James Beard Leadership Award. Karen serves on the boards of the New York Botanical Gardens, Why Hunger, Just Food, and Farm School NYC.

  • Leah Penniman

    Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol educator, farmer, author, and food justice activist who has been tending the soil for twenty years and organizing for an anti-racist food system for fifteen years. She currently serves as founding co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color led project that works to dismantle racism in the food system.

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