At the intersection of sustainable food production and racial justice work is Leah Penniman. Penniman, a farmer, educator and and co-owner of Soul Fire Farm, will visit Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) for a public talk on “Undoing Racism in the Food System: The Work of Soul Fire Farm.” The lecture is Monday, March 20, at 7 p.m. in Lehman Auditorium. She’ll also host several talks with students throughout her two-day visit.
Soul Fire Farm, located near Albany, New York, is a sustainably managed family farm which employs and empowers people of color, including teenagers in the county’s restorative justice program. Other Soul Fire strategies for food sovereignty include black, Latino, and indigenous farmer trainings; land-based oppression healing; community education; and a community-supported agriculture program for families without other access to fresh, naturally grown food.
Jonathan McRay, sustainability curriculum coordinator, and Deirdre Smeltzer, undergraduate dean, organized the event.
“Leah and Soul Fire challenge insidious assumptions often held within sustainability and local food efforts – that these efforts are automatically just, that only white folks start and lead them – by honoring black agrarianism, revealing the intersection of food justice and Black Lives Matter, and emphasizing land and food as tools to end mass incarceration,” McRay says. “I think EMU can learn that growing good food and tending the land are inseparable from resisting and healing from spirals of oppression.”
Penniman encourages anyone interested in remedying racial oppression to attend, whether or not they are interested in farming.“The same forces that cause injustice in the food system are those that cause injustice in education and housing and government, in terms of environmental protection.”
A member of the clergy and daughter of two clergy, she identifies as a “spiritual activist,” and says she is excited to visit EMU to be among like-minded people.
Penniman was first inspired to farm after working for The Food Project in eastern Massachusetts, which brings teenagers and volunteers together to farm and build leadership skills.
She explains, “At The Food Project, it was shown to me how through stewarding the earth and producing food for the community, I could also be in service to my people, to the African American urban community in terms of providing fresh, healthy food, and also access to the outdoors and to the land.” Afterwards, she worked for a variety of organic farms and community gardens.
She and her husband Jonah eventually found themselves in the south end of Albany with a toddler and a one-year old – and no access to fresh food. They decided to build their own farm, and in 2006, bought the land that would become Soul Fire.
“We started the farm with the motivation to get food to communities that need it most, and to have that food come from someone from the community who looks like the people in the community, and not some sort of external savior that’s going to perpetuate a harmful power dynamic,” says Penniman.
After five years of house- and infrastructure-building, Soul Fire Farm had 25 families in their “ujaama farm share” program in their first commercial year. “Ujaama,” which means “familyhood” in Swahili, is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, in which the word translates to “cooperative economics.” Soul Fire offered almost 100 shares for the 2017 growing season.