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    young man helping a boy choose plants for their garden in a greenhouse

    Growing Places

    Beyond “Conversations” about Racism

    By Ben Kercheval

    August 25, 2021
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    • David Such

      Nice essay. Getting back to the basics is often a good place to start.

    One summer during my high school years, I volunteered at a Twin Cities nonprofit called Youth Farm, which aimed to use urban agriculture to develop the character and capacities of young people. Youth Farm did this by teaching kids how to grow vegetables and distribute them, by bicycle, to nearby families. Since I was new to growing food, I think I learned as much about sowing lettuce and harvesting cherry tomatoes that summer as the kids I was assisting.

    My time there has stayed in my memory. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the kids attending the program actually seemed to enjoy being there: their sense of interest in their daily tasks was palpable. Further, while the organization could accurately have been described as being committed to advancing social justice, this end was not imposed from above. Rather, it seemed to flow naturally out of a more fundamental dedication to providing youth with opportunities to meaningfully contribute to the life of their communities. The neighborhood I volunteered in was fairly diverse, with sizable Latino, Black, East African, and White populations, and this was reflected in the backgrounds of the youth attending the program. The shared work – turning the neighborhood compost heap, bagging up and delivering the day’s harvest before it wilted in the sun, remembering to shake the soil off the roots of weeds – was a powerful bond between kids of widely varying backgrounds. I certainly felt bonded to them through the work that held us all in joyful thrall. I regularly look back to my time there as one where the often-vague goal of racial reconciliation felt most present and real.

    young man helping a boy choose plants for their garden in a greenhouse

    Calvin (right) helping a young neighbor choose plants for their garden. Image from Youth Farm

    We often hear that we “need to have a conversation” about racism. That we need honest dialogue about how we are affected by and participate in racial prejudice is undoubtedly true, as the events sparked by the police killing of George Floyd over a year ago (and many other events since) have vividly demonstrated. However, it’s often unclear what such a conversation would consist of, and in my experience, they rarely actually happen, despite plenty of plaintive head-nodding at the suggestion. When they do occur, they often feel stilted and rehearsed: the result is less a conversation and more an anxious recitation of one’s ideological investments. Their course is determined before they’ve begun. How can we break out of this impasse?

    In her 2009 book Belonging: A Culture of Place, Black feminist writer bell hooks includes a record of her conversation with farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry that offers some guidance on this question. Despite their differences in race, age, and gender, these two writers approach the topic of racism with uncommon generosity and candor. What makes their engagement so fruitful? While their conversation is not without tension or disagreement (for example, hooks encourages Berry not to “overstate the case” and “act as though the humanizing interactions between white and black folks undermined the overall exploitative and oppressive structure [of segregation]”), their perspectives are grounded in a shared context. Both writers grew up in rural Kentucky, where they experienced firsthand the reality of formal segregation as well, hooks observes, as the “deep and abiding connections of care [that existed] between white and black people.” At the time of her conversation with Berry, hooks had decided to return to her hometown to pursue a life anchored by a sense of place, inspired in part by Berry’s similar move home in 1964.

    The efforts of Youth Farm, however small, suggest one direction: we can begin in the garden.

    Not all conversations on race will occur between individuals with the affinities that unite hooks and Berry, but their reflections offer a useful reminder that racism rarely occurs in the abstract. It is a disease that affects particular communities in particular places. To adequately understand its particularity is to have tools for dismantling it: if, for hooks and Berry, place is the context within which individuals make their lives, it is also a uniting factor that reminds them “that there [is] more to life than race” and which “[makes] it possible for . . . black and white folks to love one another.”

    Perhaps not incidentally, hooks and Berry’s analysis of racism also emphasizes its spiritual dimension as, to use Berry’s words, a “disorder of the heart.” hooks drives this home by calling the ideal that ought to underlie all efforts to combat racism “the beloved community,” invoking the theological vision first articulated by Josiah Royce in the nineteenth century and popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. in the twentieth.

    In our intensely polarized political moment, talk of conversation, community, and love with respect to racial justice is likely to be met with some degree of suspicion. At best, it may be seen as a kind of sentimental, conflict-avoidant liberalism that, while well-intentioned, is unable to deliver the fundamental changes that are required if American society is to combat racism. At worst, it may be seen as forcing fraternization with one’s oppressor. James Baldwin writes, “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

    That’s fair enough, but there has arguably been an undue expansion of what constitutes a “denial of one’s humanity” in our political discourse. For many progressive Americans, for instance, having voted for Donald Trump is ipso facto evidence of one’s racism, which is to say, one’s denial of the humanity of nonwhite Americans. Consequently, the notion of dialogue with nearly half of the country’s electorate is ruled out before it even starts.

    Of course, the suspicion with which talk of “beloved community” is met today is not entirely without warrant, for the language of community and love has been misused to normalize intolerable social conditions. For individuals who have been on the receiving end of such hypocrisy, appeals to community are likely to ring hollow. The question then becomes: How can we develop the trust it takes to build communities that “make it possible for black and white folks to love one another”?

    The efforts of Youth Farm, however small, suggest one direction: we can begin in the garden.

    In talking with Shanna Woods, a current board member of Youth Farm and a graduate of the organization’s youth leadership program, one point that struck me was the notion of safety. Speaking about her experience growing up within the context of Youth Farm’s neighborhood-based programming, she said: “You just become more familiar or comfortable or excited and see your community as this meaningful or integral part of your life. And I just felt safer, if that’s the way to say it, or aware or in tune.”

    Given the current debates over policing, safety has been, and will continue to be, a hotly contested notion. Shanna’s words remind us that to create safe communities we have to not just prevent physical violence but also cultivate the everyday conditions that enable individuals to flourish. Shanna talked about creating space for “safe emotional and social development.” Part of this development, as Berry and hooks’ conversation suggests, is a sense of being at home in a meaning-filled place.

    The garden is a compelling place to do this work. Participating in the fundamental alchemy that turns soil, sunlight, and water into food is a time-honored way to tune in to one’s surroundings, and an activity that transcends cultural and racial boundaries. My experience at Youth Farm indicates that such an exercise need not be solemn or sanctimonious. What comes to mind is the spectacle, one day while eating lunch together, of a chorus of kids cheering as a ten-year-old farmer triumphantly swallows a garden worm for all to see. Good childhood fun meets a larger constellation of purpose: that worm came from the compost pile made by that ten-year-old with food scraps from lunches where we ate produce she had helped to grow. The entire cycle is invested with her agency. When dozens of kids from varying backgrounds come together to undertake this kind of shared work, questions of social justice do not disappear; rather, they gain a concreteness amid the lives of real individuals. As Berry writes in his reflection on racism, The Hidden Wound, “the real healings and renewals of human life occur in individual lives, not in the process of adjusting or changing their abstractions or their institutions.” This is not to say that institutional changes are unnecessary, but that we must remember who it is those institutions are meant to serve. Thankfully, at Youth Farm and similar initiatives around the country, this relationship is rightly ordered, and the cultivation of meaning-filled places is well underway.

    Contributed By

    Ben Kercheval, a Plough summer intern, is studying philosophy and religion at the University of Minnesota.

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