Reflections on the First Annual Gathering of the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative

Posted by Jeff Heehs

Dismantling racism in the food system, within and by way of sustainable food projects, was the focus of a gathering of around 150 community food activists from all over the U.S. and Canada from September 18 to 21 in Milwaukee. Group trainings and discussions provided “safe space” for participants to share a challenging, emotional process of understanding and confronting racial privilege and oppression in ourselves and our communities, amid workshops and talks on food justice and sustainability initiatives.

The conference was the product of planning by the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative (GFJI), an outgrowth of activities initiated within the Community Food Security Coalition. Milwaukee’s urban farming non-profit Growing Power organized and sponsored the event. Just two days after the conference adjourned we were all thrilled by the announcement that Will Allen, the towering founder of Growing Power and host of the Gathering, was named recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant for his pioneering work in urban agriculture and community building.

Prior to the main gathering a core group of facilitators attended an intensive leadership training program on interpersonal methods to understand and challenge racial inequities in general and in the food system. These facilitators then conducted workshops, called Dismantling Racism 101, for others attending the Gathering. Using techniques of non-verbal interaction resembling games or silent theater among mixed groups, followed by open discussion, the workshops were a powerful, revealing experience.

Other workshop leaders presented on topics including:
- projects promoting food sovereignty and self determination among groups of Native Americans, immigrant farm workers, rural latino communities, urban communities of color and others
- organizational strategies for inclusion and diversity using the example of a Social Justice Advocacy Committee at a west coast university
- a “story-based strategy” for reframing myths, assumptions and stereotypes about food and food justice
- a profound workshop on “What It Means to be White” explored possible pitfalls of white, educated, often young, female food security organizers doing work in communities of color, examining “options for appropriate cross-class and/or inter-racial partnerships and collaborations based on respect, awareness and humility.”

Although it was organized along the recognizable conventions of a non-profit “conference,” the Gathering unfolded for me as a fluid, sometimes unsettling series of learnings and interactions with significance that spilled way over the programmed content. Less planned and structured moments were perhaps the most fertile: informal talk; shared meals; information tables; a celebration evening of music, dancing, and mural art; people speaking spontaneously from the heart in breakout and plenary sessions -- all combined to make the event emotionally draining and spiritually engaging for me and, it seemed to me, for others too. It was both unnerving and energizing to consider head on how much healing we all need around issues of race and class inequity, particularly in places like New York City. I was inspired to see widely dispersed programs springing up from similar impulses in urban and rural settings around the continent, and to hear stories of bold steps taken by people of color and whites to assert their humanity through food security and sustainability programs.

New York’s non-profit group Just Food was able, through a grant from Heifer International, to sponsor travel to the event for a contingent of community gardeners and food activists from many parts of New York City. All told around 30 people represented some of the city’s diversity at the Gathering. Many of us agreed to keep in touch back home and find ways to continue locally the process begun in the Milwaukee.

To learn more about the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative or to get involved, please see the website at