Urban farmers often hold high-minded ideals about food justice and access; they’re also often unwitting vehicles for driving out communities of color.
If you’ve lived or worked in Washington D.C. over the last decade, the scale and pace of gentrification there has been impossible to miss. Over the last decade, the city has experienced a rapidly increasing demand for, and cost of, housing, similar to that in other knowledge hubs and “superstar cities” like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston.
In addition to all the good things that come with increased interest in density and urban living, those cities have been the hardest hit by displacement, a process that disproportionately affects poor folks of color. Everyone who lives or works in D.C. can palpably feel this slow-motion injustice, and we are all forced to grapple with it, whether we want to or not.
“Everybody—wherever you go, no matter the educational background—sees what’s going on,” Xavier Brown told me. Brown is the founder of Soilful City, an urban agriculture organization in D.C. with the justice-centered mission of healing “the sacred relationship between communities of African descent and Mother Earth.”
Last year, I managed an eight-year-old urban farm in the neighborhood of LeDroit Park. LeDroit is just down the hill from Howard University and next to the super-hip neighborhoods of Shaw and Bloomingdale. The farm itself is surrounded by public housing, Howard dorms, and renovated row houses selling for over $800,000.
Farming in the middle of all that created a sort of socio-economic whiplash. On good days, it felt like the best that a city can be, a glorious melting pot, with the farm as a gathering place for folks to celebrate commonality. But on bad days, when I had to clean up vandalism, or when I couldn’t for the life of me get my neighbors of color to visit the farm, it felt like an exclusive resource designed to make newcomers feel comfortable and long-term residents feel alienated. It felt like I, a bearded white dude, was actively contributing to an injustice. Or, just as bad, like I was pretending to be neutral, while standing by and watching it happen.