The Ostracon: Dispatches from Beyond Contemporary Art’s Center, an arts writing site by Nicole J. Caruth and Paul Schmelzer, looks at figures and ideas outside the mainstream of contemporary art—from public policy, indigenous rights, and folklore to community organizing, historic preservation, environmental science, journalism, and food justice—that may offer insight into new forms of making art that are more responsive, relevant, and connected to the way we live now as individuals and communities. Taking its name from the pottery shards used in ancient Athens when voting to ostracize community members, the site aims to celebrate, instead of push out, voices from art’s periphery.

Ceding Power: The Chicken Versus the Pig

What’s the difference between a donation and reparations? In this second piece on reparations in the arts, Brandi and Carlton Turner, co-founders of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, share their perspectives on charitable gifts and possibilities for change in arts philanthropy.

The Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, Utica, MS.

Just a few months ago, the news cycle was filled with stories about Silicon Valley companies pledging five- or six-figure donations to support the movement for Black lives. It’s rare to see an artist come close to matching anything that tech companies can give at a moment’s notice, but the musician Jeff Tweedy announced that he would commit five percent of his writer royalties to racial justice organizations in perpetuity. The Wilco frontman, who’s worth an estimated $9 million, encouraged other white musicians to do the same because, as he suggested in a written statement, the music industry continually profits from the appropriation and theft of Black creativity and culture. “The wealth that rightfully belonged to Black artists was stolen outright and to this day continues to grow outside their communities,” he wrote. “No one artist could come close to paying the debt we owe to the Black originators of our modern music and their children and grandchildren.”

I’d never heard of Wilco or Tweedy until his statement began circulating online, so I’m literally not a fan. What got my attention was his simultaneous call for industry-wide reparations—and that multiple white colleagues of mine understood Tweedy’s pledge to be reparations itself. This prompted a question that I’ve been posing in interviews: What’s the difference between a donation and reparations? Is there a specific dollar amount or giving strategy that makes the leap from tax-deductible gift to reparative justice?

Few people have a clear answer, except Brandi and Carlton Turner, the husband and wife co-founders of Sipp Culture, known formally as the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production. “You think about breakfast. You have eggs and some bacon and some toast. The chicken made a donation, the pig made a commitment,” Carlton said with a chuckle, repeating the words of a former coworker. “There’s a sacrifice that has to happen that is related to reparations whereas a donation [implies that] ‘I can keep giving this donation because I’m not really hurting from it.’ A donation doesn’t change the power dynamics. It doesn’t equalize power. It just quells disruption is what donations do. What reparations does is it actually alters power.”

Brandi and Carlton Turner (center). Photo via sippculture.com

Spanning three spaces and eight generations

Established in 2017, Sipp Culture is an enterprising model of what we might call creative placekeeping in Utica, Mississippi. Their work spans three spaces all within walking distance to each other, including a 1920s-era house for an artist residency program, 17 acres of land for a demonstration garden and outdoor amphitheater, and a cultural center on Main Street that serves as a community hub. But listen to the Turners tell it and Sipp Culture is far more than a cluster of programmable spaces. It’s the coming together of Carlton’s lineage, which goes back eight generations in Utica to a plantation and the enslaved Africans who worked that land; his background as a performing artist and cultural leader (he was previously the executive director at Alternate Roots); and the manifestation of he and Brandi’s vision to share the stories of this place they call home.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “William H. Holtzclaw; Principal, Utica Normal and Industrial Institute” and “Mrs. William H. Holtzclaw.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1915.

Once a hub for cotton production and export, “Utica [Mississippi] was created by white people coming down from Utica, New York, and developing a kind of settler space here,” Carlton explained. “The Choctaw, the Chickasaw, and the Natchez people were in this area.” Sitting next to Brandi at the Sipp Culture site, he told me how, in the early 1900s, a man named William Holtzclaw, a student of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, established the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute.1See more images of the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute in the New York Public Library Digital Collections. The school eventually became Utica College, the first and only historically black junior college in Mississippi, and also housed a high school. “They created this infrastructure to support the post-reconstruction era, to support the education of Black people, turning them into educators, business people, administrators, and agriculturalists,” he said. “You have probably three generations of people that came to that Institute and became the Black leadership in and around central Mississippi.”

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “A group of teachers in the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute who were trained at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1915.

In recent years, Utica has witnessed the closure of its grocery store and high school, creating deep cavities in the public infrastructure that are increasingly common in Black rural and urban areas alike. Brandi said, “When we started thinking about our work here, it was about creating a space in our community that served our community.” Sipp Culture operates at an intergenerational crossroad, looking forward to the future of Utica for its young people while looking back at the historical events that can still be felt today. For instance, the white terror that precipitated the Great Migration and affected the ability of Black families to pass land to their family members. “When you think about reparations,” Carlton added, “our work is about repairing some of that generational damage, and connecting people back to a legacy and history of agriculture, of growing and producing, but not producing for someone else, producing for the community and for collective liberation practices.” The Turners also see their relationship to reparations as “repairing ideas” about the boundaries of art and culture by honoring practices typically excluded from the narrow definitions of what art is. 

Planting seeds to grow reparations strategies

Sipp Culture is one of several organizations involved with Reparations Summer, a campaign of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA). Reparations Summer promotes a “new Juneteenth tradition” of annually organizing and redirecting resources back to Black land stewards. The website states: “We demand that white people and folks with access to the accumulated and hoarded resources move money and land out of the extractive economy now so that we can plant it as seeds to grow the Reparations strategies we need to become truly whole.” Bearing images of Black farmers alongside unapologetic statements about what is owed, the Reparations Summer website is visually appealing but feels untended and untethered from the action. The campaign came to life for me after hearing directly from the Turners, who revealed multiple connections between the organizing efforts of NBJFA and the systems that fund the arts.

A screenshot of the Reparations Summer website.

When I asked the Turners where reparations might begin in the arts and culture sector, Carlton gave a compelling response:

I think so much of art and culture relies on heavy investment from philanthropy and that’s a troubled relationship because most of the surplus resources that are stored in the form of endowments, and the way that philanthropy is structured, so much of that money came on the backs of enslaved people . . . These foundations were created as tax shelters and allow these wealthy institutions and trustees to still determine where those dollars go. Otherwise, those dollars would be in the public coffer and would be distributed as democracy dictates, whatever that means . . .  But that’s not the case. Foundations are structured to live in perpetuity. That’s literally written into most foundation charters. So, I think reparations, for me, looks like challenging ideas about these dollars being held in perpetuity and thinking about how these philanthropies can begin to spend down and into non-existence.

This almost made sense to me. As someone who’s worked almost exclusively on the public programming side of the visual arts, having little contact with funders, my knowledge of how philanthropy actually works is minimal. So, to better understand it, I did what most learners do these days: I turned to YouTube.

Last month, Vu Lee of Nonprofit AF moderated a virtual panel discussion called “What’s Broken in the Foundation and Donor Landscape?,” an eye-opening dialogue on how foundations hold wealth and power in society. Speaking to an audience of 1,300 live viewers, Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies said, “The purpose of this conversation is to open up this invisible, mostly secret world of how high finance works.” The panelists, including Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth, and Andrea Caupain, CEO of Byrd Barr Place, explained that private foundations must give out a minimum five percent of their endowment annually. “It is intended to be the floor and that has become the ceiling for most foundations,” said Villanueva. He then echoed what Carlton had begun to illuminate: “Despite our role in helping to create this bounty of wealth in this country, off the backs of our ancestors, and the current day expectations of lower-wage workers [who are] mostly people of color, we as people of color are not benefiting from our fair share of philanthropic investment.” Of the five percent minimum that Villanueva mentioned, a meager 8–8.5 percent go to communities of color, even as racial inequities in healthcare, education, and housing widen and nonprofits work to fill these gaps.2Watch the second part of this conversation on philanthropic reform, “Fixing Philanthropy for Communities,” which addresses potential solutions.

Getting beyond words to transformation

Hearing this dialogue left me with the same question for arts philanthropy that I have for the arts at large: What models get beyond all the buzzy verbiage about diversity, equity, access, and inclusion to actual transformation? Or even reparations? In speaking with DeeArah Wright for my last Ostracon piece, she held up the Leeway Foundation in Philadelphia, which gives grants to individual women, trans, and gender nonconforming artists, as one model to which others might aspire. Denise Brown has been Leeway’s executive director since 2006, following a strategic shift that moved this small family foundation from a predominantly white staff to majority people of color on the staff and board of directors. Leeway Foundation worked with community advisors, which included artists, to design a new application that focused on formative personal, political, and artistic experiences as opposed to your typical signifiers of value like CVs.

In Brown’s mind, the Jeff Tweedy example speaks to the problematic relationship that the Turners alluded to: The power to determine how much money will be given and who it goes to remains with the white man who holds the wealth. “What turns it into reparations is how much agency and autonomy those people have who are supposed to benefit from his decision to give resources,” said Brown. “What is their role in defining what that looks like? That is when it starts to veer more towards reparations. Until then, it’s just a charitable impulse.”

Brandi and Carlton Turner (right) with Sipp Culture’s Rural Performance/Production Lab advisors.

Brandi Turner suggested to me that reparations must involve systemic change that “serves us as a whole, as humans.” However, arts funders have a tendency to shift their priorities to support trends—arts engagement in low-income neighborhoods, DEAI training in museums, or COVID relief for artists, for example. I’m not suggesting that support is not needed in these areas but there’s little indication that these philanthropic dollars dismantle systems that uphold injustice, or alter power structures, or close the racial wealth gap, or mend the decades of underfunding, disinvestment, and destruction in Black communities. A donation is, to paraphrase one of my students, akin to using a tourniquet instead of repairing the actual wound. “Most of these large philanthropies are not progressive enough to see how they could help to foster and sustain the type of change that’s needed in order to have a different type of world,” Carlton told me, “Even though a lot of them have the equity and diversity language, that only goes so far.”

In Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, a restauranteur puts justice at the heart of rebuilding plans

“Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.” Shared online after Gandhi Mahal was destroyed in the unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder, the words of Ruhel Islam went viral. Now that the dust has settled, the Minneapolis restauranteur and sustainability advocate discusses what’s next, for his business and his multi-modal mission of “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”

The rubble where Gandhi Mahal once stood. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

On the third night of unrest over the police killing of George Floyd, Gandhi Mahal burned to the ground, and the words of the Minneapolis restaurant’s owner, Ruhel Islam—shared on Facebook by his 19-year-old daughter, Hafsa—shot around the globe: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served: put those officers in jail.” For those of us who frequented Islam’s business, located a block from the Minneapolis police station where Floyd’s killers worked, they were powerful, if unsurprising: for 12 years, justice—social and environmental—was as compelling a draw for Gandhi Mahal customers as Islam’s award-winning cuisine. But for the rest of the world, the moral clarity of his call struck a resonant note. Quickly, the post went viral, sparking more than 33,000 shares, 40,000 reactions, and 3,100 comments, expressing love, thanks, and pledges of support—and drawing the attention of media outlets worldwide, from the New York Times, CNN, and the Boston Globe to London’s Daily Mail, The Times of India, and the Dhaka Tribune.

Flowers blanket the ground in front of a portrait of George Floyd outside Cup Foods, the site where Minneapolis police killed Floyd. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

Now that the dust—and ashes—has settled and the media has turned its attention elsewhere, it’s time for Islam, and Minneapolis, to begin rebuilding. A month after his restaurant was destroyed, we met at Bullthistle Gardens, one of the many backyard gardens that supplied produce to Gandhi Mahal, to discuss that night in May, the future of his creative community-building, and how he aims to expand his mission of fostering change through food at a new Gandhi Mahal.

Bringing Peace by Pleasing the Palate

It’s an understatement to say that 2008 was a momentous year for Ruhel Islam. He became a US citizen, eight years after arriving here, and, after running Little Taj Mahal in the food court of the Dinky Dome on the University of Minnesota campus for several years, he opened Gandhi Mahal, with his brother Jamil, in a building just off Lake Street. The mission was simple, if wildly ambitious: “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”

Ruhel Islam at Bullthistle Gardens, one of the many backyard neighborhood farms that sourced produce for Gandhi Mahal. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

More than a marketing slogan, the phrase has been activated at Gandhi Mahal in the dozen years since. Tough enough for any restaurant to achieve, that “pleasing palates” part of the mission has been delivered on through and through: the menu’s mix of Indian and Bangladeshi dishes earned Gandhi Mahal a visit from Guy Fieri and numerous local best-Indian-restaurant honors (my family’s favorite: the lamb rogan josh).

But its cuisine is only part of the story of peacefulness towards people and planet. “From the beginning,” he says, “my mission has been to lead by example. It’s what I’ve always done.” That aim has guided an array of endeavors that seek justice in their own right while also spotlighting practices Islam hopes are more widely adopted.

David Gray, a longtime friend of Islam’s and himself an influential node in Minneapolis’s small-scale agriculture scene, says he’d often ask Islam, “How local are you?” The answer: “52 steps”—thanks to an aquaponics system installed in Gandhi Mahal’s basement in 2014, the first restaurant-based system of its kind in Minnesota, where restaurant raised tilapia and grew tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs. The 7,000-square-foot building’s rooftop was home to both a solar array and a bee yard that provided the restaurant honey (plans to raise quail on the roof hadn’t come to fruition by the time Islam’s building burned).

Ruhel Islam with tilapia raised in Gandhi Mahal’s aquaponics garden. Photo: David Gray, Bullthistle Gardens.

Even the vegetables grown off site had a staggeringly low number of food miles—anywhere from a hundred yards to an hour’s drive away. Some came from a community garden planted down the block or from farmers selling at the Midtown Farmers Market across the street, while other produce was sourced from the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden, a collaboration between the restaurant and Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MNIPL), All Saints Episcopal Indian Mission, and New City Church. And, more surprisingly, Islam filled out his ingredient list through produce grown in a dozen or so extremely small-scale farms dotted across south Minneapolis.

Gray first met Islam at the farmer’s market a dozen years ago when he was selling produce from eQuality, an organic farm in nearby Buffalo staffed by people with developmental disabilities. Islam would push a giant food cart—the kind you’d haul lumber on at a big box store—and go from vendor to vendor, making sure to buy something at each stall. “My booth was last, and when he got to me, that cart was loaded,” he remembers. “And sometimes he’d apologize. ‘I’m sorry, friend, but I have everything I need.’ And I said, ‘As long as you just stop and say hi, that’s all I care about.'” They struck up a friendship, with Gray advising on various aspects of the restaurant, including the aquaponics system. Since leaving eQuality nearly two years ago, Gray has been running Bullthistle Gardens out of his bungalow two miles south of Gandhi Mahal, his basement filled with grow lights and his backyard home to a giant greenhouse.

He’s impressed by the genius of supplying a restaurant using veggies grown in the backyards of neighbors. “Ruhel identified people that had space in their yards for gardens, and he funded it. He said, ‘I’ll give you seeds, everything you need.’ He even had staff that would oversee it and help them. And at harvest time, they’d bring it back and he’d buy it from them,” Gray explains. “He did simple math. You come out way ahead: you get local food at a good price, but it’s from the community.” (Islam, an early member of the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council, was instrumental in getting city regulations changed to allow for market gardens and urban farms within the city.)

Islam looks at cilantro flowers, grown at Bullthistle Gardens to be harvested for coriander for his restaurant. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

These values of connection and cultivating community extend beyond agriculture as well. Ruhel and Hafsa have been involved with Black Lives Matter, protesting the police killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, and the elder Islam visited Standing Rock during the protests in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Gandhi Mahal has been hiring ex-offenders since 2012, thanks to a partnership with Volunteers of America. In 2018, he and Hafsa, who are Muslim, took a relief trip to Bangladesh in support of the NGO Sports for Hope and Independence Bangladesh and visited with Rohingya refugees, delivering letters from Minneapolis schoolkids to children there.

Fittingly, following the uprising over George Floyd’s killing, Islam took to Facebook in a pledge to continue doing what he long has, making space—and food—for people in his community:

…It is crucial in this moment to have dialogue to continue the healing process and create hearts and minds that are focused and finding a new way forward together. You tell me what table you will be meeting to have this dialogue and I will cook for you. We are not only feeding your stomach but also your soul.

A Rohingya boy in a Gandhi Mahal sport jersey. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam.

May 29, 2020

Feeding is what Islam and his family were doing the night Gandhi Mahal burned. Business was slow the evening of May 29 due to roads being blockaded by police and the restaurant’s proximity to the Third Precinct station, Hafsa recalls. Then riot police moved on demonstrators and began throwing teargas canisters and firing rubber bullets. A street medic ran into the restaurant and asked if she could bring in a demonstrator who’d been tear-gassed. Islam agreed, offering space in the Climate Hub, an adjacent storefront that was home to local climate advocacy groups. With no medical training, Hafsa joined in, helping one woman get undressed (and redressed in dry clothes, including a Gandhi Mahal 10th-anniversary T-shirt unearthed from the basement by her dad) and assisting others as their contact lenses were removed, eyes washed with milk, and wounds from rubber bullets cleaned.

Minnehaha Lake Wine & Spirits, across the street from Gandhi Mahal, was one of many businesses destroyed in the uprising following George Floyd’s murder. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, staff prepared rice and dal, an Indian lentil soup, to share with medics and demonstrators. “When people had a hard time in the village over in Bangladesh, they’d send dal and rice to everyone because it’s very simple to make,” Hafsa says, “but it’s also very nutritious and gives you everything you need.” Around 1 a.m., Ruhel Islam headed to the home he shares in south Minneapolis with his wife and their four children. The next morning, Hafsa reported online that the restaurant was gone. She vowed: “Gandhi Mahal may have felt the flames last night, but our fiery drive to help protect and stand with our community will never die! “

Islam’s immediate response that news: “We can rebuild. The main mission is not about burning buildings; the mission is justice.” But then things sunk in. “This is a labor of love. Thirteen years of building so many small pieces from all around the world, from my Bangladesh village. My grandfather’s picture was there,” he tells me. “My children grew up there. I found my home here.”

The Islam family at Hafsa’s high school graduation in 2019: Hanifa, Humaira, Ruhel, Hafsa, Hamza, and Sultana. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam.

“I felt so many things,” he adds. “But I felt overwhelming support and love: I felt that right away. That’s why my pain was very little.”

With news reports investigating the role of white supremacists and other extremists in violence and property destruction, I asked him how he felt about those who burned his restaurant. “It doesn’t matter who did this, but why this happened is what matters to me,” he says. “I blame no one. This is a sacrifice of another building; it’s not a life.”

He’s heartened by the response online to his words and the fact that they reverberated around the world and to his village in Bangladesh, where as a darker-skinned child he felt the sting of colorism. “I felt that pain. It’s a different kind of pain [from what Black Americans experience],” he acknowledges, but one that has reinforced his longstanding solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements. “As Brother King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'”

A mural on the boarded-up window of Moon Palace Books on Minnehaha Avenue, near Gandhi Mahal. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

One bit of praise from back home was especially bittersweet. Islam’s 85-year-old uncle, Faizur Rahman, called in late June, a few days before our meeting. “He told me, ‘I’m happy because you spoke out. This is what we are! I’m so proud looking at you in the New York Times.'” He advised, “Don’t take too long to rebuild. Rebuild it quickly because people are watching you. We are all watching you. Our prayers are with you—and a lot of people who did not get justice, their prayers are all with you, too.” Then Islam’s uncle blessed him.

What Rahman didn’t tell his nephew was that he’d contracted COVID-19, and two days after that phone call he passed away, one of the nearly 3,100 Bangladeshi victims of the pandemic so far.

Food and an Uncertain Future

In planning to rebuild—a process Islam says could take four or five years—Gandhi Mahal’s owner takes his uncle’s words to heart: people are watching, giving Islam the opportunity to leverage that attention to promote his family’s values around sustainability and community. He’s convened a group of restaurant staff, neighbors, architects and designers, community elders, and others to work collaboratively on a rebuilding plan that could put a structure up to six stories tall on the restaurant’s former footprint. His dream for the design: “addressing every single issue we have in our life. One of the main goals I want to achieve is a fully fed community. And everyone means every part of our community: people, plants, trees, bugs, birds, animals.”

But the start has been slow. Islam is partnering with MIGIZI, the Native youth center next door, to share demolition costs, but two months after the restaurant’s destruction such work hasn’t yet begun. The City of Minneapolis, Hafsa reported on Facebook on July 25, is making demolition permits conditional upon tax payments, an additional burden for business owners, many not fully insured, who she says may have to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 to move rubble and prepare for rebuilding. (Following publication of this piece, a city representative shared that state law requires collection of property taxes before demolition permits can be approved.) Just today, July 31, Islam signed a lease that will reopen the restaurant on the site of the former Chef Shack restaurant on the corner of Franklin and 31st avenues during construction. He notes that a food truck will likely be part of the temporary solution while the new space is being developed.

Graffiti mural on the exterior of Arbeiter Brewing, just across the street from where Gandhi Mahal stood. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

With the new building, Islam’s aims are to “come back strong.” He promises to continue sustainability efforts from the past and incorporate new ones: he’ll again build a zero-waste operation that utilizes solar panels, aquaponics, and a rooftop bee colony, but he also hopes for a LEED-certified building that has room to raise chickens and goats on-site. He’s interested in exploring sustainable materials like compressed earth blocks and passive solar, and he plans to design with future pandemics in mind. “COVID is going to be a long-term problem,” he says. “I’m thinking about when it comes back in one, two, or 30 years.”

One idea is to combine sustainability and physical distancing: “Tables will probably have planters between them or an aquaponics bed,” he says. “If you like spicy food, maybe you can just reach over and grab a chili or salad greens.”

Peppers grown during winter in Gandhi Mahal’s basement aquaponics garden. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam

He’d also like to incorporate community housing. “My thinking is, by calling it affordable housing, you’re dividing people,” so he’s interested in multi-generational, intercultural housing instead, with affordability as a key value.

Over time, chances are Islam’s plans will be scaled back, whittled down by pragmatic factors from city permitting delays and the intricacies of municipal ordinances to funding hurdles and the nuts-and-bolts realities of translating a vision in his mind into a bricks-and-mortar facility. But it’s this vision that drew me to Islam for The Ostracon: he acknowledges the power of art but doesn’t identify as an artist, yet he lives like one. He interrogates the world around him, investigating what can be different. He brings into view ideas he wants his community to know matter. He experiments, reworks, tries again. And he models for the rest of us that other, more just, futures are possible.

He envisions Bangladesh. He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living.

As Gray puts it, “He sees how powerful food is, culturally speaking.”

He’s compelled by Islam’s vision, too: “He envisions Bangladesh,” he says. “He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living. If you could walk to Uptown and there were fruit trees you could pick from, vegetables growing everywhere, raised boxes, people growing things on the rooftops, just a complete free-for-all based around food—that’s what he sees.”

While Islam’s plans sound positively utopian—a six-story, zero-waste complex that houses community members affordably, raises bees and fish and vegetables, while also serving as a hub for social justice activism?—I have hope he can do it.

Ruhel Islam in front of the rain tree he planted at his childhood primary school, 2018. Photo: Bob York, courtesy Ruhal Islam.

Passing the site of Gandhi Mahal recently, I spotted a small white plastic square affixed to the chain link barrier surrounding the pit of rubble and burnt metal. Apparently a sign used when the restaurant had donated catering services for community events, it depicted a black tree, its thick branches extending wide to each side, along with the words “Special Thanks to Gandhi Mahal.” In marker, someone had drawn a heart and wrote, “We love you!”

The tree at the center of Gandhi Mahal’s logo, a rain tree, is based on one outside his primary school in Bahar Mordan, a village in the city of Sylhet in northeast Bangladesh. As a child there, Islam followed the lead of his father, who’d won a gold medal for leading a tree-planting campaign in the community, and rallied his brothers and classmates to join him in planting the tree. More than three decades later, it still stands there today, larger and stronger, a testament to a leader whose vision grew something tiny into something much, much bigger.

How on earth will we build a whole new world?

Leah Penniman, the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, talks about healing from generations of land-based trauma and creating a more just food system.

Leah Penniman. All images courtesy of Soul Fire Farm except where noted.

Years ago, when I just began to learn about food justice, I volunteered to help out at a youth-run farm in Brooklyn that had been devastated by a storm. As a thank you to the volunteers, we received a free workshop on garlic at the end of the day. I don’t remember one iota about planting or harvesting garlic, but I’ve never forgotten how the workshop leader, a young white woman, responded when someone asked why the predominantly Black youth who worked there lacked access to healthy foods. “Nothing in the food system happens by accident,” she replied. In other words, unequal access is by design.

Our food system is inseparable from the larger social, economic, and political institutions that place power in the hands of a privileged few while others go without.1Eric Holt-Giménez and Breeze Harper, “Dismantling Racism in the Food System,” Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First/Food First Books, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2016. https://foodfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/DR1Final.pdf Leah Penniman, the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, calls this “food apartheid—a human-created system of segregations, which relegates some people to food opulence and other people to food scarcity.”2Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, “How Do We End ‘Food Apartheid’ in America? With Farms Like This One,” AlterNet, June 12, 2017, https://www.alternet.org/food/how-do-we-end-food-apartheid-america-farms-one Located in upstate New York, Soul Fire Farm is a for-profit agriculture venture and nonprofit educational space widely recognized for its “commitment to ending racism and injustice in our food system.” I scoffed a bit the first time I read the farm’s mission statement because any system without racism is almost beyond my ability to imagine. (I acknowledge I have a deep-rooted mistrust from working for too many nonprofits that let racism stand in the way of their mission.) But then I attended Penniman’s lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design last April, and I was challenged to think more deeply about the critical role of imagination in dismantling anything. To quote the cultural strategist Anasa Troutman, “If you are unable to imagine a new story . . . then how on earth are you going to have the imagination to build a whole new world?”

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north, 1940–41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 inches.

Speaking to a packed house, Penniman told the history of our food system through images—John Gast’s American Progress (1872), photographs of incarcerated men and migrant workers laboring in fields, portraits of Dr. Booker T. Whatley and George Washington Carver, and vintage broadsides. One of the most memorable images li/she showed was an etching depicting African women while explaining how some wove seeds into their hair before being forced to board Middle Passage slave ships. (Penniman’s pronouns are li/ya/she/he. I use li in the remainder of this piece.)3Li is the Haitian Kreyol all-gender pronoun with no possessive form. To learn more, visit the Google Doc, “Pronouns for Leah” at https://docs.google.com/document/d/13e5h2YQ98P_uStshda1xcvNNcOiNvB9jSU8g1LE7HUI/edit “Stolen land and exploited labor are the DNA strands of the food system,” li said. Penniman reminded us that American slavery wasn’t just about labor; it was about acquiring the farming knowledge of African peoples. Li touched on the different periods in centuries of white terrorism, like the rampant lynchings that prompted “the refugee crisis we romantically call The Great Migration.” Li discussed the indignities of factory farms and the invisible contributions of Spanish-language-first migrant workers who make up 85 percent of the farm labor that provides our sustenance. Penniman concluded with an invitation to the audience to reflect on our own stories and lineages in relation to the food system, encouraging us to see ourselves as more than consumers.

At the time, Penniman was on an 18-month international tour for the book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. I spoke with li by phone a few months ago, just after the tour was cut short by the pandemic. “I wanted the book to do three things,” li explained while tending crops on the farm. “Be a practical, how-to garden guide that maybe for the first in a long time was written by not a white dude; start to rewrite the narrative of who has contributed to sustainable and regenerative agriculture in a way that uplifts the unique and precious contributions of Black, Indigenous, and people of color; and provide society as a whole, especially those with privilege, with some concrete [examples of] what you can do to create a more just food system.”

Farming While Black is an easy read yet feels biblical somehow, maybe due to the spiritual tone of the stories and lessons Penniman generously shares with the reader. It feels like a family album, too, a vibrant record of the joy and sweat that Penniman and li’s husband, Jonah, their children, Neshima and Emit, as well as staff, students, and volunteers have put into the land over the last ten years. In side columns throughout the book, Penniman situates Soul Fire Farm in a larger historical context through short backgrounders on agricultural practices and food justice influencers, including the Black Panthers, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm and Black Urban Growers, who wrote the book’s forward.

Highly conscious of the hero-industrial complex (the belief that a person arrives at success all alone, driven by their own genius), Penniman actively acknowledges those who came before or work alongside li, like Washington. Revered in the food world, I’ve always known Washington from afar as the woman who audaciously turned an empty lot in the Bronx into a garden long before it was the hipster-gentrifier thing to do. It was Washington who taught Penniman the concept of food apartheid. As li has said in another interview, “I would not be a farmer if it were not for [Mama Karen], 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.”4Karen Washington and Leah Penniman, “You Belong to the Land: A Conversation with Karen Washington and Leah Penniman,” Center for Humans and Nature. Accessed at https://www.humansandnature.org/you-belong-to-the-land-a-conversation-with-karen-washington-and-leah-penniman Washington helped li understand that Black farmers not only “have a noble legacy thousands of years old going back to the continent, but are the stewards of the future.” This resonates deeply as the COVID-19 pandemic underscores how critical farmers are to our survival and the longevity of this earth. The world as we know it is transforming and we have no idea what it will become, but the food system—how we eat, honor the land, and treat each other—is central to that transformation.

Soul Fire Farm predominantly works with African American, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. “What that means is we’re working with folks who have experienced generations of land-based trauma—slavery, sharecropping, the guest worker program, convict leasing, and more,” said Penniman. “That trauma is passed down and influences the way people relate not just to the land but to each other and to themselves, their own sense of purpose and worth and possibility. If we’re going to be in the business of calling people back to the land, part of it is paying attention to that trauma.” As much a farmer as a healer, in Farming While Black Penniman outlines the diasporic healing rituals employed at Soul Fire Farm such as dance, story circles, spiritual baths, and Haitian stone balancing. “These technologies have thrived for thousands of years because they’re very effective,” li says. “It’s important for us to make them accessible to folks who might have been disconnected previously.” Penniman’s work is art adjacent, and li’s healing practice extends to the collective Harriet’s Apothecary, founded by the artist Adaku Utah. The Apothecary members include Penniman’s sister, Naima Penniman, Soul Fire’s program director and one half of the acclaimed spoken word duo Climbing PoeTree.

Soul Fire’s work to heal historical and contemporary racialized traumas is deeper than the soil they till. In 2016, they worked with the Movement for Black Lives, contributing to the policy visions for economic justice and reparations. Then, they contributed to the Green New Deal through their work with various coalitions. More recently, they were tapped by both the Warren and Sanders campaigns to help develop their farming platforms. And Soul Fire continues to work with Heal Food Alliance, “a multi-sector, multi-racial coalition building collective power to transform our food and farm systems.” They’re also regular “rabble-rousers” around the Farm Bill. Their advocacy efforts are modeled in their own policies. For example, they’ve spent years developing relationships to establish a “cultural respect easement” that would allow Mohican citizens to use Soul Fire land, which was historically stewarded by the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, “for ceremonies and wildcrafting in perpetuity.”

The so-called food movement promoted in mainstream media is largely driven by white folks who focus on individual choice, not systemic issues or community health. “I want us to question why we’re calling something a ‘movement’ that doesn’t center the needs of those most impacted by food injustice,” says Penniman. “We really have to be listening to the wisdom of frontline communities and making sure that they have the resources they need to thrive.” Soul Fire’s typically sold-out Farming Immersion program for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx heritage growers, and Uprooting Racism in the Food System training is where that work is most visible. The latter is not your typical diversity, equity, and inclusion training, says Penniman, because Soul Fire uses a reparations framework focused on action. As anti-racism resources are circulating online in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, Farming While Black is frequently cited—evidence of the book’s efficacy and definitely a sign of how much better our world would be if more people were working with the Soul Fire spirit.

Penniman cites feeding others during a summer internship at The Food Project in Boston as a turning point in li’s life as a farmer. But I wondered about li’s shift toward organizing and activism. “It’s always been,” said Penniman, from running li’s elementary school ecology club to protesting alongside li’s parents, both former members of the clergy, who were “very active” in the civil rights movement. “There are pictures of me with my crayon sign ‘No More War’ on my mom’s shoulders. I thank my parents for being that example of social justice warriors and caring deeply about community.”