Smoke from incense swirled around the porch. Herbs and a lavender plant waned from the summer heat. The rocking chairs beneath us creaked as neighbors came and went, some stopping by only briefly to exchange meals and others staying longer to share stories from around Stark Court. Throughout the summer we talked about dilapidated properties and the city’s disregard for ward five. We discussed barriers to having the first African American getting seated on city council, the effects of climate change, the prison industrial complex, gender-based violence, and most notably, food apartheids and the devastating consequences of an unequal food system.
In Marion County, Ohio the per capita income is just over $40,000. Many neighborhoods that were once middle class are now rundown (14%). Black children are 4 times more likely to experience poverty compared to their white peers (71% and 22% respectively). This, combined with high levels of adult obesity (36%) and food insecurity (15%), paints a picture of a struggling community. As an Extension educator, I knew one initiative could not easily address decades of community neglect and disinvestment. I understood that to a few, I would be seen as an outsider as a middle class, white woman who lived 30 miles south of town. Among some of my peers, my pedagogy was met with criticism. Nevertheless, I persisted.
The most prominent program was a 15-week series aimed at developing multi-cultural, leadership capacity at the grassroots level. Community Voices’ central premise was that when voices are raised in unity, we can enact positive change. After only the first few meetings the cohort increased urgency around Marion’s food ways. With a historically black church, a city council representative, two farmers, and disability rights activists, we acquired land bank properties to transform them into accessible community gardens. My responsibility was to organize and link resources that could provide starter plants and seeds, water tanks and rain barrels, small tools and equipment, soil testing, and picnic tables. Together we sponsored Community Planting Days, taste-testings at the garden, educational events, a farm tour, and at the end of the season, initiated the development of a neighborhood association. A year later, we continue to assert land cultivation as a significant part in the fight for freedom.
There are several lessons learned from my experience. To start, as a system, we need to uphold the promises made in the Extension Professional’s Creed by prioritizing civic participation (i.e. “people’s ability and power to enlarge their lives and plan for the happiness of those they love”). Secondly, an anti-racist agenda has to be explicit to be relevant to the needs of historically neglected populations. Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. OSU Extension can evaluate the characteristics we consider norms and standards, but haven’t been pro-actively named or chosen by the groups we serve. Last but not least, we can do what we do best and cultivate belonging. When all people are included and where everyone is at the decision-making table, transformation becomes really easy to access and there’s enough support to yield healing for everyone.
From our front porch to yours, we are rooting for you.
Article courtesy of Whitney Gherman, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, SNAP-ED, Marion County, Ohio.