In Durham, activist Maya Wiley connects food, racial equality

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Maya Wiley delivers the 2013 CEFS Annual Sustainable Agriculture Lecture at the Durham Armory on Feb. 27.
  • Raymond Goodman/CEFS
  • Maya Wiley delivers the 2013 CEFS Annual Sustainable Agriculture Lecture at the Durham Armory on Feb. 27.


Although we're well into the 21st century, people of color continue to experience discrimination in regards to food: access to healthy choices, the treatment of farmworkers and land ownership.

“Race is a very dark place,” food activist and former civil rights attorney Maya Wiley said at a lecture Wednesday night in Durham. “We need to acknowledge how the food system is not working in ways that aren’t always visible to us. When we’re talking about race, we’re talking about all of us. Because we all have one.”

At Center for Environmental Farming System’s 2013 Sustainable Agriculture Lecture, Wiley retold the story of the 21-year-old man who left a life of gang violence and became a food activist. Now he grows and sells produce in his neighborhood through SWARM (Students Working for an Agricultural Revolutionary Movement), a program supported by CEFS and directed by Shorlette Ammons.

“We have to shine a light in dark places,” she recalls him saying.

Wiley is president of the Center for Social Inclusion, a national public policy strategy and research organization based in New York City. She works to protect the rights of disadvantaged communities through policy change. Many of the Center’s programs focus on social disparity in the South as it relates to improving a food system rife with racial inequity.

“People are struggling to help their communities survive,” Wiley told INDY Week in an interview prior to her speech. “Survival in the sense of having healthy food. Youth are in literal, physical danger to gun violence and gangs. It’s about saving the community. And all of their stories [in Goldsboro] were about how they were trying to recreate a sense of community and community connection, and how food was a theme in that.”

Wiley spoke comprehensively about what food justice means to communities, particularly communities of color as both farmers and consumers. In 2007, black land ownership in the U.S. increased, but, North Carolina experienced a drastic dip due to unfair or no opportunities for farmers of color.

The message she delivered was familiar to the audience. The free, public event included scientists, agroecologists, local government officials, university professors, high school teachers, farmers, chefs, community organizers and other local food advocates who have been part of a movement for a more fair food system for decades.

But what was unusual was that race was broached outside of activist circles or conferences, and instead brought up explicitly in a public food-focused event.

Wiley’s candid approach emphasized the inclusion of all underrepresented minorities.

“You can say that some white farmers are sharecroppers,” she said. “We want to pay attention to the white farmers enslaved by the contract of a stateless corporation.”

“We want to pay attention to 90 percent of migrant farmworkers who speak Spanish,” she continued. “And their children who, while we have child protection laws in this country, can legally work in the fields. That migrant farmworker makes about $11,000 a year. That is not enough to feed their family.”

Earlier on The State of Things, Wiley discussed the stagnant Farm Bill as a reason for many gaps in the food system. “Where we are politically is in a very bad place,” she told host Frank Stasio.

Wiley’s lecture further discussed a current $5 billion subsidy for corn and soy crops but leaves no money for fruits and vegetables. According to statistics compiled by the Center for Social Inclusion, 38 percent of all white farmers farm fruits and vegetables. Half of all black farmers, half of all Native American farmers and two-thirds of Asian farmers work in fruits and vegetables. None are receiving subsidies.

Whether they are hungry or working to grow this produce, Wiley emphasized that “the rural community is literally dying for fruits and vegetables"—as are urban areas.

“Fifty million Americans today are struggling to eat at the end of the month. And 40 percent are working. A lot of them that aren’t are children. We have one of the highest child poverty rates of the industrialized world.”

Wiley cited hopeful examples of community affecting real change. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for one, targeted fast food corporations that weren’t paying white farmers enough, she said, so that migrant workers picking Taco Bell’s tomatoes received wages that were “virtual slavery.”

But the coalition's pressure worked, and farmworkers received a small wage increase.

While Wiley stressed that she's not anti-corporation, Wiley urged the crowd to research political history and “fight together.”

“The 14th amendment makes corporations citizens. What was it supposed to do? Give citizenship to former slaves,” she said. “This is why we’re all together. That constitutional amendment has been used 70 precent more for corporations than to consider issues for people of color in this country.”

“You have to be helping people who are poor become not poor in lasting ways,” she told the INDY. “Food relates because there is no single issue. These things are all connected. We have to think about our economy, and how to make this farm-to-fork system work for all people.”

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