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There were ten of us. Some rooted in different generations, others in different cultures, and some living in separate places. A few of us had never met before.

But all of us shared a passion for feeding our communities.  And together we were setting out on a journey… to the mushy center of fighting racism.

Sixteen long hours later we all arrived, sleep-deprived, at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee. This was the site of Growing Power’s Growing Food and Justice for All Gathering 2011.

This gathering was to be about dismantling racism in the food system, coming together as food activists and growers to understand how to do this work with one another and take what we learn back to our communities.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been to conferences like this before where there are often hard discussions, emotional sharing circles, and intense anti-racist and leadership training. But for this conference, I was slightly skeptical.  Mainly because Growing Power has been developing relationships with corporations like Wal-Mart and Sysco recently, and I didn’t get how an organization funded by the king of screwing people over was going to lead a conference on how to keep people from getting screwed over.

Immediately in the welcoming speech, I was rolling my eyes. Will Allen, the head of Growing Power(GP), was trying to rally us around the idea of working harmoniously with corporations. To be clear: the same institutions responsible for sustaining systemic racism and oppression within society for decades.

My crew and I weren’t buyin’ it. And apparently we weren’t alone. Later, on the mural “tagging wall” in the conference lobby, someone drew a big red box with the words “Wal-Mart !?” written inside of it.

There was a general “WTF?!” buzz when on the tour of GP’s different farm sites too, where we rolled up right in front of Sysco. This multinational food distributor conglomerate had given GP a slice of land, stamped with their brand. My thoughts immediately jumped to whether this compromised GP’ s growing tactics. The crops looked pristine – Were they spraying pesticides? Chemical fertilizers? Using GMO seeds?

But as the tour went on, I learned this wasn’t the case at all. Growing Power did not compromise their growing tactics. In fact, not only did they not spray anything on these Sysco crops, nor use GMO seeds, they also didn’t irrigate or even use organic fertilizer at this particular site. They simply relied on the rain, sun and hard work of their farmers to grow copious amounts of healthy food. It was impressive.

Lesson #1: Don’t Assume

I also seemed to soften up on the fact that they were working with Sysco. Not to the point of wanting to walk hand-in-hand with corporations, but just to recognize that this meant the public schools in Wisconsin would now source their food from a healthy farmer instead of many other farmers Sysco would normally source from.  However, I wasn’t as easily swayed with justifying the whole Wal-Mart relationship.

But I was blown away by the amount of production GP was making possible on only 2.7 acres of land. (17 greenhouses, goats, chickens, turkeys, tilapia, mushrooms, compost, solar water and rain catchment systems)

The question of sustaining the integrity of one’s work while sustaining the finances needed to do that work, was a recurring debate throughout this journey.

Lesson #2: No One Seems to Have the Answers to This Vital Question

Once we moved past the skepticism and debate however, we finally arrived at the beautiful, mushy center of love and traditions.

It made perfect sense to me that those two themes were woven into a conference about dismantling racism. Love and tradition are important themes that I think get lost in most gatherings like this.  Many conferences I attend are all full-speed-ahead action steps and networking, but this one reminded us of why we are doing this work. It gave us time to connect with each other’s cultures and honor each other’s traditions.

I heard stories from many people about what calls them to this work. From Bean, whose ancestors immigrated from Japan to grow pineapples here, to Dawoud who began working on a goat farm to heal his post-traumatic stress disorder as a war veteran. I learned about Michael’s native wisdom on the herbs of tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. We rallied with farmworkers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at the local Trader Joe’s to demand more money for the tomatoes Immokalee farmworkers grow.  We listened to the beat of the drums played by the brothers from the Oyotunji African Village.

We paid respects every morning at sunrise to indigenous burial grounds nearby.  We kept a sacred fire burning the entire gathering, and shared stories, wisdom, songs, languages and hopes around it.  We had Capoeira and Bembe sessions and even the women gathered for a Mother Moon full moon ceremony.

These moments outside of the workshops were vital to creating a space for understanding, love and respect, which are the only ways we can even begin to approach the beast of racism.

Lesson # 3: Every Fighter Needs a Mushy Center

Now we’re ready for anything.

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