Ferguson and food forests: Reflections on regeneration

November 25, 2014
Dear friends and fellow environmentalists, 
Like many of you, and others across the country, I have been personally reflecting about what has been happening in Ferguson.
We all view the story of Ferguson from different lenses. As I look out at these challenges, my view has been shaped by my experience as a white woman living in an East Austin neighborhood, a graduate student at UT who studies regenerative design, and a leader in the Festival Beach Food Forest project. My intent in sharing my reflections of Ferguson in my own life is to open a conversation. Through conversation, I hope to better hear and appreciate the experiences of others and discover what we can do together.
Earlier today, I posted some of my personal reflections on the Texas Permaculture Design Projects Facebook page, and someone was genuinely confused as to how anything to do with Ferguson could have to do with food forest design.
It was an honest question, and one that I thought would be best for me to reflect on myself, and to open a broader conversation among others who share my commitments to making healthy environments available to all.
So, for those of you wondering: "how is the Festival Beach Food Forest connected to Ferguson?," here is the basic gist.
1.  Regenerative design is what we're attempting to practice with the food forest. Regeneration is about creating abundance. By cultivating healthier relationships with the land, we allow it to bear fruit and reach its full capacity. By cultivating healthier relationships with one another in communities, we support each other in growing into our full capacity.

2.  Racism is significant obstacle to regenerative design. Racism is a degenerative system. By design, it dehumanizes people, perpetuates scarcity, and justifies unjust distributions of power and wealth. It also degrades ecological systems, especially when environmental burdens can be moved "away" and dumped on "lesser" people. 

3.  As we all know, our beloved city (like others across the U.S.) has been shaped profoundly by racism (if you don't know, please ask, please research, please look and listen compassionately).

4.  The Festival Beach Food Forest project site is significant in Austin's history of racism…Located, as it is, on the historic dividing line of the city. Located, as it is, yards from where a neighborhood activist was brutally beaten by cops when peacefully protesting boat races that threatened the health and tranquility of the neighborhood. 

So, in a nutshell:

  • The Festival Beach Food Forest's site is historically connected to police brutality against people of color and racial segregation in Austin.
  • These patterns of social interaction and land use are an outcome of the designed system of racism.
  • Racism is a barrier to regenerative design and creation of abundance for all.
  • If we want to create abundance, we want to understand and dismantle racism.

From a broader perspective, just as the process of regenerative design calls on us to study the flows of water over our site, and look at patterns of foot traffic, it also calls upon us to consider how this place has been shaped by patterns such as racism. Understanding of all of these elements supports the process of regeneration.

Regenerative design teaches us to observe systems and to support mutually beneficial relationships when planting vegetation. Ideally, it also teaches us to engage in mutually beneficial, respectful relationships with one another, while fostering diversity. When we're able to do both, we get to be in the practice of creating healthy communities. So how do we build those relationships?

Last Friday, I had the privilege of meeting with a woman, Eloise Sepeda who is leading this kind of regenerative relationship building work through Restorative Justice. Have you ever heard of Restorative Justice?  It is powerful. The Restorative Justice Process creates a safe space for intentional conversations about real issues that cause harm to self, community, schools, etc. The conversations are held in circles which represent equality for everyone that is in the space. These conversations heal broken relationships and build healthy communities. Please check out the organization leading it, Life Anew. They will also be speaking about their work at the solidarity gathering tonight (invitation below).

Also, the design science of permaculture (a practice of regenerative design) includes an ethical commitment to "earth care, people care, and fair share." To fulfill "people care" and "fair share," we have the opportunity to notice the patterns of racism and sexism that stand between us and that possibility.  Having named these patterns, we can more freely develop healthy relationships. This is challenging and sometimes overlooked. Dani Slabaugh is a permaculture teacher who has been embracing this challenge by incorporating such training in her teaching. I have not been to one of her courses, but I know her commitment well. If you did not read her open letter to environmentalists and local food enthusiasts posted on Austin EcoNetwork before, I hope you make the time. Her letter also references the great work that Undoing Racism has been leading in Austin.

I am inspired by the work of these leaders, and I am moved to do my part in having these kinds of courageous conversations about racism. I know, very personally, how challenging this can be. I know I have a lot to learn, and I have a lot of growing and stretching to do. I know this will take practice and courage. I know it will take more listening on my part, and looking to the leadership of people of color who have fought against the odds to make my neighborhood great over many decades.

Thankfully, there are community leaders actively creating space for such dialogue.  I am personally grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the Restorative Justice work underway at Martin Middle School led by Life Anew. I also believe these conversations will help build the regenerative capacity of the Festival Beach Food Forest. Tremendous opportunities for relationship building lie ahead.

If you would like to join in the challenge of building healthy, mutually beneficial relationships, please consider supporting and participating in the work of Life Anew and Undoing Racism. It is, indeed, possible for us to engage constructively in these challenging conversations. Reflecting on the recent conflict over Springdale Farm, I see powerful opportunities ahead for such relationship rebuilding that could ultimately support creation of a healthy, local food system that benefits all. If that possibility moves you, too, please share in the comments, reach out to these organizations, and/or reach out to me.

Finally, as we reflect on what is happening with Ferguson, and racism in our country… And as we approach Thanksgiving…Let's all take a moment to give thanks.  Let's give thanks for our capacity as a community to ask big questions, build strong relationships, and grow together. 

Let's give thanks especially for that which we often take for granted. The people in our lives who make it great, but whom we seldom acknowledge. The gifts that we enjoy, which we were simply given…

For those of us born white, let's acknowledge our white privilege. For those of us born into wealth, let's acknowledge the freedoms that come with that.  For those of us who had an amazing education, let's celebrate it. There are so many forms of privilege, let's be grateful for them.

Let's also look to the sources of these privileges. Gifts from our God(s)? Gifts from our family of origin? Gifts from our position in inherited systems? Gifts from…?  Let's look. Let's give thanks. Let's use our gifts, from whatever their sources, with responsibility, awareness, and compassion. Let's use them to expand opportunity and abundance for all. Let's commit to undoing the systems that reproduce scarcity, domination, and control, while separating us from each other and from the earth.

To that end, I wanted to share a quote from Dr. King's colleague, Howard Thurman (they traveled to India together to meet Gandhi) [just change to include women 😉 ]

"The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being. It may be, I don't know, that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one's fellows as human beings. It means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organic kinship that binds him [or her] ethnically or "racially" or nationally. He has a sense of being an essential part of the structural relationship that exists between him and all other men [and women], and between him, all other men [and women], and the total external environment. As a human being, then, he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all that lives and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived. In other words, he sees himself as a part of a continuing, breathing, living existence. To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world."

We are, indeed, all connected in a living world. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. Please stand in solidarity with everyone experiencing systemic racism, especially those who are experiencing the most fear and direct brutality. There are so many ways to show it. The gathering tonight at 6pm at APD 715 East 8th Street is just one. It would be wonderful to be together there.

Most of all, as environmentalists and human beings, let's challenge ourselves to listen compassionately, look critically at the systems of which we are part, and act creatively and collaboratively in service of a world that works for all.

In peace and thanksgiving,

Elizabeth Walsh

[please note that this reflection is that of the author and does not represent any other person]

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