An Open Letter to the Food Collective: A Reflection on Race, Narrative, and Critical Consciousness
By: Grace Lihn
Dear Berkeley Student Food Collective,
The need to hold space for racial dialogue within our organization is long overdue. On October 23, 2015, I hosted the collective’s first circle for people of color – many of whom are absent in our organization (for reasons I will delineate later) – to have space to explore the intersection of food, culture, and race. The membership in July established a five-year goal of reducing inequities and socio-economic barriers to food access. It’s been seven years since the Food Collective’s founding and we’re only now beginning to think critically about what the systemic issue of food access means in a grocery store like ours.
But it’s not too late. We reflect on the past to plan for the future – the time to act is now.
The first step that the Food Collective can take is understand and challenge its role in oppression within food systems – that is, understand that complacency and inaction reinforce existing privilege and oppression. It is necessary for individual members to acknowledge responsibility in systems of oppression – for we all participate in these systems no matter how hard we try to escape them; simply delegating a committee to issue a formal statement on paper does not solve the problem at its roots. (It’s part of this process, but should not be the only action.) For these reasons, I have advocated tirelessly for the incorporation of racial dialogue and allyship in our member and community education. The result: a reflection circle to discuss racial equity and food justice in relation to the Berkeley Student Food Collective – which reached over 1000 people through its event page. Yet, only seven people were present at this circle (including the two facilitators), four of which were people of color. The circle’s collective frustration is perhaps best expressed through one participant’s comment, “Where are all the white people at?” This event was made for you, white allies. We need you to have these conversations in order to properly fulfill your duty to the Food Collective and its mission.
The Food Collective derives its nonprofit tax-exempt status from its mission to educate: to inform the general public and its member volunteers. Moreover, its board of directors is supposed to be representative of the educational aspect of this organization. The board is the concentration of collective history and knowledge – currently in the form of 18 coordinators and committees – all striving to achieve the collective’s mission. Last week’s board meeting was a series of breakout sessions designed for coordinators to analyze and understand systemic oppression, as well as organizational practices that perpetuate hierarchies of privilege. From that meeting, the board outlined its preliminary action steps, including the incorporation of anti-oppressive practices into each coordinator’s position description. As much as I’ve been frustrated with the slow and near-backward processes of getting this dialogue to the board, I commend my fellow coordinators who have volunteered to participate in the collective’s anti-oppression work. However, please understand that those actions do not constitute the end. There is so much more we need to do, so many more dialogue spaces to be held before we reach a place of equity. That is, a point where those in this organization with white privilege no longer get defensive when people of color speak out about the racism inherent in the systems that this organization complicitly participates in. Race is an uncomfortable topic for many – as constructed so by the capitalist and colonialist policies which govern our world and benefit from those subordinated by the existing system – but that should only be a signal for people to engage more in dialogue about race.
Delving into anti-oppression organizing has been a long, arduous, and at times intensely destabilizing process for me. Yet, it has also provided me a glimpse of the work of other organizers, especially people of color, that has paved the road for my own critical consciousness. I have learned that it is so difficult to establish racial dialogue spaces because institutions and a history of colonialism built on discrimination have socialized and normalized people to believe that to speak of race is to be “racist” – that silence will allow the system to correct itself over time. We are silenced into believing that economic injustices are separate from racial injustices because those in power are aware that a collective realization of the intersectionality of injustices would mean an end to the oppression from which they derive their power. This is why I and my fellow activists of color refuse to cater to white fragility. We know that white people have had their ears muffled for centuries, and we’re calling for an end to that.
My two closest friends and I have watched the Food Collective expand into a greenwashing, largely unaffordable, and white-dominated space that has benefited from the cultural appropriation of many marginalized communities (due, in part, because of the lack of education about cultural competency and the separation between our store and many food producers). I’ve listened to countless students of color tell me that they feel uncomfortable in our store, overwhelmed by its greenwashing and whiteness, and actively do not wish to join our membership. It’s not that the collective’s mission does not align with their interests, but that the collective’s lack of accountability in achieving its mission appalls them. When I told a close friend (and former member) that there was a chance the new signage on our window would say “Natural Food For All” – what I and many believe to be an act of greenwashing and volunteer saviorism – she replied, “Hasn’t the Food Collective always been a greenwashed space?” My heart sank, because that is true.
It is so easy to be entrenched in the volunteer culture and in the business aspect of the store, to be blind to its faults and its community image. It is easy to dismiss criticisms against the organization as disgruntled complaints that can be dealt with at a later time. It is easy to be complacent, to keep moving forward with what we have, rather than examine our gaps as room for improvement. It is difficult to identify systemic oppression in individual’s work, to separate the individual from the system, while being critical of the socialization channels through which the system has indoctrinated the individual. It is difficult to transform an organization built on values and ideals into a space of real material change that challenges institutionalized norms and doesn’t further subordinate marginalized communities through complacency. But this critical consciousness is necessary, and long overdue at the cost of black and brown bodies.
Communications Director, August 2014 – January 2016
Berkeley Student Food Collective