Reconsidering What Resistance Looks Like
Many academics have focused on pickets, marches and boycotts as strategies of social movements and resistance. Charles Tilly defined a social movement as, “a series of contentious performances, displays and campaigns by which ordinary people make collective claims on others.” Tilly and other movement scholars have focused their attention on formal, structured, and organizational strategies as demonstrations of resistance. In the process, they have missed some strategies that are defined as such by those who participate in them.
Gardening is one such form of resistance that has completely flown below the radar. Six years ago I was laughed at when I told folks that I studied urban gardening in Detroit. When I talked about my research on black farmers and the struggle for the right to grow food, people often asked me, “What are they fighting? How is this resistance? Where are the picket signs, the protest marches and the rallies?” Allowing activists to define their own behavior and connect their actions to causes unearths a significance and a meaning to their behavior that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Farmers challenge current definitions of resistance. Their work demands that movement scholars reconsider what resistance looks like and how it is performed. Farming and gardening are not directly confrontational with the power structure, however freedom farmers define gardening as a resistance strategy. Their work is internally transformative not only for themselves, but for their families and their communities in three ways: healthy living and the production of healthy food, building community through the food system and cooking as resistance.
Healthy Living as Resistance
In a sedentary culture where people drive to get across the street, healthy living can be seen as resistance. These farmers resist by exercising on the farm, a type of exercise that was universally apart of human existence before handing the provision of food to big agricultural companies and the popularity of manufactured environments like health clubs. Freedom farmers direct their attention inward, toward repairing their health by growing healthy food using sustainable growing practices, and by transforming neglected, abandoned lots into healthy, vibrant, green, urban spaces developed for exercise and healthy food. These lots were once overgrown with weeds and unkempt. People walked out of their way in order to avoid them. Today and they are filled with artwork, children’s gardens, laughter and play.
Community Building as Resistance
People would never see a group of gardeners and think, “Wow, I wonder what they are protesting?” The question should not be what are they fighting, rather the question should be what are they building. They are re-building the community around a food system. One way of doing this is by working the garden/farm and producing healthy, organic food. Another way of community building is by working together and getting to know their neighbors. They participate in collective decision making about what should happen in these new “common” areas. It is in this movement that we witness the process of moving from individuals who live in the same neighborhood, yet who barely know each other, to people who have become neighbors. They start talking to each other, they engage in collective problem solving, they develop a sense of social responsibility. They come together and begin to search for ways that they can help each other…not to mention intergenerational interaction in one space where youngins’ and elders come together. Elders offer a wealth of knowledge and kids keep them young… now that’s revolutionary!!!
Another community building strategy through farming is in knowing, supporting and buying from folks in their own neighborhood. Freedom farmers prioritize respectful and mutually rewarding relationships with the people responsible for the food they eat through all of the various stages of the food system. The slogan, “know your farmer” for them is revolutionary. We are so disconnected from the names, the faces and the stories of those who are responsible for one of life’s essentials, our daily bread. Other behaviors they consider as resistance include buying and growing wholesome foods, neighborhood and communal dining experiences are examples of resistance for them.
Cooking as Resistance
Freedom farmers also define other food-related behaviors, not traditionally identified as a resistance strategy, as such. Americans dine out an average of 4-5 times a week. The numbers are higher for poor people and communities of color. Freedom farmers define cooking as an act of resistance. They see the dinner table as an everyday harvest festival to pay homage to all who played a role in bringing the food from field to plate. They see the act of cooking as a labor of love, saying to all who dine here, “I love you so much I cooked for you.”