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Centering Racial Justice in Farming

AU hosted a historic gathering of farmers and agricultural advocates at Airlie, which included a visit to the Hill to lobby lawmakers to consider racial equity and inclusion when crafting the 2023 farm bill.

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Participants from the AU hosted farm bill summit provide a briefing in the Russell Senate Office Building on May 2.

An interdisciplinary collection of American University scholars and centers partnered with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FSC/LAF) and the Berkeley Food Institute for a landmark summit, April 30 to May 2. Participants, who first gathered at Airlie, traveled to the US Capitol to draw support for the inclusion of equity and racial justice in the 2023 farm bill. 

“This extraordinary group of people has come together to center the policies and advocacy of [FSC/LAF],” said SIS provost associate professor Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, who has now helped fundraise for and organize two farm bill conferences at AU. “This monumental event was many years in the making. Racial justice was a part of previous symposiums on farm bills, but it can’t be part—it has to be centered.” 

Pointing the Farm Bill Toward Racial Justice focused on advancing equity across the upcoming legislation by examining how it impacts farmers, landowners, and cooperatives from marginalized communities. The stakeholders hope to lobby legislators into considering climate justice, food system resilience, fair prices, and more as the bill takes shape this summer. 

American University’s Center for Environment, Community, and Equity, the Antiracist Research Policy Center, the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, and experts from the AU-led RECIPES grant from the National Science Foundation banded together to make the event possible. 

“AU hosting this conference shows allyship,” said SOC doctoral student Tambra Stevenson, who is a part of the RECIPES team studying wasted food. “It shows the need to build cooperation and that we’re all in it together to build a better food system. It shows what inclusivity looks like by bringing all partners together around this conversation.” 

The conference’s location at Airlie reflects the property’s legacy of as a gathering place for changemakers. Airlie, gifted to AU in 2016 as one of the earliest gifts in the Change Can’t Wait campaign, hosted planning sessions for leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. The FSC/LAF itself was formed in 1967 by community organizers and civil rights leaders to fight Black land loss and equity in agricultural policies for African American farmers. 

Discussions and briefings lasted two full days at Airlie, with stakeholders representing coalitions, councils, and organizations dedicated to supporting equitable food systems. Participants represented agricultural communities throughout the country, including tribal lands and the US Virgin Islands. The summit moved to the Russell Senate Office Building on May 2, with experts briefing the public and policymakers on their work and challenges facing farmers of color. 

The briefing echoed a grim picture of the ongoing discrimination against producers of color. A 2019 story in the Atlantic reported that Black families had lost 12 million acres of land over the past century, with most losses coming since 1950. A report from NPR found that Black farmers had more trouble obtaining direct loans from the USDA than White farmers, and four times as many Black farmers were rejected for loans than their White counterparts. 

The work presented during the summit aims to address some of those inequities, including retooling how the USDA’s Farm Service Agency grants and supports loans. Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at FSC/LAF, held two years of advocacy listening sessions and shared at the summit policy recommendations and practices on loans, conservation program funding, and the heir property relending program. 

After the briefing, some summit participants filtered through the Capitol office corridors for meetings with lawmakers or their staff. Graddy-Lovelace, Stevenson, and SIS practicum students visited Senator Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) office. They met with legislative aide Anna Whitney, who covers agriculture and food issues for the office. Stevenson, the founder of Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics, and Agriculture, lobbied for Booker to support a food bill of rights she authored and sought advice about tactics from lawmakers. Whitney advised writing a letter to Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, for support on the bill of rights and told the group to remain in touch. 

“All of my education has been community-based, and I’ve always been motivated to turn that into community action,” Stevenson said. “We brought the work on the farm to the Hill. We have to talk to the people who have the power to make change. We must lift our voices, and we have to back it up with our votes.”