In Episode 86, Quinn & Brian ask: What can we do to support the black farmers who have the ancient answers to rebuilding our soil, farms, and food system?
Our guest is: Leah Penniman, Co-Director and Farm Manager of Soul Fire Farm, a farm dedicated to ending racism and injustice in the food system. Leah is also the author of “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.”
In many ways, Soul Fire Farm represents a new start for American agriculture — a new start built on some very old roots, carrying on the legacy and wisdom of sustainable African farming traditions. We all benefit from the incredible work that Li and the others at Soul Fire Farm are doing, and this is a piece of historical and ecological education that everyone in the US, in particular, should be aware of.
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Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And my name's Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: There's the energy we're looking for. This is the podcast where we try to bend the mother fucking arc of history towards a more livable planet for you, for me, and for everyone else.
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Brian: Thank you. This week's episode asks what we can do to support the Black farmers who have the ancient answers to rebuilding our soil, and farms, and food system.
Quinn: They've been here the whole time. Our guest is the magnificent Leah Penniman, and we're going to talk about her book, Farming While Black, her story, and how she's building something very, very special in freezing cold Upstate New York. It is a new start, and it is built on some very, very old and thankfully proven foundations. We all benefit from her incredible work.
Brian: Awesome conversation.
Quinn: Let's get right to it. Okay, let's talk to Leah. Our guest today is Leah Penniman, and together we're going to talk about Farming While Black, the past and the future. Leah, welcome.
Leah Penniman: Thanks so much for having me.
Quinn: For sure.
Brian: We are excited to have you, and have this conversation, so thank you. If we can just get started by give everybody a quick intro of who you are and what you do.
Leah Penniman: Sure thing. Well, I'm up here in the snowy mountains of Grafton, New York at Soul Fire Farm. We're on 80 acres in Mohegan territory, and we are dedicated to ending racism and injustice in the food system. So we're producing food and medicine, distributing that to people who need it in our community, and also training up the next generation of Black and brown farmers.
Quinn: I love that.
Brian: Hell yeah.
Quinn: No small feat.
Leah Penniman: No small feat. We keep pretty busy around here.
Brian: Oh, that's so cool.
Quinn: I'm sure, I'm sure.
Brian: As a reminder to everyone, and Leah, so you know, our goal is to provide some quick context for the question or the topic at hand for today, and then we're going to dig into some action-oriented questions that get to the core of why we should all give a shit about it and you, and what we can all do about it. Does that sound great?
Leah Penniman: I am definitely in favor of giving a shit, so yeah, let's go.
Quinn: Rock and roll. Awesome. Leah, we start with one important question to sort of set the tone of things. Instead of asking you to go over your entire life story, as amazing as I'm sure that might be, we like to ask, Leah, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Leah Penniman: Well, I actually don't have such an inflated opinion of myself as to think that I, as an individual, are vital. But I will say that our work at Soul Fire Farm, and by extension this whole food sovereignty movement, is absolutely essential. We all eat, we pretty much all live on land, unless you happen to be in a boat, and right now, as you know, our food system is really in crisis.
Leah Penniman: Our top soil is flowing into the oceans, our climate is in chaos, we have pesticide resistant bugs proliferating, we have a loss of insects and biodiversity. Then, of course, our farm workers are being treated like crap, our farmers are losing their land, and the people who need the food the most aren't getting it. So our food system is absolutely in crisis, and it's essential that everybody learns about it, and cares about it so that we can survive.
Quinn: Yeah, that sounds pretty straightforward to me.
Quinn: Yeah, everybody eats.
Brian: Everybody eats.
Quinn: Everybody eats, and the soil is a mess.
Brian: Also, if I could just quickly comment, you said everybody eats and lives on land or on a boat, and I don't know if you've listened to any of our fun talks, but there was a time when I was trying to live in space, and so if there's anybody out there living in space ...
Quinn: Yeah, but that didn't work.
Brian: No, it didn't work out, but I just wanted ...
Leah Penniman: It didn't work out, yeah. Yeah, for now we all rely on land. We live-
Brian: Just throwing it out there.
Quinn: The point here, Brian, you're stuck with us.
Brian: Leah is right. I was just saying, Leah is right.
Quinn: Yeah, of course she is. All right, Leah, what I'm going to do is I usually do quick, again, like one minute context for everybody to get up to speed, and sometimes that's super technical, and it's like, "What is leukemia?" or, "How does air pollution work?" before we get into the questions. Or sometimes it's ethical, or whatever it might be.
Quinn: his time, just because of what we're going to get in today, and the fact that it's two white guys in Los Angeles talking to you, I want to be sort of specifically personal about it real quick, which is to preface this by publicly acknowledging, for anyone that's new here, that I and Brian, we are upper middle class Los Angeles cis White men.
Quinn: My direct ancestors, as far as I can tell from the online things that are going to steal all of my information, mostly came from Ireland and France, and Scotland and The Netherlands a little farther back, ranging from early 1600s to the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. They were, as far as I've been able to tell, variations on European White. I'm from Virginia, Williamsburg, just down the street from Jamestown, founded in 1607, which was the first permanent English colony in the Americas, and of course, that means, simultaneously, some of the first permanent stolen lands from the Powhatan people, to be specific, and they branched on out from there. The first tobacco was planted a few years after that, African slaves showed up in 1619, and the rest is history. Their plan worked.
Quinn: I have been lucky to learn from a distance. That is, my livelihood and my food security were never really threatened, as our country was built on farmlands that were stolen from first generations people, that was worked by African slaves, and that we've eventually now destroyed along the way with mono crops and industrial agriculture.
Quinn: So we White folks, we designed and built this system, like we eventually designed and built the prison industrial complex. And along the way, not only did we enslave African people and build our entire economy on their broken backs, we brought in millions of Latinx people to plant, and grow, and pick, and serve our food. Nearly all of our land, as far as I've been able to find out, is still owned by White people, while worked mostly by non-White people.
Quinn: When people ask like why do we have conversations like this, it's because Black lives matter, because Black farmers matter, and on an even grander scale, because we care so much about climate change and the future in the next chapter of American history and world history, which just can't look anything like the first chapters. And because we have to fix our soil, and we have to fix our food system, and because we specifically need to humble ourselves before people like yourselves, who combine ancient farming methods with progressive plans of the future.
Quinn: So I can't imagine a world where I could do enough to rectify our history, so of course, we started a podcast, and so I just want to listen and learn as much as I can to have a conversation, like we always try to do, because if we cannot use this platform for conversations like this, if we can't try to be allies, I'm frankly not sure what it's for.
Quinn: Before we even get into this, I just want to thank Leah for taking the time to specifically talk to us today. And that's what I got.
Leah Penniman: Thanks for that accountable introduction, I really appreciate it.
Quinn: Yeah, I mean, that's the point, right? We need to be honest and transparent if we're going to move this thing forward. So let's talk about Farming While Black, something I will never directly experience, but I really, really want to understand. Leah, the first words in your book are, "This book is dedicated to our ancestral grandmothers, who braided seeds in their hair before being forced to board transatlantic slave ships, leaving against in the odds in a future of sovereignty on land."
Quinn: I want to go back to the first time you heard that. Tell me how old you were, and where it came from, and how it affected you.
Leah Penniman: Oh my, it was actually pretty recent that I started to dig into Black agrarian history. Like so many of us, I've been farming for over 20 years, and when I went to conferences, and read books, they were pretty much all written by, led by White men, and I assumed erroneously that anything that mattered in terms of organic and regenerative ag came from European folks.
Leah Penniman: It wasn't until I started teaching here at Soul Fire Farm, primarily folks from the Black community, the Latinx, and indigenous community that I knew I needed to uncover a different narrative. It could not be possible that the only relationship we had with farming and land was through enslavement and sharecropping.
Leah Penniman: So I just started with a hypothesis that Black farmers matter, and dug into the literature, dug into the anthropology journals, started asking elders. And of course, that history was right there, ready to be uncovered. Specifically, the story of our ancestors braiding seeds into their hair, I first uncovered from Judith Carney's work. She wrote a book called Black Rice that talks about the [foreign language 00:10:21] people and their contribution to rice agriculture in the Carolinas. Then, I asked elders in my own family about this, and they said, "Oh yeah, of course, that's how we got our seeds over here. We hid them in our braids."
Quinn: That's incredible.
Brian: That's wild.
Quinn: That's amazing.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, it's so powerful, because I think it's very easy for me, I'm disillusioned all the time, and I often feel hopeless, and what's the point of busting ass if we're going to lose anyway. Then I think about my grandma's grandma's grandma in the shores of the Dahomey region West Africa being faced with kidnapping, and being forced to this ship, and if she could put seeds in her hair and have that kind of hope, who am I to then give up on our descendants in this time.
Quinn: Right. It's one of those it's all relative kind of things, right?
Leah Penniman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Quinn: I think we've had a few conversations, and offline conversations and such with people of color who have been very happy to educate us, and rightfully so, that they're glad we're finally marching in the streets for this, our very first existential crisis, while they have been doing it all along. It does put things in context quite a bit.
Quinn: You've been farming for 20-something years. Did that reframe anything for you? Did that reinvigorate you? How did that become part of your teaching?
Leah Penniman: Well, it absolutely did. I mean, I started farming when I was 16 years old, and it was really because of a simple and passionate love of the earth. I wanted to do something that helped the planet because the planet was my true friend. We, as brown-skinned kids growing up mostly in a rural White town, it was ... let's say pure relationships were challenging, to be generous. I mean, there was just ample racialized bullying. And farming was that for me, with the bonus that I could help out the human community.
Leah Penniman: But I started to really feel like a race traitor, maybe seven to 10 years into that, and wondering if I should use my strong back and intelligent mind in some field that's more relevant, like housing discrimination or the broken public school system, something like that. It was meeting Karen Washington, who is a national leader in the Black farming movement, a farmer at Rise & Root.
Quinn: She's amazing.
Leah Penniman: She's so, so badass. She's on our board now, which I'm very excited about. But she's the one who encouraged me to keep going, and to start to suggest a reframe, that really there was dignity in farming, and that it wasn't that our ancestors would roll over in their graves when they saw us stooping, it's that they would be proud of us for reclaiming a noble heritage.
Quinn: That's pretty great.
Brian: So cool.
Quinn: We literally said we don't want you to have to dive into your entire life story, but now I'm curious. So I know you spent some time in Boston, where, when you started to dig your hands into the soil at 16, where were you? What prompted that? Was your immediate family ... did they work in farming? Were they just soil people? How did that get started?
Brian: Soil people?
Leah Penniman: No, my family was definitely not farmers. My mom lived in the ... My parents were split. My mom, who's Black, she lived in the Boston area, and my dad lived in Ashburnham, Mass. So I spent the summers in an urban environment, and that's where I saw the flyer at church for the food project, and applied, and was lucky enough to get that job.
Leah Penniman: But like so many families, our story is one of the great migration. Our grandparents fled the red clays of Georgia and the Carolinas for a better life, to escape racial terrorism and to try to get some factory job in Pittsburgh or Boston. My grandfather, who's Haitian, similarly fled the countryside, and the Tonton Macoute and all of the oppression that was going on there, and became an engineer.
Leah Penniman: So there was a dissonance, because it seemed like the trajectory should be to embrace those paved streets of the urban North, and here I was going back to soil.
Quinn: I love that. How did you find your way up to Central New York? I went to Colgate University, which I think is a couple hours away from you, which is super, duper cold. Not that Boston isn't. But how did you find your way up there?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, well I'm in the same climate that I grew up in. I'm pretty attached to the Northeast, actually. I really like these rugged, worn down, rocky areas and so forth. But the reason we left Massachusetts and moved just two hours west to the Albany area was mostly for affordability of land. We wanted to be farmers, and didn't have any inheritance or trust funds or anything like that, so we had to make due. And Upstate New York, still, you can get land for $2000 an acre, and parcels 100 acres plus because it's remote.
Brian: How big did you say your farm is?
Leah Penniman: Our farm is 80 acres.
Quinn: That's pretty amazing.
Leah Penniman: Yup, that's the 40 acres and a mule doubled, with the interest.
Quinn: And you actually have it, as opposed to everyone else who just didn't get it.
Leah Penniman: Right, and it wasn't that it was given to us as an act of reparations.
Leah Penniman: I've been a public school teacher for 17 years, give or take, and we bought the land by putting aside part of my teaching salary and borrowing money from family and friends. So bit by bit.
Quinn: That's awesome. Tell me a little bit about the setup of Soul Fire Farms, and I guess the curriculum. Paint a sort of picture for us on how everything works.
Leah Penniman: Sure. There's eight of us who are crazy enough to cast our lot here in the hills, and I love the team that we work with. Really, really blessed, and definitely want to shout them out. It's not a solo project at all. Depending on the season, it looks really different, but during the growing season, which for us is April to November, you can regularly see between 25 and 150 people here out on the land for some kind of learning opportunity.
Leah Penniman: Our most popular program is the week-long Soul Fire Farming Immersion, which brings folks from over 40 states, and oftentimes a couple countries. It is for Black indigenous and people of color who want to farm. So we wake up at 6:00 in the morning, go outside, and nourish the plants before we nourish ourselves. So we're taking care of the land, we eat food together, we learn all the farming skills you need from seed, to harvest, to market, as well as the history of our people's noble and dignified contributions to regenerative ag, and their resistance to land-based oppression.
Leah Penniman: There's a whole lot of culturally relevant activities. So we've got Greo style story telling, and drumming and dancing, and New Orleans funerals to bury our trauma. It's lit. It's really lit. Then our alumni are forever part of our network of support, and so we have all kinds of mentorship, and land link programs, and funding available to support our alums in getting started with their own farms.
Quinn: Is it pretty competitive to squeeze into that week?
Leah Penniman: It's not competitive in the sense of a meritocracy, but just because there's so much interest in the program, we have to figure out how to narrow down the hundreds of applicants to the hundred-
Quinn: Right, yeah, I meant capacity wise.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, capacity wise. So that's been heartbreaking for us, actually, as much as it's invigorating. So part of our program is a train the trainer, because our hope is that more and more programs like Soul Fire Farm that are locally adapted will be popping up all around the country so that people don't have to travel from California to New York to learn how to farm, they can go right around the corner to their own version of Soul Fire.
Brian: You house everybody and everything?
Leah Penniman: We do, yeah. We have dormitory and campgrounds, and it's pretty rustic and DIY, like bucket shower style and outdoor kitchen. As we've grown, I will say that the Rensselaer County Health Department has been paying closer attention, and we're [crosstalk 00:18:00] of raising the necessary funds to upgrade the facilities to commercial standards, so they'll be some big changes happening at Soul Fire over the next 18 months.
Quinn: Do you guys operate as a non-profit?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, we have two legal entities. The land is owned by a housing cooperative. So the people who live on the land follow a one member, one vote protocol for making decisions about how the land is used, and one of those members and tenants is the non-profit, Soul Fire Farm Institute, which it sounds a little complicated because White man's law is just complicated. Really, the [crosstalk 00:18:36]-
Leah Penniman: ... on the land, but the non-profit houses the educational programming.
Quinn: You talked about training the trainers. How long has Soul Fire been up and running now?
Leah Penniman: Oh, we're just about 10 years old. We opened fall of 2010.
Quinn: What about, again, dealing with laws, and health codes, and capacity issues, and things like that? As you train the trainers and think about this wonderful thing branching out, what have you learned? What would you be able to replicate? What would you choose to replicate? And what would you do differently as you encourage these things to sprout on their own?
Leah Penniman: That's such a good question. I think I'm even challenged by the concept or idea of replication, because I really think it would be terrifying to franchise something that really has grown out of a local community's passion, needs, demands, interests. I believe that every locality is different, and to grow its own food sovereignty project in a different way.
Leah Penniman: At the same time, just like a big grandma pine tree in the forest that's got access to a whole bunch of extra sunlight, and consequently can make extra sugars, doesn't decide to grow three times taller than everyone else, but rather shares the sugars and supports the whole super organism of the forest to grow, we really think of Soul Fire as that tree, and trying to figure out how to make sure that whatever lessons learned and resources we have are shared among our community, and that includes, you know, "Don't make the same mistake that we made."
Leah Penniman: One of the mistakes that we did make was probably, yeah, under-budgeting for infrastructure, and not thinking fully through the ways that we'd need to care for people's physical needs when they're here. I think we could've got ahead of that. But then again, we wouldn't have been able to accept so many people to our program, so lose either way.
Quinn: Sure, right. Right, yeah, good times. Good times.
Brian: Let's pivot to urban farming. You spent time cutting your time in Boston, and now have moved to Soul Fire Farm, and yet, so many predictions point toward more and more of the population moving to cities. You talk in the book about African Americans going from the South, to the great migration, to redlining, and eventually the first community gardens, and about people like Hattie Carthan, who basically planted every tree in [inaudible 00:21:00] in New York.
Leah Penniman: Right.
Brian: What does the future of urban farming look like? Has it moved to the rooftops? And where are the opportunities for Black farmers to work the soil, or raise chickens?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, I mean, I think urban farming is really crucial for some of those reasons that you started to allude to. One is that most of us Black and brown folks are living in urban areas in the United States because of that history of race-based oppression in the rural spaces in the South, where people literally were driven out of their homes with fire and gunshots, and their land was taken. So it makes sense that we would want to and need to eek out our little plot of land wherever we can find it, whether that's on a patio or rooftop, or a corner lot community garden.
Leah Penniman: It's absolutely essential. Cuba, of course, is a model of this, where in Havana and other places, they're able to do this bio intensive farming in a way that actually contributes a significant percentage of the food security for that region.
Leah Penniman: At the same time, just sheerly doing the math of productivity per square foot, we're not going to be able to feed the world on urban farming. So I think sometimes those who would be very eager, including many retirement funds and hedge funds, very eager to just grab up all of the land in the rural landscape and have those resources for themselves, they'll encourage us to peddle around with our vertical gardens. And we actually need the land back. We need a wholesale land reform in the United States. 98% of the rural land is White controlled because of a whole legacy of theft and exclusion, and true food security is going to be a combination of those urban farms and our rural landscape becoming productive in the hands of the wider community.
Brian: 98% of the land is owned by White people?
Leah Penniman: Yup.
Quinn: Yeah, but the-
Leah Penniman: 2017 USDA Census, 98% of the arable land is White controlled-
Brian: Jesus Christ.
Leah Penniman: ... which is a higher percentage than ever before in our history.
Quinn: What was the peak Black ownership of land, do you know?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, it was 1910. 1910 was the peak of Black land ownership, at around 16 million acres. And again, not because of 40 acres and a mule, that was a broken promise, but because sharecroppers saved up their money over two generations to be able to purchase those lands. Immediately, there was a fierce backlash by the Whitecaps, the Ku Klux Klan, and then later the White Citizens Council that drove Black farmers off of their land.
Quinn: So you said 16 million acres. Do you have any idea, and sorry, I realize you're not Google, what was the percentage of ownership? What did 16 million acres get you in 1920?
Leah Penniman: It was 14% of the nation's farms by number, I don't know by acres.
Quinn: Gotcha, okay. Well, I mean, that's still-
Leah Penniman: And we're down to less than 2% of the nation's farms being Black controlled.
Brian: Sort of a followup, basically, to what I was just asking. How much are cities' discriminatory zoning practices affecting the ability to set up new community gardens and urban farms?
Leah Penniman: Oh, that's such a complicated history, because in fact, for folks who don't know, in the 1930s, the federal government commissioned all these maps to be made that ranked neighborhoods from most desirable, to lend to, down to worst in terms of risk, and banks would not lend to the communities outlined in red, which were communities of color. It's known as redlining. That resulted in generations of divestment, of predatory lending, and so forth in the Black and brown community, and lead to the wealth gap we have today, which is 16:1 White:Black, meaning that a White child born in America today is 16 times wealthier when they draw their first breath than a Black child born today.
Leah Penniman: All that to say the communities that were redlined were the ones that experienced the biggest decline in the 1980s, especially in the Northeast, and the buyers, and the vacant lots, and it were elders in the community, in the Black community and the Latinx community who took those lots and turned them into beautiful community gardens. You can see an almost perfect overlay of the redlining maps and the community garden maps, right? It was quite ironic.
Leah Penniman: But then, of course, other leaders in New York City would take these now beautified neighborhoods, and then sell off the gardens to developers, and so gentrification became the next wave of displacement. People are resisting, they've always resisted. But I think that that history of undervaluing Black and brown residents of a city certainly contributes to a lack of ability to hold onto property, whether that's for housing or for gardening.
Quinn: Yeah, I mean, even if redlining is "over", I mean, the lasting impact is just shocking. I mean, it should be shocking.
Leah Penniman: You'd think it's over, and at the same time, if you go on Zillow.com, you will still see neighborhoods outlined in red as bad neighborhoods, which is just mind-boggling to me. And if you're a professional two-income household in Detroit, you can't get a mortgage. You can get a mortgage in the suburbs. So while it is illegal since 1977, it continues, in fact, that de facto segregation where Black and brown folks are still pretty stuck in the same zip codes.
Quinn: Leah, I'm a science nerd, clearly, who does this, but I was a liberal arts major, and I was actually religious studies major, even though I'm just kind of like a relatively pagan atheist, so I love the technical parts of the book. I mean, you've got, this thing, it's such an incredible instruction manual, business plans, seeds, medicinal plants. I loved Chapter 3: Honoring the Spirits of the Land.
Quinn: The quote, "In African cosmology, we believe there's no separation between the sacred and the everyday." I thought about that a lot, because when I first started studying "religion", I was really taken aback to find that most of the world's religious devotional practices is nothing really like the typical White Western version of like, you know, you go to Catholic church for a couple of hours on Sunday and get yelled at. It's every day, it's every hour, it's in waking up, and cooking, and planting, and eating, and going to sleep.
Quinn: So I wonder if you can talk to me a little bit about how farming with intention and ritual provide for a better farm and farmer. Besides, as you say in the chapter, how you benefit from fewer tick bites and poison ivy.
Leah Penniman: I feel like I'll need to explain that as well. But yeah, so I actually just got back from Ghana last week, where I went to go visit my teachers, who are the [inaudible 00:27:39] Queen Mothers of the Eastern region. I've been back four times now, and the first time lived there for about six months, and learned to farm from them, and learned a whole lot about life and what really matters.
Leah Penniman: But one of the things that they said to me the first time I was there was, "Leah, is it really true that in the United States a farmer will put a seed in the ground and they won't pray, or dance, or sing, or pour libations, or even say thank you to the earth, and then they expect the seed to grow?"
Leah Penniman: Of course, that is the case, right? They said, "Well, that's why you're all sick. You're all sick because you treat the earth as a commodity and not relative." That has shaped my whole way of being on the land. At first, I kept pretty private. I would go do a little divination to ask the earth if it was okay to move some soil from here to there, or I would do my prayers of gratitude. And as people started coming to programs, they'd be peering over my shoulder like, "What do you got going on over there? How come you've done that?"
Leah Penniman: Now it's become quite integrated. Of course, it's optional. We don't evangelize our beliefs in any way. But after folks, for example, transition a chicken from field to freezer, there's a ceremony of spiritual bath that's done in vodun, and we offer that, and people have found it very, very meaningful, and very healing to connect what they're doing in the physical realm to what's happening in the spiritual realm with their ancestors and with these forces of nature.
Quinn: How is that ... Like you said, it's optional, but I'm curious how that's received as people come to, for example, the one week program. Is there a lot of intake of this part of the program? Is it widely celebrated? I'm curious because people, like you said, come from all walks of life to attend.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, they do come from all walks of life. And as I mentioned, it wasn't something I was even going to share with folks, but it was by popular demand, and almost everyone participates. I mean, something that I think is different, too, between the Abrahamic religions and some of these indigenous religions is that we have this concept of inclusion.
Leah Penniman: For example, when we think about the deities, the forces of nature, which are called [foreign language 00:29:52]. We have a concept that there's 400 plus one of them, because we always want to leave room for encountering the sacred among our neighbors and people we meet, and making space for that within our cosmology.
Leah Penniman: So in Haiti, there's a saying that the country is 90% Catholic, 10% Protestant, and 100% Voodoo, meaning that it's okay, all of this can be compatible. There's not a sense of exclusion, or that you have to just pick one path. So I think folks have found that it's quite possible for them to revere their ancestors and the land while being Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever faith their bringing with them.
Quinn: I mean, that's about as inclusive as it gets.
Brian: Yeah, what an idea.
Quinn: I think in 2020, where all we try to do is separate people, that's pretty special.
Brian: It's so awesome.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, i always think about how mad those priests must have been in Haiti when the traditionalists are practicing their ceremonies, and praying to Ogun and [foreign language 00:30:53] and all of the different deities, and then they add Jesus in. The priests are like, "But Jesus is it."
Brian: Wait a minute.
Leah Penniman: Right? It's like, "You know, Jesus is welcome too, along with all of these other powerful forces."
Quinn: Right. I love that. Hey, just keeping on this note for one more minute, you mentioned, I believe you said your grandfather was Haitian, is that correct?
Leah Penniman: Yes. Samuel Cornelius Smith came to the United States from Haiti as a teenager, and really powerful ancestor, and dear, dear person to me. He would check my report cards when I went to visit to make sure it was straight As, and then let me into the house, and then bonus, let me into ... He was an engineer, worked for NASA, and I would check out all of his patents and inventions in the basement. I remember the smell of those erasers and rubber bands that permeated the workshop. Really good man.
Quinn: Oh, that's so cool. How did voodoo and ritual make its way into your life? Was it from him, or was it always there?
Leah Penniman: Almost certainly not. No, like so many Caribbean immigrants, he worked really hard to assimilate into Black American culture, and so we didn't even really eat the foods, maybe plantains once in a while, but we didn't eat any [foreign language 00:32:09], any of those foods. So it was after the 2010 earthquake that my sister and I, along with so many Haitian Americans felt like we needed to do something, rekindle that relationship, that we went back to the town where our family was from, and started to build with the farmers there.
Leah Penniman: So I've been to Haiti now at least seven times since 2010, and I'll work on projects with the farmers there, and through that, learned about Haitian voodoo, as well as the farming practices, the food, and culture.
Quinn: That's pretty special. It's really so compelling to find something like that, not later in life as if we're ancient, but I mean, it's like making a new best friend at 40, where you're like, "It's incredible that this person an I are so close, and yet we didn't know each other, we lived entire lives before each other." You would think, traditionally, that you have to meet these people at 12 or something to have that sort of relationship.
Leah Penniman: I love that metaphor of thinking about this relationship with [inaudible 00:33:15] as a best friend. That's beautiful.
Brian: Are you saying that you've just replaced me as a best friend, by the way?
Quinn: It's a long story.
Brian: Okay, because we need to talk about that.
Quinn: We can talk about it later.
Brian: All right.
Quinn: We can talk about it later. Sorry Leah.
Brian: Yeah, yeah, you should be sorry.
Leah Penniman: You should work that out after the call.
Brian: Yeah. Leah, what does the next 10 years of Soul Fire Farm look like, and the next 10 years of Black farming? Who are some of the other leaders out there, like yourself and Karen Washington, of course, that we can all help lift up?
Leah Penniman: Oh my goodness, that was so many questions in one.
Brian: That's, I think, our favorite thing to do here.
Brian: Ask 20 questions at the same time.
Leah Penniman: I think I can keep track of all of them. I will do my best. Our goal is that by 2050, which is more than 10 years from now, that U.S. Black farmers will regeneratively steward 100,000 farms on 10 million acres of land, so that's more than doubling where we are now, and that society will support us for this honorable work.
Leah Penniman: I think that Soul Fire Farms' part in that will be determined by what our community is asking us for, but I predict that we'll continue to be leaders in the training, equipping, and supporting of that next generation, or what we call the returning generation of Black farmers, the people whose grandparents and great grandparents fled the land for good reason, and those who are now realizing that we left a bit of our souls and culture behind that we need to reclaim and move forward with.
Leah Penniman: I think that some of the leaders that we need to be looking out for, both organizationally and individually, include the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which is an org that we are incubating right now, and is working very actively on the rematriation of land to indigenous communities, as well as the reparations gift of land to Black and brown farmers. That organization is up and coming, and already is building a list of people who want to give their acres back and do the right thing, so definitely reach out and get involved with that.
Leah Penniman: There is also a reparations map online at Soul Fire Farms webpage, as well as the Northeast Farmers of Color webpage that has projects all around the country that need resources.
Leah Penniman: The other org that I'll uplift is the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, which is working nationally to move capital and technical assistance and land in the direction of Black farmers and food businesses. They're super dope and grassroots, and accountable to all of us. So check them out and support them as well.
Quinn: That's awesome, that's awesome. We will definitely put all that in the show notes, for sure, so people can check that out.
Quinn: I think about, like you've mentioned all these incredible groups that already exist that can help get to the point of doubling the land, like you said, and farming it in a regenerative way that accomplishes so many things at once. It made me think of two things. One, how familiar are you, are you following along with the sort of evolution of this Green New Deal idea, and how environmental justice is a part of it?
Leah Penniman: Well, we helped to draft some of the language.
Leah Penniman: We're part of a coalition called the Farmers and Ranchers for a Green New Deal, among other coalitions, but working really close with AOC's staff and other legislators to make sure that there's an equity component, because to be super honest, the first round mentioned indigenous and Black people, but didn't say what we were going to do about it. So we're really excited to see the evolution of that to make sure that it's not just what's happening with the land, but it's who gets to be part of that, and it's not just that there are green jobs, but it's who's getting those green jobs and who's defining what they are.
Leah Penniman: So we're hopeful about that. We think the very survival of the species and all of our non-human siblings depends on this piece of legislation, and legislation like it. So we're all for it.
Quinn: I love that. Rhiana Gunn-Wright was one of our earlier conversations. I'm not sure if you're familiar with her. She's one of the architects behind the thing as well, and we had a great conversation about how it's so, not surprisingly, it continues to get, and has for her whole being involved in this thing, so much shit from generally old White guys who are like, "Well, we have to wait on the justice part. We don't have to do that part yet." She's like, "Well, no, it has to happen now. It has to be a part of it, otherwise it doesn't work, otherwise it's pointless."
Leah Penniman: Exactly.
Quinn: She talks about how going home to Detroit, like you said, it's not about green jobs, it's about who gets them. And she says, "I am responsible to those people I'm going back to, my family and my friends in my home, to say that you were-"
Leah Penniman: Exactly.
Quinn: " ... you were not just considered, but were an instrumental part of this thing. Otherwise, what are we doing? We're just doing the same thing again."
Leah Penniman: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and you look at who's most impacted by climate chaos already. It's the [crosstalk 00:38:18]-
Brian: Of course.
Leah Penniman: ... who are suffering from heat strokes, and it's the folks in the Caribbean who are losing all their crops because of extreme weather events and so forth. You also look at who's at the front lines of making the changes, and who always has been.
Leah Penniman: It was European settlers who drove 50% of the organic carbon out of the soil within one generation of tillage in the 1800s, right? And it's indigenous and Black folks who are putting it back. So both in terms of who's impacted, but also who really knows the solutions intimately because they're part of our heritage. It can't happen. You cannot use the master's tools, right, to dismantle the master's house. We have to fundamentally reconsider how we're approaching the earth.
Quinn: I mean, we do. And that makes me come back to something I was just thinking about, when you talk about who knows the solutions. I mean, among the just infinite number of tragedies that have come from, and continue to result from slavery and institutional racism and Jim Crow and more, is this notion that we have silenced voices that could have otherwise changed the world in some way, in so many different ways.
Quinn: I jotted down, you started off the chapter on Youth and Land with the great Frederick Douglass quote, "It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." That feels like, in 2020, that quote means so much more than it ever has because the children are, not because they want to, are taking charge. I mean, they can't vote, they can't run companies yet, and they are saying, "We are going to do this because you have failed."
Quinn: What's so great about that coalition is how colorful it is, and how many people are being brought in. And it's not perfect, by any stretch. There are so many young women doing the exact same things that Greta Thunberg is, and they're not getting the coverage that she is. But hopefully we are starting to make some strides there.
Quinn: But it feels like today, in this moment where we need ... I mean, it is quite literally all hands on deck, right? We need every idea. We need every set of hands, and every brain, and skill set. I mean, it just seems ... How foolish would it be to continue to purposefully silence a segment of the population that, like you said, who knows the solutions. So it's like what if, despite them owing us exactly nothing, and by them I mean people of color owing White people exact nothing, you know? If the space ship showed up, you guys owe nothing. We've ruined the whole thing. What if we actually let those people rise to the top, or even more so support and encourage them?
Quinn: I guess what I'm saying is I want to get to the bottom of how can we best do that? How can we help?
Leah Penniman: That's so beautiful, and I really appreciate, too, acknowledgement of how distributed the leadership has been, and it's not always what the media can cover. At the same time, we can't let perfect be the enemy of good. We really do need everyone's ideas, and I'm all for Greta, and all the rest. So as far as how to support, this will seem like a circuitous story, but I think it drives the point home, is like-
Quinn: Please, that's my entire job.
Leah Penniman: ... I feel like, in so many movements, it's really obvious who we should listen to and defer to, what we should do. You know, if we want to work on Islamophobia, obviously we are going to listen to what the Muslim community is saying is needed. If we want to work on veterans, supporting them with PTSD, we're going to listen to the veterans community. Then when it comes to racial justice, folks get real confused sometimes.
Leah Penniman: And I work in food, of course, and it's so often to see White-led organizations and individuals doing things like deciding that a Black community really needs kale salad recipe classes in their kindergarten, and then they write a grant to pay themselves to go benevolently teach these kale salad classes. Nobody wants the nasty kale salad, and they didn't ask for it, and none of those resources from philanthropy are actually making it to that community.
Leah Penniman: So I guess the overarching answer to that question is we need to follow the lead of the people most impacted, and do what they're asking us to do. Sometimes that will look like providing child care, or coffee, or interpretation at their gatherings. It's not going to be steering the ship all the time. There are so many organizations on the front lines, and we've taken the time over the past couple of years to compile a list of hundreds of them, and you can go to SoulFireFarm.org/TakeAction and see a list of organizations that need support that are working in food and climate, and environment.
Leah Penniman: But give them what you have. If you know funders, introduce them. 'if you have land, give it away. If you have money, give it away. A meeting space, offer it for free. A big need right now is fiscal sponsorship. We need non-profits who would give these grassroots organizations no cost fiscal sponsorship so that they can leverage funding.
Leah Penniman: But there's all of those suggestions we have on our website. But fundamentally, it's really about passing the mic, passing the oars, and switching to a support role.
Quinn: I love that. I think, I mean, that means to be the most important main theme, which is get comfortable quickly switching to the support role.
Brian: Right. Let's talk about trauma for a second. You mention it in the book, it's not always pretty when people show up at the farm. How often are the folks that come out affected by the trauma of so many generations past?
Leah Penniman: Oh, I would say 100% of Black and brown people are affected by trauma, both of generations past and the ongoing onslaught of racism, like microaggressions and structural racism and exclusion. 100%, absolutely. But specifically the trauma of land-based oppression, enslavement, sharecropping, and so forth, it's still the majority. I don't know of any youth group that's ever come here and someone hasn't mentioned within the first five minutes, "Oh, are you all a bunch of slaves? What's going on here?"
Leah Penniman: Right? Because [inaudible 00:44:43] but that's the image.
Leah Penniman: I think what's been so important for me to learn, though, is that just as the land was the scene of the crime, as my friend Chris Bolden Newsome would say, she was never the criminal, and in fact she was probably what kept us going. We believe in West African cosmology that the land is a source of wisdom and belonging and truth, is able to compost trauma into hope, is the home of our ancestors, and more. So when people come to the farm, there's not actually a ton we have to do actively as humans to heal that trauma. Just being on the land by choice, and in an environment that's safe and supportive and culturally relevant, the healing just starts happening, which is amazing, for young people and for adults.
Brian: That sounds incredible.
Quinn: That's special.
Brian: Leah, a goal at the end of these conversations is to provide specific action steps that our listeners can take to support you in your mission, with their voice, their vote, and their dollar. So let's chat about that. Let's start with voice. What are the big actionable, specific questions that we should all be asking of our representatives in support of you and what you're doing?
Leah Penniman: Hmm, that's great. So voice and vote kind of combined. Asking our representatives, we should ask them to support the Fairness for Farm Workers Act. Just for a little bit of background, farm workers do not have the same protections under the law as other workers since the 1930s, meaning no overtime pay, no right for a day off in seven, no right to unionize, limited child labor protections, limited sexual harassment protection. That needs to change like yesterday.
Brian: Yeah, what the hell.
Leah Penniman: What the hell. It's 2020. Right? So Fairness for Farm Workers. The next thing we need to talk about is land. Why the hell is 98% of the rural land owned by White people? Why are the reservations shrinking? Why do we still have fractionated Indian lands? Why are Black farmers literally losing their land to foreclosure by the U.S. government under the Medicaid program and the USDA program? So the government's taking land from Black farmers. We got to deal with that.
Leah Penniman: The third thing that I would say we need to talk to our representatives about is the Green New Deal, and making sure that we have a climate healing agenda front and center, and that is following the voices and wisdom of the people most impacted by climate change, who are Black, brown, indigenous people.
Leah Penniman: There is a full policy platform on our website, SoulFireFarm.org/TakeAction.
Quinn: Of course there is.
Brian: Oh, hell yeah.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, there's 100 more bills and things. It gets pretty obscure. Then as far as dollar, I mention a little bit earlier, but we have a reparations map, which shouts out over 100 different Black and brown led projects across the country that need anything from a hug, to a tractor, to 40 acres. If there's one near you, you can contribute, or you, of course, can contribute to Soul Fire Farm because in order to keep our doors open, we have to build a new septic system. So any help with safe disposal of our poop is welcome.
Quinn: Brian's on it.
Leah Penniman: Yeah. You can reach out to us for even more if you need more things to do.
Quinn: That's awesome. I love all of the resources that you've put together.
Brian: Yeah, that reparations map is awesome.
Quinn: That is super helpful.
Quinn: We will absolutely point people in that direction. We're getting close to time here. I can't thank you enough. Who are some other gamechangers like yourself that we should talk to, not necessarily in farming or soil, but people who inspire you, who are on the front lines, that people need to hear, that are out there doing the work, changing the world?
Leah Penniman: Oh my goodness, there's so many. I'll shout out today, Germaine Jenkins at Fresh Future Farm in Charleston. She's just so badass. I mean, someone who is a mother, who herself was relying on emergency food, who turned around and started building gardens in these neighborhoods, and now is a national voice. Super duper amazing. I would shout out [Minu Yin 00:48:54] of the National Young Farmers Coalition, who is a rice farmer and advocate for South Asian and other racialized communities on the West Coast.
Leah Penniman: I'll give my last shout out to Bubba Malik [Yakini 00:49:09] in Detroit, who turned seven acres of abandoned land into a farm and food co-op by and for the Black community. So check out their work, and you can tell I'm all for the grassroots, of course.
Quinn: Yeah, I love it.
Quinn: Literally and metaphorically.
Brian: Are you ready, Leah, for the Don't Call It A Lightning Round?
Quinn: Brian has told me I'm contractually obligated not to call this a lightning round.
Brian: He calls this a lightning round, and it's a long question. I don't understand.
Quinn: It's just the last question. There's four questions. They're not very long.
Leah Penniman: Oh, it's like short questions, is that the idea?
Brian: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Quinn: It's kind of the idea.
Quinn: It's gotten away from us. Leah, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change, the power to do something meaningful?
Leah Penniman: 1985.
Quinn: Damn. Wow.
Leah Penniman: Do I get to say what it was? Or just the one word answer?
Quinn: Nope, you are obligated to now tell us what it was.
Brian: That's true, the question does just say when is the time.
Quinn: It does. I'll change the question.
Brian: What a lightning round.
Leah Penniman: I can answer, I get it now. I get how it works. My sister and I, as five and six year olds on our red and blue Huffy bicycles, came across some loggers that were cutting down our favorite play area in the forest, and my sister, who continues to be very badass and brave, went right up to them and told them to stop cutting down her friends. I think they were so tickled by this incident, that they actually moved away from our play area.
Brian: Whoa, really?
Leah Penniman: [crosstalk 00:50:38] change, yes.
Quinn: That is so rad.
Brian: Our friends. What if everybody was that amazing and knew how important the earth was? Can you imagine this place?
Leah Penniman: I know.
Brian: It would be beautiful. Real quick, were you the red or the blue bike?
Leah Penniman: My bike was blue, and I was also silent. I'm much more timid than my sister, Naima, who continues to speak truth to power.
Quinn: Rock and roll. That is so cool. Leah, who is someone in your ... You know what, before I ... on the topic of the trees, cutting down your friends, have you heard of Dr. Suzanne Simard?
Leah Penniman: Not by name.
Quinn: Okay, so check this lady out. She's a professor, oh man, somewhere in Canada. East University?
Leah Penniman: Oh, she's not the trees speak to each other person?
Quinn: She's the tree lady.
Leah Penniman: Oh, I know who she is, yeah.
Quinn: She's the one who discovered that the trees literally talk to each other and defend each other, and all that stuff.
Leah Penniman: Yes, got a few TEDTalk, yeah, I know who you're talking about.
Quinn: It's the coolest stuff.
Leah Penniman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Quinn: Yeah, anyways. Leah, who is someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Leah Penniman: Ooh, my best friend, [foreign language 00:51:54], who always reminds me that even if I didn't do one more thing with my life, I'm still worthy of the air I breathe.
Quinn: Wow. That's pretty awesome.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, we need people like that, especially our Type A, overworked personalities need people to remind us that we're good enough just being.
Quinn: There is no one worse at telling themselves things like that than this guy.
Brian: It'd be very nice if you told me something like that, Quinn, every once in a while.
Quinn: Can we just talk about it later?
Quinn: Yeah, that's what they always say, right? Which is how would you talk to your best friend when they were feeling down, or that they're not doing enough? Treat yourself that way.
Quinn: That's amazing, and I feel lucky that you have someone like that in your life, because I think we all benefit from you having someone like that in your life. That's very special.
Brian: It is.
Leah Penniman: Yes, it is very special.
Brian: Hey Leah, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed?
Quinn: What's your self-care?
Brian: It's important!
Leah Penniman: Yes, yes, it's very important. I'm a very, very bad self-care role model. I would say the one thing that I do consistently is whenever there's first light, I go on a run, at least 5K run, and let my mind do whatever it wants to do.
Quinn: That's pretty great.
Brian: Yeah, that's pretty great self-care.
Quinn: Bring it home.
Brian: Bring it home, did you say?
Brian: I'm going to bring it home. Leah, if you could Amazon ... We have an Amazon Prime book club list on Amazon, and your answer will be added to that list.
Leah Penniman: Oh!
Brian: If you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would it be?
Leah Penniman: Oh my goodness.
Quinn: Usual conditions apply. Someone would have to read it to him.
Quinn: We've gotten coloring books, Constitu- ... I mean, the whole thing.
Brian: There's no wrong answer.
Leah Penniman: I mean, my first thought is actually not a book at all, it's some sort of magical wanga that would neutralize his objectives. Anyways, [crosstalk 00:53:52] book, it would probably be Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass.
Quinn: Awesome. Fantastic.
Brian: Well, I also hope there is that other book on Amazon that we can send him, because-
Leah Penniman: Yeah, I'll tuck some things inside of it.
Quinn: Yeah, perfect.
Leah Penniman: Outers.
Brian: Oh my goodness.
Quinn: That's amazing. All right, last thing. Anything else you would like to say, speak truth to power, to get out to our listeners that we haven't asked, any questions we should've asked?
Leah Penniman: I guess I'll just end with a shout out to an ancestor who influences me greatly, who is Fannie Lou Hamer. Of the many brilliant things she said, she said, "If you have 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to say or do." That is my prayer for food sovereignty for all of our peoples.
Quinn: That is super fucking cool.
Quinn: Leah, where can our listeners follow you on the internet, if at all?
Leah Penniman: Oh yeah, you can follow us at SoulFireFarm on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and then occasionally we post on Farming While Black as well. Check that out, too.
Quinn: Awesome. Rock and roll. Thank you so much for your time today, and your consideration and thoughtfulness, and obviously everything else you're doing besides this conversation.
Brian: Yeah, and your existence.
Quinn: For all that you're doing. The world needs folks like you. Not sure we deserve you, but we pledge to do as much as we can to support you, and all the people you talked about who are also doing amazing things out there. So thank you.
Leah Penniman: Aw, thank you. It's been a bless, and I really appreciate y'all's integrity.
Quinn: Oh, well, you say that now.
Brian: Stop it.
Quinn: Awesome. Well, good luck with the snow. It's 85 degrees here.
Brian: Yeah, stay warm.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, good luck with the sun.
Brian: We know, we need it.
Quinn: Everything's going to be fine.
Brian: Everything's fine.
Quinn: Everything's fine. All right, Leah, have a great rest of your day.
Brian: Thank you so much.
Leah Penniman: All right, peace.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute, or awesome workout, or dishwashing, or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at ImportantNotImportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter, @ImportantNotImp. So weird. Also on Facebook and Instagram at ImportantNotImportant, Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. And please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. If you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcasts. Keep the lights on, thanks.
Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player, and at our website, ImportantNotImportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blaine for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks guys.
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