On April 17, Amani Olugbala began their presentation “Farming While Black: Uprooting Racism, Seeding Sovereignty” with total silence. A community educator, storyteller and food justice advocate, Olugbala asked audience members to “lean into some gratitude” by recognizing their ancestral, cultural and geographic histories before diving into their historical analysis of black and indigenous farming practices in North America.
The Office of Green Initiatives, the Rural Cause and the Black Student Union invited Olugbala to speak at Kenyon on the subjects of sustainability, food injustice and their own experiences working in agriculture. Olugbala works in Petersburg, N.Y., as the assistant director of programs at Soul Fire Farm, an agricultural community of black and indigenous people of color who aim to eradicate racism in food systems.
Olugbala spoke about how colonization violated the sovereignty of people who cared for land and has historically left unacknowledged the agricultural achievements of black people, both in Africa and in North America.
“When we think about the origins of this country — stolen land, stolen labor — African folk from West Africa weren’t just randomly kidnapped,” Olugbala said. “It was about this agricultural knowledge and expertise that they had come to [cultivate] over millennia.”
Olugbala discussed the oppression of enslaved people in America and reminded their audience of the ongoing problems of racism and injustice that continue to affect black people today.
“A lot of times, we can talk about the statistics, we can talk about pictures, but I really want to remind people that we are not talking about something that is over,” Olugbala said. They spoke about reparations to marginalized communities and how they might be paid in land and tools to the sustainable farms that serve them.
Olugbala continued to discuss active black agricultural communities on Thursday during a panel entitled “Building Sustainable Communities Around Agriculture.”
The panel also included Ryan Hottle, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies and manager at the Kenyon Farm; Benji Baller, founder of Yellowbird Foodshed; Kareem Usher, assistant professor in the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University; and Chelsea Gandy, a farmer at Fox Hollow Farms in Knox county.
Jazz Glastra ’11, assistant director for career development at Kenyon, mediated the panel discussion. “Olugbala brought a strong educator’s perspective to the panel,” Glastra said. “[They] reminded us all that we have a responsibility to teach others about a more just, sustainable food system.”
The panelists discussed many aspects of agriculture, from economic shortcomings to ethical dilemmas and innovative practices in response to climate change. Despite their different relationships to agriculture, all of the panelists agreed that in some form or another, the practice of farming offers much more than just a paycheck.
“[Farming] is a spiritual practice because we’re asking the animals to make a pretty big sacrifice. And we try to make sure that [we give them] only one bad day,” Gandy said. “So that’s the deal we make every day as we get up, and we try to give them as good of a life as we can.”
Dani Huffman ’19, one of the students who attended the panel discussion, intends to pursue a career in agriculture. “I’m thinking that there are many ways to approach food sovereignty and food justice,” Huffman said. “I think it’s great to hear from a variety of people working in that field and hear how their careers were shaped and what motivates them.”
Through both their presentation and the panel discussion, Olugbala emphasized that recognition of the spiritual, historical and cultural connectivity between the land and those who live on it holds potential to end patterns of injustice and oppression. According to Olugbala, giving thanks to our pasts is as important as seeking justice for the wrongs that plague them.
“Sometimes it can be scary to raise our voices, even about something as small as gratitude. But it’s good practice,” they said. “We’re talking about social justice work — it requires us to raise our voices.”