At the heart of most social justice issues is the hope that every individual can lead a fulfilling and dignified life, whoever they happen to be. Major social justice issues have included marriage equality for same-sex couples, civil rights with respect to race, and equal pay for women. Most people share a vision of everyone enjoying the full scope of their rights in law, in culture, and in personal relations, and yet this is still not the reality.
As social justice educator Traci Braxley has said, “In its simplest form, social justice is about human rights. The guiding questions become: How do we create human dignity for people, whatever their identities? How do we create space for more compassion and kindness for everybody?”
Since social justice is about welcoming and embracing everyone, there is no one set of rules for how to go about doing so. But there are shared ideas and practices that are common in today’s social justice movements. In Movement Strategy Center’s 2016 “Love with Power” report on groups including Black Lives Matter, Kristen Zimmerman and Julie Quiroz described the core values of change-makers they spoke with as:
The groups featured in “Love with Power” were creating day-to-day practices to help change how their members and staff worked. Supporting individuals to build real relationships with each other in a group is a powerful way to change what is considered normal in everyday life—whether that emerges in how we gather, in conversations that lift people up and give them a voice, or through ideas and campaigns for legal change.
One way to think about social justice issues is that they are solutions to problems that are hurting communities. It takes a lot of work to get large groups of people on board with the same solution. So organizing groups, talking, and thinking about the problem are important ways to help people understand how they can fix it. We can also make movies, artwork, and tell stories of our experiences related to the issue. Social justice issues can be approached in many ways.
An important term that is generally used now, instead of equality, is equity. Equity acknowledges that using the same approach for everyone is not a good idea. It means we need to use our resources to meet the specific needs of many different groups of people whose lives are currently treated as being of lesser value. Equity means that we need to be willing to change how we think and talk about the world—that we will have to use our resources in new, potentially unequal waysto fix what is not working. The results will be a better, fairer world.
One beautiful part of social justice work is that all movements for justice are interconnected. Sometimes it feels like all of the different issues we care about exist and act in isolation from each other. Yet advocates for social justice can be found everywhere, including in the farming community. Below are some examples of solutions that people are developing in relation to agriculture and social justice.
There are many social justice issues—more than we can discuss here. But below we can begin to explore a few, how they interact with each other, and the ways that they arise in the food industry.
Even though race is not real in the biological sense that many people imagine, the hurtful idea—often called white supremacy—that some people are better than others due to their skin color, national origin, citizenship, and other physical characteristics, and shows up in all the ways we do things in the United States and around the world. This systemic racism is what people working for racial justice are trying to undo. Racial justice is defined by the Racial Equity Toolkit as “the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all.” There are many ways to go about making racial justice a reality. It takes understanding and addressing the history of racism and white supremacy. It also takes working with others on many levels, using practices of love and resistance. A key part of racial justice is “centering Blackness” and building up Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) communities and their power.
One effort to support racial justice in farming is Native Seed Pod, a podcast of The Cultural Conservancy. The podcast “explores and celebrates Native foodways, ancestral seeds, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” The Cultural Conservancy is an intertribal organization that helped to return land to Native peoples and turn it into a community farm. The farm is a place that helps Indigenous people tell their stories by growing native foods using Indigenous farming practices. You can also watch Seed Mother, a short film produced by The Cultural Conservancy with the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, on the topic of seed justice.
Climate justice is a movement that understands that the impact of climate change is greater on frontline communities—that is, communities of color, poor people, and other marginalized people—than on the rest of the population. It’s where the climate movement meets racial justice and other social justice ideals.
Soil Generation is a grassroots organization working as part of the climate justice movement and other social movements, described by member Shania Morris as a “collective of Black and Brown farmers and community members fighting for food justice and land sovereignty inside the city of Philadelphia.” The group focuses on building strong relationships with each other as gardeners and farmers while also growing plant foods in urban farms. Read “Agroecology from the People” to learn more about how they view and practice agroecology as one of four pillars of their work, alongside Black and Brown leadership, racial and economic justice, and anti-capitalism.
When families eat less or skip meals because they do not have enough money for food, or worry about whether they will be able to afford enough food to eat, that experience is called food insecurity. Living in a food insecure household often means experiencing hunger to the point of feeling discomfort, weakness, and pain. It can also mean lacking access to foods that are nutritious enough to ensure health. Food insecurity is generally a sign of poverty, or not having enough money to pay for your basic needs to be met, though people’s access to food can be affected by an array of other factors, like the types of grocery stores accessible by area’s transport and distribution networks.
In the United States, one in five Black households and one in seven Hispanic households experienced food insecurity in 2020, which was more than twice the rate of white and non-Hispanic households. This difference in rates of food insecurity is just one example of how racial and economic justice are linked.
One example of those fighting food insecurity is FFAC’s student advocate Joleen Gomez, who helped call Spanish-speaking families to tell them about the Pandemic-EBT program at Mandela Grocery Cooperative in Oakland, California. Shoppers at the cooperative got 50 percent off on fruits and vegetables grown in California when they used their P-EBT card.
There are many groups working to fight against hunger and poverty. To explore a national network of groups that arose partly in response to food insecurity and other forms of oppression, check out the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance and its member organizations.
Ageism means discrimination based on age, but it can also be seen in a more structural way as “the system that gives adults power and privilege at the expense of youth,” as outlined by the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL) in its training materials for youth organizers. On this view, the oppression of young people can be seen as akin to other types of oppression, like racism and sexism, and be felt alongside them.
There are farmers working to reform our food system who agree with the idea that it is wrong to treat people unfairly based on their age. “No land-based project is complete without the integration and empowerment of young people,” writes farmer and activist Leah Penniman in “Farming While Black.” Soul Fire Farm, cofounded by Penniman, offers youth programs and helps Black and Brown youth develop positive self-identities. The programs also help young people access healthy food and reconnect with nature. Penniman’s book contains nine activities to help teens learn about issues like land loss, resistance, and the food systems movement.
Body autonomy is the idea that each person should be able to make decisions about their own body. Body autonomy most often arises when people are talking about reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is a movement led by Black women in the American South and other women of color and is defined by SisterSong as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
The Fair Food Program founded by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has tracked experiences of women farmworkers in a 2021 report. 80 percent of women farmworkers experienced sexual assault on the job, including rape, in a 2010 survey of California immigrant farmworkers. The report also shares that the CIW education program has helped prevent sexual assault in the workplace. The Fair Food Program helps counteract gender-based violence through its worker complaint system.
There are so many social justice issues out there that you can help with, such as voting rights, refugee crises, workers’ rights, economic justice, healthcare, hunger, education, gun violence, and more. And these issues often overlap with each other and touch the people we care about. One way to figure out how you can help is to take time to listen to yourself, learn from others, and be courageous.
Imagine the change you want to see in the world. Look for other people who are making—or who want to make— the changes you want to see happen. Once you’re in that space with like-minded folks, continue to ask yourself: who or what is missing from my field of vision? Look for ways to make room for the dignity of more and more people—both human and non-human.
And always be ready to take a deep breath, nurture your strengths, and hug yourself. Because we need more people to stay and grow with us in the movement for social justice.
Looking at farming issues through a social justice lens is an act of hope. It is also like looking into the future. We believe that today’s visionaries, who are making the changes needed for the world to be a better place, are going to win. But it will take people like you, working on many different issues at once, and finding ways to support each other, to make social justice happen.