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White Supremacy and Columbus Day: A Proposed Agenda for White People to Practice Racial Justice

October 8, 2015

As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people, and is still causing destruction today.”

Suzan Shown Harjo – Creek & Cheyennecolumbus-day

Earlier this week, the City of Portland, Oregon passed a resolution that outlawed Columbus Day and put in its place Indigenous People’s Day. This kind of action has been taking place in several cities across the country in recent years, as Native communities and their allies have raised the issue and accurately called out Columbus Day as an ongoing manifestation of White Supremacy. Challenging the legitimacy of Columbus Day is an important anti-racist act, but it must be seen in the larger context of challenging White Supremacy.

It is increasingly imperative that we come to terms with the function that Columbus played in the European conquest/colonization of the what we now call the Americas. Columbus was commissioned by the Spanish Crown and sanctioned by Catholic Church (through a 1493 Papal Bull) to conquer new lands and extract resources  to benefit Spain. Therefore, Columbus not only is the primary symbol of the 500 years of genocide and slavery that has plague the western hemisphere, he is the symbol of political, religious, social and cultural imperialism that continues to the present by a White Supremacist system of Capitalism.

I don’t want to spend much time further exploring these historical dynamics, as I want to get to what it is that White people should be doing confront the legacy of Columbus Day. However, there are a few resources that I would highly recommend for people who want to investigate this history. (See Resources listed at the end of this article.)

Undoing White Supremacy: A Proposed Agendanative-treaties-in-mi

The list that follows includes not only some clear principles of Racial Justice, but are directed specifically towards White people who inhabit what we refer to as Michigan. These are proposed actions and are meant to create discussion, while ultimately leading to concrete action for those of us who have White privilege.

Grand Rapids was founded on Settler Colonialism – As a foundational framework, it is vital that we come to terms with the fact that Grand Rapids, like virtually all US cities were founded on what Native scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz calls Settler Colonialism. Settler Colonialism in West Michigan is the result of a larger White Supremacist strategy that included legal means (treaties), forced relocation, spiritual violence (role of churches) and cultural imperialism, most radically seen with the policy of putting Native children in boarding schools with the goal of, “Killing the Indian, Saving the Man.” 

Get the City of Grand Rapids to denounce Columbus Day – Force those of us who claimed to be WANTED20Christopher20Columbus_xlargeagainst White Supremacy and want to engage in acts of racial justice, here is a concrete action to organize around. The fact that the City of Grand Rapids still recognizes Columbus Day means they support the White Supremacist narrative of Settler Colonialism and what was done/is being done to Native people in this area. We need to organize to end Columbus Day in Grand Rapids. If the Native community wants them to rename October 12 Indigenous People’s Day, we should support that, but that is a decision for Native people to make.

Resist Economic Policies that Negatively Impact Native People – Over the next several days there will be Columbus Day sales, which would be equivalent to Himmler Day sales in Germany. This is low hanging fruit, but we should not shop at stores having Columbus Day sales, but we should be protesting them. More importantly we need 401792to find out how larger economic policies, particularly extractivist policies impact Native communities. The extraction of oil and gas worldwide disproportionately impacts Native people, which is why Native communities are at the forefront of campaigns to resist projects like the Alberta Tars Sands and all the pipelines connected to such projects. Groups like Idol No More and the Indigenous Environmental Network are groups that we need to be in solidarity with by providing whatever support they are asking for. Nuclear energy should also be resisted, since uranium mining in the US happens on or adjacent to Native land. (see If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans)1492-1890Dispossession

Demand that Land be Given Back to Native Nations – As the map here illustrates, the amount of land that was inhabited by Native people before the European Conquest was massive. The US government and State governments have violated virtually all treaties signed with Native Nations (remember, treaties can only be signed between nations) and one of the major aspects of the Native Sovereignty Movement in the US is to reclaim some of the land taken in the process of Settler Colonialism. What this would look like in West Michigan is for Native people to decide, but those of us who claim to support racial justice must make this a priority. Land is justice.

End Native Cultural Appropriation – We have to stop appropriating Native culture and Native spirituality in all its forms. White people are notorious for appropriating Native traditions and making them their own and this has to STOP. Whether we are talking about sports mascots, sweat lodges or any other Native cultural and spiritual traditions, we have to stop appropriating them and challenge other people from doing the same.041614-nfl-change-the-mascot2-pi-mp.vadapt.620.high.88

While this list is short it provides White people with a lot of opportunities to practice racial justice and confront White Supremacy. This has to be our work. In the same way that men have to make the end of rape culture a priority, White people have to make the end of White Supremacy a priority. Let’s get to it. Who wants to organize with me?

Some Resources:

The Canary Effect (film)

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz

All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, by Winona LaDuke

The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, by Gord Hill

Custer Died for Your Sins, by Vine Deloria Jr.

A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present, by Ward Churchill

More evidence that ArtPrize & Rick DeVos are connected to Far Right Politics

October 1, 2015

For years now, we have been making the point that since ArtPrize is bankrolled annually by the parents of Rick DeVos – Dick & Betsy – and the major players from the capitalist class in West Michigan, that ArtPrize serves as both a great PR tool for the DeVos family and a mechanism to generate even greater political and economic clout for the major sponsors3037163-inline-i-1-welcome-to-grand-rapids-the-irl-reddit-of-art

ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos has gone to great lengths to deny that the annual event is in any way politically motivated. In fact, in an article that was critical of ArtPrize and the DeVos family politics that appeared in GQ Magazine in 2012, Rick DeVos was quoted as saying, “I don’t even want to weigh in on any of the political stuff. I just prefer to stay away from that.”

Artist Steve Lambert, who entered ArtPrize last year with the piece Capitalism Works for Me, also challenged DeVos around the political nature of the event, specifically the funding coming from people who have historically funded anti-LGBT campaigns. 

Now there is new evidence that Rick DeVos does walk in the same political circles as his parents and grandparents. I wrote yesterday about how I was denied entry to a Right Wing Think Tank Conference being held in Grand Rapids and provided some information on the State Policy Network and its affiliate groups, like the Acton Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

While looking at the agenda for the SPN conference, I was intrigued by a session that was being offered to. The title of the session is ArtPrize: Unorthodox, Highly Disruptive, and Undeniably Intriguing, presented by Rick DeVos and sponsored by the National Review Institute. (The National Review Institute is a political advocacy group committed to the legacy of William F. Buckley, who was an apologist for Capitalism and US Imperialism.)11760190_688805574558301_7881155605291540005_n

So, here is Rick DeVos, who claims to stay away from politics, speaking at a conference that is dedicated to strategizing around political issues. Here is a rundown of the political agenda being discussed at the conference that DeVos is part of:

  • Get States to pass Right to Work Legislation
  • Get States to adopt austerity measures that will hurt workers, the public sector and public services
  • Attack Public Education by redirecting more public funds to Charter Schools and other “Schools   of Choice.”
  • Privatize Higher Education
  • Promote more Ag-Gag laws, which attack community based efforts around food production and silences animal rights groups challenging the industrial animal industry.
  • Attacks on Green Energy Legislation

This is not simply some guilt by association argument, rather it further demonstrated that Rick DeVos is welcomed by and part of a larger movement that his family has been invested in that promotes reactionary politics that are specifically harmful to workers, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, women and those who identify as secular.rickdevos

Rick DeVos and his supporters can say that giving a talk on ArtPrize at the State Policy Network Conference doesn’t mean he endorses their politics. However, such a claim would be disingenuous. Do you think that an artist or non-profit that presented at a conference around women’s reproductive rights, for example, could claim that their presence in no way endorsed the politics of the conference? I think not.

Rick DeVos can come up with catchy titles for his presentation on ArtPrize that uses terms like unorthodox and disruptive, but the truth is that his event, his funders and his family are only interested in disrupting the lives of people that stand in their way to greater wealth accumulation.

Yesterday I was Told I Was Not Welcomed at a Right Wing Think Tank Conference in Grand Rapids

September 30, 2015

Have you ever heard of an organization called The State Policy Network? My suspicion is that you probably haven’t and that is not any fault of your own. The State Policy Network is just good at operating outside of the public eye.spn-red_map-spiderweb960x560px-opt

Beginning yesterday, September 29, the State Policy Network was holding its annual meeting right here in Grand Rapids at the Amway Grand. Hundreds of people and dozens of organizations will be meeting through Friday to discuss strategies and tactics that will push their agenda through at the state level.

What is their agenda you ask? Well, first it’s important to know that the State policy Network (SPN) is a national organization that brings together state-based right wing think tanks and advocacy groups to influence policy at the state level. The State Policy Network is one of the biggest allies in doing the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch brothers funded entity that is seeking to privatize the country, amongst other things.

  • So, the agenda of the SPN and its member groups is to do some of the following:
  • Get States to pass Right to Work Legislation
  • Get States to adopt austerity measures that will hurt workers, the public sector and public services
  • Attack Public Education by redirecting more public funds to Charter Schools and other “Schools   of Choice.”
  • Privatize Higher EducationScreen Shot 2015-09-30 at 2.34.20 PM
  • Promote more Ag-Gag laws, which attack community based efforts around food production and silences animal rights groups challenging the industrial animal industry.
  • Attacks on Green Energy Legislation

Those of us who reside in Michigan know what this look and feels like, as the state has adopted greater austerity measures in recent years, passed Right to Work legislation and has been exploring Ag-gag laws and cutting more funding from public education. Some of the State Policy Network partners from Michigan are, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Acton Institute

You can see some of the sessions that that are taking place over the next few days, by going to the SPN Annual meeting Agenda. For a more detailed examination of the work of the State Policy Network, I highly recommend a report from the Center for Media & Democracy, entitled, Exposed: The State Policy Network. Below is a screen shot of several of the major sponsors of the State Policy Network Conference being held in Grand Rapids.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 2.18.35 PM

I was told I was not welcomed at the SPN Conference

A few weeks ago I was contacted by folks from Political Research Associates, a group which monitors to activity of the religious and political right in the US. They asked if I would be willing to attend the State Policy Network Conference in Grand Rapids and write some articles for them on the current and future agenda of the State Policy Agenda and its members groups across the country. They offered to pay the conference fee and since I hate to miss any opportunity to see what the Political and Religious Right are up to, I said yes.

Yesterday, I went to register for the conference at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Since I was not pre-register, I was directed to a separate table in the registration area. The person who greeted me asked if I was with any particular group. I replied that I was not a member of any of the SPN’s affiliates, just someone from Grand Rapids who was interested in state policy issues.Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 2.17.37 PM

Then I was asked if I had a business card, to which I responded, “No, I was not a business person or professional, just someone interested in state policy issues.” This person said they would be right back and 2 minutes later they returned with a very large man who said he was the head of security for this event. I said I didn’t understand why security was called. I just wanted to register for the conference. The security guy asked to see some ID, so I gave him my drivers license.

He left and walk across the display tables area to talk with two other people, who were no doubt conference organizers. They looked at my ID, then both proceeded to get on their mobile phones and do what appeared to be some searching. After 5 minutes the security guard returned and said that he was told that, “I was not welcomed, especially after looking at my website.” I said, which website? This only seemed to aggravate the security guy. I then said, pointing to the conference brochure, (which says Experience Freedom) why I was not allowed to participate in a conference that purported to promote freedom? He was not amused and said that I needed to leave.

In some ways I was not surprised that I was asked to leave, but it certainly underscores the secrecy and exclusivity of the political and religious groups, like the State Policy Network.

Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time: What Grand Rapids can learn from Guatemala

September 28, 2015

What do you do when your government is corrupt? It’s an important question, and depending on who you ask, you’ll get very different answers.guatemala-corruption-.jpg_1733209419

Over the past month, civil society in Guatemala has done what many people in the US can hardly imagine. The popular movements of Guatemala have forced the President of Guatemala from office, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was forced from office a month ago by a massive uprising of civil society that is tired of corruption and impunity. Molina and some of his cabinet members had pillage an estimated $100 million dollars from the government treasury to finance their lavish lifestyles. Guatemala civil society had known about this corruption for some time and did what they have done so many times in the past, they took to the streets.

Thousands of Guatemalans are protesting government corruption and they have not stopped protesting, despite Molina being behind bars. New elections have been held, but Guatemalan civil society is not putting their hopes in the electoral process, since the leading political parties are run by the wealthy sectors of the country, along with former military personnel. Guatemalans are well aware of the fact that there needs to be systemic change, especially for the majority indigenous population.0-1-0-no_mas_delincuentes-2

A great deal can be said about the ongoing efforts to create justice in Guatemala, but that is not the point of this article. For those who want more details on the uprising in Guatemala, I recommend the following online resources: Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, Upsidedown World, Washington Office on Latin America and the Latin America Working Group.

Having participated in international solidarity work in Guatemala on numerous occasions since the late 1980s, it is always inspiring to me to see how courageous and powerful the popular movements are in that tiny Central American nation. What I want to do in this article is to talk about why those of us who live in Grand Rapids should care about what is happening in Guatemala and what it is that we can learn from the grassroots organizing being done there.

What is the Grand Rapids connection to Guatemala?

Grand Rapids is currently home to an estimated 4,000 Guatemalans. Most of the Guatemalan diaspora that calls West Michigan home, are of Mayan decent and speak Mam, Quiche or Qanjobal. Many of them are migrant workers, work in one of the service industries or own small businesses. There are even Guatemalan soccer teams that exist in Guatemala. But what brought these people to Grand Rapids?

Guatemala has been dealing with colonialism, racism and war ever since Europeans first invaded the Mayan world in the early part of the 16th century. The United States government has had a particular interest in Guatemala since the late 19th century, mostly for economic reasons, with US-based multinationals like Chiquita owning a tremendous amount of land.Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 7.00.35 AM

Guatemalans overthrew the US-backed dictatorship in 1944 and began an experiment with participatory democracy that was too much for Washington and the capitalist class to the north. The CIA orchestrated a coup in 1954 and put in place another military dictatorship to support the wealthy elites, which are the true ruling power in Guatemala. After decades of a brutal counterinsurgency war that was funded by the US, Guatemala was able to have a ceasefire in 1996. However, the social inequities and systems of oppression that caused many to take up arms remained, despite the legal end to the war.

During the counterinsurgency war, many Guatemalans fled to Mexico. Many stayed there, while others continued north and entered the US, often as undocumented political refugees. Some of the first Guatemalans to come to Grand Rapids, were part of the Central American Sanctuary Movement. As the repression continued, others came north and the Guatemalan community created informal networks to house new refugees and find work for each other.CAFTA_Protests_040

Even after the 1996 Peace Accords were signed in Guatemala, thousands were fleeing the country annually, since the Guatemalan economy was devastated from decades of repression, racism and ongoing exploitation. In 2005, the Guatemalan government, along with other Central American nations, signed a trade agreement with the US, known as CAFTA. Modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), CAFTA created new opportunities for foreign investors to exploit the resource rich nation.  The gap between the wealthy and the poor grew and out of desperation, many Guatemalans continued to come to the US to find work, often where other Guatemalans resided.

Therefore, it is important that we recognize that the Guatemalans that reside in Grand Rapids are here because of the direct result of US military and economic policies. In fact, not only should we welcome these political and economic refugees, we should support the popular movements in Guatemala, which seeks to dismantle the systems of oppression that would prevent more forced migration to cities in the US like Grand Rapids.kinzer_1-120513

Another connection between Grand Rapids and Guatemala is rooted in longstanding US policy. One of the demands of the current uprising in Guatemala is that the US government also be held accountable for its role in the military repression and economic exploitation of their country. For example, the ousted President Molina was a military leader in the 1980s, during the most violent years of the US-backed counterinsurgency campaign. Guatemalans want US heads of state to be held accountable for their role in the murder, torture and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of their family members, neighbors, co-workers and friends.

Participating in solidarity with Guatemalans does not just mean we morally support their struggle, it means providing the kind of support they are asking of us, which is to demand accountability for past crimes and to work towards ending military and economic policies that continue to do harm.

What We Can Learn from Guatemala

Once we have owned the role the US government has played in creating violence, exploitation and forced displacement in Guatemala, we need to pay attention to how Guatemalans organize themselves. Here are a few things we can learn from Guatemalans that might actually create the change we want to see here in Grand Rapids.

0522_SCuffee_Protest5_New1Call for Systemic Change – The popular movement in Guatemala isn’t calling for some quaint reforms of the existing system, they are calling for systemic change. Guatemalans aren’t calling for a renegotiation of CAFTA, they are calling for an end to CAFTA. The popular movement in Guatemala wants political and economic autonomy, something the Mayan people haven’t enjoyed since the European Conquest. People in Grand Rapids talk about buying local, which is often just another repackaging of capitalism, plus it doesn’t examine how local companies exploit the resources and labor of Guatemala. Sure, I can feel better about getting coffee from Kava House than Starbucks, but the coffee is still being grown in countries like Guatemala and Guatemalans are experiencing massive rates of hunger and poverty, because so much of the agriculture is devoted to exports.

Take it to the Streets – With growing corruption at the highest levels of the Guatemalan government, people did not circulate more online petitions, they took to the streets. And taking to the streets in Guatemala does not mean getting a permit to march, it means taking over the streets and shutting down business as usual. Systems of power will not be negatively impacted unless there is a cost. Also, taking to the streets is not just the choice of young anarchists, rather it is what all sectors participate in – unions, students, feminist groups, indigenous organizations, farmers, teachers, etc. Guatemalans understand that direct action is what is necessary to create real change, change that benefits the most marginalized, not those with privilege.


Elections are just a tactic – The popular movements in Guatemala have attempted to create and support more independent political parties, but they only see elections as one possible tactic for change. In the US, we are constantly being told that if we don’t drop everything and vote for this candidate or that political party. In Guatemala, they understand that the forces in power have always corrupted the political process, just like what happens here in the US. The Guatemalan popular movements many participate in elections, but they also never stop directly resisting the forces of exploitation and oppression in their communities, plus they are always working on creating new forms of community that compliment the resistance efforts. For example, while fighting the current exploitation of US and Canadian mining companies, communities are creating worker run co-ops or occupying land to create more autonomy.Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 6.53.40 AM

In my book, Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time, I shared a story about what a group of Guatemalan women had told us one night, while we were providing international accompaniment for their organization, which was being targeted by the military. These women told us that they were grateful for our solidarity work and providing them some space to do the work they needed to do. However, as the night wore on, they told us that the most important thing we Americans could do, was to go back to our country and change the system their, because US policy had such a negative impact on their country. They told us that they would take care of Guatemala, but that we needed to fight for liberation in our country. In other words, their liberation was directly connected to ours and our liberation was directly connected to their.

La Lucha Sigue en Guatemala and Grand Rapids!

Year Seven of the Monied Spectacle: An Indy Media Guide to ArtPrize

September 21, 2015


Year seven is upon us. Whether you like it or not, for the next month or so, the spectacle that is ArtPrize, is pretty much all you will hear about. Forget about Donald Trump, Iran or climate change, thousands of people invading downtown Grand Rapids is all that matters.

This is year seven and for seven years we have been writing about ArtPrize. Therefore, it seems fit that for year seven, we provide you with an Indy Media Guide to ArtPrize. However, before we begin, it is worth noting that our ongoing critique of this monied spectacle does acknowledge that there is pleasure, entertainment and benefits to ArtPrize. We do not see the world in some overly simplified binary world of good and bad, but we do want to see a world where those with obscene wealth and power are challenged or at the very least made to feel a bit exposed.

  • Back in the summer of 2009, as ArtPrize was first being announced, we were one of the first media sources to raise questions about the intent of this so-called art extravaganza. The main issue we raised was around the larger PR function such an event would provide for the DeVos family. We asked, what impact will such an event have on any insurgent movement to challenge organized money? Like most billionaire families, the DeVos family cares deeply about its public image and ArtPrize seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring more converts to the, “where would Grand Rapids be without them,” crowd.artprize-a1jpg-d4f2cce303c9ff47_large
  • By year two, it became clear that the local news media had become unpaid cheerleaders for ArtPrize. Even during the inaugural year, ArtPrize had already garnered the allegiance of local media, as we noted in our story entitled, Reporting on and Promoting ArtPrize.  In that article, we quoted local property owner and managing partner of CWD Real Estate Sam Cummings. Cummings said, “Our long-term goal is really to import capital – intellectual capital, and ultimately real capital. And this (ArtPrize) is certainly an extraordinary tool.” Such a comment confirmed for us the overriding role that the annual event would play in Grand Rapids. Later that year we published the finds of a news study to make the point about how ArtPrize had become the media darling. ArtPrize trumps democracy: What the Press coverage tells us about the Press reveals that even during a gubernatorial election year, ArtPrize had nearly twice as many stories in the Grand Rapids Press as all election related stories, 153 ArtPrize articles to 87 election articles.11760190_688805574558301_7881155605291540005_n
  • In year two, we were also fortunate to have artist Richard Kooyman allow us to re-post his thoughtful piece on the danger that DeVos money and ArtPrize would pose to art and culture in general, in his piece What is ArtPrize? 
  • In year three, we began to look more closely at the financial aspects of ArtPrize. The mainstream news media has always run stories about how much money is “brought in by ArtPrize,” but they have never really explored who are the big financial winners, as we did we our story, When elites give money to each other: ArtPrize financials for 2010. We have also made it clear, based upon 990 documents, that Rick DeVos has been bankrolled by his parents, Dick & Betsy, to put on the annual monied spectacle. It became clear from the 990 documents that a great deal of the money was simply being passed around from one DeVos entity to another, although this was never a theme of any media reporting.devos-ap
  • In 2012, a GQ article about the DeVos family and ArtPrize generated some interesting conversation, but not by local news media, as we pointed out in MLive article misses the point of the GQ article on ArtPrize. The GQ article was one of the first outside media sources to discuss the political dynamics of ArtPrize, something that Rick DeVos constantly wants to distance himself from. Rick DeVos’ desire to distance himself from the family politics was reflected in this comment in the GQ story where he says, “I don’t even want to weigh in on any of the political stuff. I just prefer to stay away from that.” 
  • In 2012, we continued to explore the money and politics of ArtPrize, we our 2 part piece entitled, The Political Economy of ArtPrize. In Part I, we explored the more general impact that such an event has on art and culture and in Part II we explore in more detail the relationship between those who finance ArtPrize to what else the monied elites finance at the local, state and federal level. photo-4
  • 2012 was also the year that local activists engaged in a photo bomb campaign (called ArtLies) to visually make a point about the money and politics of ArtPrize donors, sponsors and the DeVos family. 
  • In 2014, artist Steve Lambert generated lots of attention and discussion around the politics of ArtPrize, with both his installation piece and his announcement that if he won the prize money from ArtPrize he would donate it to a local LGBT effort, since the DeVos family has historically funded anti-gay campaigns. What Lambert was able to do was to force both ArtPrize and the larger community to ask more fundamental questions about the political economy of this annual monied spectacle.

Ultimately, we believe that you cannot separate the funding sources of events like ArtPrize, from the political desires of the capitalist class. The DeVos funding of ArtPrize is a way to distract us and make us feel good for a few weeks out of the year, while the politics they fund bludgeon us all year round.


The Grand Rapids Local Food Discussion through a Food Justice Lens

September 9, 2015

I was delighted to see some of the responses to Levi Gardner’s article a few weeks back, which raised important questions about the Downtown Market and arguably the local food system. 

However, a large part of the problem when discussing the local food system is our inability to recognize the fallacies of a market driven approach to food. What we need is an imaginative view of the local food system through a food justice lens.foodjustice

I don’t want to provide a lengthy articulation of what Food Justice is, which one can explore in a series of handouts I created for Our Kitchen Table. There are two points about Food Justice that I would like to emphasize. First, Food Justice is an outgrowth of the environmental justice movement, a movement where communities of color confronted not only environmental injustice, but the often narrow focus of White dominated environmental NGOs.

The second point about Food Justice, which is essential to any local food conversation is the needs to see that food insecurity is the result of multiple systems of oppression, such as White Supremacy, Capitalism, Patriarchy and Speciesism. This means that if we are to honestly address the causes of food insecurity and food disparities, we need to address more than just the food system.


Now that we have a Food Justice framework, lets look at what is happening with food in West Michigan in recent years. There has been a growing interest in people growing more of their own food and purchasing locally grown food in a variety of ways. There are lots of new restaurants and foodie projects, like Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), urban food growing projects and plenty of farm to table discussion. However, the problem with much of the food discussion and food-driven projects is that it primarily benefits those with economic and racial privilege. This is in part due to our collective inability to think outside of a market approach to food and the lack of a food justice lens. Don’t get me wrong, I know lots of farmers and urban growers and they work hard, but in order to survive they have to operate within the current economic system, which means that much of their produce ends up in the stomachs of people with lots of privilege. Lets face it, those who are most food insecure in this community cannot afford to eat at the local restaurants that serve locally grown food. This is not the fault of the growers, rather that of the food system.Migrants

So what do we do? As with all major social problems, there are no easy answers. However, I would like to offer up some ideas and proposals for how to move forward in a way that promotes Food Justice.

First, the local foodie trend has almost completely ignored one of the prime factors in food production, food workers. West Michigan is home to one of the largest migrant worker populations in the country, which means that we are all dependent upon a workforce that is highly exploited.  A 2010 Michigan Civil Rights Commission report stated that migrant worker conditions are as bad as they were in the 1960s. If we care about the local food system then we need to support efforts for migrant worker justice. This is also a racial justice issue, since most of the people who pick our food are Latino/a or indigenous. This food worker justice focus must also extend to those who work in kitchens, bus tables and wait on us when we go to restaurants. These food workers are also highly exploited and rarely are brought into the local food discussion. A local food movement that does not address food worker issues will only perpetuate exploitation and White Supremacy.hqdefault

Second, we need to confront the current food system, while attempting to create a new food system. For example, one of the major reasons why local farmers cannot compete with agribusiness is because agribusiness is highly subsidized by public tax dollars. The so-called Farm Bill means that the unhealthy and ecologically destructive food system gets billions of dollars in public money, while small, ecologically sound growers get no public assistance. (See who gets food subsidies in Michigan.) The reason why the shitty food that fills some much of supermarkets is cheap is because it is highly subsidized.

What I would propose is that local farmers, both urban and rural, who want to support food justice, should get public funds to offset costs to allow them to make their food affordable to those who are experiencing poverty. Hell, if we can provide millions of dollars of public money to places like the downtown market and Monsanto, why can’t we fund local growers to practice food justice? If Beer City can provide tax break incentives for more bars and distilleries, then why can’t we provide similar financial support to people who want to grow food locally, especially food that serves the nutritional needs of the large number of individuals and families experiencing poverty?

Third, one issue that makes urban food growing difficult for people experiencing poverty is the lack of access to land. I propose that the City of Grand Rapids not only allows people to grow on the vacant lots they current own, but they should wave the fee for people to use those lots and they should provide financial support, along with practical assistance to people who want to grow more of their own food. This would certainly be a way for the city to put into practice their claim to being a Green City. This proposal might be difficult since the City has been in discussion for some time now (with little transparency) with the Kent County Land Bank to transfer those lots out of the public sector into a public/private structure. The Land Bank states that they have already been overwhelmed with requests in the vacant lots. What we need is a process that provides greater access or first priority access to people who are more vulnerable to food insecurity. People with lots of race and class privilege should not be the primary beneficiaries of such land acquisitions.cc7ebc8fbbfe5a17f889f34e9c3ae0dd

Fourth, another major issue that people experiencing poverty face and is ignored by the foodie trend, is the hard reality that people who work long hours and often two or three jobs face, is having the time to prepare healthy food. Even if we can get food subsidies to local farmers to truly make food affordable, people still need time to prepare and preserve healthy food. This underscores the fact that we can’t have food justice without confronting poverty and its root causes. Look at the growth of groups like Kids Food Basket. While it is encouraging that this group continues to provide free meals to children experiencing poverty, it is not addressing why those kinds are experiencing poverty.

Just last week Feeding America published a story in The Rapidian with tips on fighting hunger. However, Feeding America is also a food charity agency that does not address root causes of hunger. Instead, they want people to donate to their organization or wear a t-shirt to fight hunger. Why don’t we just make it a goal to NOT have the need for food charity, because we have policies and practices that support food justice. If people made a livable wage like $15 – $20 an hour, then more people could work less hours and have time to practice good nutrition that those of us with privilege take for granted.beet+the+system.gif

Lastly, I come from a tradition where community building means practicing collective liberation. With food this could look like setting up community kitchens all across the city, whether they are in people’s homes or in churches. Community kitchens would be spaces that people can come to collectively make food, eat together, share recipes and then take home lots of prepared food that would save them time and energy during the week. Some of us have practiced this on a small scale. We call it potlucks. The beauty of potlucks and a community kitchen model is that it allows us to think about food and community outside of a market-based model. Indeed, in this sense eating well is simply a basic right, and that, I believe, is what needs to be cultivated in our efforts to build a local food movement.

Jeff Smith has been growing food for 35 years in Grand Rapids, has taught food justice classes and been part of numerous local food efforts over the years.

GRIID Class for Fall 2015: Policing in America and in Grand Rapids

August 27, 2015

This 8 – week class is designed to do the following:our_enemies_in_blue_small_72

  • Investigate the history of policing in the US
  • Investigate the function of the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD)
  • Explore and discuss ways to counter the repressive tactics of the GRPD
  • Imagine and explore ways to create community safety that doesn’t involve cops

As a primary text, we will us Kristian Williams book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. You can order the book directly from AK Press  or inquire with us about other options.

The 8 – week class with take place on Mondays, from 7 – 9pm, beginning Monday, September 28. Location is still to be determined. Contact us at if you are interested in signing up. We are asking $20 for the class, but will not turn people away who are unable to contribute financially. Capacity for this class is 15 people.


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