Last month, Dallas Robinson received an email from someone she didn’t know, asking if she would be open to receiving a large sum of money—with no strings attached. For once, it wasn’t spam. She hit reply.
Robinson is a beginning farmer with experience in organic agriculture, and has had plans to establish the Harriet Tubman Freedom Farm on 10 acres of family land near her home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Located in an area where the poverty rate hovers at nearly 20 percent, according to census data, and where both food insecurity and obesity rates are even higher, the farm will focus on serving the needs of the surrounding community by producing vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms.
The gift from the stranger arrived thanks to a new online map, the Black-Indigenous Farmers Reparations Map, a project to promote “people-to-people” reparations.
Robinson’s project was the first to be fully funded, says Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, which created the map. Penniman credits Viviana Moreno, a farmer from Chicago, for suggesting the idea.
“This past summer at our Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion program, we were all talking about two farms given by White people to farmers of color as examples of reparations and restoration, and Viviana said we need more of this people-to-people giving,” she says. Moreno’s own Catatumbo Cooperative Farm is listed on the map, and as a fellow graduate of the program, Robinson was invited to list her farm. The map now includes more than 40 projects, which are all directly connected to farming organizations led by people of color.
The map’s creators say they envision an equitable distribution of land and resources in the country. According to the nonprofit Urban Institute, the wealth of White families was seven times greater than that of Black families in 2016. Penniman cites data from the USDA Census, which show that about 95 percent of farms are operated by White farmers.
“This map will catalyze the voluntary transfer of land and resources to people of color as a means to rectify this injustice,” she says.
Robinson says that she’s eager to connect with those who’ve contributed to her project.
“The person who wrote to me, Douglass DeCandia, mentioned hearing me speak at the keynote that Mark Bittman gave at the Young Farmers Conference and at the group dialogue that happened afterward,” Robinson recalls, referring to the conference that was held in December. DeCandia wrote that he would be honored to support her project.
“I started crying,” Robinson says. “Then I wrote back and said, ‘Yes, please,’ and sent my information.” Within days, she received a check for all that she had asked for in her listing.
Now she wants to know more about what moved DeCandia to give. “Because,” she says, “there are millions of people who don’t understand that so many of us, especially young people, are struggling.”
DeCandia says it started with a question posed at the conference: “How do you hold yourself accountable to communities of color and vulnerable communities?”
Both Robinson and DeCandia were in the audience at the conference, at Stone Barns Center in New York, where chef and educator Nadine Nelson directed this question to Bittman, author and former New York Times food columnist. Noting that Bittman spoke often about racism and sexism in the food system, Nelson said she wanted to know what he was doing to hold himself personally accountable.
At first Bittman responded only with “fair enough,” then sat in silence until Nelson asked if he was going to answer, to which he replied that he didn’t know what “hold yourself accountable means.”
It was after listening to this tense exchange that Robinson addressed the room: “Your dismissal was hurtful. It was enraging,” she said. “Y’all don’t listen to us.” She also offered her support to Black people and other people of color in the audience.
“I really wanted to say to Black people: ‘I got us.’”
Robinson explains that several White speakers, Bittman included, had been saying things like “we’re all friends here,” “we should be grateful to be here,” ignoring the racial dynamic of what happened.
But, Robinson says, “accountability means that we listen to each other. Friendship is about being able to have hard conversations together.”
Nelson’s question at Stone Barns has led to such conversations taking place with more urgency and resolve among communities of color and White people.
“Nadine putting her neck out like that and getting ignored led to about 30–40 White people coming together afterward and asking what they could do,” Robinson says.
Two offshoot groups formed, with people of color meeting to discuss their frustrations and needs, and White people gathering to create a list of resources they could share, “a reparations list.”
“That was a powerful moment,” DeCandia says. “As a White, cisgendered, middle-class male, I’ve been asking myself how I’m actually holding myself accountable.”
Since the event, he says, he’s started asking that question of others—at work, the farmers market, and at home. He and others in his community have also used video of the Nelson–Bittman exchange as a teaching tool.
When a friend sent him the Black-Indigenous Farmers Reparations Map, it reignited the question he’d been asking himself.
“I opened the map, and the first project I saw was the Harriet Tubman Freedom Farm,” he says.
The combination of the Stone Barns incident and the reparations map has given DeCandia a new framework for understanding accountability.
“I realized I have to start mobilizing in White communities, my family, my friends,” he says, “and doing that in direct accountability with folks who are most impacted, meeting stated needs rather than creating some idea in my head about who needs what and what needs to be done.”
Bittman apologized on Twitter, and Nelson says that he has also reached out to her personally.
But she would still like for him to respond to her question.
“He should also ask his contemporaries: Michael Pollan, Anna Lappé, Tom Colicchio, and others,” Nelson says. “He could do a roundtable, a podcast, whatever works. I want him to dig in and help present the responses.”
In sum, Nelson wants Bittman to organize in his community among his peers.
As for herself, Nelson was inspired by what happened. She recently launched “Stir the Pot,” a series of community cooking and conversation events. Hosted in collaboration with the New Haven Food Policy Council, each gathering uses an essay from Julia Turshen’s Feed The Resistance as a starting point for conversation. Nelson sees it as a model other communities can borrow.
“This is an isolating field to be Black, young, and gay in,” Robinson says, speaking of her farming experience. “If you’re a male farmer, you’ve got more people to identify with. If I want to find women or people of color to learn from or work for, it’s harder.”
She hopes that will change with her Harriet Tubman Freedom Farm, which she envisions as a place of cultural connection, drawing on what she describes as a transformative experience she had training at Soul Fire Farm.
“We learned about the agricultural geniuses that our ancestors were,” she said. “Farming is part of our culture.”
As for Soul Fire Farm, they’ve just given the country at least one way to resolve a $6.4 trillion debt to Black America.
If Black people had been paid for their agricultural labor, rather than enslaved, today they would have at least that much in the bank. For those unfamiliar with reparations math, that’s the lowest major estimate. It was originally made by Martin Luther King Jr., who calculated that $20 per week since the late 1700s for 4 million slaves would total $800 billion, about $6.4 trillion today.
Along with people-to-people reparations, Penniman says, creating equity in the food system will take social movements, better farm policies, and legislation like H.R. 40, a bill introduced repeatedly by Rep. John Conyers since 1989 to research the impact of slavery and discrimination in order to “recommend appropriate remedies.” She says that the new map complements a larger effort coordinated by the National Black Food & Justice Alliance to promote reparations.
Such efforts will require answering difficult questions, but at least asking them acknowledges their importance.
“Because of Nadine’s question,” Robinson says, “I was able to get all that I asked for, because of her belief in the importance of asking this question.” She also gained something intangible, a sense of connection.
“We went through something together. We all got closer and got to experience some healing as Black people.”