Activist Tanya Fields on Race, Class and the Food Justice Movement

Tanya Fields 

After being disinvited from TEDx, Bronx resident Tanya Fields creates her own local food movement event

Tanya Fields was stressed out. She was only five days away from her first event, “Not Just Talk: Food in the South Bronx,” and the food justice activist was missing an important ingredient.

“I haven’t even gotten the caterer yet,” she admitted, throwing in a good-natured laugh.

On a recent overcast afternoon in the South Bronx, Fields had just arrived at Sunshine Bronx Incubator, a sleek co-working space in the low-income residential neighborhood of Hunts Point. A steady flow of trucks displaying vibrant images of fruits and vegetables could be seen traveling to and fro from a nearby window. Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the second largest in the country, is a five-minute drive away. 

“We don’t have access to that food, but we have access to all of the particular [pollution] that comes from the 16,000 truck trips that we get everyday in this community,” said Fields. 

In 2003, she relocated with her young daughters from Harlem, her birthplace, to the South Bronx in search of affordable housing. A sudden onset of respiratory problems experienced by both Fields and her daughters incited Fields to contribute to local environmental justice organizations and become active in community campaigns and legal battles around pollution. Her awareness of air quality prompted her to investigate the area’s food quality and land renewal opportunities in 2008.

Now at thirty-two years old, Fields has become an urban farmer and a vocal advocate in the food justice movement, which works towards achieving fair distribution of healthful food regardless of the recipient’s ability to pay. So when the time came last summer to apply for one of 15 highly-selective speaker slots for the third annual TEDxManhattan event titled “Changing The Way We Eat,” Fields thought she should stood a decent chance.

Learning of her acceptance a month later prompted Fields to proudly spread the great news amongst colleagues, donors, and friends, and ready her forthcoming talk on how to create a better food system for marginalized neighborhoods similar to her own. She also planned to launch and promote a mobile food market using a school bus retrofitted to run on vegetable oil and provide support for rural and urban farmers and fresh food and employment for her community. Then in December, two months before the event, Fields was uninvited via email.

This isn’t just about this low-income woman from the Bronx trying to start a veggie market. This is about something so much more.

According to Fields, Diane Hatz, the founding executive director of Glenwood Institute who had also notified Fields of her acceptance a few months earlier, informed Fields that because her non-profit organization The BLK Projeck was not yet incorporated. This decision perplexed Fields, seeing as how TEDx events focused on individual thought leaders and did not require any affiliation to an incorporated non-profit. In fact, several of the speakers selected with Fields did not belong to any organization, leading her to make further comparisons between herself and the speakers, specifically her race and her socioeconomic background. She and Karen Washington, a longtime Bronx resident, urban farmer, and a board member of the New York Botanical Gardens who had spoken at TEDx before, were the only African-Americans on the speakers list.

“As a person of color, you know it when you’re being treated differently,” said Fields. With the deft ease that her articulation switched from scholarly to colloquial in one sentence, she revealed that food stamps allowed her to feed her four children. Fields has found herself navigating a duel perspective of both beneficiary and activist that most of her food justice peers do not. “It’s not about pulling the ‘race card,’” she claimed. “It was more about the fact that, if I were an Ivy League graduate named Lauren, would I have gotten treated the same way? I didn’t feel like that was the case. I truly felt that in the pit of my stomach.”

Something had been triggered. She took the holidays to mull over an appropriate response, and opted to pen an open letter and post it on her organization’s blog. Ultimately, letter made it's way to the Community Food Security Coalition email listserv. Detailing what had occurred and addressing the thorny intersections of race, class, privilege, and positional power, Fields' open letter received a substantial amount of support from food and social justice activists around the country. She also announced that she would be throwing her own food movement event, “Not Just Talk,” on Saturday, February 16--- the same day as the TEDx event.

In retrospect, at that point Fields understood that the issue was no longer about her. “It was about people having conversations around things that they realized were blocking them in their own work, in their own communities, that may or may not look like the South Bronx,” she said.

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