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

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

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

by Patrice Peck, February 26, 2013

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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.

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.

"In this work our narratives are all legitimate, Fields wrote in the letter’s conclusion. "If we affect just one person and change one life, including our own, then our work needs no further validation.”

Washington, who had also been selected as a speaker, said that she had called an individual involved with Fields' disinvitation to learn more. She claims that the individual had heard from people that Tanya would "mess it up," that Tanya wouldn't "say the right thing." "As an African-American and person of color, for so many years we have been denied the freedom of self expression based on hearsay,” said Washington.

To send a message to food and social justice communities everywhere, Washington withdrew herself from the event six weeks prior. When asked what message she hoped to send, Washington replied: “I said, 'You know what? I've had enough.' I'm not going to support any sort of institution or any organization that offends strong black women who are able to stand up and voice their opinion. So, that’s why I left."

In the email list, Hatz expressed remorse regarding Washington’s withdrawal and provided her own explanation for Fields being uninvited: “After re-evaluation, the organizers felt she wasn’t quite ready for this particular type of event but we're more than willing to hold a spot open for her in the future.”

Towards the end of January, Fields, Hatz and Kathleen Frith—the president of Glenwood Organization, a non-profit that houses the Glynwood Institute—sat down with mediator LaDonna Redmond, a long-time community activist who amongst many things has successfully worked to get Chicago Public Schools to evaluate junk food, launched urban agriculture projects, and worked on federal farm policy. She attributes some organizations’ and activists’ lack of literacy to unacknowledged historical food injustices experienced by enslaved Africans and Native Americas.

"As an African-American, you would have to understand that I would feel like, "Hey, the story of land and agriculture in the United States doesn't begin in the 1930's [with the Dustbowl and the industrialization of agriculture" said Redmond. “It begins in the 1700s with the exploitation of African slaves, and the treatment of Native Americans.' That narrative is underscored over and over and over again; so much so that when our voice is at the table, it's considered something of an aside, and so very easy to dismiss and that's what Tanya and other activists have experienced."

After several extensive conversations, the involved parties eventually came to a resolution, detailed in Fields' blog post, “Moving Forward: TEDx Manhattan Apology and Joint Statement. “The Glynwood Institute, and TEDx Manhattan Organizer Diane Hatz, deeply regret uninviting Tanya Fields as a speaker to ‘Changing the Way We Eat,’” read the statement.  “The consequences of and responses to this action have provided a powerful message about how fundamental issues of race, representation, cultural divide and fear affect our work and must be addressed, respectfully and honestly.”

Described by Firth simply as “an unfortunate situation,” the invitation was opened back up and declined by both Fields and Washington. However, as suggested by Fields, a speaker invitation had been extended to and accepted by Redmond, who would attend TEDx in Fields’ place. “It’s an opportunity to bridge divides and collaborate with these fantastic women that I’ve come to know in the past few weeks,” said Firth in a brief phone conversation. “I’m excited to work with them.” Firth and Redmond attended Fields' “Not Just Talk” event following the TEDx event to address any further concerns raised by this incident and conduct a dialogue on effective inclusion across the board.

Fields believes that only time will tell whether The Glenwood Organization is willing to put in the work. She considers her open letter a source of pride, as well as the people engaged in the subsequent discussion who held individuals and groups accountable.

Take, for instance, Nikki Henderson, the Executive Director of People’s Grocery in Oakland. Coming across Fields’ open letter inspired Henderson to draft her own letter about a similar incident, where she was disinvited from a fairly high profile event on the West Coast. Although not yet comfortable speaking in great detail about the incident, Henderson did say, "the trend of two African-American women being disinvited from two separate events on opposite sides of the country within a month of each other struck me as significant.”

For a woman of color, speaking out against discriminatory incidences demonstrates courage. Yet, she also runs the risk of being labeled an “angry Black woman.” Fields realizes hat her frankness while discussing race relations in the food system sometimes makes others uncomfortable, but she has vowed to continue “speaking in truth” no matter how others in the movement perceive her.

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

 
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