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

Tanya Fields 

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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.”