Reporting from the Justice Room, Thursday 6th January, at the Oxford Real Conference (ORFC).

Foreword by our co-director Mark:
This year we partnered with LION and ORFC to co-host and programme the Justice Room, a new space at ORFC. 

The Justice Room was created to be a dedicated safe space within the conference, for people who are oppressed, discriminated-against or marginalised within agricultural spaces to feel empowered, connect with each other and share knowledge. The programme was intended to build solidarity with international movements, explore and amplify work around land, racial, food, social, environmental, climate, reparative, economic and migrant justice.

We were full of excitement on Thursday morning as we prepared for the first full day of the conference with a full programme of sessions in the Justice Room covering topics including addressing barriers to BPOC farming, different approaches to changing the land system, nourishing and healing through connection with nature, and the relationships between climate justice and racial justice. We also had a session on Land, Race & Empire in the conference’s main session and away from the justice strand we were presenting our work on scaling up peri urban agroecology with Sustain, the Centre for Agroecology Water and Resilience, and Ubele Initiative. 

Like everyone else we were sad to not be meeting in solidarity and making new connections in person. However the online sessions hummed with joy, connection and vitality whilst addressing the deep roots of injustice embedded in our current land system, their histories, and their day-to-day impacts on people and communities seeking opportunities to work with land and with nature today. These ranged from racist objections to planning applications, to the fundamental, but far from guaranteed, need to feel a sense of belonging on the land. By the end of the day it felt like the Justice Room was beginning to create a new place of belonging at ORFC, and a space for some valuable sharing, reflection, listening and learning to happen.

An illustrated drawing of five growers of colour, with a blue sky above them and the text embedded "Roots Into Food Growing, Uplifting Black + Racialised Growers in London"
You can read the full Rootz Into Food Growing Report here. Image by Javie Huxley

The Justice Room held the first session Addressing Barriers to BPOC Farming with Pauline Shakespeare from Ubele, Sam Siva from LION (Land In Our Names), Lufti Radwan from Willowbrook Farm and Hari Byles from CFGN (the Community Food Growers Network). In the session we reflected on the Rootz into Food Growing Report, which aimed to acknowledge systemic racism in the food sector and expose the barriers to BPOC that prevent thriving livelihoods. The report conducted by Ubele, LION and OrganicLea, was unable to find any Black or people of colour who could officially call themselves commercial food growers, and identified that there were no personal support networks or unions formally set up in london for growers, nor was there a BPOC official space. 

Recommendations from the report included a need for fair remuneration and pay to support livelihoods, BPOC-specific spaces, personal mentoring, and a need for project funding to be brought into the space. Initiatives stemming from the report so far include LION working on distributing micro grants to enable BPOC to get into growing, and the CFGN supporting the development of an external model of accountability to hold organisations with financial power to account. In breakout rooms, participants expanded on ideas including: access to land and skills training, white-led spaces preventing accessibility, planning issues, lack of capital, systemic racism, and competition for funds with top-down projects such as rewilding; all acting as barriers to growing for Black and people of colour.

The second session in the Justice Room “How Do We Change The Land System?” hosted Frances Northrop from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and Bonnie VanderSteeg from the People’s Land Policy (PLP). Frances shared NEF and Shared Assets’ research project  ‘Land for Who’, which is aiming to produce a deeper understanding of the land system, how it works and how we can empower people to have an active role in the land narrative. Working with different community organisations, Frances highlighted that “change moves at the pace of trust” (a term used by Adrienne Marie Brown) a collective movement will be unable to enact change together unless trust is nurtured between actors.

Bonnie VanderSteeg and the People’s Land Policy work with the aim of developing a democratic discussion and debate to find out what changes people want to see in the land system. PLP work around the idea of supporting a commons - a process which includes everyone having decision-making autonomy and land stewardship responsibilities. Bonnie emphasised that we need a mass movement which needs to be intersectional, in order to enact change that will involve and support everyone.

In breakout rooms, we reflected on how we can best achieve change in the land system, where we explored with each other how growers and food producers can work with communities in different ways, different systems of taxation, and the methods of mobilisation that are needed to get more people involved in changing the land system. One idea that many groups were keen to commonly explore was the idea of democratic “local land assemblies”. You can keep up to date on NEF and PLP’s work on their websites.

We were joined by the Seed Sistas, a pair of independent herbalists who met at University studying herbal medicine, and have worked together ever since to share knowledge about herbal medicine, its place in folklore, and complex history through active storytelling, collaborative courses, and publications. You can find their latest performance series “Voices From the Hedgerow” which they brought to the climate fringe at COP26 here.

In their session Staying Rooted in a Shifting World, the Seed Sistas shared their message that our society’s disconnection with our planetary and interpersonal health can be nourished and healed through a connection with plants and nature. Through their social enterprise, they particularly encourage people to set up community medicine gardens, mobilising a movement for ‘getting your fingers in the soil’, by connecting people with a garden locally to fight loneliness, nurture a more equitable food system and heal social disconnection with nature.

The discussion sparked so much enthusiasm and so many questions about growing and nourishment through herbalism. They encourage people to get in touch with their questions about herbalism, and learn about their work on instagram, facebook and twitter!

Josina from Land In Our Names (LION) hosted a discussion on Land, Race and Empire with Corinne Fowler, a Professor of Postcolonial Literature and Sam Siva from LION and the Right to Roam Campaign. Corrine and Sam were in conversation to explore how colonialism has shaped our culture and mapped out the inequalities in land ownership and power structures that we see today.

The discussion steered towards the topics of the exclusion of Black and people of colour from rural spaces, and the invisibility of the damaging history of the British empire in the countryside. Corrine explained that this erasure from the rural narrative could not be further from the truth. She was the lead academic on a research project by the National Trust called Colonial Countryside which triggered huge amounts of backlash in Corinne’s direction, after the report explored the history of country estates down to their colonial roots. Corinne and Sam explored how the colonial mindset created the idea of the ‘rural idyll’: a place for those rich and in power to move freely and relax, away from the diversity of urban spaces. In reality, so much of the land ownership and wealth in the countryside was in fact built through the exploitation of those marginalised sectors of society now excluded from it.

Corinne urged that justice can only come about once history is learnt and uncovered, particularly through decolonising education. Sam pointed towards LION’s working definition of reparations for healing; where “in addition to financial reparations, reparations must address ecological, mental and physical repair as essential parts of a wider whole.” Groups such as Black Girls Hike and Muslim Hikers were appreciated as healing work to build solidarity with sectors of society who have been told they don’t belong in rural spaces.

“If people have more of a right to access the countryside, for their own mental health and wellbeing, (the majority of people who live in polluted, urban areas are Black and people of colour) … they are able to develop relationships with the more-than-human and nature…You realise there are things being withheld from you, being taken from you. That can be a call to action.” - Sam Siva.

Climate Justice is a Distraction from Racial Justice: African Heritage Horticulturalismwas a session in the Justice Room joined by Valerie, Sandra and Dre, three founders of community growing spaces. The discussion was rooted in the concept that climate change is not itself the root issue, but toxic systems rooted in injustice have led to climate change as a by-product, and therefore to talk about climate justice we need to dismantle the current system and address racial justice. This involves recentering indigenous growing and ecological practices, such as African Heritage Horticulturalism.

Valerie works with the Coco Collective, and founded the African diaspora-led Ital Community Garden. The garden uses horticulturalism to reconnect people and their heritage with the soil, supports mental health, and empowers young people in leadership and self-sufficiency. Sandra, a community horticulturist and a mum, observed that sisters around her experience a cultural gap between food and the land. Sandra set up Go Grow With Love CIC, teaching women how to grow culturally appropriate foods: focusing on soil cultivation and respecting tradition and nature through growing. Dre began to grow in 2013 after realising that growing wasn’t something to flee or fear, but is something to experience, in the same way that her ancestors did. She founded Seeds of Contentment, a collective of growers harvesting and sharing seeds, who hold a common history of facing oppression, and aim to nurture a reconnection with ancestral stewardship of the land. Valerie, Sandra and Dre’s stories exemplify the possibilities that communities have to practice regenerative and empowering growing practices that a capitalist system has tried to erase.

Sandra wears a purple full length boiler suit and holds two green planters with small green leaves growing from them, one in each hand.
Sandra from Go Grow With Love CIC

You can financially support what we do at Shared Assets to reimagine land for the common good, by donating here.
This blog is part one of three in the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2022 series.
Read on to Day 2
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