Reporting from the Justice Room, Friday 7th January, at the Oxford Real Conference (ORFC).

Foreword by Kim, our Research Coordinator:

Buzzing with energy from all of Thursday’s discussions, we launched into an equally packed timetable of sessions on the final day of ORFC 2022, in the Justice Room and beyond. The three sessions I had the pleasure of being involved in on Friday, which you can read about below, linked nicely together in that they were about ultimately about connection. Connection with each other as people from different urban and rural backgrounds, with other living and non-living beings, with the land, and about one space (speaking on council farmland the session “Exploring Challenges And Opportunities For Council Farmland To Support New Agroecological Farmers”) where deepening these connections might be made possible for more people. Storytelling came up again and again as a practice vital for making these connections, and imagining new, better futures together.

Kennedy Walker from Platform posed the question “Why is Connecting Urban and Rural Food Systems Important for a Just Transition?” to Kim Graham (our Research Coordinator) and Sinead Fenton, who set up Aweside Farm in Sussex with a long lease from the Ecological Land Cooperative.

A rich discussion explored the potential for food and the stories we tell about where it comes from, to provide linkages between urban and rural spaces. Not only did we recognise that the disconnect from urban and rural spaces creates polarisation and lack of cohesion, but the evolution of this disconnect has led to damaging practices in our food systems. Kim spoke of the ‘Ruralisation’ (a counterforce to urbanisation) project, and expressed how a colonial mindset of extraction and exploitation has created a food system in Britain that leans on cheap mass production. This has resulted in rural degradation and the exploitation of workers, particularly migrant workers. Kim expressed how we need to address these systemic issues and form meaningful relationships of solidarity across the urban/rural divide, in order to create a just transition.

Sinead shared her story and experience in overcoming a wide range of very entrenched barriers make the transition from London to a farm in rural Sussex to run Aweside Farm. She explained how difficult it was to experience a sense of belonging, particularly as a person of colour, and that only through experiencing nature growing up, has she been empowered to know her right to belong in a rural space. So many people in the session resonated with the need to focus on that sense of belonging, and how stories like Sinead’s can inspire people 

A hazy morning at Aweside farm, where the camera stares between two tall rows of vibrant sunflowers. In the soil, mushrooms are sprouting out everywhere!
Aweside Farm in September 2021.

In our session What would a Community Soil Health Clinic look like?, the Justice Room transformed in appearance as we hosted an immersive session, screening microscopic footage from the Compost Mentis Cooperative, to inspire conversation around the ecosystems in our soil. The session was hosted by Kim Graham from Shared Assets and Hari Byles from the Compost Mentis Cooperative, who are building a ‘community soil health clinic’ with growers and activists in London; with a vision for the clinic to be an affordable, accessible space for small scale growers. We discussed what sort of resources the clinic would look to share, how learning about our soils can work as a tool for healing and inspiration, and how this clinic can be a knowledge commons rooted in land and racial justice work. We developed a collaborative document from the session where folk from the session could share their resources here.

Shmita: Jewish Farming and Land Justice was a session in the Justice Room that hosted Rachel Solnick, Samson Hart and Sara Moon, to explore the Jewish diaspora's wild relationship to land and understand what land justice looks like.

The speakers shared the meaning of Shmita, a Sabbath of the land, mandated by the Torah as the seventh year in a cyclical cycle when agricultural land is left to lie fallow and the soil is allowed to regenerate. Shmita presents the spiritual notion that land is a resource which needs temporary wildness in order to be whole. The speakers explored what it means to be a Jewish farmer: the cultural and scriptural guidance that exists on how to nurture plants and land; festivals based on agricultural seasons; and land, food and social justice being intertwined. 

Conversation moved towards the meaning of land justice: relating to the trauma of landlessness that is particularly present in the diversity of Jewish histories, as well as the concept of land in the Torah being ownerless, quoting: ‘You are but strangers in temporary dwelling with me’. Rachel, Samson and Sara expressed land justice in a Jewish sense as needing to disrupt a nationalist connection with land. The evolution of a Jewish diaspora must disrupt whiteness, and centre around the meaning of the Yiddish word Doikayt - meaning ‘hereness’, and reclaiming the identity through a deep connection with where you are, wherever you are now.

In the session “Leading, Connecting and Celebrating Community Action”, we were met by Ruth Nortey, Ella Scotland-Waters, Miss Divine and Rosina Al-Shaater to explore the Black and Green Ambassadors Programme: set up in Bristol to address the lack of representation in the environmental sector.The programme was created to showcase the work that is being done by Black and Brown communities and the knowledge that exists around environmentalism, food growing and stewardship of nature.

Throughout the year each ambassador is focusing on a different project: Rosina, with a background in community arts, is focusing on engaging and connecting people with nature in a creative way; Ruth is working with Black mothers and babies and their connections to nature throughout the pandemic; Ella is working to connect Black and Brown growing projects throughout the UK; and Miss Divine is asking why different parts of Bristol (which have higher proportions of Black and people of colour living there) are more polluted than others.

You can find out more about their work through their website and by tuning in to their radio spot on Ujima Radio!

a 5 x 5 panel of attendees from the zoom Oxford Real Farming Conference. People are smiling and waving as the conference draws to a close.
Saying our goodbyes and thank-yous at the Closing Plenary.

Closing thoughts by Christabel, our Movement Building Coordinator:

This was the first year the ORFC has had a Justice Room, and we were honoured to co-host the space with Land in our Names. Justice was the theme of all talks and discussions, but it was also the aim to hear from those often invisible and more marginalised by the dominant food and agriculture system, to have a space to share their experiences. 

We heard about how deep white supremacy runs, in the way the countryside benefits the mostly upper - middle class white people, the ‘rural idyll’ as seen as a sanctuary from diverse urban environments, and how only now are we seeing the first research into black farmers in the UK. We learnt about spiritual, healing practices that land and nature facilitate through herbalism, African heritage horticulture and Jewish agriculture practices, and discussed the needs and barriers that exist for networks to sustain and grow. As movements for food and farming at ORFC, we spoke about our responsibility to ensure we build support systems and focus on resource distribution in order to ensure a transformation to an agroecological future will be intersectional and equitable. Storytelling was revered as an important and magical way of hearing from speakers and participants about their realities. Through these stories came powerful concepts worth holding onto.

For one participant in the room, this was a “watershed moment for inclusion in this movement - it feels totally different to anything I have experienced before!” It was the first year of what we anticipate will be many years to come. For now, watch this space for the Black and People of Colour caucus in the Spring and the Theory of Change project to develop a shared strategy for land justice (get in touch with for more information.)

The Justice Room was organised by Land In Our Names (LION) and Shared Assets. You can keep updated with their work through LION's website, and Shared Assets' newsletter.

You can financially support what we do at Shared Assets to reimagine land for the common good, by donating here.
This blog is part two of three blogs from ORFC 2022.
read part three here
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