A few of us began to ask the questions “What does community look like when we’re all equal and respected members working together in self-reliance and dignity? How can we build communities from the foundations of what exists now to be inherently whole and just?” We looked to public housing as a beginning. The big thing that motivates everyone is access to healthy food and food security. The efforts around local food production here have been two-fold. From electing a food policy council member to the city council to launching an edible landscape movement, the city is underway to creating a (not so) new culture around food production. Even the public housing communities are part of this movement, though they don’t have nearly the same access to resources or training to sustain their gardens. The white leaders learn this and are initially excited to do something about it, but when they receive funding through their respective nonprofits to address the marginalization, something manages to go not quite as planned and the people are left figuring out what to do on their own save a few independent white allies, meanwhile they continue to experience sabotage and non-cooperation from the Housing Authority for their efforts.
But all in all, everyone is excited about local foods. And they are all pushing in the same direction–for farms to depend just as much on animals as they always have. In this urban local foods culture, chickens and rabbits and goats are the popular ones and a breeding industry has erected here in response to that demand. (One of the public housing communities hasn’t been able to acquire any animals yet because they don’t have the access or the resources.) When it comes to community-building, self-determination, and wholeness, once again, animals aren’t included in that picture except as objects to exploit, and people of color are barely included, but trying as always to be equal in participation with white communities who seem to have the resources, the space, and are determining the direction of the vision and the vision itself.
So in response to this discrepancy, two groups have formed–one to address the need for people of color to explore self-determination and wholeness for themselves without the utter dependence on unreliable and untrustworthy white leaders; one to address the need to explore animal agency as a viable form of consideration of animals as we live in interdependence as individuals and as communities. One group comprises entirely of women of color, the other of a few white women and me. These groups don’t talk to each other, nor believe that they are compatible because they don’t share the same immediate goals. Of course, I am part of both. I find that all of my work, whether it focuses on people of color (and women of color, specifically) or animals or ecosystems, comes back to responding to problems of little or no diversity and exclusion. As a result, my work for the social equity and empowerment of people of color is directly connected to my work for animals to live in self-reliance, dignity, and freedom. To speak up for both is to speak up for myself. I am a black woman and I relate so deeply to being animal. Our lives are so connected. For me, it’s common sense that I work for liberation for both. But for the most part, I am alone. So my main work has been building a bridge between these efforts that believe they are incompatible. As a result, I have been slowly…slowly transforming both.
The first step has been in community conversation. Lori Gruen wrote an essay called “Revaluing Nature” in 1993. In it, she explores this concept of “chosen communities” as a framework for building communities that are just and inclusive of nature (animals included). Although she refers to animals specifically (farmed animals) and even to ecosystems (the clear-cut of forests), she vaguely includes women of color in this model but rather refers to white radical feminists’ discussion of that model for possibilities such as in the “Third World.” Basically, in this essay, she’s proposing community-based valuing through a model such as an intentional community where people choose to be there, are willing participates, and are self-reflective and have little barriers to dialogue about the re-valuing of animals and nature. In my experience, women of color in “chosen communities” are not so much there because they choose to be but because they are compelled to organize because the circumstances we’re facing collectively as a people in place are so awful. We’re not living the lives we want so much as responding to what we definitely don’t want anymore. Additionally, we also face barriers to have regular conversations about the re-valuing of animals because the needs to improve our present circumstances are so immediate. We don’t have time to sit around and theorize for too long. Because this model is so general and non-specific to women of color’s realities, it’s difficult to see how a dialogue can even begin in community when so many women of color in America’s cities and rural towns are struggling (still struggling twenty years later) to meet basic needs and consideration for their communities. The same goes for the zoopolis concept introduced by Jennifer Wolch. We can’t build whole communities with animals where minority groups are marginalized and excluded.
So in the spirit of the black radical tradition, driven by my vision for community-based liberation and ecological orientation, to put some of this theory into practice and to explore what animal agency means in community but in ways that are more relevant to people of color–in this case, black people–a few of us (I and two white women who were motivated by the vision I have been proposing) are facilitating community dialogues on self-determination, self-reliance, interdependence, healthy communities, and other qualities we’re striving for. Through this facilitation, we’re beginning to create safe, mutual spaces where wild animals and animals conventionally used in food production are included, participants of color can speak their truth, and we explore what it means to build whole communities with agency and self-determination as a value for everyone. I admit, this is all very new and experimental. We’re looking to develop this into a more formal retreat where we invite people from all over to experience and share in this new space and revalue what it means to work with difference and include everybody in the whole community. For now, it’s just conversations.