Institute Insights: February 2020


Celebrate Black History Month

From the Director

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. It has also become a national day of service. Hunger was an issue that Dr. King spoke about in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize address. He said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

February is Black History Month. It is a time to reflect on and celebrate the service of African American leaders from the past and today. Like Dr. King, many of these leaders shared the conviction that justice will prevail. They were famous trailblazers, including Marian Wright Edelman and A. Philip Randolph, but also local leaders, everyday public servants, and faithful members of the community. This month is about lifting up leaders who have been committed to ending hunger and poverty, in all spheres, at all levels.

Hunger is ultimately about injustice. After all, there is enough food to feed every single person on Earth. People go hungry because they are marginalized and neglected. Whether the result of deliberate policies or not, the persistence of hunger reflects a society's willingness to look the other way, tacitly accepting preventable suffering and the long-term consequences of hunger on the human body, mind, and spirit. Leaders who make ending hunger their cause are willing to take on the unjust systems and structures that sustain hunger. They are brave and truly worthy of the recognition they receive. The leaders we lift up during Black History Month have faced distinct challenges and overcome personal and social barriers to speak out for justice. They exemplify resilience and fortitude.

In this month's issue of Institute Insights, we focus on resilience under difficult, sometimes life-threatening circumstances. Whether free African American men who participated in politics before 1800, men, women, and children who fought for voting rights in the 1960s, “food justice warriors” such as Fannie Lou Hamer, today’s African American advocates for equitable treatment of African Americans, those planning for a future Africa of peace and prosperity, or teenagers of color working to protect their communities from the impact of climate change, the people we discuss exemplify the slogan, “Be the change you want to see.”

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.

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African Americans, waiting to register to vote, form a long line outside the Dallas Courthouse in Selma, Alabama, February 1965. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Black History Month: Celebrating African American Contributions in Voting, Elections, and Public Policy

By Marlysa D. Gamblin

This year, Bread for the World celebrates Black History Month with the theme of voting, elections, and public policy. Ending hunger by 2030 requires that people in the United States immerse ourselves in this year’s election issues; educate ourselves, our community, and our candidates on public policies; and vote for candidates who have committed to end hunger in a way that acknowledges its root causes, including structural racism.

African Americans have a long history of understanding the importance of voting, elections, and public policy. Before 1800, African American men who were free had minimal rights of citizenship and exercised their right to vote in the few northern states that allowed this. This enabled them to develop their agency to inform public policy.  Dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, African American leaders who were enslaved fought for the right to be free—with freedom would come the right to vote and inform public policy.

African American activism didn’t stop there. Once enslaved African Americans were emancipated, some leaders  mobilized as activists, using meetings, parades, and petitions to call for legal and political rights, including the right to vote and inform public policy. In fact, during the first two years of Reconstruction, African Americans held state and local conventions to protest discriminatory treatment and established the National Equal Rights League (NERL)—the oldest nationwide human rights organization.

After attaining the right to vote, African American men became very active in public policy. Between 1869 and 1883, 16 African Americans served in the U.S. Congress, and almost 2,000 African Americans held public office at state and local levels. The struggle for voting rights reached another peak in 1963 and 1964, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and hundreds of others organized and led protests against discriminatory laws and practices.

This shows us that African American communities have historically understood and prioritized the importance of participating in the public policy process. As we reflect on the contributions of hundreds of thousands of African American leaders, known and unknown, seen and unseen—let us celebrate how many people in our country can participate in the upcoming presidential elections because of their unwavering commitment and steadfast leadership.

But let us also be reminded of the values of leaders of the distant and recent past—the value of full freedom. African American leaders fought, and continue to fight, for the ability to be free. Freedom from racial oppression, freedom from being barred from voting, freedom from being unable to care for one’s family and not experience hunger. Full freedom.

As we honor their legacy and contribution to elections and voting, let us also emphasize key public policy changes that still need to be made to secure full freedom. Using a racial equity lens, Bread for the World Institute analyzed how the top presidential candidates are promoting freedom through their positions on key topics that continue to exacerbate U.S. hunger, including a shortage of good jobs, poverty, and a deeply flawed criminal justice system. On the whole, the candidates have not prioritized a key component that could simultaneously garner full-fledged freedom and help end hunger— structural racism.

In honor of Black History Month, and in celebration of the heroic leadership of many African Americans from the 1700s to present day, Bread for the World Institute encourages you to do what these leaders were determined to do—immerse yourself in the elections and educate yourself, your community, and the candidates on ways they can prioritize racial equity in their policies, with the intention of ending hunger and delivering freedom.

For more on the history of voting rights, elections, and public policy, read page 33 of the Policy Packet in the Racial Wealth Gap Learning Simulation.

Marlysa D. Gamblin is domestic advisor for policy and programs, specific populations, at Bread for the World Institute.

Aya Community Market in Northeast Washington, D.C. Joseph Molieri for Bread for the World

African Americans and Climate Change

By Karyn Bigelow

African Americans and other people of color in the United States began to experience climate change impacts earlier and more severely than whites. Too often, conversations surrounding climate change seem to assume that it’s something that will happen in the future. However, many Black Americans are already trying to cope with climate-related problems, such as rising sea levels, powerful storms, and intense heat that is causing health conditions to worsen for many. There is little media coverage of the impacts of climate change on African Americans, nor is there enough recognition of those fighting for climate action.

In the past, my colleagues have written about Hunger and Poverty in the African American Community, detailing some of the challenges that make it harder to attain food security. Climate change acts as a multiplier of many of the problems that Black Americans face related to environmental racism, poverty, and hunger. For these reasons many African Americans have become advocates for climate change action. For decades many predominantly Black communities have been advocates against environmental racism, which has close connections to the disproportionate harm climate change causes communities of color.

As The Washington Post reported recently, teens of all races report being more concerned about climate change than older people, and Black teens express a greater sense of urgency around climate change. Some Black teenagers have made the connection that minorities and low-income communities are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Not only are African American communities more likely to live in areas disproportionately impacted by climate change, but they are also less likely to have the assets needed to recover from natural disasters and rising sea levels. More frequent, stronger storms due to climate change will push low-income families into food insecurity or deeper into food insecurity. Therefore, many organizations that are run by and serve African Americans are making climate change a priority. From Black Lives Matter to the NAACP to the Congressional Black Caucus, people are calling for systemic changes that will allow for African Americans to live in communities that are safe from climate change and environmental problems. Black leaders are proposing policies that will give special protections to African American communities that are hit worst during natural disasters. Some leaders are calling for comprehensive legislation that would address environmental problems in low-income communities, including urban, rural, and tribal communities.

It is imperative that the faces and voices of African Americans be brought to the forefront of the climate change conversation. This is particularly important when plans are being designed to serve communities that are disproportionately affected and also have the least means to cope.

Karyn Bigelow is research associate with Bread for the World Institute.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate, at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964. Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress

Fannie Lou Hamer: Pioneer of Food Justice

By Todd Post

A food justice movement in the United States is on the rise, and it owes much of its dynamism to communities of color who have said that enough is enough. They’ve had it with urban food deserts, or food apartheid as it is sometimes described. Food systems are yet another vector for systemic racism.

In last month's issue, I featured the inspirational work of Rev. Heber Brown in Baltimore in leading the Black Church Food Security Network. I wish there was space in this blog to chronicle the works of many others, such as Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York and author of Farming While Black, or to pay tribute to the remarkable accomplishments of Will Allen, founder of Growing Power in Milwaukee. Hopefully, these links will encourage readers who are interested to explore.

As this is Black History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to say something about one of the pioneers of the food justice movement. The name Fannie Lou Hamer is not obscure, but the civil rights and women’s rights icon of the 1960s and 1970s is less known as a food justice advocate. The term food justice was coined only later, since at the height of the civil rights movement, all injustices were part of its agenda.

In 1969, Hamer established the Freedom Farm Cooperative, whose objective was to make land accessible to black farmers and provide a source of food and employment for marginalized communities in the Mississippi Delta. Throughout the 20th century, African American farmers (not only in Mississippi, but nationwide) were routinely denied loans they sought from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most lost their land as a result and were forced to resort to sharecropping or join the Great Migration headed North and West. It was one of the most egregious examples of wealth stripping carried out by the federal government, orchestrated by unabashed racists such as Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland. Today, African Americans make up less than 2 percent of the nation’s farmers, compared to nearly 15 percent a hundred years ago.
The Freedom Farm Cooperative included The Pig Project, providing a source of protein to families who could not afford the cost of meat. Hamer sought contributions from the National Council of Negro Women. Using an approach similar to that of Heifer International, families could receive a piglet to raise and breed as a source of income and would then donate offspring to other families in need. The Freedom Farm Cooperative expanded to include community gardens, a commercial kitchen, a Head Start program, a job training center, a tool bank, and several income-generating enterprises, such as a garment factory and sewing cooperative. Hamer made it the business of the cooperative to offer support to community members who had lost their jobs or had been evicted for exercising their right to vote.

Sociologist Marcia White writes, “Freedom Farms and the work of Ms. Hamer, offer us important and valuable lessons on rebuilding our communities and investing in sustainable cities around growing food.”

Today’s food justice advocates are not only attempting to feed communities where food systems have failed, but they have become ever mindful of preserving the sustainability of the tiny parcels of land that are all that is available to them.   Will Allen of Growing Power has said, “To be a sustainable farmer and grow without chemicals is harder than being a professional athlete.” Take it from him—Allen was a professional basketball player before he heard the call of urban agriculture. Allen, along with Heber Brown, Leah Penniman, and many others, is continuing to lead the way along the path blazed by activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer and her own lodestars, who include Vernon Johns. Whatever era of history in which they shine, they are inspirations to people of any color.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.

Agenda 2063 cover

The Africa They Want

By Jordan Teague

Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions last month? New decade, new you? You might call the Sustainable Development Goals the world’s New Year’s Resolutions for this new decade. Some regions even entire continents, have set their own goals.

The African Union, whose members are 55 countries on the continent of Africa, outlines Agenda2063 – the plan to achieve its vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”

Their key aspirations for the continent by the year 2063 are in Box 1:

As I read and reflect on these aspirations for the continent, I can’t help but be excited for these visions to come to fruition. This is how it should be, a world where Africa and her people are the drivers, the decision-makers, the leaders in setting the directions of their countries. A world where local people determine the development priorities, resources, and ways of implementing programs. A world where foreign investments in African countries align more with her people’s vision and goals for themselves than with others’ self-interest.

African countries are certainly working toward the SDGs while also striving to achieve their own aspirations. And achieving the SDGs will require achieving equity, meaning all people can realize equal outcomes.

Eliminating inequities is an economic, social, and moral imperative to end global hunger, poverty, and malnutrition and to make it so that Africans can achieve Agenda2063. We also know that current inequities are an ongoing result of history: many can be traced back to colonialism and imperialism — influencing policies, economic systems, and cultures even today.

So while we strive towards the SDGs this decade, let us not lose sight of what Africa’s people have envisioned for themselves. Achieving the SDGs and supporting Africa to achieve Agenda2063 will require actively countering the weight of history’s influence on today’s global systems. It starts with recognition but requires so much more. I look forward to the day when Africa looks like the Africa Africans want.

Jordan Teague is senior international policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

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