An Open Letter from BIPOC Leaders in Food & Agriculture to Food Systems Funders

It’s time for food systems funders to center racial equity and justice, and Black, indigenous and people of color communities in their practices.

July 10, 2020

Dear Food Systems Funders,

We write to you as Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) leaders in food and agriculture who work with hundreds of grassroots communities across the country who have been at and on the frontlines of food and agriculture justice work.

You’ve articulated your commitment to equity and to racial healing and we appreciate that. Now, it’s time to put words into action, and put your money where your mouth is.

We are deeply concerned by two recent incidents. We find 1) the recent Rockefeller, W.K. Kellogg (WKKF) and Walmart Foundation RFP on “Assessing the Impacts of COVID-19 Responses across the Food System” and 2) the WKKF-funded $200,000 grant to NCAT, a large, white-led, majority-white organization to do a “scan” of needs among BIPOC producers to be offensive and unacceptable.

As the world is faced with the unprecedented impacts of recent events, we invite you to see the urgency to unite and build together rather than continuing a pattern of paternalistic practices that entrench our marginalization, reinforce a culture of white supremacy, and devalue the knowledge and genius in our communities. And while many foundations around the country are having conversations and making moves to directly fund BIPOC-led groups to support their communities, it is high time for food systems funders to do the same. Below, we outline steps that your foundations can take to ensure more just ways of giving, and ensure greater impact.

We are all faced with the reality that the current systems and institutions that exist are woefully unprepared to protect the most vulnerable in our country. The COVID pandemic has highlighted how our nation’s food system is hugely negligent, demonstrating the inextricable link and intersectionality of food, environment, health, economic downturn and racial injustice.

It has always been the case that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other immigrant groups of color have been fighting for food systems and agricultural practices that are ecological and equitable — many indigenous groups have sustained these practices despite genocide and colonization; Black folks have been fighting for their liberation from oppressive food systems for centuries; Japanese and Mexican workers organized a beet boycott to win worker protections in 1903. Our history is rich.

And in this moment, we are on the frontlines of food and agriculture justice work in BIPOC communities and sharing these perspectives with the field. We have been leading on response/recovery efforts. National efforts like First Nations Development Institute’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund were joined by regional and local efforts like Soul Fire Farm, SAAFON and Soil Generation coming together to distribute funds to food producers and land stewards. Collaborative initiatives like the CA BIPOC Farmer and Land Steward Relief Fund and the National Black Food and Justice Alliance’s Reparations Summer are providing support to land projects while building systems of integrated capital to flow to BIPOC farmer communities. Groups like Federation of Southern Cooperatives and First Nations Development Institute have been doing this work for decades, and they have been joined by other BIPOC-led groups in the last 10 years including HEAL, National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Minnow, Real Food Generation, Food Chain Workers Alliance, and many, many more.

BIPOC communities on the frontline continue to organize, inform the narrative and incite food, land and environmental policy changes where we live.

All of these organizations have responded swiftly and clearly in their calls for policy change. For example, HEAL Food Alliance and Food Chain Workers Alliance are organizing food and farm workers, uplifting their stories to the media, and advocating for worker protections in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. HEAL recently 1) co-wrote Leveling the Fields with Union of Concerned Scientists on opportunities in BIPOC communities, and 2) hosted a series of policy webinars uplifting the needs of workers and producers directly from leaders of Black Mesa Water Coalition, Soil Generation, La Semilla Center, the Diné graduates of their School of Political Leadership, and Pioneer Valley Workers Center, Farmworker Association of Florida, and ROC-United. The alliance has drafted their list of COVID-19 policy needs that is grounded in a detailed platform co-created by over fifty organizations.

Despite this collective body of work by BIPOC-led organizations, your foundations are continuing a harmful and dangerous pattern. Over the years, it has become a common practice of foundations to resource white-led organizations to do service work in BIPOC communities, or to fund a white-led organization with an established funder relationship to subgrant to an under-resourced BIPOC-led organization. BIPOC organizations are asked to partner for bottom dollar while the white led groups get the majority of resources. This is unacceptable.

There are many examples across the nation of foundations who have worked together to create more just ways of giving: Chorus, Surdna, Mertz, Nathan Cummings, Solutions, Solidaire, Ceres Trust, Hidden Leaf, to name a few. We ask that foundations take bold steps to stop the moving train and move in concert with BIPOC-led orgs doing work in BIPOC communities. Below we propose concrete ways these injustices can be rectified:

Cancel Rockefeller / WKKF / Walmart foundation’s COVID-19 assessment RFP and reallocate the funds to BIPOC-led alliances & coalitions to support the COVID response work of their grassroots members who have already been doing the work on the ground, to help reinforce their efforts.

WKKF Foundation restructuring or rescinding the grant to NCAT for the national “scan” and repurposing it to fund the important work BIPOC-led orgs are doing on the ground, and compensating BIPOC-led orgs to provide the information that WKKF is seeking.

Come together with the BIPOC food justice leaders signed onto this letter to create a Food Systems Funders Circle that is committed to multi-year, expansive process of funding the ecosystem of our work and honors the intersections of racial injustice with health, environment, food, and the economy.

We don’t need another study to know what actions would be impactful and our communities don’t have time for one. We can literally tell you right now what is needed for workers, for BIPOC farmers, and in our communities. But while we play this game of informing other folks’ processes, we’re watching our communities’ heightened exposure to COVID-19 result in premature deaths from comorbidities (most of which are diet-related), and we are already part of mutual aid response systems that are enacting solutions for communities in need. Meanwhile, many of our organizations are understaffed for the scale of work needed in this moment, and in most cases, staff are undercompensated for the tremendous amount of work that they do — with the very communities these white-led organizations are seeking to access.

The time is now to do things differently.

Even though we know BIPOC communities and poor people have been the hardest hit by the pandemic, the BIPOC-led organizations who signed on to this letter and who are from, and work within and with the hardest hit communities did not receive the Rockefeller / W.K. Kellogg / Walmart RFP directly. In fact, a program officer expressed surprise that we even saw it. And, to add insult to injury, many of us have been asked by white-led organizations to help advise their processes of informing a COVID-19 response for food systems. We’ve been asked to facilitate, to broker relationships, to be the ones that help ensure that these processes are “equitable.”

Furthermore, while we understand the urgency of this moment, the Rockefeller / WKKF / Walmart RFP demanded more time and capacity than most BIPOC-led organizations have right now as we are doing the work on the ground in hard hit communities. For example, a coalition of respected indigenous-led groups working in food and ag asked for more time to respond to the RFP, but were denied. But you can’t do this work without us and the relationships that we have built without acknowledging the realities that our work is grounded in.

This incident mentioned above is just the latest flare up of an issue that has plagued the practices of way too many foundations for way too long. And enough is enough. The calls for change have been clear from philanthropic leaders like Dimple Abichandani of General Service Foundation; Farhad Ebrahimi of Chorus Foundation; A-dae Romero-Briones at First Nations Development Institute; Vanessa Daniel of Groundswell Fund; Lori Villarosa at Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity; Rodney Foxworth at Common Future; Dana Kawaoka-Chen at Justice Funders; Sidney Hargro at Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia; and many more. It is time for philanthropy to step up and really center racial equity and justice and BIPOC communities in your practices.

In addition to the specific remedies above, we have included some other ways that foundations can support food justice and address symptoms of a much larger problem. In the big picture, we ask that foundations move from extractive to regenerative practices, including:

Cultivate authentic partnership with BIPOC communities by acknowledging the work of BIPOC-led orgs in these communities and listening to what they see on the ground and what their needs are;

Stop crafting RFP processes that are not equitable for and accessible for BIPOC-led orgs, and instead craft grant making strategies informed by community needs and shaped by BIPOC-led organizations accountable to frontline communities;

Stop funding larger, more well resourced white-led orgs that put together proposals for work in communities of color;

Examine your own funding trends;

Invest in unrestricted multi-year grants and move towards using a participatory grantmaking model with BIPOC-led orgs from and doing work in BIPOC communities; and

Use the Justice Funders’ “Just Transition for Philanthropy” framework and consult with Justice Funders and/or their members to support you on your journey.

We urge you to meet this moment with the grace, clarity, and fortitude that we are seeing on the ground — to reimagine grantmaking in ways that we have seen justice-based funders like Surdna’s Sustainable Environment team, Solidaire Network, Kataly Foundation, Panta Rhea, Groundswell, and Urgent Action Fund do — and allow us to spend our time investing in the real work.

And, we invite you into a conversation with us to start this work.

Signed,

A-dae Romero-Briones & Raymond Foxworth for First Nations Development Institute

Navina Khanna for HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Food Alliance

Anthony Chang for Kitchen Table Advisors

Randolph Carr forNational Black Food and Justice Alliance

Patricia Carrillo for Agriculture Land-Based Association (ALBA)

Helga Garza forAgri-cultura Network

Shakara Tyler forBlack Dirt Farm Collective

Stephanie Morningstar forNEFOC (Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust)

Mark Winston Griffith forBrooklyn Movement Center

Sonia Singh & Suzanne Adely for Food Chain Workers Alliance

Krysten Aguilar & Cristina Dominguez for La Semilla Food Center

Mai Nguyen & Neil Thapar for Minnow

Edna Rodriguez for RAFI-USA (Rural Advancement Foundation-International)

Anim Steel for Real Food Generation

Phillip & Dorathy Barker for Operation Spring Plant

Kirtrina Baxter for Soil Generation

Leah Penniman & Larisa Jacobson for Soul Fire Farm


This letter was first published on Medium.com, on July 10 2020. 

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