The 2018 BUGS Conference: Shaping the Story of Our Collective Liberation

By Nikki Cole, Membership Engagement and Training Lead

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of sharing space with HEAL co-conspirator and founder Dara Cooper. We were in a somatic training space and we did a practice together called “Hand on Heart.” Basically, this activity involved Dara and I meditating on our personal commitments towards Black Liberation, while looking each other in the eye, and taking turns placing our hands on each other’s hearts. This was a profound moment in my life that I will never forget. In those minutes of silent sharing, my eyes welled with tears of power – I felt an acute clarity, connection, and commitment to her, our land, our people, our history, and our future together in the story of our journey toward freedom.  It’s what I like to call a “universal moment” – when everything comes together and makes perfect sense in the universe.

I had another “universal moment” thanks to Dara Cooper again two weekends ago. I had the honor of attending the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGS) Conference, held at the HBCU North Carolina Central University in Durham and hosted by movement superstars like Dara Cooper of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Shorlette Ammons of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, Savi Horne of the Land Loss Prevention Project, and more.

The BUGS Conference, created and founded by Earth Goddess Karen Washington, is an annual gathering for farmers, gardeners, organizers, academics, culture creators, and more to come together and celebrate Black genius and triumph over adversity; learn from each other; vision, and co-conspire together for a sustainable, dignified future.

What is this “universal moment” I speak of though? After listening to speeches about agriculture as a site of resistance, power, culture, and healing for Black and indigenous folks by Dr. Monica White from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Soul Fire Farm Co-Founder and Farming While Black author Leah Penniman;  after attending workshops led by young Black leaders from the Student Labor Action Project and Florida Farmworker Association and hearing the health, labor and environmental horror stories of farming families like Linda Lee’s from Lake Apopka, Florida; after hearing reflections and lessons from our elders like Dorathy and Philip Barker of Operation Spring Plant about farming policies and structural racism– I had an acute clarity, connection, and commitment to shaping the story of our collective liberation once again.

I am clear and hopeful about what a cross-sector HEAL coalition could do in the long term to get federal labor protections for farmworkers and prisoners …. and dare I say actually end legal slavery once and for all in the United States?!  For example – we’re leading in a cross-sector campaign right now to reform the 3 biggest food service providers in the country: it’s called the #Real Meals Campaign.  If we’re taking on this level of corporate power now, why can’t we form a large cross-sector alliance to educate the public, amend the United States Constitution, and finally right the wrongs of this country over the next decade?

That’s what we need to do as the land of free and the home of brave – fix that loophole for legal slavery as punishment for a crime in our Constitution’s 13th Amendment, AND get ALL excluded farm and domestic workers the same federal protections guaranteed to all other workers in the National Labor Relations Act.  That’s what I am crystal clear about after the 2019 BUGS conference.

I look forward to visioning and discussing what’s possible with all my HEAL comrades at HEAL’s 2019 Summit in May. We’re going to Albuquerque, New Mexico this year. Get excited because it’s going to be hot!

Until then, power on my people!


Nikki MG Cole is a passionate strategist, organizer, advocate, and fundraiser for workers’ rights. She has over 17 years of experience in the hospitality industry, and began her organizing career with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, DC in 2009. Nikki is the newest addition to the HEAL team, excited and ready to build power with people to reclaim their health, environments, and economic power. Learn more about Nikki

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