A Conversation With Devita Davison
Listen now | Talking food justice, labor activism, Detroit, and more.
I could have talked to Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit, all day. Technological difficulties, though, thwarted that plan, and we talked for just under an hour. I think we still had a good discussion, though, on everything from her upbringing as a first-generation Detroiter with roots in Alabama, experience in magazine publishing in New York City, starting her first business, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and, most of all, about the uniqueness of the city of Detroit.
Whether you listen to this chat or watch her short but information-packed TED Talk on urban agriculture in the city, you hear the love and passion in her voice for her hometown. She told me about how its history of labor and racial justice activism, focus on art and architecture, and more have all come together to make it fertile ground for food justice; she told me about how false narratives form to capitalize on the work of Black people. But it’s better to hear her tell it. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Devita. Thank you so much for coming on.
Devita: Hey, Alicia, thanks so much for inviting me. I'm really looking forward to this conversation. I've been looking forward to this conversation for a while. So this is the highlight probably of my month—maybe of the whole damn pandemic.
Alicia: No, no, I'm super excited to have you on because I've been following your work but I've only been following it online. So I can only have, you know, one level of understanding, I think, of what it is you do. And I know that it goes much deeper than what one can see from Twitter, from videos, and from, you know, articles and that sort of thing. So yeah, let's get to it.
Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Devita: Sure. So, that is a layered question. And the reason why I say that is because I identify as a first-generation Detroiter. So it's very simple in terms of where I was born. I was born in the city of Detroit, and I identify as a first-generation Detroiter, but it gets complicated after that. Not really complicated—just because it layers and the reason why it is layered is because I'm a first-generation Detroiter, and what that means is is that I am the first person in my family that was born in the city of Detroit.
Both my mother and father are southerners. They are from the rural south. They are from Alabama. So were my grandparents, my great-grandparents and their parents. So not only am I a first-generation Detroiter, but I'm also a descendant of the enslaved, and I also identify as a daughter of the Great Migration. My mother and father migrated, fleeing the Jim Crow South and racial terror in Alabama in 1963. They fled Alabama and they moved to Detroit, Michigan, looking, of course, for a better way of life, opportunities, much like 7 million other African-Americans who made the migration from the south to the north. Opportunities for their unborn children. I was the firstborn, I also have a younger brother as well. And so it was really important for me to kind of lay down that context; it is so important because it influences your next question, which is what did I grow up eating.
And so, even though my parents left Alabama, the place, and made good lives in Detroit, Abbott, the segregation and redlining and violence they received when they came to the north, they did make a way for themselves to provide opportunities that were better for themselves and better for their children.
So even though they did leave Alabama the place, they never left Alabama, the idea, that altogether. And what I mean by that is that, you know, I didn't spend my summers at camps. I spent my summers as a girl growing up at my grandparents’ house going back down to Alabama. As a matter of fact, when my father used to drive myself and my brother every year when school would let out around Memorial Day, the end of May, early June, and then him and my mother would come and pick my brother and I back up in September, my mother and father would always say, “it's time to go home,” right, every summer. And so we knew when going home meant going home, it was time to go to our grandparents’ house in Alabama every summer. And so that kind of reconnecting with culture really influenced what I ate.
So growing up as a child in the summer I can distinctly remember trips that my mother and father took driving me and my brother to Alabama and what we ate. We ate shoebox lunches, right, and in those shoebox lunches were things like fried chicken, potato salad, and coleslaw. And of course something that was a southern dessert that my mother would make—it would vary: coconut cake, sweet-potato pie, pecan pie. I remember those lunches over those ten-top rest stops as a child growing up in the city of Detroit when my father and mother migrated. They also brought the agricultural skills and love of being able to cultivate the land, so my mother always had a small garden in our backyard, and what that meant is fresh greens, you name it, collards, turnips, mustards, mixed greens, black-eyed peas—mommy grew. Corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, homemade ice cream, watermelon and honeydew.
We didn't call it farm-to-table when I was growing up as a child, Alicia, we called it eating, and that just has has always been with me and has influenced the way that I still eat today.
Alicia: How did you become involved in the food world in a in a professional way?
Devita: So I became involved in the food world in a professional way through my work with Hearst magazines. I worked in a department that was called branding and licensing. And Hearst is a magazine publisher with titles like House Beautiful, Veranda, Seventeen, Cosmo, Country Living, Oprah, Esquire, etc. And you think to yourself, like, how in the world are you going to make the connections? What is the connective tissue between a magazine and the food world?
Well, and I'm dating myself, so I'm 51 years old, and if folks can imagine this, like back in the day when I worked in publishing and when I worked from Hearst, there was no kind of social media presence. Magazines weren't online like they are now. We were still buying and subscribing to magazines and the earned revenue strategy for Hearst was the earned revenue strategy of many publications or publishers of magazines, right, it was either through a subscription base or through advertising in the magazine.
Hearst had added an additional revenue stream, and that additional revenue stream is where I come in. They started a department that was called branding and licensing, and that is they would take their hundred or so magazine titles, and they would attach the name of their magazine or the title of their magazine onto a consumer product of good. I had what was called the shelter category. To give you an example of some kind of consumer products that I created with large manufacturers would be something like Country Living pie in a jar, Good Housekeeping salad dressing, Esquire barbecue sauce. I can't even believe I'm telling you this, because—but you know, I gotta tell you so yes. And my job was to create licensing deals, and using and leveraging Hearst magazine titles and working with the editors and the writers; they would write what was called advertorials, right, using the products that we created with these large manufacturers.
And it was a model until it wasn't, and when I say until it wasn't, there was a time in which, you know, again, the internet and digital became very prolific, where magazines started to move all their content online and to think about what digital strategies will look like. Advertising on the internet became big, and so Hearst made a decision that after about five or six years of working in branding and licensing, they shut the department down and decided to start moving all their content online. And I took a buyout. When Hearst decided to do that and shut down our entire department, with the money that I got from the buyout, I opened up a small store in Brooklyn.
And the reason why I opened up this small store in Brooklyn not only was an homage to my family—it was called The Southern Pantry—but it was also because there were so many of my friends, Alicia, who lived in Brooklyn. I lived in Queens at the time, but there were so many of my friends who lived in Brooklyn, who, to be honest, were laid off from either like Wall Street or finance or they either worked in theater—they were super-creative people, and one of the things that they started to do was they actually started to make like these “Made in Brooklyn,” locally sourced products, right? And so it was like, I mean, it was so ridiculous. Like I'm talking late 1990s, early 2000—folks were like raising chickens on top of frickin’ rooftops, chickens were laying eggs and they were making limited-edition, handmade, crafted artisanal mayonnaise. I'm talking like, you know, growing Meyer lemons—it was like this whole made in Brooklyn phenomenon that was taking place. And so I wasn't making anything, but I opened up a store, that small hyperlocal kind of store. It actually sold the products that my friends created. So that's how it all started.
Alicia: And then when did you go back to Detroit?
Devita: I lived in New York for almost 20 years. I worked for only two companies while I lived in New York. I worked for Ralph Lauren for about nine years, worked for Hearst for about five, six years, and had my own business for about three or four years. And so I lived all over New York City. I stayed in Manhattan, stayed in Brooklyn, and stayed in Queens. But then I got married and I bought a home in Long Island, small little cute maritime community in Nassau County that was called Freeport—South Freeport, because it was south of the Sunrise Highway, and then a superstorm came. And that storm was Hurricane Sandy. And it took me out, and what I mean by that is the storm hit my community really, really hard. It destroyed my home, nine feet of water came to that house and destroyed it. As a result, not only was I rendered homeless, because I had no house anymore, and not my store that was located in Brooklyn, but the warehouse that I stored all of my product in was in Red Hook, Brooklyn. And that warehouse was destroyed as well, along with all the products inside of it, right. So it wasn't like I could call a mainline distributor and be like, “Oh, I need more ketchup. I need more eggs. I need more…” like, everything's gone. And so, yeah, I went back to Detroit. And as a result of that hurricane, I permanently moved back to Detroit in 2013. And I have been here now for about seven years.
Alicia: Wow. I had no idea you lived on Long Island.
Devita: You're you're a long Islander.
Alicia: Yeah, I'm from out in Suffolk County. I was born in Huntington and grew up in Patchogue.
Devita: So you so you can understand my short answer, like, yeah, I lived in Long Island.
Alicia: But Hurricane Sandy, I don't think we we hear often enough about how powerful and life-changing that storm was for so many people. I think because it didn't hit, you know—Manhattan was largely spared. And so at that time, I was working at New York Magazine, and I remember the way people were regarding it coming in, and the way people regarded it after it happened was so nonchalant. And it really brought a lot of class differences to the fore for me, in terms of how—in terms of how the media was perceiving people who lived in communities that were so hard hit, but it seemed like oh, because Manhattan was fine, it's not it's not actually a big deal. It was a very—it was just very strange. I remember not having power for you know—I got through it, but not having power for four days and waiting on long gas lines. Like that was it for me, because I was living on the north shore at the time, which wasn't as hard hit, but it was catastrophic.
Devita: Absolutely. Yeah, it definitely was. So yeah, but you know, I've gotta tell you, my life in the way that it is now never would have happened, Alicia, if I'm quite honest, if I had not moved back to Detroit as a result of Hurricane Sandy.
You know, listen, I am again, born and raised in the city of Detroit and Detroit was going through what many people classify as a renaissance, right. There was a lot of investment that was happening in the city. Things were happening in downtown or the 7.2 square miles, the greater downtown area, and so many people—my mother and father included—said Devita, “There are so many great things happening in Detroit. All eyes are on the city of Detroit right now. When are you going to come back home and contribute and be a part of this, this kind of like new Renaissance or dare I use the word revitalization that's happening in the city of Detroit?” And Alicia, if I'm super honest with you, like I never thought about when I was coming back home to the city of Detroit, maybe like, yeah, sure—like, I don't know, like, I never really thought about it.
But when folks would ask me that, my question was not an answer to when I was coming back to Detroit. My question was always, “Why would I ever leave New York City?” Like why? It’s the place that I've always wanted to live my entire life. And, you know, I lived there for almost 20 years. Me my husband there got married there, got divorced there. I mean, good times and bad times. But you know, it’s New York City. I mean, and, you know, say what you want to say, Well, I guess if I could take a line from, you know, Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City, nobody talks shit about my boyfriend, right? And it was just kind of like, yeah, you know, it was good days and some bad days. But at the end of it all, it's the place where I always wanted to live. And to be super honest, I have a little niece, um, her name is Aaliyah, she's four years old, and yeah, I want her to live in New York, too. It's just I don't know.
Alicia: And it's fascinating that you went back to Detroit during this time, even a bit reluctantly, perhaps. But when I interviewed chef Omar Tate, I asked him if he had seen places that were reckoning with the inequities built into the restaurant system and he said, you know, a million places in Detroit and he named FoodLab, you know, as chief among them. But it made so much sense to me when he said that He's like, you know, Detroit, of course. And so why do you think Detroit has been such a fertile ground for food justice?
Devita: Yeah, that was nice to him to say. Oh, gosh, you know, that. You know when I think about the word, food justice, one of the things that the elders in Detroit tell those of us who are kind of like in this movement: There can't be food justice, without social justice, and how important we have to think about our work, kind of intersectionally. And so you know, why Detroit, right? Why is Detroit such fertile ground? To be honest, Alicia, I think because, yes, it is because Detroit is a place that when 6 million African-Americans migrated from the south to the north, Detroit was the place that many Black folks along with Chicago, or along with Indiana, or Cleveland or other places in the north, or Black folks landed, you know, Harlem, Philly, you know, you name it. Right. And Omar is is is from Philly. So I can't just say it is because Detroit had a large population of Black folks from the rural south, right? I mean, that's “yes, and” right.
I think that there are other things that make Detroit super unique where the food justice movement was able to leverage and build upon, and I think one of the things that for me I always harken back to in Detroit's history is how there is this history in Detroit that is really rooted in labor activism. And the reason why I say that is because Detroit is literally the city that put the world on wheels. We are known as the Motor City. And so it was labor activism and our long history of organizing around labor. I think that when you look at Victor and Roy and Walter, these are the three brothers. They are the three Reuther brothers, Walter Reuther, Roy Reuther, Victor Reuther, right. These are the men and the organizers of the UAW. And they organized around harsh working conditions in the auto industry, in this the roosters, who champion kind of like this industrial democracy, and they created the UAW right back in 1935. And then, through that organizing work, like people began to see Detroit as a fertile ground for activism.
And what happened? Union leaders end up joining Martin Luther King Jr, who brought the fight for civil rights for African-Americans—he brought it to the city of Detroit. Before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech, that I Have a Dream speech in Washington, he tried it out first in the city of Detroit, right. And so there's this long history, the first strike against a fast food restaurant, Burger King, happened at a Greyhound bus station, Burger King was located in the city of Detroit.
And so Detroit has this long history of organizing. And it is that same kind of principle around activism that I think influences movement building and organizing in the city of Detroit. But that's not even enough, Alicia; I think there's layers on that too, right.
I think also what’s so important about the city of Detroit that people may not really know when they think about the city of Detroit. So when you think about Detroit, again, I mentioned that you think of cars, some people even think of like Motown, right? But it’s rare to think about art. And the truth of the matter is, is the city’s grit, has long been fertile ground for artists. And so you know, I can remember harking back to a gentleman by the name of Dudley Randall, right, the founder of Broadside Press, right. He was a poet, but he was also a pioneer of being a publisher for Black artists, so it was Dudley Randall and his publishing company Broadside Press that brought the world the leading voices in the Black Arts Movement, folks like Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Etheridge Knight, Nikki Giovanni, like so Detroit has its like—it gives me goosebumps when I think about the history of my city, and how we leverage our work. And the reason why I bring up labor, the reason why I bring up art, is that that all has influenced, Alicia, how we think about food, right? And how we think about food justice for movement building in the city of Detroit—all of that is influenced by Detroit's history around labor, and art, and music and activism.
Alicia: I love that. I love that because I think what I've been hoping to do with this newsletter is show how much all these things are connected—labor, race, you know, farming, art, literature—all these things aren't as disparate as we've been trained to think of them as, and I love that Detroit really brings it all together.
Devita: Listen, you know, and I'm sure we were going to get into this but you know, one of the things that is so important, and why for me, it so important right for us to know and understand our history, is so that we can push back against false narratives and why that's so important, right? And so, you know, when I hear people say, call Detroit, oh my God, like, a food desert? Of course we immediately correct them and say no, Detroit is not a food desert, you know, the citizens of Detroit are living under food apartheid. A food desert—no, you know, that is a negative framework. And more importantly, we have over 1,600 farms and gardens in Detroit, so we know how to grow shit in the city of Detroit. So let's be clear: We're not a desert.
But another thing about the city of Detroit, even when you talk about the citizens living under a food apartheid, it's just kind of like the things that were done to Detroit. Like, let's be very clear, was like super intentional. Like, these are neighborhoods that were intentionally created in the city of Detroit and the reason why I mentioned that is because when I talk about the history of the city of Detroit and why art, why design is so influential is that Detroit had a neighborhood that was called the Black Bottom neighborhood. And that's where a lot of African-Americans were kind of marginalized when folks made that migration from the south to north. And it wasn't only in Detroit, but Black folks were regulated to certain communities or certain neighborhoods, because God forbid, you know, white folks have us living next to them. And so we were relegated to certain communities or neighborhoods, and in Detroit, where a large majority of Black folks live was called Black Bottom. But do you understand in the 1950s, as a result of a federal policy that was called urban renewal, they destroyed that community to create a freeway, and when they destroyed that community to accommodate a freeway, they also built a residential development, and you know who it was designed by? An artist and architect called Mies van der Rohe. So Detroit has this beautiful community now of all these beautiful nice homes, and they were erected after Black communities were destroyed and after hundreds of African-Americans were displaced, right? So this erasure of our history to make space and to make room, right, for artists that were not reflective of our community is very prevalent in the city of Detroit.
Alicia: And when you mentioned false narratives, it reminds me in your answer to the first question of how you didn't call it farm to table, you call it an eating, and how these things, these concepts have been, you know, taken from the root and sold back to people who may not have the same connection to the land that your family has, but what do you think about that phrase, farm to table?
Devita: Yeah, again, I think it is a narrative that was created in a way to add this marketable, this palatable, sense of kind of value—to upcharge, to charge more to the consumer, very easy, easy way in terms of how folks used it to describe their restaurants. Basically through that description and through that kind of added value kind of narrative, they were able to charge more for a plate, right. You know, and it's really interesting. I mean, I feel the same way about from the table as I do nose to tail—it's marketing jargon, that's exactly what it is, right. And in so many cases, you know, we see that now. We see that and when I say “we see that” is that even now in this moment, like mass protests that are happening all over the world and you know, the value of Black lives and racial inequality—you're talking about that now and in a mainstream way, like in the public square, like there is this national or global conversation, like you even see the coopting the coopting of our language, Alicia, that came from like movement building, we see this right. You see the coopting of survival skills, my God, Audre Lorde, a Black queer woman that gave us the language of self care. Now what they have done is they've commodified self-care and now it's about what? Going to get your nails done and like facial mask or whatever, and like, you know, cleaning, skincare—like, are you serious? So they take our language, right? I mean, that's nothing new, like even youth culture. I mean, it was a Black girl who created like, on fleek, and they took that. Next thing you know, you’re seeing it in commercials? Like, what? Excuse me?
It is taking language, and it was a language we did not have, but it's not something that we that we called it, but it's this marketing of our lifestyle that they have been able to coopt.
Alicia: It's a very interesting phenomenon that keeps repeating itself in terms of the coopting and the shifting of narratives to serve, you know, specifically, you know, these capitalist purposes.
And so I wanted to ask, though, in your TED talk on urban agriculture, you talk about people knowing where their food comes from—community kitchens, cooperative models. Why do you think agriculture has such power to change how communities interact? And do you see the potential for these models to have as strong an impact in other cities, not just Detroit?
Devita: That's interesting. I've been thinking about the power of agriculture and the power of food. And I think that, you know, Alicia, it has always been a powerful kind of movement-building tool in our toolbox as African-Americans. And so it just, it makes sense, and what I mean by that is that, you know, ever since Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the United States of America, we've seen tons of articles about what went wrong with the city. Now, a lot of it was political finger pointing.
But the common narrative is that Detroit was in decline. And it all began in the 1960s when Black folks started to run their cities, when we elected our first Black mayor, right. But what annoys me about this language, not only is it false, but it also does not, again, go deep enough and explain that the creation of communities in the city of Detroit were intentional, and I think what is the power of a food and what is the power of agriculture is that it had the power to like transform these communities. It had the power to kind of like reshape neighborhoods, and it is important to understand how when southerners from the south moved to the north, how they were met with northern anti-Blackness that really did shape their neighborhoods using systemic violence, using segregation laws, using discriminatory practices. And when white folks started to flee Detroit—we call that phenomenon white flight—so did resources, so did investment begin to leave the city of Detroit. It was by the imagination of those farmers, it was through the imagination of folks who knew how to grow food. It was through their imagination that they didn't succumb to the fact that there were vacant buildings or blighted property. Like I just think about the fact of what kind of imagination they must have to imagine that they can actually use this vacancy to actually grow food.
So I remember one of our elders, her name is Grace Lee Boggs. And she died at 100 years old, but one of our elders and an activist in the city of Detroit. And she talked about, you know, a revolution that is based on the people exercising their creativity in the midst of devastation is the great historical contribution of mankind. And I think about those farmers, I think about those elders, I think about the people who actually put their hands in the dirt, and where other people saw despair, they saw opportunity, and so agriculture does that. And it did that for the city of Detroit. That's why I think is so powerful. That's why I think it's so strong.
And what I love even more, right, is that, again, the reason why I lifted up Detroit's history around art and design is because the farmers and the people who are part of this urban agriculture movement in the city of Detroit, they had that artist, they had that designer mentality around imagination, right. And the reason why I say that is that Detroit is a city where we practice imagination-collaboration. And that means inviting someone to be a part of an idea, or to create an idea with you. So the urban agriculture movement wasn't created in a vacuum. And the reason why I love that is that, you know, I'm the kind of person who thinks really big picture, right? I'm like, oh, like, I got a vision; let’s do this. And that's the work that I do at the nonprofit that I work for, FoodLab, we’re thinking how can we transform the food system, right? I'm thinking really big picture.
But in order to be a farmer, your imagination has to be systemic and structural; it has to be a process. You have to understand the soil. You have to understand what the plant [needs]. You have to understand the weather. And so I love working with farmers because they bring a different imagination skill set that I don't have. And so when I think about imagination-collaboration, I also think about what the farmers and folks involved in agricultural movement were doing, right?
There is a book by Dr. Monica White that's called Freedom Farmers—my God. And so when you think about snatching back the narrative, particularly in a place like Detroit, where you have so many people that left the south and moved to the north, snatching back this narrative around farming as freedom. So you began to change the narrative and instead of thinking of Black farmers as the enslaved people who are working the land or picking cotton, instead of thinking of Black farmers as sharecroppers, right, instead of thinking about tenant farmers—like now, in the city of Detroit, when you see Black farmers, we think about power, we think about sovereignty, we think about dignity, we think about harm reduction, right?
That's the power of urban agriculture. So you say to yourself, when we're planning, and when people are thinking about turning side lots or people are thinking about turning their backyards, people are thinking about turning their school gardens into, like, these agricultural places, not only to grow fruits and vegetables, but for conviviality, bringing people together. Questions are asked, Alicia, like: how do we make sure that the people who are most impacted by what's ever happening in this community in this neighborhood, get to co-imagine this particular part of land with us? How do we prevent those people from being excluded from the conversation because of someone else’s power dynamic of an imagining? So here in Detroit, like we've gone through massive gentrification in certain communities, but it is in those places, it is in those gardens it is in those fields, when we start to think about, you know, who is not at this quote, unquote, imaginary table, like who should be a part of the conversation. And so you know, you and I talked a little bit earlier about like this divergent of movement, and how it was important to like, think about the work that we do, or the work that I do from an intersectional lens, and a big part of the work and the language.
And the practice that I borrow from has to be the Disability Justice Movement, because they are very clear that if you don't have people who use wheelchairs, if you don't have people who are blind, if you don't have people who are deaf, at that imaginary table, when you're creating or building? I don't care what it is. You'll find out later, that whatever you made is not actually accessible to those people, because they weren’t at the table, right? So this is collaboration that happens in Detroit around urban agriculture that makes it so powerful.
And then you ask like you know, can what is happening, what has happened in the city of Detroit, what will happen what we're continuing to build in the city of Detroit—can it happen in other places?
You know, Alicia, that's so touchy for me. Because to be honest, when I think about, you know, it happening in other places, I really think of the word scale. And I hate using the word scale, because I'm so place-based. It is so important that we do place-based work. I don't know. You know, I definitely think that, you know, people have got to find a place, people have got to find a space within food justice movement, where they're creating spaces where love gets fermented. I mean, that's—and I don't know how that looks, I don't know how that shows up in your community. Right. I don't know if that shows up in a big shared-use kitchen space. I don't know if that shows up in a farm. I don't know if that shows up in a cooperatively owned restaurant. I don't know where that happens, but wherever there's food happening, wherever there's growing happening, produce happening, it needs to be fermented in love. Because I think we should be working to love each other and create spaces where people feel loved and sustained. And guess what? Unfortunately, food movement work is often driven by fear and scarcity, not love. People are coming together in food movement because they're terrified something. Oh, my goodness, we're terrified of security, right? We're terrified of the fact that we won't have enough money to actually be able to go to the grocery store to put food on our table. We're terrified that all the grocery stores are going to leave our neighborhoods and we won't have someplace to go to buy food— like we're terrified of something that's coming.
As a result of that, there's this deep, urgent scarcity but I know that when you operate like that, that can burn you out. And so I know in movement-building work, when we talk about, you know, scale, when we talk about expanding what is happening in Detroit to other places, right, we always talk about scale happens, movement building happens at the speed of trust. I like to think that movement happens at the speed of love, right?
So I don’t know if it can happen in other places. But I do know that people come from all over the world, to come to the city of Detroit, and to look and to learn, but you know what they always say when they sit down at the table with me or my comrades or colleagues or people when we take them to DBC FSN D-Town Farms or Oakland Avenue Farms or Keep Growing Detroit's farm. They're like, I feel so much love in this space. That's where the transformation happens: Through the stomach, but it also happens through the heart.
And that's what we want. Yeah, we want you to see everything that's grown here. Sure. Of course, we want you to feel it, we want you to see it. Right? Absolutely. Our mission is food sovereignty. We want to make sure every produce, fruit and vegetable, that's grown in Detroit stays in Detroit. Absolutely. But you can't do that without love. So we want them to feel it as well as see it.
So that was a long way of answering your question.
Alicia: No, but I think that's so important. And I think it's missing a lot of the time when we talk about food systems and we talk it that word scale does come up so much and growth etc., etc. And like, we have to make sure everyone has food but we're not talking about what that food is and you know, how it connects to them culturally locally, etc., etc. You know, it's that bigGreen Revolution thing of, you know, getting everyone enough rice but—
Devita: Like for me, can’t you tell the difference between if you're eating string beans that were actually grown by someone and someone's hands physically snapped those beans for you versus some shit that you get out of a jar? Like it tastes like pain. I'm sorry, I don't want to sound elitist or anything like that, but like, canned vegetables taste like trauma.
Alicia: [Laughing.No, it's real.
Devita: You can take those string beans out of the can and y'all can make your casserole and put all that—I don't even know what you put on it, but it's crazy. The casserole with the—I don't even know what the crunchy stuff on top is. It's crazy to me, but yeah, no: I'm not eating it. I’m just not.
Alicia: The green bean casserole comes completely from a can, every ingredient.
No, and it is—it's really interesting and it's so important that everyone remind themselves that things need to be so place-based and so much would be lost if it wasn't it—these movements and these ideas that people are forming.
But for you—and I think you answered this question with the can comment—but for you, is cooking a political act?
Devita: Oh, gosh, yeah. I mean, absolutely. I mean, it courses through my veins. I mean, I couldn't even think about it in any other way, about how revolutionary and how political food is, especially when you come from a southern family like mines, who was obsessively preoccupied with food, even based upon the fact that they had very little, right? Here I’m gonna tie it back in terms of that imagination, that artistry mindset, like they have very little but the creativity that they exhibited when they created every meal—that was a revolutionary act, right?
I think it's political for me is that, you know, when you have dishes that are crafted using fresh produce from the garden the meat that came from—ooh, and I know you I know you are a practicing vegetarian, Alicia, but you know, the meat that we raised that came from the slaughterhouse, fresh eggs from the hen house. I mean, it came from revolutionaries who grew their own food; they grew their own fruits and vegetables and ate whole foods and, emphasized—you know, again, we didn't have the language, but they emphasized what we now call food sovereignty.
And I think through that, and growing up with that, two things happened. Number one, it's in the gardens and in the kitchens and in the markets where my ancestors have revisited me, right? They have revisited me. And when I say that is I feel them in my stomach. I feel them whispering to me knowledge about food systems. This knowledge is in my hairs and my blood, is in my hands. It reminds me that there's so much left for us to do, right. It reminds me of their resistance. It reminds me how they used food as liberation. But you know what else it reminds me of? Is that, you know, when I think about my ancestors, and I think about my grandmother, Thank God my mother is still living who reminds me of her grandmother, which is my great-grandmother, reminds me of every day when I'm sitting around the table with family, enjoying a meal? That I know that somebody in my family or somebody that I knew grew it.
You know, it also reminds me of joy. God, and that right there is revolutionary. And the reason why it is revolutionary and it feels like is important, and I think is politically important for me as an African-American woman is because I think it's politically important to be a Black woman having a good time and being free and letting people see this. And I tell people all the time, I'm like, they tried to kill us. They tried to steal our joy. But they didn't succeed. And look at me, right? Look how happy I am. Look at me on the farm, changing that narrative? Look at me on a farm with other Black folks, other folks? They try to define our work. Isn't it a fact they don't even want to give us credit for being the backbone of the agricultural systems that we now have in the United States. We created this—Black and brown people.
But I don't want them to always speak our story in tenant farming or in slavery; I want them to see me in the field happy. Here’s the thing: I'm happy, but I'm still connected to great suffering at the same time. But despite everything, despite the work, despite all the shit that's going on, despite all of the history getting wrapped up in the land around Black people, I still find joy, and I think that that is important, because I want Black women specifically, to tell them every day it is okay to experience some joy each and every day. And I believe it’s a measure of freedom to be able to experience the joy that's available to me and available to others at this moment.
So absolutely it’s a political act and you know, I can get into history and explain what I see that you know, food, of course is political. I can talk to you about the southern tenant farmers union, right, as a part of a rich tradition, again, of labor organizing. And again, that happened from farmers in the south, at the height of the 1930s, of course, political. So I can tell you about CTFU and the rallies and the meetings that were heavily influenced by the Baptist Church. Why? Because my father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, so I know the role of farming and the Black tradition of spirituality, and how that is all wrapped up into political movement building. I can talk to you about the Black Panthers and their understanding that hunger deserves immediate attention. And they also understood that radical transformation happens through—if you can't lead your people, if you can't feed your people, you can't lead your people and they knew a new political education was vital to understanding the reasons behind hunger and envision a world where all children are fed, the Black Panther breakfast program, long before the United States of America, long before the government had the free breakfast program at schools—it was the Black Panther Party did it first. They talked about food at the intersection of health care, intersection of education, intersection of housing, at the intersection of land, in the intersection of the right and the privilege for water. And so all of that, but that history around movement building, food movement building, food activism, I guess, is a part of my DNA. Absolutely. I cannot sit up here and deny any of that. So for me food has always been political, because it's a part of my history. It's a part of who I am.
Alicia: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for coming on, Devita.
Devita: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, Alicia. It was great talking with you.