Reflecting on the Undoing Institutionalized Racism Training at the eXtension Community, Local and Regional Food Systems Conference in Cleveland, Ohio

This post was contributed by Garland Mason. This post is the second and final installment of posts reflecting on the Community, Local and Regional Food Systems Conference. Please find the first installment here.

Last week I wrote about the urban farm tours I attended in Cleveland at the end of September, hosted by Ohio State University Extension and the Community, Local and Regional Food Systems eXtension Conference. The urban farm tours kicked off the first day of the conference and set the stage for the following two days which included a training on undoing institutionalized racism from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a panel discussion about innovating agricultural projects in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and activities that helped us to critically reflect on the work of extension and brainstorm ways to make the work more effective and meaningful.

Dr. Kimberley Richards and Martin Friedman of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond began their presentation by asking attendees to recognize the ways we’ve been socialized to not only think “inside the box,” but to construct our own boxes to limit our own creativity in problem solving. To do this they used a clever activity—you can try using the image and instructions on the right. With this activity in mind the facilitators asked us to 9dots1identify reasons people live in poverty. They collected answers from participants along the lines of “intergenerational poverty,” “mental illness,” “lack of opportunity due to prejudice,” et cetera. Richards and Friedman listed the ideas in black on the left side of a sheet of poster paper. Next they asked us to list stereotypes of people living in poverty. Immediately several shouted the familiar stereotypes of “lazy” and “irresponsible,” along with the word “triflin’”, a word with southern roots that is used to denote a lazy or shiftless person. Friedman listed these stereotypes in red on the right side of the same sheet of. Dr. Richards pointed out that when she had asked us to name reasons people lived in poverty, she had to go around the room table by table soliciting answers, but when presented with the question of stereotypes, attendees were quick and willing to call them to her. Another realization in comparing the two lists was that the left side, the list of reasons people live in poverty highlighted large-scale systematic issues with diffuse blame, and the right side listed behavior-based stereotypes that essentially blame the individual for their situation. We were then asked to consider which side of the list our work addresses. Of course, most people’s first instinct was to think, “the left side of the list, of course” but then, there was a quick realization that, no, a large portion of our work is directed at the right side of the list; the behavior-based, individualized stereotypes. This salient point informed the conversation for the rest of the conference, and helped us to reach a more in-depth level of reflection and introspection about our work and the role of extension more generally.

The remaining day of the conference involved small group discussions centered around improving the effectiveness and quality of extension work in tackling food systems problems. The small group discussions helped to foster a sense of community and the development of a support network for taking on this work. I had the opportunity to talk to people working in Colorado, California, Indiana, Michigan, and North Carolina among others, and to learn from the work that they are doing in strengthening community food security and working towards food security. The conference offered me the opportunity to find out more about localized projects happening across the country and also helped me to recognize some of the larger more complex issues that frame our work.

Garland Mason is a master’s degree student at Virginia Tech in the department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education. She serves as a graduate research assistant for the Appalachian Foodshed Project.