Last December, nonprofit executive director Malik Yakini received an unexpected call. The caller, a woman who resides in California, said she wanted to direct a sizeble portion of her inheritance to his organization, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
This type of windfall is indeed rare, but it was the caller’s motivation—revealed over several conversations with Yakini—that was really unusual.
She felt there was “some lack of justice in how the money was acquired” and that she could “contribute to greater justice” by transferring wealth to groups engaged in Black, land-related projects, Yakini recalls. “She sees her work in making these donations as specifically a type of individual reparations.”
The donor, who asked to remain anonymous, is part of a cohort of White Americans of means who are moving beyond checking their privilege to taking the lead from Black folks on how to transmute their privilege into reparative and restorative justice.
Transferring wealth to groups like DBCFSN, which organizes community agriculture and food systems activism in Detroit, is a particularly potent form of reparations with immediate benefits to communities of color and knock-on effects on the environment, health, and philanthropy.
The national discourse on reparations tends to narrowly fixate on government-to-individual payouts, but within Black communities, reparations have long been intertwined with the liberation of all Black people through food justice and land sovereignty.
That’s because “land is the basis for self-determination,” says Akua Deidre Smith, who serves as the land strategies director at BlackOUT Collective and coordinator of Reparations Summer, a program that helps White donors give to BIPOC-led food and land initiatives without strings attached, in a way that allows organizations to decide for themselves where and how those gifts will have the most impact.
“There has never been a significant reparations movement or ask that did not involve land… in order to build towards the reparations that we actually deserve,” says Smith. “We need land, money, and healing and transformation now.”
Black Americans’ connection to land and food systems is undeniably and understandably fraught. Their African ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved precisely because of their agricultural acumen and ability to cultivate appropriated land for White colonizers. Their forced labor—“and intellectual property,” notes Yakini—made the United States an economic superpower.
“But because that value was extracted from us, we don’t see benefit from it,” Yakini explains. “When we talk about reparations on a larger scale, I see it as an attempt to redistribute the stolen economic value that’s been extracted from Black people and that is enjoyed by the larger White society as a whole.”
For Dara Cooper, who works closely with Yakini through the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, the issuance or disbursement of reparations is a process. That process, Cooper says, citing N’COBRA, should always begin with the cessation of the harm. “Gotta stop the harm at some point.”
But when it comes to food and land, harm has only persisted. From the reversal of Reconstruction-era land grants to the USDA’s blanket denial of Black farmers’ loan applications until 1997 to food companies’ ongoing exploitation of immigrant and incarcerated workers, there has been a perpetual loop of injustice and inequity.
“We historically have been self-sufficient people,” Cooper says of Black and Indigenous communities. “This country and these systems have systematically disconnected us from the means to feed our own selves and our own people. It’s systematically disconnected us from even being able to recognize the foods we need.”
Black Americans living in urban centers have a particularly fractured relationship to food and land, because of factors such as food apartheid and limited access to green spaces and agricultural production. This disconnect is widened by well-meaning White people who have gentrified urban agriculture movements. Their outsized visibility obscures work Black people have already been doing and, in Black-majority Detroit, says Yakini, created somewhat of a “power imbalance” within the local food movement.
“There were Black folks doing gardens all over the city [for decades],” says Yakini, who, inspired by Malcolm X, became interested in the legacy of enslavement on Black foodways in the late 1960s. “It’s not a new thing that boho white folks jumped on board. But as happens with many things, once they jumped on board they became the spotlight.”
White people are also the face of rural agriculture—unsurprisingly, as they own 98% of farmland, according to recent Census data. Still, BIPOC-owned farms pepper the nation, and many Black families have deep roots in America’s rural landscape.
Foxfire Ranch, situated in northern Mississippi’s verdant hill country, has been in Annette Hollowell’s family since 1919, though the land lay “dormant, just free and running wild” for about 50 years.
In 2000, her parents returned and began farming their food and constructing outbuildings. Needing a facility for family reunions that drew hundreds of people, they erected a 5,000-square-foot pavilion that now serves as an events venue.
“Every building, every structure has been built by my family members,” says Hollowell. “The very fencing around the 80 acres was done by my mother, my father, my uncle. I can look and see the actual blood and sweat that my family has put into this land for the last 100 years.”
Foxfire Farm, filling a gap left by defunct music venues, has also been instrumental in protecting regional blues heritage. Moving forward, Hollowell wants Foxfire to be a space where Black people can “step back” and “just rest.”
It’s not a vision that these groups and communities lack, but the resources necessary for total transformation. A reposeful space for Black folks isn’t the kind of project that mainstream philanthropy usually rewards with investment. Instead, the current paradigm prioritizes White-led organizations, upholds White supremacist and colonial mindsets, and rewards major donors with undue influence in how their gifts are spent and what program success looks like—factors that can undermine the sustainability and self-determination of BIPOC-led nonprofit groups.
Reparations Summer disrupts this by helping selected donor participants unlearn patters of White supremacy within charitable giving. White donors must complete a rigorous application process to even participate—wealth alone and good intentions are not enough. Then, they commit to months of learning and engagement with Black-led land projects, followed by multiyear investments starting at about $25,000.
Wealthy White donors in Reparations Summer are “actually in a process of healing and transformation that will result in them not only moving their own resources, but actually organizing their communities to move resources as well,” explains Janis Rosheuvel, a program director at Solidaire Network, a community of donor organizers in philanthropy who assisted with Reparations Summer.
Over the past few years, Christine Mulvey and Jack Kuehn, also major donors to DBCFSN, have been doing similar work on their own but are finding it challenging to even connect to Indigenous and Southern communities in which to spend down their wealth.
“We feel like we’re running into maybe a lack of experience inside of the philanthropic world,” says Mulvey, who is also involved with Indigenous food and land organizations. “You could almost call it a type of apartheid, you know, where there’s circles that White people and White donors move in. And there’s circles that Black and Indigenous people move in.”
Mulvey and Kuehn are clear that they are shifting more than just money to DBCFSN. Their divestment of their wealth, which came from a family business that once had operations in Detroit, is also a transfer of “power, political, and economic power into the neighborhoods of Detroit,” says Kuehn.
“I think you have to look at your own white supremacy first and try to come from there,” Kuehn continues. “And then, when you do make the donation, get out of the way.”
CORRECTION: This article was edited at 5:15 p.m. Pacific on Feb. 19, 2021, to update the caption on the lead image to be intentional in not identifying Malik Yakini as the sole founder of DBCFSN, as the previous caption invisibilizes the other cofounders and mischaracterizes why the farm was started. Read our corrections policy here.
Ruth Terry is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey, who writes about everything from race to rollerskating.