Leah Penniman Talks Anti-Racism, Reparations and Farming While Black

By Bethany Ivie

August 3, 2020

Leah Penniman stands with her face turned away from the camera. She is holding a hoe across her shoulders and is wearing a gold and red dress.
Photo by Jamel Mosely.

With over 20 years of experience as a soil steward and food sovereignty activist, Leah Penniman is used to wrestling with hard questions and facing injustice at its source. Penniman is the author of  Farming While Black and the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, a Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-centered community farm and education organization committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. Watch Leah and Pierre's full talk below: 

During her #HeiferTogether discussion with Heifer CEO Pierre Ferrari on July 29th, Penniman dove into conversations about reparations, land justice and righting wrongs that have gone unattended for centuries. 

  • Penniman is more aware than most that there’s no easy fix for the racism that permeates our society and has dedicated her time to building resources that can aid in the process. “There are no three-easy-steps, there’s no quarterly return, you know, we’re really talking about deep work here. It’s something that we’ve worked really hard, as an organization, at Soul Fire Farm to figure out how to help the field in that regard, so we spent time interviewing over 500 Black and Brown-led organizations and farms [on] that very question, ‘What does it take to become an anti-racist society?’” Penniman said. And out of that research came an action-step guide and Soul Fire Farm’s Uprooting Racism Training
  • In order for us to have a just society, reparations are essential. “As a society, I think we’re dealing with a reckoning right now where people who previously were unaware … that racism is a pillar of our society are now realizing that and are realizing that a lot of things were taken. The land was actually taken from Indigenous people and then stolen all over again from Black and Brown people, especially in the 1900s. They’re realizing that there are a whole lot of unpaid wages that are due that has compounded into a major wealth gap,” Penniman said.
  • To further explain the idea of reparations, Penniman used an example originally shared by civil rights activist Ed Whitfield. Imagine that your neighbor comes to your farm and steals your cow (in broad daylight where everyone can see). A few weeks later, your neighbor comes back and says, "I realize that it was wrong to take your things. I’ve decided that to make it up to you, I'm going to bring you a half-pound of butter every week for the rest of your cow’s life." It's safe to say most of us would prefer to have the cow back.  “Fundamentally, change is going to involve a shift of resources and power so we can ask ourselves what policies and practices need to be put into place to actually take resources and power and give them to communities that have been disadvantaged under this system," Penniman said. 
  • A just food-system is one that gives everyone involved equitable power and ownership. “It’s absurd to me that in this world and in this country that there are still people who don’t have enough to eat, who don’t have a roof over their head and that there are people with billions and billions of dollars just sitting there and making more money. That’s how capitalism works. How is that just? How is that fair? The only way that money makes money is if someone is underpaid,” Penniman said.

The conversation with Leah Penniman is a part of a speaker series, #HeiferTogether, which is about the state of farmers around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the live, 20-minute virtual conversations, Ferrari and other Heifer International leaders talk to experts about the present and future of our global food and farming systems, small farming in the United States, tech in agriculture, farming as it relates to the environment, and more.

Upcoming webinars include conversations with Diana Rodgers, author of Sacred Cow, on August 7 and Sherry-Lee Singh, Director of Sustainability for Walmart Foundation, on August 12.