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You Had to Be There: Working on Equity in Jackson, Mississippi

By: Christine Grillo

During the Jim Crow era, scholar W.E.B. DuBois wrote that, "As the South goes, so goes the nation." Noel Didla, chair of the Mississippi Food Policy Council, anchor team member for the Center for Mississippi Food Systems, and 20-year resident of Jackson, Mississippi, agrees.

“To understand America, you have to understand Mississippi,” says Didla, reframing a quote from novelist William Faulkner. “All the big resistances in this country have been informed and influenced by Southern movements and cultures, and by the determination of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous People of Color] coalitions to build power.”

When she joined forces with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) to become a co-creator of a Community of Learning and Practice (COLP), funded by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, she knew it was important for the group to root itself in place-based learning. The COLP, which ended in November, brought together 15 food policy councils from across the US to work toward the goal of transforming the food system through food policy that confronts racism and current power structures. Led by a facilitation team composed of the Food Policy Networks project team, the Center for Ideas, Equity & Transformative Change, the Interaction Institute for Social Change, ChangeLab Solutions, Progressive Therapy, and civic engagement expert Kip Holley, members from these 15 food policy councils met monthly for two years.

Earlier this year, the Center for Mississippi Food Systems team, supported by CLF, held an in-person gathering for the 15 food policy councils engaged in the COLP to deepen relationships amongst members, share wisdom and strategize policy solutions intended to dismantle damage done to food systems and economies by power imbalances. Toward that end, the gathering of about 35 people took place in the city Didla calls home.

As part of the gathering, COLP members were invited on a tour of Jackson which included a visit to the home of Medgar Evers, the Black civil rights activist, NAACP field secretary, and decorated World War II veteran who was shot and killed at his home in 1963, at the age of 37. The group also passed through Jackson State University, toured some important civil rights movement sites, and convened in the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center. The museum was formerly the elementary school of Richard Wright, the author best known for Native Son, a novel, and Black Boy, a memoir. Black Boy is one of the most banned and challenged books in the United States.

Darriel Harris, the Cynthia and Robert S. Lawrence Fellow at the Center for a Livable Future, found that being in those spaces was powerful. “Jackson has a very strong history, and you can’t escape race and power in an environment like that. Being on the ground there was kind of sacred,” he says. “It sinks in differently.”

“Being in person was such a powerful engagement,” says Didla. “People bore witness to decades of our work, which sits in context of decades of work before us. I heard from so many people that it felt magical, grounding, and also disturbing.”

Cody Haynes, a member of the Douglas County Food Policy Council in Kansas, found the COLP hosts’ enthusiasm to be infectious. “They showed us the things they cared about. We started to find what we loved about Jackson too.”

The convening, he said, was held at a particularly meaningful time for Jackson. The city was going through an ongoing water crisis, and, as Haynes pointed out, food access includes access to clean water. But the Mississippi legislature had also just voted to expand its Capitol Police force to have more power over Jackson. “This law is bad for racial equity,” he said.

Didla likes to talk about the four pillars of the COLP, but especially stresses the importance of “right relationship.” The four pillars are relationships, culture, structure, and policy—and it’s important to consider them in that order. She says, “If we are in right relationship with one another, it will create a responsible culture, and that culture will help create or dismantle structures we need and deserve, and from there, we impact policy.”

She stresses that relationships develop at the speed of trust. “Relationships have existed between South and North, the Global South and the Global North, and so on. But are those relationships healthy, equitable, equal, allowing all of us to grow and thrive?” she asks. Because Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, she says, and because it is so divested, inequities continue to perpetuate, and the state is not in right relationship to its people. Philanthropic and government relationships with Mississippi are not equitable, either, she says, with the lion’s share of philanthropic funding going to the Northeast and West Coast, furthering divestment in the South.

At the convening, the Progressive Therapy team was on call to help attendees respond to difficult emotions that came up for them. These particular therapists are Black women from Mississippi, and the Mississippi Food Policy Council has a long working relationship with them, facts that make Didla proud.

“When building and resisting together,” says Didla, “there will be conflict, and we need the support of healers and therapists, we need help undoing our traumas. That’s a non-negotiable, for us to have them with us.”

“I was grateful to have the therapists. I think that it should be standard,” says Harris. Haynes echoes this: “I’ve come to be so grateful for their presence that I don’t understand why people don’t always do it this way.”

Haynes believes that the COLP and the convening are changing the way he approaches his work. His food policy council is intertwined with government, and as a result it can be rigid and work at a maddeningly slow pace. But at the convening he was inspired to return home and put more energy into making demands. “It became a refrain,” he says. “We ask for what we want. We have power, and we can step on their necks.”

“Instead of biting my tongue, I’m speaking up,” says Haynes. “It gave me momentum, and I realized that our FPC should change its leadership structure and make it easier to bring in new members. I intend to do that.”

Harris feels that one of the intentions of the convening was to encourage people to be more considerate of the entire collective.

“Oftentimes we make decisions, policy, and actions, and we consider the loudest or most dominant voice in the room. When you make decisions like that, that’s great for dominant perspective, but for the minority or bashful or muted voice, that’s not so great,” says Harris. “We’re hoping people will make decisions more carefully, and take actions more carefully.”

Didla urges the attendees to consider what they’ve taken from the learning opportunity and how they’ll engage with it. She encourages everyone to look deep inside themselves. “How will your organization deepen its practice of justice? How will your organization build equitable communities?”

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