Tess Brown-Lavoie: generosity and Justice in RI
Editor's note: NESAWG interviews our regional leaders each month to go deeper into their work. Want to be featured? Email [email protected].
Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it?
I came to agriculture about a decade ago with a yearning to forge a more personal connection with land and place, and a more embodied relationship with the systems I participate in as a person on this planet. At that time I was in school, living in Brooklyn, biking across the Manhattan Bridge or taking the subway to class and work, reading books and writing papers, and buying food at groceries.
Volunteering and then interning at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm was my first experience relating warmth in spring to plant cycles and forms of labor that are rendered invisible through our convoluted food systems. I built wind resistant low tunnels overlooking the East River, and carried trays of seedlings from Annie Novak’s ad hoc propagation situations (e.g. boards across radiators in her apartment), to backyard and rooftop tunnels.
My sister Laura, our childhood friend Fay Strongin, and I started Sidewalk Ends Farm in 2011. We started growing food on a 5000 square foot lot on the West End, and subsequently expanded to a couple acres in Seekonk, MA where Sarah Turkus, and then Lola Rivera, Holly Stein, and Dave Kuma eventually joined us. From 2011 to 2018, our CSA grew from 7 to 70 members. We sold vegetables at farmers markets and to restaurants through the Little City Growers Co-op: a marketing collaborative of small scale urban and peri-urban growers in Providence. Throughout our tenure, the farm had many ancillary projects: a summer camp for girls from Providence for a couple years; various engagements with teaching and mentorship; and lending our voice, vegetables, space, and story to political organizing around land, urban agriculture, and access issues.
Farming led me also to interface with land, food, and climate-related organizing efforts and policy work. In my community I contribute to the Justice and Agriculture working group, which is part of a broader local agriculture community organized under the Young Farmer Network. I work on policy and programs related to agricultural lands as the RI Field Agent at Land For Good, and serve as the President of the National Young Farmer Coalition. I also write; Lite Year— my first book of experimental poetry— was published at the beginning of 2019.
The physical work of farming has been among my primary modes of connecting with and investing in place, histories, futures, and my body. Situating these relationships and forms of growth within broader contexts of political, spiritual, creative, and movement work has been the fabric of my adult life.
This work is hard. What do you do to keep yourself going? How do you keep developing your skills?
It is easiest for me to access authentic, enduring investment in my work when I am driven by passion and a sense that my work contributes to broader, enduring movements for justice and liberation. I also find that my endurance in pursuing my values is supported when I am mutually nourished. Even when farm work is hard, it is a daily gift to take time to prepare vegetables grown in soil I spent years building, from plants I seeded, watered, and harvested. This cascading reciprocity is a model that appears in other work, too: efforts in the realms of organizing, writing, and advocacy are all more sustainable when there are components of joy or nourishment in the work itself.
The culture I was born into pushes us towards specialization and efficiency in production. I value slowness, and have had the privilege to engage in non-linear modes of exploration and struggle that don’t always yield the highest value or a tangible “product.” At Sidewalk Ends we talk frequently about how our work undermines or falls short in undermining oppressive structures. Sometimes these are difficult and painful conversations, but it is fortifying to be in community and ongoing conversation with people who are studying histories of radical resistance, and not shying away from the uglinesses of our systems, nor iterations of our complicity.
I try to have generosity for my limits: under the regimes of structural oppressions, is important to process grief, and build relationships with other queer people, artists, and those who relate deeply with the earth. These people are my family. Some sense of precariousness threads through the communities I am a part of— coupled with a sense that vitality, healthy land, and loving relationships are precious, and not to be taken for granted. I have a chronic illness, am caregiver for my father, and a queer person. My private relationships with poetry and spiritual practice, and the communities that surround all of these worlds, are essential to my well being.
What do you see as the central challenge facing farmers like you in Rhode Island right now?
There are so many routes I could take in response to this question. The question of land is always central to conversations about barriers, dispossession, intergenerational wealth, farm viability, and access. Rhode Island is among the most densely populated states in the country, which means pressure to build houses and develop neighborhoods on existing farmland is high. Farmland owners can make more money selling land to a developer than keeping it in agriculture, and most farm seekers can’t even afford lands that are conserved and thus can’t be developed. Overlaying these realities on theunreckoned with histories of indigenous genocide and land dispossession, and Rhode Island's significant role in the slave trade— profits from which literally built out our landscapes and institutions, and trickle through generations— makes for a dense conversation about what the term land access even means, and how we can provision our communities with nutrient rich food grown in an ecologically responsible way by provisioning people who want to farm with land tenure.
Generational and cultural divides among farmer groups with different backgrounds and orientations is also a central challenge. RI agriculture is not a monolith. Even with regards to barriers specifically around land, the concerns of different farmers take distinct form. Multi-generation landowners without successors or farm transfer plans have different resource and technical support needs than those of mostly urban immigrant and refugee growers. A rural or urban location, first language, race, and other factors affect the accessibility of resources for particular farmer constituencies. Bridging the perspectives of these groups, or collapsing their narratives into one conversation, can be frustrating and painful.
Broadly, I am deeply skeptical about the capacity of American mainstream culture to adequately value the fundamental components of agricultural work: especially land, natural resources, food, and labor. In my experience, capitalism obstructs and devalues land use models and growing practices that prioritize modes that are perceived as inefficient or unproductive compared to conventional systems. Investments in the margin— e.g. ecological growing practices that yield carbon-sequestering soils and clean air in addition to nutrient rich food; systems of intergenerational knowledge transfer; queer family structures— are threatened by the pervasive assumption that agriculture is built on heteronormative family and business structures, growing practices that degrade their soils and environments, and exploitative labor conditions. Unremediated and ongoing violence of slavery and indigenous genocide and land dispossession make conversations about “land access” even more complex. It is hard to make a living farming within the regimes of capitalist paradigms, which undermine the value of products we grow, and the cost of labor, not to mention any ancillary work aimed at collaboration or community well-being. Rhode Island’s unresolved histories of slavery and land theft are dense obstacles to radical visioning of solutions around farm viability in this state.
What are some ways you are addressing that challenge? Who are your partners in that work?
Especially in regards to land, I look to innovative, community-minded models from history. Some of my treasured partners are individuals and groups— like Shirley Sherrod and New Communities— that experimented with community land ownership models, and have served as examples for my most expansive thinking. In this vein, writers and writings that furnish me with frameworks and lenses that have transformed my understanding of what it means to be a young farmer of European descent in this country— standing and working on the foundations of colonialism and slavery— are also among my companions in my work.
In terms of people and organizations I collaborate with more immediately, the Justice and Agriculture Working Group is a cohort of young, radical farmers. Included in this cohort are my co-farmers at Sidewalk Ends Farm, who have been among my primary accomplices within the past decade. We have collaborated, individually and as a group, with local frontline movement groups like AS220 Youth, FANG, DARE, AMOR, and PrYSM (all of these organizations are doing incredible work and are worth looking up) particularly via Justice and Agriculture's resource network, through which justice-oriented groups can solicit donations of food or space for events, or ask for any other resources we might have to offer. These groups have years of experience in anti-racist organizing in Providence and RI, so contributing to their vision and efforts is among the tacks we have taken in support of their work. The Tomaquag Museum is an incredible local resource on Indigenous history with whom we have partnered on farm tours and educational events. Justice and Ag helped revive Tomaquag’s demonstration garden so that Indigenous crops and growing practices are on display during the growing season.
There are many other local institutions— Southside Community Land Trust, RI Division of Agriculture, RI Association of Conservation Districts, RI Land Trust Council, and Conservation Law Foundation to name a few— who have also been longtime collaborators on land issues. Many people from these organizations have supported young and beginning farmers, and have worked to represent the needs of marginalized populations in developing programs and policy. Regionally and nationally, I am lucky to be in conversation with people who I really admire also studying the history of this land. My colleagues at Land For Good are among the most rigorous and knowledgeable people I know working on insoluble problems surrounding farmland in our region. I have valued my various collaborations with the National Young Farmer Coalition, and have admired their capacity to respond to the needs of their constituencies, organizing around policy and programs that address the landscape of challenges facing young farmers in this country.
It feels rare to identify action that seems to lead toward any solution in some broad or holistic sense. That is demoralizing. Issues faced by individual farmers and various groups of farmers are diverse and overlapping. A proposed solution to one problem—such as expanding solar production on existing farmland so that landowners can add an income stream to help maintain their farms—exacerbates another (in this case, in RI, a general shortage of farmland available for aspiring farmers, and even greater barriers in affordability). There is no panacea for land or food based injustice, so I find that collaboration and building on existing movement work provisions for the most enduring, radical, and affirming progress. It has been powerful organizing between farmers, climate advocates, people coming from arts backgrounds, and anti-police brutality organizing to engage in specific projects, aligning our different work and sharing resources.
What is the work of the Justice and Agriculture Working Group? What challenges are you
addressing and how is that work going?
The Justice and Agriculture Working Group is a part of the Young Farmer Network (RI-based chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition). We started as a study group, reading about articulations of colonialism and racism related to agriculture. Our aim has been to educate ourselves and our community members on the history of the land we farm, and build our vocabularies surrounding land and farm-related anti-racist work.
In addition to studying history, we have supported several projects related to existing organizing and movement building in our neighborhoods, and initiated a few of our own. During the growing season, we coordinate a resource network through which movement organizations— particularly ones led by people of color— can make requests that farmers may be able to fulfill. Mostly this resource network is tapped to aggregate food for our partners’ events and fundraisers. After the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, we responded to a call put out by one of our collaborators who was looking for a cheap florist so that they could buy flowers for a march and vigil. We collected a truckload of flowers grown nearby— so many that there was no sense of scarcity as the buckets were passed among the large crowd. It was a small detail of that day and the larger organizing effort, but it moved me to see beauty and abundance of my friends'; farms put toward this loud, visible act of mourning and protest.
Early in the timeline of our group, we solicited help from undergraduate researchers to learn about the histories of land ownership on a handful of farms in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. The project was useful in learning about the history of specific lands in our network so that we can begin to tell more complete stories when we have visitors on our farm. It was also intended as a research template that farmers anywhere could use to gather data toward a Census of Dispossession that could potentially be used to build a case for reparations in quantifying stolen lands and lives lost through the violence of Indigenous land dispossession and slavery. In general, we try to share our agendas, resources, methods, and projects with other farmers who reach out— often through the National Young Farmers Coalition chapter network— with interest in organizing around racial justice in their (particularly majority white) communities.
Justice and Ag also organizes educational events for a broader community. Most recently was a full day workshop on the history of RI lands with presentations from Christy Clark-Pujara, drawing on her research and writings about the Rhode Island slave trade; and Loren Spears of the Tomaquag Museum, who gave an account of RI land history from an Indigenous perspective. In 2017, we hired Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm to conduct an anti-racism training in our community of farmers and advocates. We also organize work days in the garden at the Tomaquag Museum.
Rhode Island is often imagined as a nearly homogeneously white state, and people of color are
often rendered invisible. How do you work to build solidarity across race and class lines in this
I am not sure how to speak to the ways in which RI is perceived or imagined. Specific articulations of racism absolutely arise in the realm of agriculture. Farmland here is mostly owned by white people. Barriers to entry are unequally felt by non-white people, and by people for whom English is a second language. Challenges we face as a state— in regards to land, farm viability, food access, climate change, and various ongoing forms of dispossession and disenfranchisement— are so complex that it is difficult to conceive of solutions that address them in intersectional ways.
The most radical and potent work happening here on all of these issues is categorically being organized by POC-led groups. As a farmer and a writer, as a person with the privileges and accommodations I was born into, building solidarity has meant balancing initiative with humility, and being patient with the fact that trust takes a long time to build. I work to face the profundity of the pains of racism and its many articulations in history and the present that white people often allow ourselves to turn away from. I draw this lens in to permeate every facet of my life and work, and try and stay aware of how my values, behaviors, and language evolve in this learning. I ask other white people to help process confusing or enraging circumstances and experiences in observing or confronting racism so that I will be braver and better equipped to deal with similar situations in the future. I try to be honest about the resources I have available, and take care of myself so that my offerings to my community come from a place of sincerity and generosity.
I will add that it is important to me as a white person to approach leadership in this realm with a sense of humility and real care. Even in responding to this interview, I have an immediate conflict: between a sense that my voice is not the one that should be amplified to speak on issues of racial justice, and the conviction that white people need to develop their vocabularies, mobilize, and not defer to people of color in initiating this work. I read this great article “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. It is really broad in its brilliance, and one detail they identify in discussing “settler moves to innocence”— ways that colonizers try to evade guilt or confrontation of debts owed from the violence of our ancestors— is the fact that white people engaging in anti-racist work, or speaking on these issues can buttress their own reputations, be celebrated, essentially gain power, even make actual money in engaging with anti-racist discourse and work. In our culture, the idea of work is attached to all these other complex ideas: of ego and individuality, money and time,success and accomplishment. I bring all this up to affirm both the delicacy of this “work” and my sense that a mentality of solidarity must transcend an idea of work, and really pervade one’s life and worldview.
Your farm is unique because it's all women. What lessons have you learned along the way that are unique to that experience?
Sidewalk Ends Farm has been the landscape of the most profound education of my life. Along with the plants and land itself, my collaborators in this endeavor are daily partners in thought and labor. The farm has played a deeply significant role in the evolution of the frameworks through which I see the world, and the way I articulate my values in embodied practice. It has been a primary site for the development of my unconventional queer family and support system; through this project we probe alternative modes and formations for collective care in a way that has felt fundamentally radical. Parsing conflicts around shared responsibility, work, chronic illness, familial drama, money, animals and meat, feelings, how and where to sell our vegetables, and any number of other issues has been a constant truing of my intentions for my labor and my embodied values. I feel profoundly indebted to my collaborators for the space we made for these machinations over the past decade.
My farm embodied a constant subversion of gendered norms in labor and decision-making. I like watching women's sports, and experience a similar satisfaction watching my sisters; bodies get strong over the course of the season, watching them engage in labors requiring various skills, specialized knowledge, intuition, experience, and strength. Over the decade of our collaboration, we built a collective confidence in our capacity to learn and build into our dreams. It has been a powerful experience to believe in these people, to trust them with my dreams. The reflection of myself that I found in agricultural work specifically on our deeply unconventional, woman-run, nature and justice- loving farm has been the most precious gift. I know the farm was a refuge from the hostility and alienation of our world for others too, and that means a lot to me. I feel entirely humbled to have had the opportunity to participate in our experiment. I am indebted to all the queer spaces in my life. It was a privilege to contribute toward building such a special one in this world.