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Laura Bennett graduated from the EAH program in Spring 2019. She grew up in Oregon and completed her Bachelor of Science in Horticulture with an option in Ecological and Sustainable Urban Forestry and Landscaping at Oregon State University (OSU). Laura worked for the OSU Horticulture department for five years helping to teach Sustainable Landscape Design and worked with University Housing & Dining to design and construct the McNary East Food Forest on OSU Campus, an interactive teaching garden. Over the past seven years, she has worked her way through nearly every facet of Gathering Together Farm, the leading small organic farm in Corvallis, eventually focusing her role in on Vegucation, whether it’s through her farm-to-table newsletters, her cooking demos at the farmers markets, or guided walking tours of the farm. She has managed Food Processing and added-value product lines, currently manages the Gathering Together Farm booth at the Portland State Farmers’ Market in addition to working on the harvest crew during the week and is now taking on a more integral role as an on-farm Communications Facilitator. Laura is a community organizer, educator, farmer, writer, and artist, always looking for the next steps we can all take to make this world environmentally and socially sustainable for all.
Carly Lettero, Environmental Arts and Humanities Program Manager, asked Laura about her work and her thesis in the MA program in October 2019.
Before starting in the Environmental Arts and Humanities program, you spent five years working at a local farm. Why did you decide to leave the fields and farmers markets and go back to school?
I had fallen in love with farming for its power to fight against both environmental exploitation and diet-related diseases, and for its power to create community. During horticulture school, I worked my way through different aspects of the farm with a new position every year, constantly learning and loving every second of it. After graduation, I spent a year working full-time at the farm and started really noticing things I’d never noticed before.
During the week, I was working on a harvest crew of migrant women, learning Spanish and Mam and Mixteco and the art of hard work and specialty produce harvest. But on the weekends, I acted as the face of the farm at the farmers market and on social media, producing and image of local food that I soon realized omitted my Latina coworkers from the story. It didn’t seem like a single person shopping the farmers market realized that their food was still harvested by migrant farmworkers who could really use their support on the federal level. And I couldn’t blame them, because I had been working on the farm for years and never really put that together. And on farm, despite what had always felt very communal and familial, I started to see segregation and inequity everywhere. Both were true. The juxtaposition was surreal, for me, seeing it for the first time. I couldn’t go back to normal, but I didn’t want to leave either.
Amidst a particularly pivotal season in the farm’s thirty-year history where the management and structure of the migrant harvest crew was being changed significantly in various (problematic) attempts to foster agency and autonomy for women, and amidst the political climate of Trump being elected, I realized how little I really knew. I found myself in need of a ton of context and perspectives to be able to begin to understand what was happening around me and within me. Another new and exciting horizon of blind spots were coming into focus, and I needed time to learn and start figuring out how I could use my skills and positionality to help address the structural and internalized racism that continues to define our food systems in this country, industrial and local alike.
You started your MA with a good sense of direction for a project. How did your ideas evolve over the years?
I think my biggest lesson over the course of my project was how little I really know, but also how much we know collectively as a community and the power we have in that. I’m prone to being the loner-type, trying to solve problems all by myself. But in the work of social change, I cannot work alone nor be a leader alone—it won’t work. Sustainable social change depends upon a community contributing their perspectives and leading alike. Rather than studying to find all the answers like I thought I would, the things I learned are gifts that I can now share with my community, and in combination with each member of community’s knowledge and perspectives, my contributions can become something. Only collectively can make change. Like I saw on a woman’s sign at a protest outside an ICE office, “La solidaridad es nuestra arma,” or “Solidarity is our weapon.”
I also went through a significant process of personal work of unpacking my own internalized racism as a white woman who grew up in Oregon. From farmers to consumers, our local food communities need to accept a life-long commitment to racial reconciliation, to allow a certain vulnerability with yourself, to allow yourself to believe that you are the same wonderful you who also has blind spots regarding internalized racism that affect the world around you and within you.
Did studying in an interdisciplinary program influence your scholarship? If so, how?
A large part of my work is helping others in my local food community through that same process, whether it be the farmers I work with, the departments I work in, the readers of my CSA newsletters, or customers at market. Tensions can escalate quickly, as the work of racial reconciliation is uncomfortable in different ways for different people.
For me, if I had stayed in the College of Agriculture during graduate school, I never would have found the blind spots within myself and my local food community that I now see as essential for moving forward. I’m incredibly grateful for my agricultural education, but I needed perspectives from Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Food in Culture and Social Justice departments to be able to see a bigger picture. Moreover, having my feet in the soil at a real farm in my own community was an essential piece of the interdisciplinary curriculum for me as well, rooted outside the walls of academia.
The Environmental Arts and Humanities program is the only one like it that allowed me to weave everything together the way that I needed. Interdisciplinary work helps your thinking to become more diversified, uncovering blind spots that would likely have gone unnoticed and done a disservice to the efficacy of your work regardless of intention. No one person or discipline can solve big, complex societal problems. It never works to put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity is stability, at every level. It takes a community of bodies and minds to change the world together from every angle.
Your work focuses on radical action in local food systems. What is radical action, and why do you think it is important?
Radical can mean a lot of things, but to me it just means that you go to the root cause of problems for everyone, rather than easing the symptoms for a very few. To me, radical is common sense, not anything extreme. My work emphasizes the important of both radical and reflexive action in our food systems. Radical action addresses the root causes of both environmental and human exploitation in agricultural systems. And a reflexive food system is structured to be able to critique itself in order to figure out how effective the food system really is at addressing those root causes of exploitation.
Eric Holt-Giménez compares radical food movements with progressive food movements in his 2017 book, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. Progressive food movements and actions tend to focus solely on environmental issues, without taking the social issues into much consideration. This can be seen in the rise of Organics over any social justice certification or immigration reform for the people who make Organic agriculture possible in this country.
Giménez reframes things and says that our industrial food system isn’t broken at all, but rather functions precisely as it is designed to do—it robs wealth from the ecosystem and from human lives. No amount of making inaccessible alternatives will keep that machine from churning. Radical food movements go to the root of these issues in our food system in order to make change for the masses and the marginalized in order to “uproot racism and seed sovereignty,” as Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm puts it.
How can people and communities take radical action to support migrant workers and people of color in agriculture, especially those whose voices we can’t hear?
There are so many answers to this question and I won’t be able to list them all, nor am I qualified to. I’m still learning myself. But for consumers, I do believe that if everyone who shopped local and organic put the same amount of energy that they put into voting with their dollars as they did into federal immigration reform and following local farmworker campaigns, we could come together and make big social changes. Migrant issues are local food issues. Racism is a local food issue. There is no separation.
For consumers at market, for food writers, for local farm’s social media pages, radical action can take place in the form of supporting immigrant’s rights and local initiatives through conversation, asking questions, sharing posts on social media, writing to bring awareness, and taking action as an engaged citizen beyond voting with your fork. It can take place by listening, by voting, by asking about labor at the farmers’ market, by attending a protest, by writing a letter to a senator, through supporting local initiatives and campaigns, and in so many other ways.
Perhaps those are things that we’ve never done before and don’t know how to do, but we can learn. It’ll be a learning process, but that’s what it’s all about. A big part of taking radical action is to take your own education into your own hands. Read books by people of color and listen to what they have to say. Educate yourself about the history of agricultural labor in your region to figure out who grows your food and what their lives are like. Ask questions. Follow different people on social media. Look for the voices that are missing, they’re out there #hungryforjustice
Locally, Oregon’s farmworker union, PCUN, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste (treeplanters and farmworkers of the Pacific Northwest), always has campaigns to follow that they need support for. Following them on social media and seeing how, when, and where you can fight for local farmworker rights. Federally, we can all help bring racist immigration policies and practices to an end by aligning with immigrant-led campaigns.
What advice do you have for potential students who are interested in developing a project that works closely with a community?
In academia, we learn a lot and talk a lot about how to change the world. We learn about environmental exploitation, we learn about human exploitation, we learn methods to study these issues with better efficacy and accuracy. I’ve been reading this book recently called Medicine Stories: Essays for Radicals, and it refers to this theorizing as the constellations. It is the constant map of the sky, of justice, and it guides us. But the reality of actually bringing exponential environmental exploitation to a halt, of actually stopping the vicious cycle of human exploitation—that happens on the ground, in the mud, and you better figure out what tools you need to make it. The constellations will always be there, although often obscured by weather and political storm clouds, but learning how to muck through their implementation in real-world situations is key.
For me, developing a project within and around my own community made my project richer than it ever would have been if it wasn’t rooted in reality. No amount of interdisciplinarity within the walls of academia can replace getting your hands dirty. However, it also made it an incredibly stressful experience, as the stakes for the work felt so high and personal. Studying the community that I am already a part of thus comes with its own unique insights and unique blind spots. We can talk all day about changing the world, but it’s rare that we get a chance to practice getting dirty.
What is next for you and this project?
The farm has created a new position for me that we’re tentatively calling Worker-to-Management Communications & Programming Facilitator. With this position, my job is to help facilitate horizontal worker-led changes on farm, including getting English classes on-farm, leadership trainings, team-building workshops, educational events and programming, a repertoire of resources to refer people to, effective mechanisms for worker voice, upward mobility, social justice certification, and more. Moreover, my job is to bring outside professionals in help in ways that I am limited.
But I never have just one job on the farm! I will continue to work as a writer for the farm and as the face of the farm at market as well, and this season I even started giving tours to incoming groups of students and other visitors. Each of these spaces provides an opportunity to educate consumers about who their local farmers really are and how they can do more to support them. I’m looking forward to learning how to share these platforms with my coworkers in ways that ensure their safety and agency.
Beyond this farm, I am also working with OSU Small Farm Extension to organize a session on farmworker safety and advocacy on small farms at the 2020 Small Farm Conference here at OSU this coming February. We want to make a call to farmers as problem-solvers to address these issues head-on. Farmers can work with workers to make changes on their farms, but they have to let their workers lead the way. From here, I am hoping to make some statewide connections that can help to bring radical change to farms and lives across the state. Of course, I have a lot more ideas and side-projects brewing, and everything I’m doing now is in constant flux as I continue to learn how to do this work better.