Looking Back and Moving Forward


On Thursday 8 October, Community Economies Research Network members were part of an appreciative audience for the Schumacher Center for a New Economics event, ‘Winona LaDuke and Leah Penniman in Conversation.’

LaDuke is an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) member of the White Earth Nation; founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Minnesota, which focuses on the recovery, preservation, and restoration of land on the White Earth Reservation; and an environmentalist, economist, author and prominent Native American activist working to restore and preserve Indigenous cultures and lands.

Penniman is an educator, farmer/peyizan, author, food justice activist from Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, which she co-founded in 2011 with the mission of ending racism in the food system and reclaiming ancestral connection to land, and which is the basis for food sovereignty programs including farmer trainings for Black and Brown people, and a subsidised farm food distribution program for people living under food apartheid

In the conversation, both LaDuke and Penniman emphasised the importance of acknowledging and learning from the past in order to help move forward.

LaDuke spoke of how the activities at White Earth build on Indigenous lifeways and knowledge of native seeds, traditional foods and cultural practices and the role that these can play in the future, especially when thinking about how to move forward in a post-Covid-19 world.

Here LaDuke drew on Arundhati Roy’s idea that the pandemic is a portal and that this is an opportunity to move from one world into another that involves making crucial decisions.

LaDuke says “What do we want to bring through from one world to the next? Do we want to bring our prejudice, our avarice, our dirty skies, our dirty rivers? Do we want to carry that through? Or do we want to go through clean?”

Penniman spoke of how women taken from Africa brought with them things of value—seeds braided into their hair and their wisdom of caring for the earth—but found themselves in a new world in which the earth was not shared and not cared for.

The legacy of this is that in the US, 98 per cent of arable land is owned by white farmers while the majority of farm workers are Black and Brown, but in moving forward Penniman spoke not just of the wisdom of women and men taken from Africa but the efforts of Black agriculturalists and activists including Dr George Washington Carver and Dr Booker T Whatley, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley and Charles Sherrod.

In terms of the types of economies that White Earth Land Recovery Project and Soul Fire Farm are building, relationships are pivotal.

LaDuke describes White Earth as being part of a multi-racial food system that works in partnership with others.

One important relationship is with the neighbouring Amish community, and LaDuke says “We’re both horse-based, and we cooperate, we help each other out. They are the dairy for our community. Now we’re figuring out how to get the Amish goats to the Somali community in the city, and now there are Hmong farmers from the city who want to come up and farm on part of our land. You start with a set of relations that keep growing.”

“Also, we sell the bulk of our large production to an Indigenous sous-chef in the city, so we’re providing food now to people in the city and we’re going to scale this up. They have the revenue in the cities but they can’t grow, so we can use that money to recapitalise our work here on the farm. So, I’m envisioning this regional multi-racial economy and it’s not just food, it’s housing, it’s energy, it’s medicine.”

One important concept guiding Penniman is the West African idea of Ujima or cooperative economics in which “the goal of an economy is not to screw people over, it’s to make sure people get the goods and services they need. It’s relational.”

This form of cooperative economics is for Penniman characterised by Community Supported Agriculture, which she traces to Booker T. Whatley, and in which “you have a group of people who say ‘I commit to this farmer,’ and the farmer saying ‘I commit to this group of people’. And this is over the long-term. We have a relationship, an agreement, where we’re holding each other up.”

“And we can look at this as a micro-example and then scale it out so that we assume that an economy is not about getting the cheapest thing or screwing people over or winning, but it’s about making sure that goods and services are distributed, and then you see very quickly that it needs to be relational. And this is returning to ancestral ways of sharing the resources the earth has lent to us.”


Jenny Cameron

Photo by Martin Oslic on Unsplash