Women in Food: Shakara Tyler on Racism in the Food System
January 4, 2016 | Abbie Stutzer
While Shakara Tyler didn’t grow up on a farm, the doctoral student learned to love the land and developed an interest in food justice in her home city of Philadelphia.
Tyler completed her master’s in the Department of Community Sustainability (CSUS) at Michigan State University in August 2013. Her master’s thesis concerned Michigan black farm owners’ perceptions of USDA loan programs. Now, she’s working and pursuing a Ph.D. at MSU and doing research on farmers in underserved communities.
Seedstock recently spoke to Tyler to learn more about her farming background, pursuit of food justice,
Seedstock: How did you become interested farming and food justice?
Shakara Tyler: I didn’t grow up on a farm — I grew up in the city of Philadelphia. My earliest remembrance of food was cooking with my mother and my grandmother. We didn’t use farm-fresh products from what I remember (laughs). I remember eating a lot of soul food, culturally relevant dishes, and I didn’t find the land until much later on in my adult life.
I work with farmers, but I also farm. I specifically work with black farmers because I was interested in their experiences of racism with the United States Department of Agriculture.
Prior to that, I was an urban farm educator for a youth farm organization in my hometown of Philadelphia. That was a transformative experience. I saw the need to actively engage in food production and to work with others concerning education; not necessarily teaching others how to grow, but teaching myself – it was like an educational horizontal knowledge exchange, where we were teaching one another.
Seedstock: What should people know about your research into the global food system?
ST: A lot of my work revolves around the understanding that the chronic global food system was built on violence and domination — the genocide of Native Americans, the historical enslavement of African peoples, and also the present-day enslavement of some farm workers.
So, my work is about dismantling systems of violence and domination, and working with black farming communities around cooperative land reform, assuming financial capital to run farm businesses, and seeing the land as a liberating tool.
And my work is framed within the context of community. I want people to get to a place where they have the autonomy to define how they live, and of course how they eat, but more importantly, how they think in relation to the food they are producing on the land.
Seedstock: What is your favorite part of the research you’ve completed?
ST: My favorite part has been researching myself and using myself as the object of inquiry. If we aren’t gauging how we’re transforming ourselves in addition to transforming our communities, families, and broader society, then transformation can become an illusion.
Seedstock: What projects are you working on now?
ST: For my dissertation, I am conceptualizing a framework around black agrarianism, mostly about black agrarian tradition where land is the crux of it all. Within that concept, I am conceptualizing a way to use land pedagogy and collective black liberation. So, re-visioning the black community’s relationship to the land. I also work with many other farmers on obtaining financial capital payment; everything from crowdfunding to investments. I also do work with school gardens and communities of color.
Seedstock: What’s the biggest hurdle for farmers obtaining financial capital?
ST: Within the capitalist system, white commodity farmers have the most access to resources. They grow on crop subsidies, and the amount of money they can get from the bank or the USDA correlates with what they are growing, how they are growing, and how much land they are growing on.
What I’ve seen is the intersectionality of disadvantages by farm scale, farm type, and the racial and ethnic backgrounds of farmers — that all plays a big roll in how many resources farmers can obtain.
A way to get around that is alternative routes to financial capital. So, cooperative land arrangements where it’s not just individual financial capital, but collective financial capital, and the risks are spread out across a group of people. Also important are crowdfunding investments. But not debt models — loans can be very risky for people who don’t have access to a lot of resources, such as collateral, high credit scores, and other requirements — and that disadvantages many underserved populations.
Seedstock: What do you want to do in the future?
ST: I don’t know… that’s a good question, and I get that a lot. I know for sure that I see myself working with the land and continuing to work with those who also work with the land. I don’t know if that means me having an academic position, or me having a homestead, or working in the nonprofit sector doing food justice work. I really don’t know what that looks like yet, but I know that growing food and re-visioning me and my peoples’ relationship to the land is critical.