This past winter, on a frost-bitten February day, I met Akilah Martin and Orrin Williams at Kusanya Café in the heart of Englewood on the South Side of Chicago. Warmth enveloped us as we walked into the coffee shop—the kind of warmth that comes from a space of community and belonging. We met there to discuss ideas around local food and health care access, environmental and social justice, and ecological citizenship. These issues are near and dear to both Akilah and Orrin as they work with communities to reclaim food and health and to unravel entrenched systems of violence, racism, and injustice.
As a soil scientist, Akilah connects people every day to the dirt under their feet. Her work around soil and water quality, especially in relation to life expectancy and health inequities, empowers citizens to better understand how much their food, wellness, and well-being depends on healthy soil. For Orrin, his work in gardening and local food production gets people into the dirt directly as they learn how to grow their own food with whatever resources are at their disposal. Through the Chicago Partnership for Health Promotion (CPHP) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the Center for Urban Transformation, and the Sweet Water Foundation, Orrin helps communities to build food security and sovereignty and to recognize the role of food in addressing racial, social, and economic inequalities. Akilah and Orrin are simply citizens helping citizens. Together, they are devoted leaders and wisdom sharers rooted in the work of healing and reconnection.
Jeremy Ohmes (JO): First, I would love to know more about the work that you are both doing in the community.
Orrin Williams (OW): Through the CPHP, we’ve developed a curriculum around container vegetable gardening, but Akilah just smashed up my brain in terms of soil. I appreciate listening to her and learning from her about the deeper levels of soil and how essential it is. I’ve kind of abstractly said it’s the most valuable thing on the planet, but that was reinforced, vigorously, after learning what I learned from her.
Akilah Martin (AM): Thank you. Yesterday, I was invited to do a guest lecture at Illinois Institute of Technology. The class was a geospatial health class that’s using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to map the spread of disease and other health-related issues. It was really interesting to talk to the students about soil because they’re not taking soil classes. They’re looking at health, soil, and place history and how their health is related to place. It was really interesting for them to be able to do that because most people probably don’t think about place and their health. Or how the built environment or air quality or water quality really affects them.
OW: Yeah, and I’m going to say that that’s a real deficit in terms of our kind of day-to-day assessment. It’s kind of related to this consistent bombardment with what I call socialization material, right? Whether it’s TV or YouTube, what you read, what you listen to, there’s this whole sort of PR, psychotic infrastructure that just keeps at you, right? And so you’re not concerned about those things because you’re so busy. I mean, we’re sitting right here in a community [Englewood] where the life expectancy is sixty years old versus in more affluent communities not far from us in Chicago.
JO: How do you make people aware of and get them concerned about the inequities within our food systems? These systems are so entrenched with so many structural obstacles. What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see for people to reclaim their own health and their own food and be more connected with the land and the soil?
AM: A lot of it is cognitive dissonance. If we’re going to continue with an unhealthy lifestyle, we know what the outcome will be. And some people even challenge you, like, I’m not going to do that, I’m going to keep eating unhealthy food, even though they know that it’s impacting them. That’s the part that keeps me in this space of cluelessness for these attitudes and behaviors. How do I gently bring them over to eating good food without creating a sense of hopelessness or grief?
If you’re distracted all the time, how much mental space do you have left to think about how you as an individual can make new choices? When you are bombarded all day long with eat this, drink that. Your family may also be having a lot of challenges happening. So how do you find the time to focus on you? I’ve been struggling a long time trying to figure out how to bring people along. I mean, we’ve been in front of lots of different people, lots of different age groups. And I think that what I want to do is always leave something on their mind about their eating habits, and that’s what I try to do. After that it’s really up to them to make that decision to go further. And understand how best to be a really good community member. Which is difficult because of trust issues. A lot of academics come into communities just wanting to get research done so they can continue their own work, you know? It’s not really helpful to the community, and they never even see the data. Even if they do, they probably can’t understand what the data presented in an academic analysis means for them. Who understands that?
JO: Is that where art and music and other means of expression come into practice? Where it’s not just data and numbers and top down communication, but it can become more of a practice and more hands-in-the-dirt?
OW: Yeah, but it’s also that the data thing has become more pervasive. You know we always talk about the paralysis of analysis, right? It’s becoming more profound in my mind. Especially for me having a seat in an academic institution. I’m always like, but what does the data say? How are you going to evaluate it, right? It never gets done. But the hands-in-the-dirt kind of stuff does, right?
As Akilah was saying, too, it’s the intersection between culture and art and all that. And it’s interesting you brought up “means of expression” because some of us, especially young black men, we’re often not consciously thinking, oh, let me form an expression of myself. The expression just happens through some form of entertainment—being an athlete or being a singer or a dancer, or some kind of performer. But it is still a form of self-expression. Your game is an art form. For me, it’s also about having people begin to think like, expand your art form, right? Whatever that art form is. And condition it based upon where you’re at in life.
AM: I think people are expressing themselves because they need healing and that’s the way that they see healing for themselves. Healing because of the traumatic experience that I’m sure all of us have had at some time, whether it was in the womb, or outside the womb. Trauma is real and it’s passed down genetically. And, if you live in Chicago, you’re going to experience it in some form or fashion.
And food is part of that healing process. I mean, I’ve always said that the current food system is like a terrorist attack on our people. I go on GrubHub or some other food delivery option and I look at what’s being offered to me where I live, and there’s nothing nourishing offered to me. If I’m in the South Loop, there’s a million options. And I understand, because sometimes the greasy, heart attack food is great. I’m not mad at that, but that shouldn’t be my offering all day, every day. What is the deal? Things like that really bog down my mind.
OW: Food is critical in terms of your emotional and mental health. It directly correlates to depression and anxiety; all kinds of disorders are due to poor diet, right?
JO: Food is medicine.
OW: I don’t even like that term.
JO: Why don’t you like that term?
OW: Because it medicalizes it. It should be food as well-being, or food as healing, or as normal, right? And also just looking at other food cultures, sometimes I get stuck in YouTube, and I watch how people eat in Samoa. I see how people eat in Suriname. And I can see how when that food system gets disrupted, what happens to people. How the food industry has interrupted their native culture.
AM: It’s part of a game, to do that. And then to continue to do that across the globe. It’s unfortunate.
OW: And then we keep hearing about this upsurge of mental disorders or behavioral disorders or whatever the case may be. I remember when everyone used to get food stamps the first of the month and I would go into grocery stores, and I’d wander around all day, just watching the people in line.
AM: Well, you know on the first of the month, the grocery stores put everything sugar-related on sale. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that.
OW: No, I did not.
AM: All the processed foods are on sale. You can get all the pop you want, all the cereal you want. I’ve looked at it. Just watch the sale papers when they know people are going to get their check.
OW: That also explains what I observed. People would go up to the register, they’d spend $300.
AM: On nothing.
OW: And then you look at what students tell me in the classrooms, about people on the street. We’ve said for a long time we wish we could go into a police station or county jail, and when they bring somebody in, we ask them what they’ve eaten in the last week, the last two days, the last three days, today. Right? Probably would scare the hell out of us.
AM: It’s disheartening. If you think about how we’re suffering, this is not food that our bodies are used to, or want, or can digest, and so we’re being forced to eat things that are less healthy for us. I can’t imagine what that’s going to do to people in other countries who are not able to eat the food that they’ve been eating for generations, that is native to their climate, to their soil. But now you’re saying I’ve got to eat this because this is cheaper, because, well, people are always going to go for the cheaper version, why not? But certainly, if you knew the effects of that food, maybe you won’t go for the cheaper.
JO: It feels like our stomachs are being colonized. And there’s not too much native or indigenous food in this region that we have access to regularly. It seems like there’s a lot of impediments to eating right.
OW: My whole thing is about being radical. I want to grow as much food as I can year round. We’ve talked to landscape architects and all these different folks about how people can build a greenhouse in the back of their house or a garden box that’s easy to construct, right? And we know that Sweet Water Foundation and different places plant green leafy vegetables in the spring and April and then it snows twice. And those greens are actually the best-tasting ones that you get—not the ones from the seedlings that were there in the basement. And now, even tomatoes are coming up because they went to seed. We figure we just need to buy some starts, and then you just let it seed. Just from the fruit that fell. And you go, like, wait a minute, that’s how the system works anyway.
AM: That’s how it works.
JO: Like whenever I check my compost, there’s always tomato plants growing up out of it.
AM: That’s Earth. She knows what to do.
OW: Because that’s just how vibrant and vital the Earth is. It’s like, so why not our back yards? Take fruit trees. Could we fill vacant lots or parkways with fruit trees? We’ve got to have the Akilahs of the world because if I plant a fruit tree in urban soil, I need to know if it’s going to uptake metals and chemicals. But if it doesn’t uptake those toxins into the fruit, there’s a community food source?
OW: But everybody’s colonized, right? Because 90 percent of the food that comes into Chicago is imported. And what do we export? Corn and soy, most of it not even for human consumption with 99 percent of millions of acres in production for feed, but not food. It’s all circular.
AM: It is. I think we should reimagine what food looks like. Reimagine what the space looks like. We’re conditioned to go to the store, to go to someone else instead of going to ourselves. And that’s going to be part of a reconnection or a connection with the Earth, with the land. And understanding that soil is a living, breathing entity, and its organisms have just as much right to be here as you do. Not to be trampled on and stomped, mistreated, thrown away. And that’s going to be hard for a lot of people to see soil as something that’s living and that’s connected to them. And my message is to always show people just how much soil is connected to our daily lives, whether you see it or not.
OW: I think we generally don’t know that we’re connected to this whole microbial zone that’s in the soil and out of the soil. It’s on you; it’s in your gut.
AM: All of that. And that’s what connects us around the globe. So one thing happens here and it has ripple effects somewhere else. I don’t know if people can see that or want to see that because sometimes it can be chaotic, and sometimes it can be great, who knows? If you think about this virus, that is the basic visual of how global we are, and how connected we are, and how one thing can stop everything. And food looks like that as well. It’s slower and it doesn’t have as much attention. But it connects all of us. And when our food systems are broken, then people suffer—from diabetes, heart attacks, stroke—especially poor people of color.
OW: And a lot of trauma, too. And then exacerbated by an ineffective sick care system . . . I’m sorry, I mean healthcare system.
AM: It is sick care.
OW: It is. I participate in some focus groups and having just general conversation with folks in the community and they say, I don’t want to go to the doctor.
OW: I don’t even want to know if I’ve got something. And if I do go, then how am I going to get all the treatments I need to get? I don’t trust that system.
AM: I’m probably one of those people.
OW: I think that’s normal, actually. So you can know about food and nutrition and all that, but even if you want to eat healthy and live healthy, how do you make that happen?
JO: It’s so daunting and our system has done a good job of individualizing us and making us feel alone. But, like you say, we are so interconnected, and how can we come together to not feel so alone and to empower one another? It seems like a lot of this comes down to a sense of community and a sense of belonging. How can we create a sense of belonging to help each other come back to these issues?
OW: I think it’s rooted in the definition of the word community. It’s in the ecology dictionary. We use it as a sociological term, in the main, right? Which is part of the language of disconnection. But when you think of ecology and you think of the desert, the pond, the lake, the ocean, the rainforest, the high mountains, the forest. All of these different niches and biomes, right? How can a community be healthy if its nutrient flows aren’t healthy? And that’s not just food and that’s not just water. It’s the air quality. It’s the quality of the soil. It’s a relationship between soil and lifespan. If you don’t connect to that because you don’t even see yourself as part of the biome, as part of the ecosystem, then . . .
JO: It’s that reductionism again.
OW: Exactly. And it’s reinforced by all kinds of stuff, right? Or hidden by all kinds of stuff. What you hear, what you see, what you eat—all of that keeps you from community. We’ve got all these different people from all these different places, and you separate us and you make us scared of each other, right? Instead of allowing us to learn from each other. Oh, what kind of bean is that? What kind of cabbage is that? What kind of food is that? I think that is one of our strengths, and we’re not even coming together around that, around food and growing. I’m just tired of the whole narrative around food, and around us as consumers. How come we can’t be productive consumers? How come even if I’m not interested in growing my own food, I can’t give a part of my backyard or side yard or whatever to the local folk who can go in and cultivate it? All these abandoned buildings—let people live there. Clean them up. That impacts me psychologically, as much as screwed-up food does.
AM: Right. And we have to remove the idea of currency and money in community, so that people don’t have to have that focus. The focus is on the community, and how I contribute to that community, and not how much money I can spend or the need to have this luxurious item.
OW: It’s all about recovering your indigeneity. That recognition now that indigenous nature can really be applied universally, and we can come together around the essence of that. Communitarianism, communal, whatever word you want to use, right? I don’t even like using any of those terms because they all get bogged down. Just like I don’t use the word God a lot.
AM: I just say “The Universe.”
OW: I have an acronym I use. It’s ISP.
OW: Yeah, the cosmos is “Incomprehensible,” it’s “Sacred,” and it’s “Profound.” I don’t need to know the nuances and details and the biochemistry of it. Nobody can know all of it.
AM: We’re still learning. We’re always learning.