A man with long dreads speaking into a microphone in front of a yellow background.
During a lecture at the ICA, Malik Yakini, co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, said, "In addition to the food that we grow, we are really growing people’s consciousness." (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Detroit community garden founder kicks off lecture series honoring VCU grad who fought for food security

Keynote speaker Malik Yakini helped start the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates a 7-acre community garden in Detroit.

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Virginia Commonwealth University kicked off the inaugural John R. Lewis Memorial Lecture Series on Tuesday with a keynote address by Malik Yakini, co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Lewis, a VCU graduate who died in 2021, was an activist in Richmond and Roanoke. He worked on food security and social justice issues. He helped found the nonprofit Renew Richmond, which runs urban community gardens and teaches youth to love the process of growing food. Yakini’s appearance was not only the inaugural event in the Lewis lecture series but part of the Environmental Humanities Speaker Series of the Humanities Research Center in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Art Burton, director of Kinfolk Community Empowerment Center, opened the event with a speech about Lewis and the role he played in placing food security at the center of social justice in Richmond. He said Lewis was a guiding presence in the city’s social justice community for years who worked to build bridges and form partnerships. Burton called Lewis “a visionary” and one of Richmond’s most important social justice leaders of his generation.  

“He had the spirit of ubuntu, a quality that includes the essential human virtues,” Burton said. “John was a part of humanity long before any of us saw that. John made it cool for all social and economic, races, creeds, colors to come together for the common good of children.”

Lewis believed that urban agriculture was a vital tool for transforming the lives of Black Americans, Burton said. It gave communities control of food production and an opportunity to grow wealth, and he worked to ensure that members of the Black community had a voice in crucial discussions surrounding the issue.

“John saw urban agriculture as the tool of what a bottom-up model of community wealth looked like in transforming Black communities,” Burton said. “John insisted that urban agriculture was the only vehicle that could accomplish what we were trying to accomplish. It was the most powerful organic and essential and most overlooked tool necessary to change the lives of Black people.”

Urban farming in Detroit

In his keynote address, Yakini said he grew up on traditional soul food. His family had moved to Detroit from the South in the 1950s during the Great Migration. During eighth grade in 1969, his teacher played Malcolm X’s 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots.”

“That speech help shaped my view of so-called American society and helped me to begin to understand racism and power and things like that,” Yakini said.

Up until that time, he had never really thought about different types of food. He loved to eat chitlins, pig intestines boiled for a long period of time. It was something that his mom only made on special occasions.

“Malcolm said the house slave ate what he called high up on the hog,” he said. “They ate the better part of the hog. The field slaves ate what was left over. He talked about the hoof and the snout and the tail and the guts. He said that makes you gut eaters and some of you are still gut eaters today. This shocked my 13-year-old-chitlin-loving mind. For the first time, I started to think about food beyond the way it tastes.”

That experience led Yakini into a lifetime of food activism. He became a vegetarian in 1975 and a vegan a few years later. He was principal of a school that taught students to grow food and eventually helped found the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates a 7-acre community garden in Detroit.

“We were concerned with interconnectedness, and we thought that gardening might be a way to do it,” Yakini said. “Because when you are working in a garden, you begin to understand the relationship between human beings and plants, between insects and plants, between the weather and insects and plants and human being. And how all of these things are together.”

Yakini argued that the Black community benefits when it takes control of food production and learns the benefits of farming. The garden in Detroit harvests a variety of different crops each year and sells the products at farmers markets and a food stand.

He said many youths in urban areas have no understanding of agriculture. The program brings youth of all ages into the garden and shows them the process of growing food.

“In addition to the food that we grow, we are really growing people’s consciousness,” Yakini said. “For many people from an urban area, and most of America, they are totally disconnected from the source of our food. But in an urban area like Detroit, people are totally disconnected from the whole process.”

Two men standing in front of a screen that says \"Building Black Food Sovereignty in Detroit, U.S., North America and Africa\"
Malik Yakini with Duron Chavis, executive director of Happily Natural Day. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Food sovereignty

Yakini believes that food and agriculture are a way for the Black community to reconnect with its past and prosper as a community. He is working with other activists in Detroit to open a food cooperative. The project broke ground last year and should open sometime later this year. It will not only serve as a place to purchase food but also a gathering place for the community.

Yakini said he prefers to use the term food sovereignty rather than food security when talking about social justice and food. The Black community needs to take control of food production to achieve social justice, he said.

“We don’t want to make sure we have enough food,” Yakini said. “We want to make sure we control the food system. We want to take control of the corporate sector, and we want to make sure the people who are producing the food and consuming the food are shaping that food system. So, we realized that what we are struggling for is food sovereignty.”

Yakini said there is a stigmatism within the Black community about growing food, because many people trace it back to slavery. Yakini wants to change that because he believes gardening and working on a farm reconnect people to the earth.

“There is a lot of trauma among African people associated with our history of being enslaved,” he said. “We were exploited to create white wealth in this country. There are many Black people who don’t want to have anything to do with agriculture, because as the saying goes, ‘The land is the scene of the crime.’”

Yakini is in the process of retiring and handing the reins of the garden over to a new generation. He encouraged people in Richmond to learn from his community’s efforts and work to build a better food system in the region.

He suggested that people visit the Sankofa Community Orchard, a five-acre public garden on the southside of Richmond. The garden offers workshops and ways for people to get involved in agriculture efforts.