Uninvited From TEDx Manhattan: An Open Letter

To The Food Justice Community:  

We have embarked upon a new year of opportunities, of hope, of love and also of struggles, obstacles and conflict. I write this letter to make sense of a recent experience of disappointment and I share it because I believe it can be instructive for those of us who care about building a strong and inclusive food justice movement.  This story provides a lesson about unaccountable power and privilege within the food movement, and how it perpetuates divides.  Writing this story allows me to vent and move on.  Most importantly, it is my hope that sharing this story will enable me to co-create with you a new and better “ending” that builds our collective power.

 Let me cut to the chase. I was abruptly disinvited from being a featured speaker at the TEDxManhattan Changing the Way We Eat conference coming up in February.  The reason given was that I had not yet received my non-profit status and the Glynwood Instittue for Sustainable Food and Farming, which “curates” the conference, could not be sure that I had a track record to back me up. Of course, I had already provided references and other information as part of my application, and there was never any mention of non-profit status as a criteria for eligibility.  I heard from another speaker that I may have been disinvited based on little more than someone bad-mouthing me (why do we tear each other down!), perhaps they said I’m contentious or make people uncomfortable.  Did the Glynwood Institute not bother to check my references the first time around?  Did they not do their due diligence before inviting me?  The BLK ProjeK is a work in progress, but we’ve accomplished a lot. A big non-profit organization like the Glynwood Institute can choose to not to associate with my little pro-Black, womanist, speak-truth-to-power organization. That’s their prerogative.  However, they should have done their due diligence before they offered me the invitation to speak.

Of course, when I received an enthusiastic call inviting me to speak from the Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming’s founding executive director Diane Hatz. I saw this as an opportunity to share my innovative ideas about how to create a better food system in marginalized neighborhoods. I planned to use the event as a platform to build support for a mobile market I am launching using a school bus retrofitted to run on vegetable oil.  The mobile market will employ people from our community, support local rural and urban growers, and provide healthy fresh and prepared foods. I began to plan my remarks and organize viewing parties, and I shared the good news with supporters and funders.  I was proud to be selected.

 

In December, after many months of preparation, I received a second phone call from Diane, this time disinviting me. It hurt. The ease with which I was cast aside made me feel totally expendable. The reason given, that I was not a non-profit, seemed shallow and allowed no room to defend myself.  Had Diane simply asked me questions and or shared concerns about my presentation I would have gladly worked with her to ensure that neither her organization nor mine was in any way diminished by my presentation. Instead, she took what may have seemed the easy way out and used her positional power to summarily exclude me.

Looking back, I must admit that upon learning of this invitation some of my colleagues and I questioned TEDx Manhattan’s commitment to serving as a platform for looking at our food system from a non-privileged perspective. Changing the Way We Eat is not a venue for the common person. The website makes no mention of available scholarships to enable low-income people or students to attend the pricey one day conference.  Not only must attendees pay $135 for the privilege of sitting and listening, they also have to apply, explaining why they deserve to be part of the audience and then hope to be selected!  Unless the Glynwood Institute does real serious targeted outreach to communities of color (which I haven’t seen and was the primary purpose of my screening party), their set up is going to result in the exclusion of low-income and people of color, regardless of whether it is intentional.  I received feedback from a past attendee that presenters referenced poor people and people of color only as being the recipients of charity or service. I think Changing the Way We Eat needed to hear my voice in order to change the way the mainstream food movement thinks about poverty, food access, hunger, and food system change. For example, a food justice activist and colleague wrote to me:

 

“...my own experience attending the first TedX Manhattan 2 years ago, and being one of only 3 Black people in the room, and that set against a back drop where very little POC folks were represented at all.  Many slide shows were shown from various groups doing FJ work, showing lots of POC children smiling with veggies etc nearby, usually with some midwestern white woman... I even had a one on one conversation with the ED... about his GSI subsidy presentation where the only part of the presentation where any person of color was shown (specifically a black man), was when they referenced Food Stamps/SNAP.  We all know this is a false representation of program participation.  He was clearly shocked, when I approached him about it, and told me he would bring this back to his colleagues.  I of course did not hear anything about that from him though. When I heard you were speaking I was actually excited about registering to attend again...”

 

Despite such feedback, I felt that my inclusion, and the inclusion of Karen Washington, who, like me, lives in a poor and working class Bronx community, signaled that TEDx Manhattan might be evolving to include more narratives from low-income communities.

 

Once I got over the disappointment and the blow to my ego, I was able to really get to the crux of why this “disinvitation” upset me. As a single mother, growing her own business and organization I am very much used to rejection. I am not at all naive to the fact that I will hear more “no’s” then “yes’s” and that sometimes opportunities will be lost. This was different.  This is what many of my foodies and food comrades committed to equality talk about. The reality is that many of the leaders in the work to create a more equitable food system are usually, white and affluent. People of color and historically marginalized folks are generally looked at as recipients of service or as community “partners”. We are invited to add to the diversity of presenters but generally,  the message we bring about radical change is ignored.  The “partnership” we are offered is too often at the convenience of the mainstream organization and there is no accountability to the grassroots organization.

 

In my work as a leader deconstructing racism and pursuing transformational leadership, I have come to realize that privilege is a very nuanced thing.  What makes it particularly insidious is that most people who have privilege are wont to identify it in themselves and engage in behavior that would relinquish or extend privilege to others.  All I wanted was the privilege of defending myself.  I was denied that privilege by not being contacted before a final decision was made. I was denied that privilege by being told what appears to be an insubstantial excuse as the reason for the disinvitation(that I didn’t have non-profit status). By not being given the benefit of the doubt.  With that privilege I could respond in all honesty. I do often make folks uncomfortable but I do so by stating my truth, not through malicious intent.  I also extend my hand to build real partnerships based on reciprocity.

 

I realize that a person, or persons, from my community may have suggested to Diane that I might be a risk, or might not represent TEDx in the right light. If this was the case I am saddened that such a “crab in a barrel” mentality has pervaded the work we do in low-income communities and keeps us from moving forward. I don’t know who said what. I won’t bother to speculate as its not productive.  What I can do is find fault with an organization that takes on the task of organizing an eclectic conference and then fails to extend basic decency and accountability to those it invites to participate.

I am a proud working class, low-income mother of four who graduated college while raising two children, who became a community activist and organizer, who became a sought after burgeoning public speaker and educator, who guerilla gardened with her community, who is working with her councilwoman to create an urban farm, who has fed the people in her community and celebrated them, who help to shut down a sewage treatment plant that made her kids sick, who started a farm in rural New York and worked alongside fellow urban farmers, who raised $5,000 in a month to start a mobile market on a retrofitted school bus, who worked with Hunts Point Alliance for Children and Corbin Hill Farm to create the only Community Supported Agriculture site in the area able to boast that 80 families enrolled in its first year. In my five years doing this work I have received international (BBC), national (MSNBC) and local (Daily News) media coverage. I cannot help but believe had I been an Ivy league graduate with the SAME accomplishments I would have been treated differently.  I would have been afforded the basic decency of the right to defend myself. 

I am not unique. There are more women like me. They are survivors, firebrands, resourceful, amazing and often unheard and unsupported. I tried to make Diane Hatz understand that every time people like her ask people like me to defend our existence in a space where those who have resources only let the most “accomplished” of us be heard they continue the cycle of privilege and elitism. She seemed sympathetic, I was given an apology if she hurt my feelings or made me feel disposable. I don’t know that I was truly heard. That is disappointing but that is okay.

 

The rug was been ripped out from under me (and those who support the work I do or do the work I do) but I don’t want to stay in that place languishing or bitter. I don’t want to talk about more injustices, I want to ACT to create something collaborative and meaningful. Now, instead of concentrating my energies on preparing a fabulous TED talk, I will focus on the mobile market project and its role within an emerging local South Bronx food system. Instead of focusing on talking to an elite audience, I want to create deeper relationships with leaders and folks from my community.  I want you to understand the mobile market project and I want to understand your projects and ideas and together we can create a more community-controlled food system that provides affordable access to culturally appropriate foods, that creates opportunities for entrepreneurship and jobs, that brings people together in gardens and markets, that builds individual and collective ownership, wealth and health.

 

On February 16th, instead of lamenting lost opportunities, I will use this opportunity to gather with those who want to join with me in creating a community-controlled healthy and just food system. Join us for “Not Just Talk in the South Bronx”.  We’ll have presentations, visioning and networking.  I ask that we come together in the spirit of love and compassion, inclusiveness and celebration. The location is to be determined and invitations will be sent out in the next couple of weeks.

 

In this work our narratives are all legitimate.  If we affect just one person and change one life, including our own, then our work needs no further validation.

 

Sincerely and With Love,

Tanya Fields

Executive Director of the BLK ProjeK, Food Activist and Fierce Mama Bear