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SXSL: Taking on Food and Racism at the White House

October 4, 2016, 3:30 PM UTC

Yesterday, the White House hosted its first South by South Lawn (SXSL), an abbreviated riff off of Austin’s popular annual music, film and interactive festival, South by Southwest (SXSW). Some raceAhead stalwarts were in attendance, including New York Times writer Jenna Wortham, who led a panel on how technology can solve real problems, and activist/technologist Anil Dash, who led a panel on how citizens can make change.

It’s all here.

I was particularly happy to see that one of my heroes, a man named Will Allen, was also there, on a panel called Feeding The Future. Allen is the founder of Growing Power, and one of the early champions of the urban farming movement, which he has long believed is a way to transform not only the way we eat but the way society functions. “We cannot end poverty by shipping food,” he told the crowd, talking about factory farming. Large scale, monoculture farming has depleted the soil and feeds into a distribution system that bypasses low-income neighborhoods. “Local food systems have to be developed,” he says, bringing jobs, fresh food, and a cleaner environment to vulnerable neighborhoods, mostly of color.

I first met Allen in February 2002. I was in the middle a self-created, extended post-9/11 writer’s project looking for social innovators. In exchange for an interview, he made me spend a day working on his Milwaukee farm, where in between chasing after goats and turning worm castings, I met dozens of young, black teens who were being trained in modern agriculture techniques, or learning to make and bottle salad dressing in his food grade kitchen. They also shared stories of being targeted by the police in their deeply segregated city. “I come here and I’m important,” one teen told me.

I went on to profile Allen three more times. Since then, he’s become a MacArthur Fellow, and one of Time’s most influential people.

Today, that farm is also an information hub for a movement that trains thousands of people from around the world each year on urban agriculture and community development. His work – which now champions hydroponics, sensors, and vertical farming structures – has become increasingly high tech.

But his message remains the same. Communities with few jobs tend to have worse food and that’s an opportunity disguised as a problem. People with felony convictions who can’t get jobs should be embraced and re-trained. “The next farm bill must be done right,” he told the crowd. “We need money for farmer development and infrastructure, greenhouses and hoop houses.” Urban agriculture – correctly scaled – is the only way we’ll feed everyone, he believes, but it’s also a system that will heal our communities. “We’re all responsible for our food and our fellow man.”


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The most pressing social issues seem almost so big that it’s hard to imagine that any one person to have a real impact on fixing them. So we fall back on thinking "that’ll never change" or "nobody can fix that" or "everything is too broken to really make any progress."
—Anil Dash