Jalal Sabur and Ray Figueroa, Jr.

Land and food have been used as a weapon to keep people of color in second-class status for centuries. Can they be used as a tool for justice? Today's guests are using fresh food to rebalance the scales of power and dig up the school to prison pipeline. They're Jalal Sabur, the co-founder of the Freedom Food Alliance, a collective of farmers, political prisoners and organizers in Upstate New York, and Ray Figueroa Jr. of the Friends of Brook Farm, an alternatives-to-incarceration program that works with young people affected by the prison system.

Laura Flanders: I could see you smiling with this "land and food as a weapon" thing, you like that huh?

Ray Figueroa: Yes, yes, very much so. Food has always been very very strategic to the struggle for justice, to the struggle for liberation. There's a long history that goes back to the revolution of the '60s. Folks like the Young Lords Party, people like the Black Panther Party, actually used food to address the very daily struggle of people just to get by. And the Young Lords Party and Black Panther Party actually started something quite -- it's known as breakfast programs, because they realized that the struggle for liberation can only go but so far if young people were not well-fed and being able to concentrate in school. So food was actually looked at very, very strategically, even the Black Panther Party used food do to voter registration.

Laura Flanders:  Yeah, yeah, well the government, the U.S. government saw food very strategically too. And you know some of this history Jalal but we heard it a lot when we were in Jackson, Mississippi talking with Hollis Watkins and some of the other veterans of the Civil Rights Movement,  how the government withheld agricultural credits from people who got involved with the Civil Rights Movement. Talk about that side of the picture for a minute

Jalal Sabur: Yeah there's a long trauma that a lot of black folks have went through in this country, just trying to actually provide their own liberation for themselves through land and through food. And trying to figure out other ways to actually provide a living for themselves. One of our inspirations is Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, and you know, people know her for saying, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," but she was also growing food. She had the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Mississippi and they had like a piggy bank where people could bring their pigs to and they used their resources to actually slaughter pigs and get their wealth and get their liberation that they were looking for.

Laura Flanders:  And do things together that they couldn't do individually.

Jalal Sabur: Yeah.

Laura Flanders:  What's it got to do with the school to prison pipeline?

Jalal Sabur: I think, even going back in our history, like talking to young people, some of the conversations that we have is about when slavery ended, a lot of the things that were happening during the Jim Crow Era was pushing young black people into prison. Because why? Because that was the one loophole in the Emancipation Proclamation was that slavery can continue in prison. And so they would create these laws that would round up young black folks just for being on the street.

Laura Flanders: The Black Codes.

Jalal Sabur: Yeah. Black Codes, and so they would put these young people in prison, and like have them continue working on the plantation. And what does that look like today? School-to-prison pipeline. Stop and frisk. Same thing that's going on today that was going on back then. So making that connection for young people is very real and they see it. And they understand it and they want to figure out how we can do something to change it.

Laura Flanders: Describe for us Soul Fire Farm for a minute, because you've been talking sort of what you want to be, doing, what you are doing, but really describe it. Like, what's the experience. Are they listening to Malcolm X speeches while they're hoing the fields, I don't know.

Jalal Sabur: Um, there's some of that, I mean there's a lot of dancing, and there's a spiritual, and sometimes it's just letting loose and meditating on the power of the land. Just talking about how this place is some part of our liberation, like what Ray was saying.

Laura Flanders: It's in Upstate New York, right?

Jalal Sabur: Yeah, Soul Fire's in Grafton, New York, it's close to Albany, Troy, Capital area region so a lot of the young people that we get are from Albany. That have been going through stop-and-frisk situations, just for like walking on the street. And then they come to the farm, and they have that connection still to, you know, farming out of slavery. And so we are talking about, this is, this is a different model. We're not talking about slavery, we're talking about gaining our power through the land, and talking about, you know, getting our hands dirty and just doing something good and positive in the world. And once they see us doing it, and like have that connection, they get into it. We do the restorative justice work, but there's also the Black and Latino Farmer Immersion and you know the food distribution. So I think the important aspect, like I was saying, about land and land access and getting farmers of color on land, the most important thing is the training that goes along with that and the education, and so youth education that we're doing but adult education too.

So people that actually want to get their hands dirty on the farm, it's important that folks come to Soul Fire, or like build a model that we have at Soul Fire with the Black and Latino Farmer Immersion, that teaches all of the different aspects of like, how to use a tractor, how to build up your soil, but also how to reconnect to some of that history that is lost, and like, dealing with the trauma and actually like, being with your people and like, it's like a therapy on the farm. And so it's important to figure out how to build up those models, because there's training programs that the USDA, you know provides, but there's not training programs that are like actually helping us get to the crux of the matter for black and brown folks getting on land. So there's issues missing in there.

Laura Flanders: And how does it relate to prison project. Maybe both of you can talk about that, but the Victory -

Jalal Sabur: The Victory Bus? So the Victory Bus is this project that -- one of our mentors is a former Black Panther and is currently in prison now -- and he wanted us to do these trips where they can bring families up and make sure they can like visit with their families, cause that's like a big deal, transportation. Most people in prison are from the city and they most of the prisons are in Upstate New York.

Laura Flanders: That's right.

Jalal Sabur: And so transportation is a huge issue. There's not a lot of public transportation to a lot of prisons. So we're providing that gap right there but we're also providing food from Soul Fire Farm and from different farms in the Hudson Valley and making sure that we're addressing both of the issues. We're talking about food access but we're talking about prison abolition at the same time.

Laura Flanders: Talk about some of the people that you're working with, give us a picture of a few of them.

Ray Figueroa: Well, ok, great, I work with young people. There's the -- most of them are young men, we have a few young women, most of them, the demographic is deep poverty. We're in the South Bronx - it's the poorest Congressional district in the nation. The unemployment in certain census blocks is well over 50%. This is greater than the Depression Era where unemployment and poverty was at 25%. So we're talking about a situation of very very deep intergenerational poverty. This is a state of oppressions. What that means for a young person growing up - it is not conducive at all. It is very destructive during their personal growth and development years. Many young people are very hungry.

So they get to school hungry. Harken back to what we were alluding to before, the breakfast program. So they go to school hungry, teenagers, they're angry. And so that's going to play itself out in schools. Teenagers are already going through their adolescent angst but imagine being hungry and angry over a number of issues that are confronting you and your family situation and you just have something that is the perfect storm for young people being subject to police tactics in the schools.

So a lot of the young people in my program, they're part of street families, they're part of street organizations, otherwise pejoratively known as gangs, and these provide mutual support networks for the young people but yes, because they're very very, there's been this massive disinvestment in young people they're involved in -- my young people come from selling drugs, just to get, you know swiping metrocards, snatching purses, being involved in turf wars. So what we do, 1 with the food we're getting food home, we're encouraging families to eat better. They're very very appreciative because they don't have to spend all of the money to do so. This is really, this is really helping the young people out tremendously.

Laura Flanders: A whole different meaning to turf, really.

Ray Figueroa: So food plays a very strategic role in their being at risk for being arrested.

Laura Flanders: And you know, the South Bronx has sometimes been referred to as a food desert but it's really not true. You have Hunt's Point, which is the biggest transshipment point for food across the entire -- well east coast. So there's not exactly a desert there, how do you - what language do you use instead?

Jalal Sabur: One of our colleges Karen Washington uses "food apartheid". There's food there, but the food is killing us and there's laws, you know the access to the food. So there might be Hunt's Point, that doesn't serve the Bronx or serve any of our communities. There might be a Whole Foods in Manhattan but it just doesn't serve our community. So how do we provide that access? How do we gain access? How do we grow our own food, like Ray is doing? How do we do that for folks in Albany like Soul Fire is doing and what other farms are doing?

Laura Flanders: And can you bring it to scale? That's the question that we ask all the time on this program when we ask about worker-owned coops, or different kinds, different business initiatives like the ones you're talking about, can you get it to scale so it's not just a few days out of person's life or one meal in a blue moon.

Jalal Sabur: I think so.

Ray Figueroa: Absolutely, one, we're talking about structural racism when you're talking about scale and what that means is you're talking about something that is entrenched in terms of the governance around the the disposition of land resources. There are policies such as FRESH - food retail initiatives expansion to support healthy - but it's a big box, big box initiative that's looking to get more supermarkets in. Supermarkets do not want to come to the inner city. They do not want to come to the Bronx.

What we can do - we can do what I call micro-food-hub development. We can do the food production, we can do the processing, we can do the storage, we can do the distribution and the marketing locally. What there is is this built up expectation that we're just consumers, whereas we can be producers, we can be the marketers, and actually in addition to being consumers, and in the process economically empower the community. Folks are not eating well because of poverty. So how do we address that? Integrating - doing a vertical integration of the food system - at the hyperlocal, neighborhood level. We can do this - it's a battle. It's a policy battle.

Laura Flanders: What do you need to do it? What do you need from government to do it?

Ray Figueroa: Mmm - we need different people on the planning commision. Urban planning, city planning? The city planning is basically made up of real estate and development interests and I don't want to say that real estate is a bad thing but the character real estate development thus far in New York City has been very very predatory, very rapacious, just profit driven and it's just been gentrifying our neighborhoods and displacing our community. The indigenous community that's been there forever. So what we're saying, we need people on the planning commision that look like us, that reflect on the planning commission needs to reflect the true diversity and interests of everybody. So we need to be in there. For example Pratt Institute here in Brooklyn had a project about decommission a women's prison right in this neighborhood actually, on the West Side.

Laura Flanders: Right, in Chelsea.

Ray Figueroa: Exactly, and I was part of the consultation to that and about how do we repurpose something that was essentially an oppressive institution to something that now is a regenerative opportunity for local community and that is responsive to the needs of the local community. So in terms of the scale, the envelope is not being pushed. And it's not being pushed because we're not at the table. That's a fundamental issue of structural racism.

If there are decisions being made by folks in an air-conditioned bubble downtown in City Hall that's affecting us, that's a very ethical issue. If something is affecting us then we need to have a say. So that's where we, in the community, through Freedom Food Alliance, through other initiatives such as the Peas and Justice collective, and other grassroots-driven, neighborhood-driven initiatives by communities of color, where we're taking responsibility. So you know there's so much finger pointing you can do, at some point in time we have to take responsibility and that's what we're doing with these initiatives that we're talking about.

Jalal Sabur: I would just add to that, as far as like farming Upstate and living Upstate. Being the one that you know -- Soul Fire is a farm of color, I'm farming, I'm like one of the only other farmers of color. And so how do you provide land access? You know? There's land that's available and there was actually a bill that was through the state that was supposed to give young farmers land that the state had. One of those lands were like, decommissioned prisons. And so the bill passed the House and the Senate but the governor vetoed the bill. And so that would have gave us free access to land. Land that was under the state, that wasn't being used, it was just sitting there. That young farmers, like myself, and other folks, could have had that would have actually been able to grow food that would have been addressing some of these issues around food apartheid and access to land and

Laura Flanders: And the grounds for the veto?

Jalal Sabur: I don't know, I have no idea. It's just -- I think, you want to put casinos upstate not more farms or whatever it is. But not something that is actually like regenerative economy that will actually support people but is something that is distracting like prisons. And so how do we do that, how do we use our collective responsibility to decommission prisons and build up more farms.

Laura Flanders: Did you have farming in your family, in your history?

Jalal Sabur: Yeah, um, I mean of course there's history, but my dad is a farm in Lancaster, in Pennsylvania. And he's also a part of some of the work that we're doing. He was - I didn't know him growing up, but when we met, it was magical because we were actually doing the same thing. We're actually doing the same work, working with young people, working with like food justice, environmental justice. And he has a program called Dig it and he's doing restorative justice work and now I'm trying to get him some buses so he can do the prison trips, and he's going through the same thing where you know, he works in the school and young people that he works with - all their dads are in prison and he brings them to the farm and he gives them a way - something to look forward to and he's basically their dad so.

Laura Flanders: And you, Ray?

Ray Figueroa:  Because our family hails from Puerto Rico and there's basically a general agrarian background, my dad - again - would take the seeds of the avocado and plant it in the window sill, we grew up in public housing in East Harlem and you know, he would do things like that. You know, just to kind of - something to remind him if you -- cause an avocado really can't you know really flourish in a housing project window sill, but that sort of thing is I do remember those types of things.

Laura Flanders: I bet it was your mom that bought the avocado.

Ray Figueroa: Our mom bought the avocado, absolutely, and she would make the wonderful wonderful salads.

Laura Flanders: And just quickly on the role of the media. This quesiton of urban farming has become very trendy, and New York magazine not so long ago had a whole series on "your urban farmer", I think they were all white. Urban farming on the rooftops.

Jalal Sabur: Uh-huh.

Laura Flanders: The stock broker's kids who decide to go farm. Is your story getting covered?

Ray Figueroa: Yes, I'm going to give you, great question, wonderful segway - we in the South Bronx have formed a pepper growing collective with a dozen community gardens. Our Friends of Brook Park Youth Farm. We're growing peppers for a hot sauce company, the hot sauce company's called Bronx Hot Sauce. Bronx Hot Sauce is being sold at Whole Foods, it's being sold at Greenmarkets like Union Square all over the city. It's being sold as far away as Seattle, Washington and the Bronx, and the Bronx Brewery has an IPA.

Laura Flanders: So if you thought Brooklyn took over, just wait until you see  what happens with The Bronx.

Ray Figueroa: Right, precisely. So this is a wonderful model, again speaking to your original question around scale. Here we are aggregating the harvest so here's a model for economic development. What we're doing out of Brook Park, the money is going into stipends for the young people. So it's really a win-win-win, it's the triple bottom line, it's the social, the environmental, as well as the financial.

Laura Flanders: You mentioned early on and we'll close with this - you mentioned your inspiration being from in part, from a Black Panther currently behind bars - Curtis Mohammend I think if it's the same --

Jalal Sabur: Well Herman Bell is one of our mentors and his work was around the victory gardens project where he like connected with farms in Maine and other organizations that were bringing down and that's why we named our bus project the Victory Bus Project, in dedication to Herman but also like, it's a victory, we're claiming victory over all the injustices and we look at it as a win-win. You get a ride and some food. So yeah, Herman Bell, Jalil Muntaqim, and a number of other Black Panthers that are you know still locked up in prison, 40 years later.

Laura Flanders: I hope you get a chance to update us on the story in the not too distant future.

Jalal Sabur: Yeah, absolutely.

Laura Flanders: Appreciate it, thanks so much for coming in.

Ray Figueroa: Well thank you.

Jalal Sabur: Thank you.

Laura Flanders: You can get more information about these projects at our website. Check it out.