From Civil Rights to Food Justice, Jim Embry Reflects on a Life of Creative Resistance | Civil Eats

From Civil Rights to Food Justice, Jim Embry Reflects on a Life of Creative Resistance

The veteran food systems organizer says, “within agriculture [is] where we have the most profound need for change, and the most powerful fulcrum point for social transformation of all other human institutions.”

Photo courtesy of Jim Embry

Jim Embry sees tending to land as a sacred and spiritual responsibility. The food systems advocate, land steward, and beekeeper came of age during the civil rights movement in Kentucky and has spent five decades working for social and racial justice.

In 1972, he founded the Good Foods Co-op in Lexington. Then, in 2001, at a pivotal point of his life, Embry moved to the heart of Detroit, assuming the role of director at the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, where he began integrating his work for social justice into the effort to bring nutritious food to underserved communities.

This move marked the culmination of 30 years of political collaboration with luminaries Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs. Embry’s focus on urban agriculture and food justice in Detroit drew a global audience, where he hosted audiences include the British Parliament, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, and distinguished personalities such as Danny Glover, David Korten, and Joanna Macy.

“I have developed a worldview that enlarged my concern for all the human and non-human people: the plant people, the animal people, the water people, the air people, the rock people, the fire people. These are all our relatives, and we are all children of the Earth.”

Embry returned to his home state of Kentucky in 2006, and founded the Sustainable Communities Network (SCN), a nonprofit that connects and supports a variety of entities in a larger effort to build justice in the local food system. SCN works with nonprofits and schools in the region to integrate farming and food production into their work and advocates for local policy that supports school gardens, urban farms, and community gardens and helps get fresh produce to food insecure residents. He is also part of the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, a Black- and Indigenous-led organization with a focus on African and African American crops.

Since then, he has traveled and spoken extensively, including trips to the World Social Forum in Brazil and to Terra Madre, the International Slow Food Gathering in Italy. Embry now lives alongside his cousin in Richmond, Kentucky, on the 30-acre Ballew Farm, named after his great uncle Atrus, who died at age 100. In June 2023, Embry received a James Beard Leadership Award that recognized his many years of leadership within the justice food and food sovereignty movements.

Embry strives to balance community activism and writing with “soil activism,” embodying the essence of a life dedicated to weaving harmony between humanity and the natural world. His ethos extends beyond human boundaries; he sees himself as “stardust condensed in human form, collaborating with kindred spirits to foster beloved communities where every being, from human to water, air, rock, animal, and plant, is held in sacred regard.”

Civil Eats recently sat down with Embry to talk about his farm, his family’s agrarian history, and how he approaches his current role as an elder in the food system.

Drawing from your experiences as an activist, farmer, and social justice leader, how have historical events influenced and shaped your passion for the social justice movement?

I’ve been a participant in all the social justice movements for the past 65 years. In 1959, when I was a 10-year-old, I was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). My mother was the local chapter president.

Those years of activism inspired me to develop a worldview that moves beyond 45, 90, and 180 degrees and approaches 360. My involvement in social justice movements encompasses all forms of oppression that humans are subject to. But I have also developed a worldview that enlarged my concern for all the human and non-human people: the plant people, the animal people, the water people, the air people, the rock people, the fire people. These are all our relatives, and we are all children of the Earth.

As a social justice activist and organizer, I have not only participated in historical events, but I have also helped to plan and organize historical events. One case in point is the 1964 March on Frankfort, Kentucky, led by Dr. King and Jackie Robinson. As a president of the state youth chapter for the NAACP, my role was to travel around Kentucky and organize other young folks to attend the march, which attracted 10,000 people. I have gone on in my life to help organize probably 30 or 40 large events, have helped found 30 to 40 organizations, and I have never felt like dropping out.

One very important historical moment that influenced my journey was attending Dr. King’s funeral in 1968. It was here that I met Ernie Greene, well known for his involvement in the Little Rock school integration effort. He invited me to spend the summer in New York City in 1968 working construction. It seemed like the whole world was in New York City. There were people there from all over the world, interacting together. It was there that I was exposed to questions around food justice, food apartheid, food access, and the racism within the food and agricultural system.

Can you share the driving force behind your commitment to activism and the social justice movement, particularly in the context of fostering a more socially and environmentally sustainable world? 

I grew up with a closeness to the land because of my upbringing in Madison County, which sits at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is fed by the Kentucky River watershed, and is nourished by soil heavy mineralized in limestone rock.

My grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins were all small farmers. So, my family culture was a culture of people connected to the land. I call us agrarian intellectual activists. Everything I do has been influenced by my family legacy as small farmers.

How does your family history inform your understanding of the challenges faced by today’s small-scale farmers?

My family’s history provides me an understanding that conditions during the years of enslavement, during the period after the Civil War, are all connected to what is happening today. The conditions that we faced after the Civil War were not resolved towards justice and are thus still prevalent.

There were 180,000 Black men and women who fought . . . [and] brought about the Union victory, defeated the Confederacy, and reunified the country. Most all of those Black soldiers were listed as farmers for their occupation. So, it was Black farmers who saved the union. This is the history and legacy of Black farmers.

Are you still actively involved in farming?

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Yes, I’m currently actively involved in farming, but in defined ways. I’m a beekeeper and I love all those momma bees that go out and gather pollen and nectar on our 15-acre pollinator conservation project as part of our 30-acre family farm. I currently [have] about 30 fruit trees with most every kind of fruit growing. And I have all kinds of berries and fig trees and a whole variety of medicinal and cooking herbs.

On our property we have two high tunnels where we’re growing an assortment of veggies. And we do host farm tours, women’s retreats, dinners, and other educational activities here. My cousin next door raises chickens and makes value-added products from elderberries, herbs, teas, and tinctures.

We have invested in mushroom logs, and we are replenishing native tree varieties while also intentionally planning additional medicinal herbs that are native to Kentucky forests. We have two ponds on the property, and they get used periodically by family members or friends to catch fish. We have adopted an organic agricultural transition plan and we are in the second year of that activity. But honestly, because of my speaking engagements, I’m away from home for about one-third of the year.

Leadership winners, Ira Wallace, Savonala

Leadership winners Ira Wallace, Savonala “Savi” Horne, Valerie Horn, and Jim Embry speak onstage at the 2023 James Beard Restaurant And Chef Awards at Lyric Opera Of Chicago on June 5, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for The James Beard Foundation)

For most of my life, I have not been involved in farming full-time. I moved to our family farm in 2012 to help look after our aunt and uncle who were both 90 years old at the time. They were like second parents to me, and so much that I do now in the food and agriculture system is based upon their teachings.

This property that I live on now goes back to the year 1800 or so, when our ancestors were brought across the Appalachian Mountains to live here in Madison County. So, we claim ancestral stewardship of this land. We purchased it in 1889 from those folks who stole the land from Indigenous peoples.

“Each decision we make around food is a political choice. It’s an economic choice. It’s a cultural choice. It’s a spiritual choice.”

Over the years I’ve developed extensive knowledge about every aspect of the food agriculture system and recognize my role. My role as an elder is to have this systems view, to create synergy, to speak to everyone and point out that everyone has to change since everyone eats. Everyone has to change in how we relate to the food and agriculture system in our daily practice and the food choices we make.

Each decision we make around food is a political choice. It’s an economic choice. It’s a cultural choice. It’s a spiritual choice. My dear friend, Wendell Berry, who I met as a student at the University of Kentucky back in 1968, says, “Eating is an agricultural act.” This means everyone is involved in the food agricultural system. Everybody has to change.

I have spoken to presidents, peasants, university professors, preschoolers, famous actors, and to kids who are doing hip-hop, beats, and rhymes and working in some of our urban garden projects. I’ve talked to members of the Nobel Committee and kids in FFA, governors, mayors, local schoolteachers, and military veterans with missing limbs who want to farm. These are a few of the people, organizations, and institutions that I’ve been blessed to work with over the years.

What are some notable best practices and challenges you believe exist in agriculture?

If we lift up one of Albert Einstein’s famous quotes, which is, “We can’t solve today’s problems with the same way of thinking we used when we created them,” then we have to deeply examine that way of thinking. [We have] created unsustainable farming practices, damaging practices, toxic practices, practices that create injustice, health disparities, economic inequalities, loss of biodiversity, and environmental pandemics. Oftentimes, the “best practices” that emerge over time become “worst practices” and create even more problems.

“Oftentimes, the ‘best practices’ that emerge over time become ‘worst practices’ and create even more problems.”

There are many different schools of thought or different methodologies that people embrace as we do our farm work, and I have borrowed from many, but my favorite is agroecology.

Agroecology is an integrated approach that combines ecological and social principles for sustainable agriculture and food systems. It emphasizes optimizing interactions among plants, animals, humans, and the environment while fostering equitable food systems where people have a say in their food choices and production. Agroecology has evolved to include ecological, sociocultural, technological, economic, and political aspects of food systems.

The key elements of agroecology involve empowering farmers, promoting local value addition, and supporting short value chains. It enables farmers to adapt to climate change and sustainably manage natural resources and biodiversity. Agroecology stresses local knowledge, biodiversity, synergy, knowledge sharing, and economic diversification. It also focuses on fairness, connectivity, land governance, participatory learning, circular economies, and polycentric governance, serving as a science, practice set, and social movement.

How do you envision agriculture’s role in shaping our future?

Agriculture has had the biggest role in shaping human culture for the past 15,000 years. Agriculture developed some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago and was a gift to our species by women.

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Agri-culture—or the growing of food through the use of seeds—allowed us to move away from being primarily hunter-gatherers. This development (and domestication of animals) gave rise to what we call modern human civilization. In my view, it is within agriculture where we have the most profound need for change, and it is within agriculture where we have the most powerful fulcrum point for social transformation of all other human institutions.

“In my view, it is within agriculture where we have the most profound need for change, and it is within agriculture where we have the most powerful fulcrum point for social transformation of all other human institutions.”

After a sharp and comprehensive critique of our prevailing and dominant worldview of agriculture, we need to develop a farming philosophy, farming practices, farming research whose primary aim is the health of the people, health of the planet, health for all other species on the Earth, and the health of the economy.

Right now, the dominant food and farming systems are used to promote profit, plunder, and have a predatory relationship with the Earth. We need a huge paradigm shift in both the philosophy and the practices of farming. That will mean changes in every aspect of the food and agriculture system from seeds to planting to production to harvest to distribution to education to marketing to eating to disposal. In the face of climate change and environmental devastation, every sector will require lots of significant changes or shifts in how we go about the work in this area.

For us to enact changes we will need to develop an integrated systems approach. But we don’t have any choice if we want to become good ancestors and leave our great-great-grandchildren an Earth of abundance.

What is your philosophy on caring for and giving back to the planet?

George Washington Carver said any injustice to the soil is injustice to the farmer. Any injustice to the farmer is injustice to the soil.

Our human quest now is to have a much more expanded view of our responsibility not just to resolving the conflicts and contradictions within the human realm but it’s also to be stewards of Earth protectors or protagonists in maintaining the sacred Earthly balance.

What advice do you have for those looking to become more involved in advocating for their communities, land, and people striving to heal, reshape, and sustain our environment?

I encourage people reading this to contact me. I invite folks to, as Bill Withers would say, use me up. I’m in my last quadrant. I’ve done all kinds of things and recognize the importance of passing on these understandings to the next generations.

Secondly, get involved in organizations; they are critical to making change. Then form study groups to discuss ideas. Get out of the U.S.; travel internationally to see the cultures, the histories of other parts of the planet. Get engaged in your community. Become a voracious reader and read books like Farming While Black by Leah Penniman, We Are Each Other’s Harvest by Natalie Baszile, Freedom Farmers by Monica White, Collective Courage by Jessica Nembhard, and the great work of Thomas Berry and Wendell Berry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mya Price is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher focusing on racial equity and food justice. Her research has identified socioeconomic determinants contributing to the Black–white food insecurity gap at state and county levels, and her qualitative studies shed light on the disparities older black adults face in accessing food resources in U.S. metropolitan areas. Read more >

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