Rebekah Williams, 2018 | Photo Credit: Paris Henderson
FOOD FOR THE SPIRIT; New York State
Rebekah Williams, Co-Founder
Words by Rebekah Williams
Photos from Rebekah Williams, Paris Henderson, Veronica Moore, and Open Buffalo
Documented in Spring 2021
Food for the Spirit is an organization in New York State whose mission is to use the arts and creative facilitation to support racial healing, ecological justice, and equitable food systems. We seek to fulfill our mission by encouraging dialogue around racism in the food system; facilitating the creation of place-based networks, coalitions, and collaborative projects; and supporting storytelling to shift public narrative and understanding.
Stories - and telling one’s own story - have the power to change lives.
In 2013, I participated in an organizing training on the public narrative framework of “Story of Self, Us, and Now” led by Marshall Ganz. An organizer who worked with Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, Ganz guided us to reflect on moments in our lives when we made the choice to answer a call to action. He encouraged us to dig deep for moments from our past
when we were confronted with conflict and made a choice to engage in activism. Those were our “stories of self.”
Ganz explained that all organizers have at least one “story of self.” An organizer’s unique life experiences lead to the development of beliefs and values that in turn lead them to choose to act when presented with societal conflict.
Participating in that public narrative training, I dug up some of my stories of self: one was when I was arrested as part of the Wegmans Five and another was when I “came out” as a Black woman. Those two “stories of self” are among many of my stories that have made me the organizer I am today.
My stories begin with roots growing up in two very different geographic communities: one urban and one rural.
I was born in 1978 in Buffalo, NY; Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Growing up there as a light-skinned, mixed-race child in the 80’s and 90’s, there were very few other children who looked like me and my sisters. We lived in the University Heights neighborhood near SUNY at Buffalo where my father taught. My friends and I frequented each other’s backyards, visited the comic bookstore, the video arcade, roamed the streets, and played in nearby parks. That urban neighborhood was our playground.
"I learned to value all people and what they bring, equally."
Yet, my family also spent weekends and holidays at an intentional community and craft center located in a rural area two hours east of Buffalo. There, I was one of a dozen or more children who collectively roamed the 350-acres of farmland, barns, and woods where the community was located. It was through that community that I became an environmentalist and outdoor enthusiast, and where I first experienced the power of cooperation.
One memory I have as a child was when everyone in the community was engaged in a fire drill. We made a line of 20 or so people from the pond to the Big House, where the kitchen and community dining room are; buckets of water were filled from the pond and passed from person-to-person to reach the Big House, about 100 feet away. Trying not to spill any of the water and seeing how quickly we could move each bucket; we passed the buckets back and forth. That bucket brigade taught me the importance of working together, and it was only one such instance there where I experienced the power of cooperation. At that community, the people filled all the roles required for the functioning of that community, and no one role was seen as more or less important than another. There, I learned to value all people and what they bring, equally.
In 1998, when I was a sophomore at SUNY at Buffalo, I was invited to a protest at a nearby Wegmans supermarket. Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America, had traveled to Buffalo to rally support for California strawberry pickers. When I heard that the California farmworkers were having pesticides sprayed on them and their families while they were out in the fields picking strawberries, I knew it was wrong because I knew that the work of picking strawberries was just as important as running the strawberry company. Thus, I rallied some friends and we showed up at the protest in solidarity with the farmworkers.
During the protest, the first cop arrived on the scene when my friends and I were alone in front of Wegmans. The organizers and UFW president Rodriguez were inside seeking a meeting with the manager. The cop started yelling at us and physically assaulted one young woman. In pushing her around, her halter top was forced up, revealing her bare torso and breasts. Additional cops arrived on the scene, circling us with their cars and yelling at us to get back.
My friend was held by the cop who had accosted her and who had now cuffed her. I was disgusted with the cop and afraid for her, and I felt responsible for having recruited her to attend the protest. When the cops yelled at us again to get back or they would arrest us, I stepped forward. At this point, Rodriguez and the other organizers were in the mix as well, they had come out of Wegmans and saw what was going on. They also stepped forward to be arrested, and the five of us were taken to the local jail and held for the rest of the day.
"I knew that the work of picking strawberries was just as important as running the strawberry company."
That evening, a rally formed outside the jail and hundreds of people and community leaders came from local organizations and unions. They demanded that we be released, and we were.
There, I witnessed the power of people and cooperation again. I had showed up at the protest because I valued the lives and work of the California strawberry pickers. At the protest, UFW president Rodriguez and the others who stepped forward to be arrested showed that they valued my friend and I, and by standing in solidarity with us, they helped ensure that we were released quickly. When the cops were arresting us, those organizers made a choice to use their platforms as recognized local and national leaders to be arrested with us young students and ensure our quick and safe release.
That “story of self” was how I came to be arrested as part of the Wegmans Five. So, what is my story of having “come out” as a Black woman?
Buffalo Juneteenth Agricultural Pavilion, 2019
Photo Credit: Veronica Moore
As in many communities, in my youth there was no dialogue about race or the racial caste system in the US. Because of this, I lacked an informed racial analysis and for much of my life I claimed being “mixed” as my racial identity. From a young age, when people asked me “What are you?” I told them that I was mixed.
Growing up, people were confused about my race and they often asked me that question: “What are you?” In hearing that so frequently and through other life experiences, I was overly aware that my identity and upbringing were at odds with popular culture and understanding. Aside from my “looking funny,” I had grown up as part of an intentional community (commonly referred to as a “hippy commune”), I attended a non-traditional public Montessori school, and my family lived in communist Czechoslovakia for a year (now the Czech Republic).
To help me feel comfortable with who I was and with our odd upbringing, my older sister Rachael told me the answer to the question “What are you?” is that we were “mixed.” Rachael would raise her small fist and say, “Mixed Power!”, mirroring the raised Black power fist. She taught me to be proud that we were not normal; our being mixed was just another way that she and I did not fit into a traditional mold. For her, that was good and something to be proud of.
Rachael’s pride left me feeling proud to be different as well, and I was glad to have other “mixed” people that I could identify with. For that reason, it would be many years before I returned to questions about my racial identity.
In August 2014, Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson Missouri, and along with so many other Black people, I witnessed his murder on Twitter. Although there have been many murders of our people at the hands of police and authorities, Brown’s murder was the first that I had
"Rachael would raise her small fist and say, 'Mixed Power!' mirroring the raised Black power fist. She taught me to be proud that we were not normal."
witnessed. In the days and months following, I was at first depressed, and then overcome with feelings of rage.
Yet, though Brown’s murder caused internal disruption for me and many others, there were still people who continued their lives as though nothing had happened. I was surprised by how many people are unphased by the fact that Black folx are murdered publicly by authorities; I couldn’t believe that there were people who had witnessed this young man’s public execution, who were unaffected. That reality left me feeling even more furious, and I became dedicated to the collective movement for racial justice.
"I began learning to sit with that discomfort and to ask questions about what it means to be mixed, or for that matter, what it means to be labeled as any race."
In 2016, I joined other activists of color in Just Resisting (JR), an emerging group that was organizing in Buffalo around embodied leadership, healing, and transformative justice. Along with JR organizers, I advocated for police accountability and transparency, environmental justice, and participatory budgeting. In addition to organizing rallies and protests, JR had a commitment to providing skills and political education for leadership development of its members.
As part of JR, I participated in a 2-day workshop that they co-hosted with facilitators from Dismantling Racism Works. According to the Dismantling Racism Works website, their work is grounded in “Critical Race Theory" (CRT).
When workshop facilitators encouraged participants to break into caucus groups based on race, they inquired whether we wanted multi-racial people who identify as having only one Black parent and people who identify as having two Black parents to caucus separately or together. That question brought up in me a feeling of discomfort that I hadn’t experienced since my childhood. I felt uncomfortable, yet again, with my lack of understanding about myself and my racial identity, and afterwards, I began learning to sit with that discomfort and to ask questions about what it means to be mixed, or for that matter, what it means to be labeled as any race.
That same summer, I attended another workshop entitled “Race & Energy Democracy.” As part of a conference hosted by the international organization New Economy Coalition, the workshop was led by the esteemed Colette Pichon Battle, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. Battle sought to establish in her workshop attendees a resolve to partner with frontline communities seeking to address energy and economic issues at the intersection of the global climate crisis and social inequity. In that 75-minute workshop, Battle solidified my internal analysis around power, privilege, race, and accountability.
It was in that workshop that I realized that as a light-skinned Black woman in a society saturated in white supremacy, and because I have skin color privilege, I could either “pass” (as mixed) or I could proudly and outwardly embrace my Black ancestry.
In the United States, we operate within a racial caste system that affords people with lighter skin colors certain privileges, privileges that most people with darker skin colors cannot access. Although I had not thought of my light skin as a privilege previously, I was
"In the United States, we operate within a racial caste system that affords people with lighter skin colors certain privileges, privileges that most people with darker skin colors cannot access."
aware that historically there have been light-skinned Black people who have chosen to “pass” as white and I was appalled by that idea. I never meant to try and pass as white; I am proud of and connected to my Black family and ancestors.
Many Black people do not have a choice in how they are racially identified, since their beautiful darker brown skin dictates how white people and other brown people perceive them. I realized that I needed to acknowledge the fact that I have a choice regarding how other people identify me racially, and regardless of how uncomfortable it makes me, society has continually asked me to claim my racial identity.
F4tS Decolonizing Our Diets, 2019 | Photo Credit: Rebekah Williams
Acknowledging that many different things have been said about multi-racial children in the history of the United States’ racial policies, in the end, I understood that I could either identify as mixed (in essence “passing” on the opportunity to engage in racial dialogue), or I could identify as Black and encourage public awareness. From then on, I made a choice to be accountable to Black people, to my people, and to speak up about race and racial identity.
Today, as a light-skinned Black woman living in a rural community, I have many opportunities to stand by my people. Through challenging the lack of understanding about Blackness and asserting my own Blackness in spaces where I move, I challenge white folx and any others who choose not to see or acknowledge racism.
Although not all people are organizers, everyone has stories about their lives. Through telling our own stories, we not only get to know ourselves, but we can influence each other, increase awareness about our collective human experiences, and affect broader systems change.
The Urban Food Stories team reached out to me after reading an article that I co-authored in 2020, entitled “Pathways to reparations: land and healing through food justice." My coauthor, Jessica Gilbert, is a PhD candidate and academic activist living in Buffalo. Jessica is a white woman who grew up in a small town in a rural area, and I am a Black woman who grew up in the City of Buffalo. Through writing that article together, Jessica and I learned a
"Stories have that kind of power – the power to bring about deep change within interpersonal relationships, but also within institutions and policies, and towards lasting systemic change."
lot about ourselves and each other, and our friendship deepened as our understanding and trust in each other grew. Stories have that kind of power – the power to bring about deep change within interpersonal relationships, but also within institutions and policies, and towards lasting systemic change.
F4tS Gardening Days, 2019 | Photo Credit: Rebekah Williams
These days, as co-founder of Food for the Spirit (F4tS), I work with many other people who share a commitment to addressing racism in the food system and who want to be part of making collective change from their particular social, economic, and geographic positions. We work together on collaborative projects intended to bring about systemic food systems change and racial justice. One of those projects is the Western New York (WNY) Food Stories Project.
In 2020, I joined a team of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) leaders working together to begin conceptualizing and developing the WNY Food Stories Project. In our shared principles for the project, we acknowledge that the food system is built upon land theft and genocide of Indigenous people,
the kidnapping and enslaving of Africans, and the exploitation of Black and Brown labor.
We respect leadership from BIPOC communities because we believe that practices rooted in African and Indigenous traditions are integral to our healing process. By engaging with and mobilizing BIPOC communities in sharing their stories and ideas, we seek to reverse the harms done, healing from histories of oppression, and reconnecting our communities to land and food sovereignty.
Now that you’ve read my story, I hope that you will want to learn from storytellers in the WNY Food Stories Project. I hope you will check out their stories on our website at foodforthespirit.org/buffalo-food-stories-project/.
Rebekah Williams lives in the small rural town of Naples, NY in the beautiful Finger Lakes Region of New York State. She organizes with others in the City of Buffalo, in the Finger Lakes, and throughout New York State, collaborating and cooperating under the umbrella of Food for the Spirit.