Below is the edited transcript of the video above:
Ocean Robbins: Welcome to this Food Revolution Conversation. I’m Ocean Robbins, co-founder and CEO of Food Revolution Network. And we are here today to talk about healthy, ethical, and sustainable food for all and what it takes to get to the “for all” part of that mission.
We’re going to look at food, equity, and opportunity with a deep dive into a very specific community that has a profound significance in my heart and life and also in our national story in the United States. That community is Selma, Alabama, birthplace of the voting rights movement. The place where, in 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, demonstrators were beaten as they sought to peacefully march for the right to vote.
People died that day. Selma became a flashpoint for a national movement that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act. And to this day, every single year, there is a Bridge Crossing Jubilee on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I’ve been honored to go a couple of times where people march across that bridge to ceremonially represent the journey from slavery to freedom and from disenfranchisement to empowerment and building a brighter future.
Malika Sanders-Fortier & Ainka Sanders Jackson
Ocean Robbins: And two of the people who have been such inspirations to me, in my understanding of the dynamics of race, class, and freedom in the United States, and in the world, are Malika Sanders-Fortier and Ainka Sanders Jackson. Their family has been leading the civil rights struggle for many decades. They probably both attended rallies in the womb. They grew up in this struggle, and now they are leading it forward.
And they’re dear friends of mine too. I’ve been so blessed to do some deep work — particularly with Malika — but with both of them over the years, and to know their spirits, their passion for justice, freedom, love, and liberation for all beings. And so, it’s an incredible honor to have this time to catch up with two old friends and also to bring their wisdom to you. Let me tell you a little bit about these amazing people.
So Ainka Sanders Jackson is the executive director of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation at Healing Waters Retreat Center in Selma, Alabama. She’s a co-founder of the Nashville Campaign to End the New Jim Crow. She’s helped organize mass incarceration forums for judicial, district attorney, and mayoral candidates. She was the vice president of the Children’s Defense Fund Nashville Freedom School Partnership Board, and also a leader on the Criminal Justice and Mass Incarceration Task Force for Nashville Organized for Action and Hope. And she’s presented at the largest mayoral forum Nashville has ever held.
Malika Sanders-Fortier serves as a state senator for the state of Alabama. She represents District 23. She’s an attorney for her family’s groundbreaking law office, Chestnut, Sanders & Sanders, and former executive director of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement. She got her BA from Spelman College and her law degree from Birmingham School of Law.
So that’s a little bit about their professional background and what they are up to. Malika, Ainka, thanks so much for being here.
Malika Sanders-Fortier: Thank you for having us.
Ocean Robbins: Well, I am thrilled to be here with you. And let’s start by talking a little bit about where you are. You are in Selma, Alabama, right now. And it’s a very significant place in our national journey. Can you tell us a little bit about what Selma means to you?
Ainka Sanders Jackson: Yes. I’ll start in the context of sharing about the current organization that I direct, the Selma Center for Nonviolence Truth and Reconciliation, which Malika and others helped to co-found.
In 2015, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery march. That weekend, when people were here from all over the world, and President Obama was here, the KKK allegedly distributed 30,000 recruitment flyers.
We had two murders that Sunday, two more in less than a month in a town that’s less than 20,000 people.
Ocean Robbins: Wow.
Ainka Sanders Jackson: In 2014, our county was the poorest county in the state. In 2015, Selma was the most dangerous place to live in Alabama. And in 2016, it was the eighth-most dangerous place per capita in the whole country. So this place where nonviolence overcame violence was considered the eighth most dangerous place per capita in the country.
Ainka Sanders Jackson: We believe that broken relationships have led to broken economies, leading to broken communities all in need of healing.
And so, our founders came together and said that we needed to address violence in all its forms, whether it be racial, whether it be physical, or whether it be economic violence. And we often don’t think of poverty as being a form of violence, but we believe that things that dehumanize others are violent, including poverty.
And so, Dr. Bernard Lafayette — who was a leader in Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rising Selma Movement, and who Dr. King appointed to the Poor People’s Campaign, who was also our board chair and a co-founder — in our very first board meeting, he said that there was unfinished business in the Civil Rights Movement, and we needed a Selma 2. So we say Selma 2.0: Finishing the unfinished business of bridging the lives and building the Beloved Community. And I’m so grateful to be a partner in this building and being in the Beloved Community with my sister here in Selma.
Ocean Robbins: Oh, I’m getting chills. Selma 2.0. We’ve got some unfinished business to take care of, don’t we? Well, thank you so much for leading that forward. Malika, anything you want to add about what Selma means to you?
The Soul of a Nation
Malika Sanders-Fortier: So, Ocean, you and me and Selma go way back.
Ocean Robbins: Yes.
Malika Sanders-Fortier: I think it’s been maybe a couple of decades since you even came here to Selma. And from the first moment I think that we’ve talked, I have shared my commitment to unity, justice, mercy, and forgiveness in Selma.
And I believe that that’s connected to our nation’s consciousness. In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson gave a speech (linked here) in a joint session of Congress presenting the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And he did that right after the Selma to Montgomery march. And right after the murder of Reverend James Reeb here in Selma. And in it, he talked about the soul of a nation. He compared it with the soul of a man. That you can gain the whole world, you can have military might, and you can have wealth, and you can have all kinds of things, but if you forsake your soul, what do you really have? That’s the question he raised.
It’s really powerful because I really do think that in that moment, you kind of see the soul of Selma being connected to the soul of the nation.
And so, when we fight for the Beloved Community here in Selma, we don’t just do it for Selma, we do it for our nation, and we do it for our families, and our community, and for all that we hold dear.
Liberty and Justice for All
Ainka Sanders Jackson: Which is really important because when we think about the words liberty and justice for all… I believe that we’ve never been a United States of America. And Selma really symbolizes that in its main bridge.
Edmund Pettus was the Grand Dragon of the KKK. Our major bridge is the Edmund Pettus bridge. It’s named after him. And so it’s like the Civil War and civil rights are embodied in this one historic structure that… And most people don’t know that Selma was a stronghold for the Confederacy, making most of the uniforms and artillery only next to Richmond, Virginia. So when the Union soldiers took over Selma, literally within a week, the war was over.
So Selma has a history of being a stronghold, and that bridge has been a stronghold. It’s why the League of the South is considered a hate group. Two years ago, they held a flash mob on the bridge. So we never had any truth and reconciliation after the Civil War. And many people are holding on to that pain, and we haven’t healed. And we are going to need to find a way to heal if we are to move forward to be a United States of America, and so we can truly have liberty and justice for all.
Black Lives Matter
Ocean Robbins: You know, as you were just talking, I was thinking about this sort of false dichotomy that we see between what I’ll call the Black Lives Matter movement and the All Lives Matter message.
Recently Food Revolution Network came out with a very forthright statement about why we support Black lives and that Black lives matter in this world. And it was stunning to me how many people responded with “All Lives Matter,” as if they were contradicting us.
But I don’t see the contradiction. Of course, all lives matter. That’s a fundamental truth. But we’re not acting like it right now. As a nation, we’re often not acting like Black lives matter. And so, if we really want all lives to matter, then we need to pay some attention to the lives that are being disrespected and disregarded by policies and by practices that continue to impoverish communities and people across this nation.
The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement
Ocean Robbins: And I see you all saying, “Look, what’s going on here. This is wrong.” And you’re also doing it in a way that’s welcoming, embracing, and inclusive. To me, that is a legacy that we have all been blessed with from the Civil Rights Movement — showing that you really can, non-violently, stand for something beautiful in a way that challenges injustice boldly. And that you can do so in a way that invites everybody to reclaim their humanity as a participant in that movement — rather than creating more of the violence and separation that just creates more enemies.
Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” And that’s something I’ve always felt coming from you all in your work.
Malika Sanders-Fortier: Dr. King said that “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” And so, I think it’s critical, in this moment, in this very critical moment, that we embrace the light; that we manifest the light; that we be a light to one another.
Ainka Sanders Jackson: I just want to read one other quote from Dr. King. It actually is on the shirt that I’m wearing today. It says, “The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a Beloved Community. The end is reconciliation. The end is redemption.” And so, nonviolence really, really helps us to create the Beloved Community. And you can’t create it if you’re not being it. We often say that the Beloved Community is not just a destination, but it’s a journey.
Ocean Robbins: Yes. Thank you. Chills again.
The Impact of Racial Disparities
Ocean Robbins: I want to tie this into food and health because, of course, that’s our mission at Food Revolution Network.
Statistically, in the United States, the darker your skin color, the more likely you are to be a victim of police violence, to grow up poor, to be denied loans and promotions and housing opportunities, to be impacted by redlining, and to live in a community with polluted air and water. Also, the more likely you are to lack access to nutritious and healthy food and to suffer from obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and all of the other chronic ailments that are so prevalent today.
And now, here we are in the time of COVID-19. Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans. It seems like the people who can least afford it are being the most impacted, as is so often the case when challenges hit our society. And at Food Revolution Network, with a mission of healthy, ethical, and sustainable food for ALL, we want to shift some of these dynamics.
I would love your insight into what barriers we must overcome. And more importantly, what can we do? How do we address some of the root causes that are fueling this health disparity, and this opportunity disparity?
There’s the old saying that a person with their health has a thousand dreams. A person without it has but one dream — and that’s to get it back. When you’re suffering, when you’re hurting, when you’re exhausted, when you’re in crisis, then you don’t think long-term — you think in survival reaction mode. And that impacts your ability to prepare for the future. You don’t save water when your house is on fire. A lot of people are in that kind of crisis reaction mode, which impacts the ability of future generations to get a head start. So in that context, what do you think we can do?
Health Risks of Race
Ainka Sanders Jackson: I want to go straight to that question, but I think some context would be helpful first.
So this pandemic — not the one about poverty, not the one about racism, but coronavirus. There was an article in the New York Times that showed the places that were most at risk for having major consequences to the communities based on their health. And of 12 places, seven of them were in the Black Belt of Alabama. And Malika represents the Black Belt, and Selma is within the Black Belt. So seven out of 12, and Selma was number five.
This is important for many reasons. One, we’re part of an organization called GirlTrek that encourages Black women to walk. We say to take a Harriet trek — walk to save yourself; then come back to get others. And they have a TED talk that talks about how racism is killing Black women. This is important because if you level the playing field — by eating right, exercising, education, all those things — we still don’t fare as well because of the stress of racism.
Ocean Robbins: Yes
Food Insecurity in Selma
Ainka Sanders Jackson: The center is not a direct service organization, but we have had to do certain things during the pandemic because people are even more in crisis. I had long heard about the food insecurity in Selma, but I literally had no idea how bad it was. We have food deserts. And we don’t have public transportation, which makes it worse. So if you only have grocery stores on the far sides of town and no transportation to get there, it’s really problematic.
So we started giving out fresh produce. We’re talking about zucchini and squash, not sugary cereals or any of that. And we start giving it out at noon. By 8:00 in the morning, people are already lined up to get it, hours in advance — for zucchini and squash. The first time that that happened, it just hit me in such a hard way to see people literally so hungry for food that they’re literally willing to wait for hours to get it. So the food insecurity here is extremely, extremely high.
Ocean Robbins: Yes.
Malika Sanders-Fortier: This is definitely a challenge here in Dallas County, where Selma is located. But I would say even more so in some of the other rural counties that I represent. At least there’s a grocery store or two or three here, but there are little towns that I represent where there’s no grocery store. There are stores that don’t carry any fresh fruits or vegetables.
Building a Food Cooperative
Malika Sanders-Fortier: And part of why it’s heartbreaking is because the one thing we have in the Black Belt are people and land. Part of our desire in building the Beloved Community is for people to embrace the land, embrace the blessings that we’ve been given, and to work together and heal together to make things better for ourselves in relationship and in partnership with others. Because we have land. We really are passionate and excited about building a food cooperative — farming and gardening and doing the things that can help to fill in the void of healthy food.
Reclaiming a Relationship with the Land
Ocean Robbins: Recently, I got to interview Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York. She’s the author of Farming While Black. She actually dedicated her book to her great, great, great, great — many generations back — grandmothers who braided seeds into their hair before they boarded slave ships. They were trying to bring with them seeds for the future — and to bring their ancestral knowledge of how to grow food.
You all are based in the south, where slavery has its roots. And it was fundamentally all about agriculture. Enslavement created centuries of forced relationship with the land. And I think about what a journey it must be to overcome that legacy and to reclaim a relationship to the earth again. Is that something that you resonate with? Is it something that you feel is an important piece to work on in your community?
Ainka Sanders Jackson: It’s so important, but it’s also so hard. We just were across the river and crossed the bridge and saw cotton. And Malika looked at it and saw beauty, but all I could think of was pain in the moment.
Ocean Robbins: Yeah.
Ainka Sanders Jackson: And so, if, when I see cotton, my first feeling is pain and flashbacks to traumas that didn’t happen to me directly, then there’s a lot of healing that has to take place in order for the reclamation of a healthy relationship with land. But like Malika said, two of the greatest resources we have in the Black Belt are the people and the land. And so, we have to do some healing and some tilling to be able to center that.
Black Farmers Case
Ocean Robbins: You know, in the year 1900, Black farmers held about 14% of the land in the United States. By the end of the 20th century, it was around one percent. They lost 93% of their land in the course of the 20th century — and that wasn’t by chance. And it wasn’t just because people stopped wanting to do it. A lot of it was because of preferential loan treatment from the USDA explicitly favoring white farmers over Black farmers who had the same economic condition and the same land. They would give loans to the white farmer over the Black farmer. And this became so systemic and so pervasive that it led to massive loss of land and livelihood.
Your family’s law firm, which you still work at, Malika — in addition to your senatorial duties — has been one of the leaders in addressing this and actually led the lawsuit against the USDA to try to create some accountability. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Malika Sanders-Fortier: We were one of the firms that took this on. The Chestnut in our firm name, Chestnut, Sanders & Sanders, is J.L. Chestnut, who was Dr. King’s attorney when he would come to Selma. J.L. Chestnut has a long history in civil rights. He was the first Black, African-American attorney in Selma. We’re trying to get the courthouse named after him even now. And he was one of the major leaders of the lawsuit, along with my father, Hank Sanders.
They went all over the country, signing up farmers. Because after all of that time, farmers were actually able to get a judgment and begin to kind of recover from the loss of all of that land.
And so, the Black farmers case was one way of chipping away at that pain, chipping away at that injustice so that we could begin to reclaim not just the land physically, but the sense of value for the land.
Ocean Robbins: Yes. It seems to me that over the centuries, white supremacy had to become more covert in order to stay in operation. Some of the most blatant forms of racism have become unacceptable in our society as we’ve evolved. We no longer think, most of us, that it’s okay to discriminate on the basis of skin color. Now, it still happens all the time, but we don’t think it’s a good idea. And no one wants to admit it publicly for the most part, except for very extreme groups. Obviously, you deal with some of those groups in your community who are not afraid to speak it publicly. But in the larger national conversation, we don’t want to admit that there’s racism at all in some cases. And we like to think of it like it’s in the past.
The Beloved Community
Malika Sanders-Fortier: Really the Black Lives Matter plea for help is an American call for help. Our country is not well. We are not whole. We are not okay. And we must be. We need to heal together. We need to listen to each other. We need to love each other. We need to be patient with one another. We need to work through these issues and really find solutions together. Because a lot of these issues are very nuanced.
Police officers have a very dangerous job. Going into places with people they don’t know — it’s understandable that they’re on guard. And at the same time, while they need to be protected, that protection cannot be over and above the protection of regular citizens. It has to go hand-in-hand. We have to have solutions that take into account the needs of the whole. And we just believe that in the Beloved Community, there’s a win-win possibility. It doesn’t have to be — you lose, I win.
And for so long, even from the inception of slavery, and the economy of slavery, there was this win-lose. We need to win, so you get to lose. And the question is, how do we shift that in every system and every institution so that it’s not based on a win-lose, or lose-win, but it is based on a win-win, and it’s founded on love.
So that’s what the Beloved Community is all about. How do you create institutions and systems that are based on love for all? For all.
Becoming a Co-liberator
Ainka Sanders Jackson: And this is important because they’re talking about it being an American thing and not just a Black thing because our liberation is tied up into one another. You can’t be free, Ocean, if we’re not free. When people dehumanize others, it dehumanizes themselves.
And it’s different when you see yourself in this. That we are so tied and connected, that I’m not just doing this for you. I’m doing this for us. Like, that my family, my community, our economy, our mental health issues, everything depends on how we are together. And so, when I see it that way, then I’m not just an ally, but I become a co-liberator. We are so connected and tied together that both of our lives are dependent upon this. And so, when you view it as that, you’re all in. It’s not just sometimes; it’s not just a petition. Your life is committed to saving your life and the lives of those who are in your community.
Lighting the Way for Future Generations
Ocean Robbins: I am seeing a trajectory from hostility to ambivalence to allyship to co-liberator.
The journey from hostility, which has created systems of violence against people. To ambivalence, which unfortunately perpetuates more of the same, given the context we’re starting from and have all been born into. To allyship, which sometimes sounds like “let me help you.” Which is, I think, a really important step. But then, co-liberation is how do we really create the Beloved Community? And how do we get our hands dirty? How do we show up in this – recognizing that our liberations are interconnected.
And that’s what’s so moving to me about the spirit you’re standing for, and why I think this is important. This isn’t just a Selma conversation, although Selma is critically important. This isn’t even just a national conversation; this is a human conversation. What kind of people are we going to be? What kind of legacy will we leave for future generations?
And we’re at a point in history, I think, where silence or turning away is no longer an option if we care about future generations. Because we can see where the status quo leads. And it’s not pretty. But we can also see something else is possible. And you all are lighting the way for that.
Vegetarianism & Social Justice
Ocean Robbins: I have one more question. Malika, you’ve been vegetarian, I believe, for as long as I’ve known you. And I’m curious if that is connected to your values around social justice or how it ties to what we’re talking about today.
I think at a very gut level, it’s so important that we have a healthy respect for life — for all living things. Because if you have a respect for all living things, and you honor and respect all living things, then it becomes so much harder to cause harm… – Malika Sanders-Fortier
Malika Sanders-Fortier: I went off to college in Atlanta, Georgia. And that is when I learned about being a vegetarian and what it meant. And I think it’s because, at the deepest levels of who we are in our spirit, we know life. Life knows life. And so, when we violate that, it can be a slippery slope. And so, in that sense, I didn’t have an analysis way back then. But I really did have, just at a gut level, as a young person, a discomfort with anything that snuffed out life.
I think at a very gut level, it’s so important that we have a healthy respect for life — for all living things. Because if you have a respect for all living things, and you honor and respect all living things, then it becomes so much harder to cause harm even when you’re angry or even when you’re upset or even when you’ve been wronged or even when there’s an injustice. I think that this is a moment that it’s very important that we all have an increased sense of honor and respect for all life.
Violence Begins with Disconnection
Ocean Robbins: Yes. Thank you for that. So true. Our mutual friend Coumba Toure from Mali, West Africa, said to me once, “All violence begins with disconnection.” At the moment you disconnect with somebody, it becomes possible to commit any level of violence, from ignoring somebody or disrespecting them or not listening to them, all the way through to murder. Because all of those are gradients. And they all start from a root place of disconnection where we cease to recognize the inherent dignity — the inherent worthiness of another being.
And what I really hear you saying is that for you, animals became a part of your ecosystem of life. And you didn’t want to take that life if you didn’t need to.
Now, everyone has their own sensibilities around food and where we draw those lines. For some people, even vegetables have screams. And to other people, they feel like they would just not be a cannibal, but that eating monkeys is okay. And we all have someplace, I think, in the spectrum of our own sense of what is us, what is me, what is the community that I’m going to call part of me — and where will I draw that line.
In my work, I want to help us expand our circle of compassion in every respect, in our food choices, in our life choices, in how we show up in the world because I think that our humanity is deepened when we do so. And I have a lot of respect and a lot of compassion for everybody drawing that line in the way that makes sense for them. And I do want to challenge all of us to think about it because when we have animals being tortured in factory farms, I think that the act of consuming flesh from that system desensitizes us to violence of all kinds. And I want to help us become more sensitive and more attuned so that we can become more effective in doing something different.
Ocean Robbins: Well, we’re nearing the end of our time here for this conversation. And I’d love to hear from each of you if you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share as we move towards completion here. Malika, how about you first and then Ainka?
Malika Sanders-Fortier: Well, one, I just want to say thank you so much, Ocean, for inviting us. And we’re just very spiritually connected. And so, we just believe that God is doing something really amazing in heaven. And we just have to walk it out here on Earth.
And so, we’re excited about doing that with this food cooperative. We’re excited about doing that and healing relationships in the State Senate. Quite a bit of the work that I’ve been doing is around bringing Democrats and Republicans together for these healing conversations to love one another. Because I really do believe that our solutions will come best when we are working hand-in-hand together, deeply listening to one another, and loving one another. And this is a moment in our history that is calling and screaming for solutions. And I believe love is the foundation of those solutions.
Ocean Robbins: Oh, bless you. Thank you. Ainka?
Get and Stay Connected
Ainka Sanders Jackson: I was speaking to a top law enforcement person in the state yesterday about law enforcement and violence inflicted. And I talked about that disconnection, not seeing themselves in that person or not seeing the God in that person. It’s so easy to do things. It’s why when someone attacks you, they say, “Look them in the eye. Tell them about your family; ask about theirs.” To get a connection.
And so, we are all walking around in this country disconnected because we have had a value system that says me, myself, and I, instead of we. Desmond Tutu said that, “America doesn’t even have the language for truth and reconciliation.” He talked about ubuntu, which means: I am because you are. And so, that is connection that we can build upon.
And so, my challenge with people is to get connected. Use your life, labor, influence, finances, and expertise. Be connected with someone. And so, whether that’s you getting connected to us in Selma, or getting connected with your neighbor next door that you don’t know their name, get and stay connected.
A Commitment to Love & Nonviolence
Ocean Robbins: Beautiful. Well, we really are talking about reconnecting ourselves with our basic humanity — with our place in the larger ecosystem. I see you embodying that in politics, embodying that in relationships between law enforcement and community, embodying that in looking at food and economic opportunity.
And Selma, the birthplace of the voting rights movement, has brought more freedom and more opportunity to so many. And I think that Selma 2.0 is going to bring a kind of peace that comes from that connection. Not a peace that is complicit with a toxic status quo, but a kind of peace that comes from knowing our humanity, forging real relationships that are built on trust and mutual self-interest and collective well-being.
And I thank you so much for the courage, and for the love and integrity you’re bringing. I can only imagine, with all that you’ve seen and all that you’ve faced in your lives, how easy it would be to let anger and cynicism take over. And yet, I feel such a steady return to a commitment to love and true nonviolence embodied in your work. And it’s palpable; it’s profound; it’s beautiful.
And for all of us food revolutionaries who may be working in a different space, let’s remember this message today. And let’s put it into action in our lives.
Whatever circle you walk in, wherever you work, whatever you do, whoever you interact with, let’s take something that we’ve learned from these sisters and put it into action in our lives. Malika, Ainka, thank you so much.
Ainka Sanders Jackson: Thank you.
Tell us in the comments:
- Did you hear something in this interview that inspired you?
- How do you approach healing and connection with others?
- Does this interview inspire you to take any positive actions?
Feature image: iStock.com/Jens_Lambert_Photography
- Making Food Accessible for All: An Interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm
- Healthy Food for All: An Interview with US Senator Cory Booker