Charles and Shirley Sherrod Discuss Food Justice with Farm School NYC Students

On March 16, thanks to special support from the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation and Farm School NYC teachers Kolu Zigby and Yonnette Fleming, the students of Farm School NYC’s Food Justice Course had the unique opportunity to hear from two veterans of the civil rights and food sovereignty movements—the Reverend Charles and Shirley Sherrod.

“For me, the most profound teaching from the Sherrods, in a class where they shared so many brilliant and inspiring lessons, was one on how to overcome obstacles and adversity,” says student Taireina Gilbert. “They spoke with such kindness and generosity about how there are always obstacles when you do positive work in this world, but by focusing on the “we” instead of the “I” and loving each other—annoying flaws and all—we can create powerful change.”

The conversation with the Sherrods provided an inspirational and practical blueprint for building and sustaining a successful food justice movement. It also gave the students a historical perspective as they engage in urban agriculture work.

“It was important for students because those stories are where it becomes real—the real struggles and real ways that people have worked together to make something positive happen.” says Farm School Program Director, Jane Hodge.

Shirley Sherrod was recently in the media spotlight in July 2010 after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted misleading video excerpts on his website of her address at an NAACP event. The Sherrods took the controversy in stride, which made a strong impression on students in the class. “As Shirley Sherrod spoke about her past experiences in the food system, the thing that inspired me the most was her ever-present resilience and spirit focused on positive change,” says Farm School NYC student Monique Hartl. “Her commitment remains strong despite all the setbacks she's faced with New Communities Inc and then with her forced resignation from the USDA. You can feel that conviction in her presence and hear it in her words - and is something I will hold with me as I continue my own work.”

Both of the Sherrods have made vital contributions to civil rights movement. The Reverend Charles Sherrod is best known for his role in helping to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and for spearheading SNCC’s efforts in southwest Georgia in the 1960s. After receiving a Doctorate of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, he continued to promote civil rights and community education in the state through the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education (SGPCE). One of the most important initiatives of the organization was New Communities Inc., a collective farm which was co-founded by the Sherrods in 1969.

The project, which eventually grew to 6,000 acres, was the largest tract of black-owned land in the United States. It was a laboratory and model for Community Land Trusts designed to provide an equitable and sustainable model of affordable housing and community development and ownership while providing African American farmers the opportunity to farm land securely and affordably.

The project encountered many challenges, including opposition from area farmers and segregationist Democratic Governor Lester Maddox, who prevented development funds for the project from entering the state. A drought in the 1970s, fertilizer suppliers selling them inferior products, and their inability to get timely government loans led to the project's ultimate demise.

Afterwards, the Sherrods continued to work for change. Charles served on the Albany City Council until 1990. After the Southwest Georgia Project became the Georgia field office for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Shirley Sherrod continued her work to help African American and other limited resource farmers keep their land. Later, she served on the board of the Rural Development Leadership Network before leaving to work at the USDA.

Using the New Communities Project as an example, the Sherrods and the students focused their conversation on the role of collaborative work in building a model project and bringing about social change.

“So much of the conversation was inspirational but I was most struck by their undying dedication to the cause of civil rights and their unwavering dignity through all of the abuse, smears, and illegal injustices that have besieged them along the way,” says Farm School NYC student Arian Rivera.  “I had not realized the historical connections, but now I have no question that the food justice movement is a continuation of the civil rights struggle.”


Shirley Sherrod at The Atlantic Philanthropies

Earlier in the day, the Atlantic Philanthropies hosted a conversation with Shirley Sherrod, which was moderated by Kolu Zigby of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation. Listen to the conversation here.