By Marquan Jones, Development Sociology Major, ’20
Food justice isn’t just terminology for me. It isn’t something I found on the pages of a textbook or in the confines of the classroom— it’s life, it’s reality.
Cornell amplified my passion to solve the problems facing my community, but academia was never my source of inspiration; home was.
From the stories of rural Mississippi I grew up hearing from my father, to the food I grew up eating in Chicago from my grandmother, ideas about food justice and food sovereignty were imbedded in my upbringing.
Studying Development Sociology in particular has provided me with the skills to articulate the phenomena I’ve experienced my whole life, allowing me to build on the foundation of my experiences in a way that enables me to impact communities positively.
However, unlike some of my peers, my studies at Cornell have not drove me overseas to solve someone else’s problems, but instead strengthened my tether to home, to solve the problems that are a part of my own reality. My academic path deepened my connection to my community in a way that I don’t often see in others; as I see so many other people leave their homes behind in search of other challenges to face.
After taking international development with Professor Phil McMichael, one of the things I’ve come to realize is that development isn’t linear and issues of inequality are not exclusive to the international community, but are very real in the domestic context. Contrary to the exceptionalist narrative, in American urban settings, development is often under the guise of gentrification, something I’ve seen firsthand, which negatively impacts those who are native to that community and displaces the most vulnerable. When I study development, I apply what I’ve learned to my own projects in my community— in doing so, I am always aware of the ways in which the stories we tell about what development is aren’t written by people like me, but by those who are detached from the communities they study. I want to change that narrative, shift the existing paradigm, and change my community and others like it in the process.
I chose Chicago, my home, for my Community Food Systems Minor practicum because I didn’t want to take my knowledge elsewhere, I wanted to give it back to the place that raised me, to people who know where I’ve been. I joined the ‘Giving Garden’ project for the summer and found that despite knowing a lot, I still had a lot left to learn. A Cornell University education isn’t going to give me the key to solve the world’s problems on its own, but it is a step in that direction. This summer, I’ve found myself challenging the way that we, in our Ivy League context, value experiences, and value individuals.
Christopher Epps is one such individual. With multiple felonies and no college degree, many of my peers wouldn’t feel as though he would have anything to offer their education. An urban farmer by trade, he acts as the farm manager for the Giving Garden. Chris shared with me that the farm used to have a problem with people coming in and taking food, ripping the plants up by the root just to get to the crop. When I inquired what they were doing about this theft problem, Chris corrected me – saying that they weren’t stealing, because the farm belonged to everyone. He then told me about how he approached the issue of the damaged plants. Instead of scolding community members he taught, them how to properly harvest the crops so as to preserve the plant itself. In his words, if they were taking it, they needed it more than we did. In response to his teaching, people harvested the crops more carefully, and eventually the “stealing” stopped.
This care and connection communicates to community members his authenticity in being invested in them and their wellbeing. In response, they respect him and value him. Those relationships are the root of true development.
Chris who has taught me immensely about the value of community care and connection, about self-love and personal growth. It’s in my own community that I’ve truly come to understand what development sociology is.