New Voices Pittsburgh Monthly Meet-up: Land, Food, and Self-Determination

By Natalie Adams, Outreach Intern

In my experience, I’ve found that most people, even those who identify as feminists, lack an understanding of reproductive justice. All too often, I’ve heard people say, “isn’t that just about abortion?” New Voices Pittsburgh is working to change this limited perception as part of their vision to achieve more complete health and well-being for Black women and girls in Pittsburgh and beyond. The grassroots Human Rights organization promotes “RJ” as a framework to organize and engage women of color to build a local movement and address health issues across eight categories: physical, emotional, spiritual, cultural, political, economic/financial, environmental, and social. Wednesday night’s meeting utilized the organization’s reproductive justice framework to cultivate a conversation on food and land independence for people of color. Oppression is a danger to health, but self-determination in these crucial aspects of daily life is uplifting. If you are interested in the important work New Voices is doing, consider signing up for membership here. []

Two local advocates for food and land rights fiercely presented their expertise and engaged meeting attendees in discussion. Ruth Martial introduced a brilliant parallel between settler colonialism and modern-day gentrification. These historical and current forced displacements are personal to Martial: her Native American ancestors were Southwestern Pennsylvania’s original inhabitants and the rural community they called their own during her childhood has since been turned into a suburban sprawl of strip malls. Now a Garfield resident, she watches as locals in the neighborhood are displaced and low-income housing becomes more difficult to find. Her presentation was ripe with history and lived experience that established a firm connection between the forced displacement of indigenous peoples and that of people of color today. Land not occupied by white people was and still is considered “Terra Nullius,” or nobody’s land, ready for the white man to claim. Gentrification continues to fulfill the nineteenth-century entitlement of Manifest Destiny—white Americans were simply predestined to take over the continent.

The theme of the power of self-determination pervaded the meeting from this point forward. White settlers believed all land was theirs for the taking, regardless of who had already occupied it for generations. These settlers exist today under names like East Liberty Development, Inc. But self-determination is not exclusive to middle class white people. Much of the discussion focused on ways people of color can exercise agency to achieve better housing and food and what can be accomplished through the belief that independence is possible. Tamisha Evonne, the second speaker, urged that people are at their most powerful when they accept the consequences of their actions. If people of color are determined to become homeowners, clearing the hurdles put in place before them since red-lining began becomes not only possible, but inevitable, according to several meeting attendees who spoke about their experiences obtaining housing independence. “When you believe in something, that gives it power,” Evonne asserted. She emphasized that wealth, value, and power should be shared among us.

Historically and in the present day, white “settlers” have capitalized on the identities and struggles of people of color via land and food to reach “new frontiers.” Martial shared her insights on the greenwashing and whitewashing of urban farms and community gardens. At the Garfield Community Farm, fresh produce is exported to wealthier, whiter communities while Garfield residents are able to purchase only the bruised leftovers. The exclusion of the community from a so-called community farm is more than ironic. It’s oppressive. Just as gentrification is more than “renewal.” It is a form of violence against people of color. As Martial so astutely said, identifying people’s homes and neighborhoods as “blighted” and “vacant” is deeply offensive and labeling the residents as a “problem” suggests that their elimination from the land is the solution. This month’s New Voices Pittsburgh meet-up provoked critical thought on land and food issues for people of color as part of the reproductive justice health framework and as human rights issues. The organization continues to do meaningful work not only removing stigmas, but uplifting women of color in the Pittsburgh community.

Natalie Adams

Natalie is a rising junior at Hamilton College majoring in Comparative Literature. As the Outreach, Partnerships, & Liaison Intern, she looks forward to helping further TRCF’s goal of affecting social change in her hometown.