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Digging to the Root of It

Remi Harrington is disrupting the systems that perpetuate poverty

Remi Harrington, the 42-year-old co-founder and lead organizer of Zoo City Food and Farm Network, could easily be compared to Mother Nature herself: nurturing, intuitive, practiced and fierce.

These are all qualities Harrington has needed and utilized in creating and sustaining her nonprofit organization The Urban Folk Art Exploratory, in which the Zoo City Food and Farm Network is housed.

These organizations have different focuses and approaches, but all work toward the same goal: changing the systems in place that perpetuate generational poverty.

How Harrington came to her work and mission was on a winding and complex road that changed the Hampton, Virginia, native’s worldview and culminated in an “act of rebellion,” she says.

Harrington’s mother took a position practicing law at the Federal Center in Battle Creek, and in 2002, Harrington, then a college student, transferred from Virginia State University to Western Michigan University and settled in Kalamazoo to continue her education, pursuing a degree in student-integrated curriculum.

“I drove into Kalamazoo in a BMW, so I had a very different perspective on poverty,” Harrington says.

“I come from an area where there were so many Black businesses, so many Black professionals. Coming to Kalamazoo, I did not see that and it was profoundly impactful to me. It felt like the default system was a formula for Black people to experience poverty and that the availability of people’s access in a social capacity was very limited and confined.

“I didn’t have the vocabulary when I first came here to identify it, but I knew there were some things happening in this community that felt very uncomfortable for me,” Harrington says of the racial disparity within Kalamazoo.

That changed in 2004 when Harrington began working at the Boys and Girls Club of Kalamazoo, located in the Edison neighborhood. She left the organization and began to work with Healthy Families America for Kalamazoo County Maternal Infant Health, where over the years she began to see the children of some of her first clients who were participants with the Boys and Girls Club.

“I started to develop the vocabulary about disparity,” she says. “I started to understand and accept my perspectives about justice and develop my own philosophies about what it looked like from a practical, applicable, tactile way.”

It was during that time, Harrington founded the Urban Folk Art Exploratory to provide a voice for the hip-hop community to activate social change through the arts. The nonprofit’s programs include an arts-based curriculum that explores hip-hop as a primary, contemporary social justice movement.

“In addition to developing a vocabulary about racialized inequality and equity, I felt that it was important to take the focus off of that and center ourselves and our resilience as a people. I truly believed that if youth could just have a framework to deconstruct their lived-through experiences, exploring our collective and cultural survival through the lens of hip-hop, that we could remember who we were, and that things could change,” she says.

Firsthand experience

And then things changed for Harrington.

In 2009, Harrington became pregnant with her daughter, Tegan, now 13, and, as a single mother, experienced situational poverty for the first time. She moved into subsidized housing and continued working full time as a case worker in youth advocacy, all the while experiencing systemic racism and witnessing firsthand the cyclical nature of social services that she says doesn’t lift people out of poverty but rather fosters its continuation for generation after generation. During this time and through her work, Harrington says she also saw a disconnection between children and the land, between the Black community and the land.

Then came her rebellion.

“I knew that if I didn’t change, that my condition wouldn’t and I would be of no use to anyone. I felt reduced and I rejected it,” she says. “Like all of my work, something felt divinely inspired. I knew that I was supposed to return to the land.”

In 2012, Harrington began stewarding a parcel of land at 736 Jackson St. in the Edison neighborhood through the Adopt-A-Lot Program of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank and created Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden, an educational community garden named for her daughter and inspired by a story Harrington had written. The vacant lot became an interactive garden with activities supporting children’s academic achievement. As children wander through the garden, they can follow the story while engaging in 54 interactive arts-based academic activities that align with Kalamazoo Public Schools’ Strategic Planning Expectations for Community.

Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden was not only a step in Harrington’s effort to connect children to the land but also planted the seeds for Zoo City Food and Farm Network.

As a result of Harrington’s advocacy and social enterprise work, she was tapped to be the coordinator of the community farms program for the Food Innovation Center at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, through which she was to pair people with parcels of land that they could own and use for urban farming.

But in the two years she held that post, Harrington got an education of her own as she got a more in-depth look at the ways in which infrastructure fails those experiencing a cycle of poverty.

“That became a very interesting experience to navigate,” Harrington says. “I saw how some of the inter-institutional barriers precluded people from being able to access the tools of democracy and to participate in the economy as a citizen.”

With a list of parcels of Kalamazoo Land Bank properties available in the city, Harrington set out to “leverage community farms as a tool to dismantle intergenerational poverty.” But as she moved forward in matching program participants with parcels, structural barriers began to emerge.

“People would be looking through the addresses of available parcels but there would be an encumbrance of some sort. We would hear, ‘Oh, well, you can’t really take that property because we have a grant on it’ or ‘That one’s not eligible.’ That was one of the first things that we encountered, so then it became, ‘Which properties are eligible?’”

“So that, again, is a barrier. People were frustrated. We recruited people into the program for community farming, but land access was a major impediment.”

This led Harrington to conduct an exhaustive audit of the eligibility of Land Bank properties, and even when eligible properties were identified, Harrington says, more barriers appeared. Properties were not able to be released to the program without proper zoning, she says, and proper zoning required detailed business plans for the property — business plans that could not be developed without participants first knowing which parcel they were able to receive.

“There are a variety of obvious reasons why it’s important to have access to land before undertaking a farming enterprise. How are you going to farm without land? It’s literally the first thing you need,” Harrington says. “If you look at any of the different resources available for urban growers, from the USDA to the EPA or any other gardening group in America, they say, ‘You gotta start with the land.’”

This experience directly informed Harrington’s move away from the community farms program and into forming Zoo City Food and Farm Network, she says.
Disrupting the food system

Zoo City is ambitious in its goals and exacting in its methods. With her personal experience, on-the-job-and-in-the-classroom gardening education and a group of local urban farmers, Harrington outlined the mission and framework for Zoo City.

“I wanted us to do it for ourselves, and I wanted us to be supported in constructing it for ourselves,” she says.

“I think that there’s humanity behind the bureaucracy and I don’t want to dismantle systems that are affirming of the people that they were designed to serve, but I certainly don’t want those systems to harm me and my people anymore — or anybody else. If it works for some, that’s great, but I believe pathways of access that are centered around the experiences of those underserved by the existing system are superior to pathways that demonstrate a historic and perpetual failure. I don’t understand why we continue to pretend that those systems work. I think that if we’re unable to navigate white-dominant systems, then that’s forcing assimilation and I find that to be very volatile.”

Zoo City is attacking these systems with a multi-pronged approach: local food policy councils, working groups focused on land stewardship and ownership, disruptive money systems like aggregated branding and neighborhood-centered supply chains for microbusinesses, an organizing coalition that offers members access to individuals with experience in urban farming, advocacy work and general community support. And all these are informed by the experiences of single Black mothers in Kalamazoo.

If you’ve seen Zoo City’s booth at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, you’ve seen an important part of Zoo City’s work, specifically the Intuitive Economies and Disruptive Money Systems Working Group.

“Our framework is that we are aggregators and promoters of agricultural commodities, and we sell our products at the farmers market,” Harrington says. “The people that are represented in our network are wide-spanning. They are people that are underrepresented at the market and need to engage in the market in nontraditional ways.”

The cottage food businesses partnering with Zoo City “don’t have the capacity, nor can they afford, to come to the market every single week,” Harrington explains. “They’re small urban growers and most have other jobs. They operate off of homesteads and consigned land in the city. They’re value-added businesses that are cottage food businesses that operate in their homes.”

For its booth, Zoo City gathers products from micro-food, farm and artisan businesses that partner with the organization to create a weekly box of locally sourced and created products for sale each week at the farmers market. When the boxes return to market in the spring 2023, Harrington says, four box options with different contents will be available for purchase each week: an artisan box, a producer box, a grower box and a retailer box. In the future, Zoo City will offer subscription options.

Grower Chaz Rawls met Harrington during her time at KVCC as he was seeking some land to begin urban farming in Kalamazoo. Rawls owns Rooted Luv Farm, off of Gull Road, an urban farm and business offering loose tea blends and gardening services, and he currently co-chairs Zoo City’s Intuitive Economies and Disruptive Money Systems Working Group with Battle Creek-based urban farmer Devon Wilson.

“This kind of work, it’s about community,” Rawls says. “It’s an opportunity to change the landscape of our reality of how we communicate and how we do things with one another. It’s just all about people being intentional and getting involved and choosing to be part of the community. I’m thankful for Remi being able to capture that vision and put it into some bones and skeletons where people can see her vision and then add their own taste.”

While Rawls has made connections within the community through his own work, he credits Harrington and Zoo City with helping him to make additional connections.

“My mind was blown getting into Zoo City,” Rawls says. “There are a lot of people involved in this, so that’s been a great thing. When you meet people and you can bond and create a relationship there is opportunity in that. Being able to go to market was huge. Not only that but getting access to a parcel of land. I’ve been able to work things out for myself, but I’m also able to expand my business a little bit by being able to utilize a spot or two extra through Zoo City.”

Zoo City also owns and has developed three agriculture sites in the Edison neighborhood; An urban orchard, Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden and a worker-owned cooperative garden with 12 shares of growing space.

Future gazing

With metaphorical arms outstretched equally to the past and future, Zoo City’s feet are planted in — and moving through — the present. With Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden as an educational space, Zoo City works with the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network (KYDNet) to offer hopeful and empowering land stewardship education for area youth.

“From a youth development perspective, it’s an opportunity for young people to really understand what a food system is, how to disrupt that system to make it more equitable, with the focus on Black women in particular and Black farmers,” says KYDNet Director Meg Blinkiewicz. “And so we are moving toward what we call critical youth development. The approach of Zoo City — Remi’s leading the way with this.”

Blinkiewicz met Harrington through the latter’s involvement in the Freedom School Program, and the relationship has continued,. KYDNet is an intermediary organization that currently works with about 60 organizations — including Zoo City — to offer social-emotional learning, family engagement, youth leadership, and inclusion and equity education and training to Kalamazoo County and Calhoun County youth.

“Only 1.4 percent of growers are Black in America,” Harrington says, referring to the 2017 USDA Agricultural Census.

“We talk a lot about identity, belonging and agency when we focus on social-emotional learning — those are the three broad skills — so participating in a program like Zoo City helps you understand your racialized identity and creates belonging within this program. Then that helps develop that sense of agency,” Blinkiewicz explains. “The fact that you can have an influence — in this case, on your food system: grow your own food, eat your own food — that’s huge for young people. There’s so much despair and fatalism in the world. This helps bring hope and joy. And in addition to the skills, they’re learning that optimistic thinking.”

In a very different approach, Zoo City’s Food Policy Review Council is part of the Michigan State University Extension Program, which connects people and organizations to MSU’s extensive agricultural knowledge and network. The Food Policy Review arm of Zoo City leverages that information to establish a firmer grip on the legislative future when it comes to local policy on food, water, air and soil while also keeping in mind the impact of climate change on communities at large.

“I wanted to establish Zoo City as an entity that could access legislators so that we could do what we needed to do in order to advocate on behalf of communities and neighborhoods that were at the highest risk of food insecurity, which are the neighborhoods and communities where my people live,” Harrington explains.

The council is membership-driven, Harrington says, and addresses issues involving interpretation and implementation of laws focused on food, water, air and soil.

When Covid-19 hit, Zoo City’s Food Policy Review Council noticed that the ways cottage food laws were being interpreted was disproportionately impacting Zoo City food box participants. The cottage food laws in place require that goods be sold by the producer and not by a third party, so in order for Zoo City Food and Farm Network participants to sell at the farmers market, they all needed to be present at the Zoo City stand each week, which was not always possible, creating barriers and limiting access. Through its Food Policy Review Council, Zoo City was able to speak on a call with local legislators about those barriers in hopes of getting the law changed or developing a work-around so the group’s needs are met.

“We’re in a position now to be an intermediary for people that are experiencing those barriers,” Harrington says, “to be able to communicate directly to legislators and have an organizing body where we can look through those things in a way that we can have the support that we need so that if there are shifts that need to happen, then those things can happen and we can do it with immediacy,” Harrington says.

Freedom & liberation

With a strong understanding of the law, the practice of land stewardship, community development and the niche experience of Black women navigating urban growing, Harrington and Zoo City continue to dig to the root of systemic disparities with dogged integrity.

Land access continues to be a major issue, and in March, Harrington will speak before the U.S. Congress on behalf of the One Million Acres campaign asking Congress to invest in equitable land access in the 2023 farm bill. Harrington was selected to participate by the National Young Farmers Coalition Fellowship for BIPOC growers.

Meanwhile, the work of connecting children to the land and promoting academic achievement continues to bloom in Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden, and Harrington’s efforts with the Urban Folk Art Exploratory continue to build. In 2021, Harrington worked with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank to secure a former warehouse at 10 Mills St. to become the official home for the Urban Folk Art Exploratory, which she envisions being a space that is an art gallery, studio and a creative co-working makerspace.

But, as has been true from the start, the north star for all these initiatives — as disparate as they may seem — is Harrington’s core belief: “Whatever moral choices people have made to land them wherever they are, they have a right to housing. They have a right to access to quality, whole foods. They have a right to health care and our core fundamental values of what citizenship is supposed to mean in this country, which I do buy into — the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s true freedom and liberation. I’m for that.”

Jordan Bradley

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