Introduction to Social Justice Interview: Eugene Cooke

This Spring a High School student from Paidea came out to learn more about Eugene’s work and hear his insight.  Her class has volunteered at the farm and invited us to their classroom to teach.  What follows is her transcription of the audio interview.

By: Lilah Krugman

For my social justice interview, I spoke with Eugene Cooke. Eugene is a member of the food justice movement and one of the founders of Grow Where You Are, a social enterprise that works to bring fresh, sustainably grown food to underserved communities in Atlanta. He describes himself as an agroecologist and an urban farmer. For this interview, I visited Eugene at the garden he manages in partnership with the Providence Missionary Baptist Church. I came upon him and Nicole, one of his partners in Grow Where You Are, weeding in the garden and listening to music. They immediately welcomed me with open arms. We spent the majority of the interview in the garden, weeding and tasting strawberries. During the time I spent with Eugene, it became more and more apparent to me just how passionate he is about food justice and growing food. Listening to him speak about the issues that interested him was a truly inspiring experience for me. I hope to do something worthwhile with the powerful drive to grow food that he gave me through this interview.



Would you start by saying your name and what you do?
Yes, my name is Eugene Cooke. I’m an agroecologist and urban farmer in Atlanta, Georgia.

What is your family background like?
I’m from a suburb of Southern California, outside of Los Angeles called Cerritos. And I grew up there, up until I was 18 with my family. And my mother’s parents were farmers in Oklahoma. So I would visit their farm every couple years during the summertime for maybe two weeks or so. And I would have the experience of living way out on an 80 acre farm.

Did they also use organic growing methods?
Yeah definitely. I was born in 1971 and so it was a while back and people were growing in a more natural way and also a lot of those chemicals and things at that time were actually expensive. So yeah the garden that they grew close to the house was the food garden for the family and then on the larger acreage they grew the stuff that all farmers were growing at that time. So like wheat, corn, soybeans, and that kind of thing on the larger acreage.

So would you say they were involved in the food justice movement?
It’s weird because when you ask about the food justice movement, at that time there probably wasn’t a label for it like that. But what there was was there were people who knew how important it was to utilize your land and take care of your family. And again, when your living on 80 acres way out in Oklahoma and especially in a really racist time period, they didn’t have the luxury of going to hospitals or even going to the schools that they wanted to send their children to, so the farm was the thing that was gonna generate any kind of justice in their life at all. Just by the fact that it was going to generate some income. But I don’t think that I would consider them like justice advocates or anything at that point.

Were they excited when you decided to become a farmer?
Depends on who you are talking about. My grandparents transitioned before I decided to become a farmer. My uncle, my mother’s oldest brother, he came to the house when I was becoming an adult, becoming a father for the first time, and he saw the garden I was growing and was really impressed, my uncle Jimmy. And he was like ‘ah you got it, you got the touch.’ And even at that point I was not thinking about becoming a farmer. I was growing food to really kind of make sure the family had good food and to lessen our expenses. And so I didn’t become a farmer till maybe four years after that. Yeah not even or maybe like six years after that really. So my parents were not all that excited about it. My mother having grown up as the only daughter of a farming family. She wasn’t all that excited about me doing it. But nobody had really thought about it in an urban farming context. Ya know? So she is still learning a lot. My father, he transitioned before I really got into farming as well. He saw just the beginnings of it.

Did anything else, besides visiting the farm as a child, affect your outlook on food justice?
Not so much. It was really the experiences of eating off of fruit trees and things like that that impacted me. It was that I realized that it was possible and that there was not a big mystery to, especially in California, to having good food. You could just plant it. We had good weather, we had good water. But I didn’t even start thinking about the justice part of food until I was an adult and was really into growing food. So probably not until like 2002, 2003. That’s when I started understanding that food was one of the number one justice issues happening. Yeah so that’s when I started to really think about it. Not as a child but as an adult.

So how did you originally get involved? Both with growing food and then later seeing it as a movement?
I first got involved with growing my own food, like I said, when I was becoming a father for the first time. So our son, Samantha and I we have a son, he’ll be 19 in August. So that’s how long ago it was. When she was pregnant with him and we were expecting him in California, I just went out into the backyard and decided to plant up some food so we can have it. We had a very small suburban backyard but there was a whole section of it where we were not growing grass and we instead planted some plums and some lemon and then planted a bunch of seasonal vegetables, tomatoes and what not. And at that point people started coming over to visit and they saw all the food growing in the backyard and they said, ‘hey man, you should be teaching people how to grow food.’ And so that was probably the first time, I started to think about teaching people. I definitely didn’t feel qualified. But they were like, ‘you know more than we know and there’s a lot of us that have children.’ and I was just having my first but the people I was meeting were on their third or fourth child. And they were thinking, ‘man, if we had food growing in the backyard, we could save a lot of money, we’d have better health outcomes, that kind of thing.’ And then after that I started working with my mentor in Los Angeles, a man named Adonijah. And we were growing a garden at a high school, at Crenshaw high school, and he was the one that really made it clear to me that food is the seminal justice issue that’s going on right now. And that was again, that was in 2002, so I was late to the cause but at the same time way ahead of where a lot of people were at. I was on the frontline, really growing food for people and realizing how much conflict was around who gets to eat based on what neighborhood they live in. It was just that simple.

What motivates you to keep on doing this?
It’s interesting because to a certain degree I am motivated by the fact that I have three children and to another degree I am motivated by the fact that I have been introduced to people who do this work and have been doing it for years. Likave you heard of Doctor Vandana Shiva? So there’s a woman, Doctor Vandana Shiva, and she has an institute in India called Navdanya, which means nine seeds, I think is what it means. And then I was inspired by another woman named Wangari Maathai. She won the nobel peace prize for something called the Green Belt Movement. She’s a Kenyan woman from east Africa, and she started a movement where women planted five million trees throughout Kenya. And she was imprisoned for it, her husband divorced her for it. I started reading and going, ‘for planting trees? Like what am I missing?’ Well what it is for me Lilah is realizing that growing food becomes a land issue and land is always an issue about wealth and justice. So that’s what inspires me now is realizing that the only way for people to really pass on generational wealth is to control and care for the land and that way it can be an enterprise or it can be just a place for our families to live. It can be something that we pass on generationally and of course when you plant fruit trees, you know they get sweeter as it goes on. So now I have fruit trees that I planted thirty years ago with my father that my children are eating off of and they taste fantastic. So, what continues to motivate me now, now that I understand it from a justice perspective, is seeing how much, like in Atlanta coming from California. When you drive through Atlanta and see how many areas are just completely forgotten about and yet, it’s still land. There are still houses. It’s still valuable. But people can just like leave it alone, let it fall apart, and come back in and put in Starbucks or a stripmall and suddently it becomes valuable again. And it’s the same land. So that’s the thing that really motivates me. It’s to see that land is valuable, that food is super important, and that very few people are thriving that do the growing part. Ya know, there’s people who sell it, there’s people who do all types of other activities that are thriving, but most of the people who are doing the growing are not thriving financially.

Are your kids also interested in farming?
Yeah they don’t really have a choice in it, you know? This is what they know as their norm and so I don’t think they really trip off of it that much until they meet people that care. So they things that really matter to them are meeting teenagers like yourself that find it interesting. Then they get all excited.

Who are your influences/role models?
My influences probably start directly with my mother and my father, Carole Cooke and Warren Cooke, because they always made it very important for us to have food and primarily fruit trees growing wherever we had a home. And now, at this point, seeing how many people are turning on to the power and the healing powers of fruit. I feel like I was super fortunate to have parents that saw that a long time ago. And then like some of the more public people that I haven’t really met are like Pierre Rabhi, who created the concept of agro-ecology. And then as I talked about, Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva. Other influences are people that I work with and see. There’s a gentleman named Quinton Watson who has a business called Urban Construction, he’s a builder. So I am often times influenced or inspired by people who have skills that I’m wanting to develop. There is a young woman named Shira Benson who I am really inspired by. She’s probably in her 20’s and she’s a seamstress and a fashion designer. So I’m always impressed by people who know how to do things that are core, like food, clothing, and shelter. That’s what impresses me. Or inspires me.

Do you view Grow Where You Are as a social justice movement?
Grow Where You Are is Jo’Vonna Johnson Cooke, Nicole, and myself. We are the core. And then we have an extended team of chefs and artists. So we have an extended crew. It kind of flexes between three to nine core people and we see ourselves as a social enterprise that is part of the social justice movement. But the social enterprise that is Grow Where You Are is about the triple bottom line, making sure that we make enough money to sustain ourselves, and grow our enterprises, as well as donating and giving and doing service. And as well as sequestering carbon. So that part of the triple bottom line is thinking about how our work affects the planet and the ecology of where we’re working. As well as the justice piece is where we choose to have our farms and how we chose to partner. So this farm we’re partnering with, Providence Missionary Baptist Church, as part of their mission to care for the people in their congregation, they’re wanting the church members to be able to come and get food or us to bring food and we feel obligated ourselves to make sure that the people in the immediate community get food. Because they are the ones that keep people from coming in here and tearing it up. It’s not the police. They don’t protect this area. We’re a social justice enterprise. We are focused on making a living and thriving economically as well as improving the areas where we’re growing food and the communities that we are working with to do that.

I know that you are vegan and you use vegan growing methods, do you see going vegan as an act of protest?
No, not protest. We’re creative people so I like to create the reality that I want rather than argue against the reality that I disagree with. So I see veganism as a way to make sure that we have a planet on which to create a new world. You know, cuz if we don’t have a drastic increase in people who are plant based and a drastic decrease in people who are meat eaters, then there won’t be a planet for us to even think about justice or art or future or music. Forget it. Everything that we like, concerts, whatever it is, none of it will happen if we continue to kill animals at the rate we do just to eat them. It makes no sense whatsoever. There was a man talking on youtube the other day and he said he had a friend who decided that he was going to be a raw foodist but he was still a meat eater. So he would go down to the pier and he would pull the fish out of the water and cut the head off and eat it raw, uncooked. I think that if we had more people who would even think about doing that we’d have less people eating meat. The tiger doesn’t sneak up on the cow and smack it with a gun or a stick, it has to bring that big animals down. It has to expend energy to eat and most people who are eating meat are just going to the store and picking something out of some plastic. They don’t even have to look at the eyes. I used to kill animals when I was young. When I was your age, I was a carnivore or an omnivore and I was killing animals. I was hunting rattlesnakes, I was killing all types of different animals, chickens. So I’ve seen that. You ever kill some animals? No reason to start. Avoid it. Cuz they don’t like it.

Have you ever felt unmotivated? How did you combat that?
You know I don’t know if I’ve felt unmotivated but what I have felt is depression and I have felt unappreciated or almost unnecessary. You know, what racism has really done in the United States is made a whole group of people who are the indigenous, Moorish people who started the society here feel like they have no self worth. And that feeling is way deeper than feeling unmotivated. What I do to work on that feeling is continue to come out to the garden and just garden because this work has been a place where I have less limitations on how I can actually produce. I’ve had jobs where I’ve worked in all different kinds of situations and my level of productivity and even my level of recognition for that productivity had nothing to do with the quality of my work, it was always dependent on someone else. Someone else had to say, ‘yeah that was good work’ or ‘it wasn’t good work’ or ‘that was enough’. But when it comes to the garden, if we get out here and we do this work and I’ve done this work with so many different people, in so many different places, and it is always about if the intention is right and the focus is right. When the rain comes, it doesn’t matter if it was a young teenage European or an elderly African person who planted the plants. You just came out and the garden responded in the way that nature responds. So that helps me realize that the reasons that I have for feeling undervalued really are not based on anything that has to do with law. It doesn’t have to do with universal law. It has to do with public opinion, propaganda, misinformation. That’s the reason why I tend to feel unmotivated. It is based on that societal pressure. And sometimes lack of money but that’s not really a huge motivator.

What’s your favorite story regarding food justice activism?
I think that one of the ones that is really powerful for me is my brother, Anthony, and I were working on a small garden behind a house off of Lowry, down here by Morehouse. And a friend of ours was basically squatting in a house and he had a backyard. My brother wanted to go into business with me doing private gardens so he said, ‘let’s use this guy’s garden as a prototype and let’s start growing.’ So we started getting all the material ready and setting it up to do this home garden and there was a woman who was a prostitute in the area. She would keep coming by and asking if she could help. And so one day I was running to go get supplies and he was there working. He called me up and he said, ‘man, I don’t know what to do. You gotta tell me what to do.’ and I said, ‘what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Tracie came back’ and I said, ‘okay,’ and he said ‘she asked me if she could help’ and I said, ‘okay,’ and he said, ‘I told her to go over there and pull weeds. Just like you told me to tell her. Man, she’s over there and you won’t believe what’s going on.’ and I said, ‘she’s crying’ and he said, ‘yeah, how did you know?’ and I said, ‘just leave her alone and ask her if she wants some water or whatever but just let her go through it. The garden is a healing thing.’ So he said she went over there and pulled these weeds and cried and cried and cried. Then she finished her work and got up and she left. We come to find out that she is a mother of twelve. About two months later, we were driving up that block and she’s out in the street and she’s looking different. She’s more alert and more focused. And she says, ‘come here y’all I want y’all to see something. Just go around the corner and look in that backyard.’ She had talked to one of the elder women on the block who owned a house and told her she knew how to grow and said, ‘if you let me use your backyard, I’ll grow food and we can share it.’ This is a prostitute who was living on the street. This elder gave her her backyard and they went out and bought some pepper plants together. And they had taken a backyard and filled it with all these different pepper plants, right? And she was thrilled. She could not wait to show us what she had done. And to me, that’s what food justice is really about. This woman, even though she still hadn’t gotten to a point where she had a place to live, she now knew how to feed herself by cultivating a relationship with somebody who owns property. Which is the situation which most of us are going to end up being in. Because not all of us are going to be property owners but if we can cultivate the right relationships with people who do own property, then we can potentially feed them and us.

When was the last time you saw her?
See that was 2009 and I kept seeing her until like 2011 and then I stopped going to that side of town as much. So I moved and also that lifestyle, unless she got the help she really needed, that lifestyle is not one where people tend to stay too permanent.

What is it that makes you feel like you are doing the right thing?
When a highschool student from a private school across the city says I want to talk to you. Yeah that’s big. That’s huge you know? Because for so long and even up until now, we do this work and the people who interact with are the people who happen to be on the block where we have the farms. And they or may not be super interested or just don’t have the time to sit down and get to know us. But when someone wants to get to know us based on the work that we’ve done and not what we look like or how much money we have, but the impact that we’ve had, that’s reassuring. It’s very reassuring to have you come out. Because it’s the youth. If the young people don’t get interested in this we can forget it.

What kind of setbacks have you experienced?
Lord, the major setback, I mean it has appeared in a lot of different ways, it always kind of occurs because we don’t own the land that we farm on. And when you don’t own the land that you farm on, people make all types of decisions that they are fully in the right place to make regardless of how hurtful it is to the grower or the community. Because they are the property owners and people, when they own the property, they are like, ‘look this is ours and we’re making this decision.’ So we’ve had farms where people have told us to leave the farm or farms that have had to be uprooted or moved. We were working with East Lake Urban Farm a couple years ago and Nicole was one of the farm managers at the time and our organization, Grow Where You Are, was kind of supporting that endeavor. It was the first time she had managed a farm independently. And if you go by that corner right now it’s just a big sinkhole. You’d never know there was a garden there. If you go there now there’s nothing. So they just got rid of the farm. So we’ve seen that happen multiple times. And that’s not a setback that just we experience. That’s the food justice part. That’s a setback that’s happening in Detroit. That setback is happening in Philadelphia. That setback is happening in Los Angeles. It happened in L.A. before I had even left Los Angeles. There were people with what was kind of like community farm or garden that got shut down because the property owners said, ‘hey man, I told y’all you could use it for a certain amount of time and now I’m selling it.’ The development is not a joke. So those are probably the toughest setbacks. One of the great things about the work is that if we’re eating the food that we’re growing, we don’t tend to have a lot of the health setbacks that other people have.

In the perfect world, what would be your end goal? Where you could feel that you’ve done all you could do for the food justice movement?
It would be… So we’ve been working with high schoolers and young adults and we’ve been partnering with organizations like Greening Youth Foundation and Urban Conservation Training Institute and a lot of different people who are training people in urban farming and what we’ve seen is that these people, these young people, will graduate from these programs and they have the skills to start doing it but there’s no jobs and there’s no access to land so end up going back into other jobs. Or other aspects of the food movement that don’t have to do with growing food. That saddens me because… there is an organization called Common Market Georgia and they’re talking about how they are working with black farmers that have traditionally suffered a lot of land loss since the early 1900’s. And they are excited or they are promoting the idea that they are working with black farmers to help them hold onto their land. And when I asked the man, what the average age of the black farmer that they are working with. He said 68 years old. Now I don’t want anyone that I know, who I love in my family, at 68 to be out here having to do this hard work. So to me what that shows is that with all the interest we have in this urban ag movement and this agriculture movement, if we don’t have a pathway to get people onto land and own it and be able to live where they’re farming, then we’re not ever going to have success. So what would mean success to me is when there is an established pathway or pipeline–like there is a school to prison pipeline–of urban farmers trainees to getting onto suburban or peri urban farm land that they can own and live on. That is when I would feel satisfied. I would feel really good if we were able to establish that pipeline. That would make me feel like I could chill out a little bit.

What are you advocating for exactly? Like, what would your ideal food system be?
My ideal food system for the urban environment would be when we deal with all public land from a place of edible landscaping. So if it’s a public school, a public park, a public hospital, a public clinic, a public orphanage, or any of that kind of stuff should be outfitted with fruit orchards, berry vines, and then seasonal gardens and medicinal herb gardens. And then, stretching out from the urban areas into what we had talked about which is making sure that there is a pipeline for people who want to do this work to be able to learn it, be financially supported through financial stipends and subsidies while they’re learning it, and then be easily directed towards available growing farmland right outside of any major city. Legacy farmland, land that has been farmed on for generations and can be passed on through family. We need working farms to be passed on to younger farmers so that they can have it where they live where they grow their food. Whether that’s in an urban area or a rural area. Farmers need to be living and gaining equity on the land that they grow.

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