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Part One: A pluriverse of conversations

Unearthing and Digging In: A Multimedia Food Sovereignty Project

Deborah Barndt

    I: Unearthing Personal Roots of the Earth to Tables Legacies Project 


Most political projects have very personal origin stories This is my take on the birthing of the Earth to Tables Legacies Project, an intergenerational and intercultural exchange of food sovereignty activists in the Americas. The hyperlinks will take you to the personal perspectives offered by each of the 17 project collaborators.


On the eve of my retirement from York University in 2014, I was approached by a filmmaker who hoped to produce a documentary on my collaborative research tracing the journey of a corporate tomato from a Mexican field to a Canadian fast food restaurant. There’s enough critique of the industrial food system, I responded. What we need to highlight are the hopeful stories of resistance, resilience and regeneration of more equitable and ecological food practices by Indigenous and settler communities.


On a four-month road trip from Toronto to Panama in early 2015 with my new partner John Murtaugh, we shared great meals with family, friends, and co-workers in a growing global grass-roots food movement. We found his family friend Fernando Garcia teaching organic gardening in Guadalajara, Mexico, and my former colleague Gustavo Esteva, nurturing younger food sovereignty activists Valiana Aguilar and Ángel Kú at the Zapatista-inspired UniTierra in Oaxaca.


I had first first met Gustavo in 2003 while visiting Lauren Baker, who had collaborated on the tomato project, and was doing doctoral research on Mexican maize movements. Lauren brought her current own transnational work, through the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and connected us with Fulvio Gioanetto. An ethnobotanist living with his partner, medicinal plant expert Maria Blas, in the P’urepecha community in Michoacán, Mexico, Fulvio had been sharing his unique agroecological experience with Canadian farmers and food activists.


Back in Canada, John introduced me to family friend  Dianne Kretschmar, then a 70-year organic farmer in rural Ontario. John’s late wife Elizabeth Harris had established the first organic farmers’ market in a Toronto park to sell Dianne’s produce. Their daughter Anna had met her husband Adam working on Dianne’s farm, and they now fed their family from a farm in the Gaspé. Dianne was a mentor for many young farmers for over 30 years, including her own son Dan, Ryan DeCaire from the nearby Mohawk territory of Wahta, and Fernando Garcia who came all the way from Mexico to learn organic farming from Dianne. This curious and committed woman represented a constellation of intergenerational and intercultural exchange of food knowledges and practices. At the early stages of our exchange, these questions emerged:


What food legacies are being passed on from one generation to another? Across cultures and borders? Who will produce our food in the 21st century and how?


I invited Lauren as a younger food movement leader and Alexandra Gelis as a younger Colombian-Canadian multi-media artist and York PhD student researching human-plant relations to form an intergenerational research and production team. We began to document the process of visits to collaborators’ fields and tables, using photos and video as arts-based participatory research tools.

While we had Indigenous partners in Mexico, we still wanted to connect with Indigenous food activists closer to home. Since 2015, we have found ourselves in the midst of a very powerful resurgence of Indigenous communities in so-called Canada, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission unearthed testimonies of survivors of government and church-run residential schools, part of a broader cultural genocide. Indigenous leaders had also sparked the Idle No More Movement, pushed for the investigation of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, initiated multiple land claims, and lead social and environmental struggles against extractive industries and pipelines, and for clean water and air.


During a visit to a food project in Six Nations (the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy), we found community food leaders like Mohawk Chandra Maracle and Tuscarora Rick Hill recovering Haudenosaunee history and traditional foods, creating alternative schools with Mohawk values, and helping us all to reconnect more deeply with all our relations through food. Our questions broadened:


How do we open up a respectful conversation between settler and Indigenous food leaders on Turtle Island? What can we learn from a dialogue between food activists in the Global South and in the Global North?


Food was an entry point, a catalyst for conversations across our very real differences: youth and elders, Indigenous and settler, Canadian and Mexican, rural and urban food activists. Our commitment to food justice and food sovereignty was a common passion, one way of speaking back to this moment.


Ultimately, both the main message of our project (honouring all our relations) and of our process (pollinating relationships) were the same: we need to rebuild relations based on respect and reciprocity with all living beings, human and more-than-human.

    II: Digging in: Popular Education Tools 

In 2020, we launched our multimedia website (tour the website) just in time for teachers looking for online resources with the onslaught of the pandemic. In early 2023, we launched our companion book, Earth to Tables Legacies: Multimedia Food Conversations Across Generations and Cultures.


Both are meant as catalysts to encourage community groups and classes to apply the stories, ideas and practices to their own contexts. All ten videos and eleven photo essays have Facilitator guides with questions, hands on activities, individual and collective actions, and further resources. Built on the popular education theories and practices of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the guides aim to challenge power relations, moving users from analysis to action.

Below are three activities that can generate participation around the deeper questions of food sovereignty.

     (i) Thanksgiving Address

Watch the Thanksgiving Address video 

When the Legacies collaborators gathered at Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Oshweken, Ontario in July 2019, Mohawk community food leader Chandra Maracle engaged the group in making the connections between food and all of the elements acknowledged in the Thanksgiving Address: These include the earth, water, fish, plants, insects, berries, trees, birds, winds, the moon, the sun, the stars, and the creator.


She distributed the drawings of the different elements that you see in the video and asked us to consider: “How is this one thing related to food?”


Using the English translation provided of the Thanksgiving Address, ask each group member to select a picture of one of the elements and talk about how they see it connected to food. Or get them to draw the elements listed above, and write their thoughts on the back of the drawing.


Form a talking circle and invite everyone to share their interpretations with the group.

Discuss how the sharing of perspectives has broadened your understanding of food, indeed of all our relations.

     (ii) Food Icons

Each collaborator in the Earth to Tables Legacies project has a unique story, sense of place, and connection to food sovereignty.

One way we chose to share our food stories was to identify a food-related icon (plant, animal, insect, container) that we connect with. For example, I chose a bee, because my name “Deborah” means “bee” in Hebrew, and I identify with bees as a pollinator of people and ideas. While Valiana, the youngest collaborator, chose corn, because Mayans consider themselves “Children of Corn.”

Invite everyone in your group or class to choose and draw their own food icons.

Ask why they chose their specific food source, and encourage them to tell any stories connected with their icon.

Consider as a group what you have learned about each other, food and the interrelation between people and food sources: how people shape food, and food shapes people.


       (iii) Mapping migration stories

Food sovereignty opens up questions about our relationship to the land. If we are settlers, for example, we need to acknowledge the Indigenous history of the land we are living on. Yet most of us, including our Indigenous collaborators, have migrated throughout our lives and have relationships with different lands. When it comes to food, we have learned from a diversity of contexts, continents, cultures, and culinary practices.

At our 2019 gathering, we shared our personal histories of migration, by mapping our movements on a global map. This activity connected us to the broader political, economic and cultural process of global migration – of both people and food.


Some of us have deep pre-contact ancestral roots in Turtle Island. Others have colonial histories in Europe and so have landed in North America (Turtle Island) as settlers (by choice or by force) on stolen land. Still others identify a mixture of Indigenous and European ancestry in their family histories. Our complex trajectories perhaps reflect the reality of this era, of uprooted populations disconnected from the land of their ancestors.


Using a drawing of a world map, ask each person to map their movements over their lifetime. Consider these questions: 


What connection did you have to land in each place? Share stories of intimate experiences with the land, water, plants, and animals.


What do you know about the Indigenous history of your various homes?


What struggles for food sovereignty or food justice are you aware of in each context?

       III: Nurturing Relationships 

In May 2023, our Mayan partners Valiana Aguilar and Ángel Kú hosted a gathering in their Solar Maya in Sinanche, Yucatán. The younger BIPOC collaborators are deepening relationships and building new projects as the Legacies Project lives on.


About the Author

Deborah Barndt has struggled for over five decades to integrate her artist, activist and academic selves. The Earth to Tables Legacies Project builds on her activism in social justice movements, popular education in communities and universities, and arts-based participatory research, culminating in over forty photo exhibits, photo essays and videos, and ten books, including Education and Social Change: A Photographic Study of Peru, To Change This House: Popular Education under the Sandinistas, Tangled Routes: Women, Work and Globalization on the Tomato Trail and the edited volume VIVA! Community Arts and Popular Education in the Americas. 

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