Greetings from Charleston, South Carolina!
I'm writing you at the end of the first week of America the Bountiful Tour - a two-month cross-country trip to visit as many rural fishing and farming communities we can. The reason for this trip is to kick-start my new role as the director of both the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) and NAMA. As someone who learns by doing and seeing, I felt the need to connect to those we work with - specifically in rural communities - on the ground, where they work, live, dream, and often struggle.
After a brief stop in Washington, DC to celebrate NFFC at a reception hosted by some of our allies including Rural Coalition, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and Food and Water Watch, we headed south. I'm so grateful for being sent off with so much love and support from our friends in DC. I'm honestly not sure how best to describe how we are being received, and how I'm feeling toward all the people, communities, and ecosystems we have visited so far. If this past week is any indication, "love" will emerge as the best word to capture all that is happening around us.
I must admit I have always guarded the use of the word "love" as I felt it gets thrown around a bit too carelessly. Everyone I've met on this trip is changing my mind about what the word love really means - love for people you barely know or may never meet, the land, the water, the soil, the animals, the community, the planet, the ocean... the ecosystems that sustain all of us.
There are a few other themes that are emerging already, and none of them should be a surprise to any of us: rural communities producing, catching, and growing our food are struggling with isolation, lack of infrastructure, feelings of abandonment by those who are responsible for serving them, and a sense of scarcity.
While in Hatteras, we learned about a community's struggle to maintain a commercial fishing heritage in the face of rapid change to the landscape because of frequent storms, constant pressure from the recreational fishing industry (which should actually be considered a commercial venture), and the encroachment of Cooke Aquaculture into their community who wants to own the bottom of the ocean and the water column to grow mass quantities of oysters at great cost to the community and the marine ecosystem. We also felt the enthusiasm and support the non-fishing part of the community has for preserving a way of fishing that has the smallest ecological footprint and the greatest impact on their social and economic well-being.
We have heard the words "no one comes here" so often during this first week, it's heartbreaking. In Conetoe, NC Reverend Joyner told us that just us being there has stirred up good things in the community. His congregation was asking him whether we were really going to stay right on the church property? "Are they really going to park right here in the church parking lot, and sleep in tents on the church grounds?" "Aren't they afraid to be here?" And, maybe even deep inside they were thinking we must be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic! During the Sunday service, every member of the congregation took the time to come to us, give us a hug, thank us for our work and for being there, and then sent us off with a powerful prayer at the culmination of the service that left me in tears. I still cry (in a good way!) at the memory of the feel of Reverend Joyner's hands on my head during the prayer.
In Asheboro, North Carolina, we heard from cattle and vegetable farmers the difference between the services they receive from their land grant office vs. the farmers who live just one county over. Educational opportunities, technical assistance, and access to other services are limited if available at all, yet they hear about workshops and gatherings that are strengthening farmers in nearby counties.
Now we are here in Charleston, where isolation of a different kind is affecting the fishermen: displacement of the fishing industry by tourism and gentrification is making those who fish feel like the community they identify with most is disappearing and the one that is emerging is not as interested in seeing them thrive.
Don't get me wrong... it's not all doom and gloom! We are celebrating new connections, opportunities, and potential at each stop. We have explored new ways to broaden our collective base of power and to leverage that power to create change. It's humbling to hear that we have rekindled fires along the way, and left a sense of hope and possibility in our wake. And maybe most importantly, we have learned how wrong our society's assumptions about our rural communities are.
Last night a group of fishermen hanging out on the dock where we are staying invited me to a beer and conversation. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of knowledge, concern, and vision I heard over those beers. At the end, one of them said to me "we are open-minded people. Don't let them tell you otherwise." I promised I wouldn't.
From here, this week will take us to Georgia and Alabama where I'm certain we will continue to feel the power of love that brings communities together in struggle and progress. I hope you will stay in touch and follow our journey, and come to visit us if you see us in your community.
With much love, Niaz Dorry
P.S. Can't join us? Please consider making a donation toward our journey.