MONICA WHITE arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2012 as a professor of environmental justice, with a joint appointment between CALS (community and environmental sociology) and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Previously she was a professor of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Her research engages communities of color and grassroots organizations that are involved in developing sustainable community food systems. She is working on her first book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. Other projects include a multiyear, multimillion-dollar USDA research grant to study food security in Michigan.
You’re a fairly recent arrival at CALS and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. What goals do you have for your work here?
I am really excited because it is a position that allows me to talk about how communities are responding to food insecurity, how communities are engaged in local food and urban agriculture, and I can bring that into the classroom. I also bring activists to Madison and take students to Detroit. Madison has been a very welcoming place to integrate all of those pieces of who I am as an academic, as an educator and as a researcher. So there’s a nice way that these pieces operate, and my departments are extremely excited about the work that we’re doing.
Do you have a specific project you’re focusing on?
One example is for the capstone course in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. I took students to Pleasant Ridge, Wisconsin, where students were able to look at a rural community that had a pre–Civil War black settlement. Students were involved in the archives and then we met with folks who live there. Unearthing the history of black farmers in the state of Wisconsin is something that I’m moving toward as we investigate the relationship between communities and agriculture and all the benefits that come from that.
Is urban agriculture something new?
I would argue not. I would say that as long as we’ve had people in cities we’ve had folks engaged in growing. My dad moved from Alabama to Detroit and he always had a garden. Often the assumption is that the northern migration meant folks were leaving behind their agricultural past. But they brought seeds with them and they brought the knowledge with them to the north— to cities like Gary, Detroit and Chicago.
And if you look back to 1894, Hazen Pingree, then mayor of Detroit, passed an urban gardening ordinance where he encouraged those who owned land to allow that land to be used by those who were unemployed. If we go back to the 1890s, we can’t argue that urban agriculture is new.
It’s just new in terms of its current incarnation. More people are looking at it as a strategy to respond to food insecurity, and knowledge and news about it are more widely available through the Internet and many other forms of media.
What’s encouraging about the movement is that people see themselves as agents intervening in the food system for their own and their community’s best interests. So, for example, I see that I have a corner store selling mostly cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets. And I see vacant land. And instead of saying, “Hey, give us a grocery store,” people are using the land to grow food in response to food insecurity. I think that part of it—the intentional political engagement in growing food as a way to respond to neglect on the market side—is probably a way people haven’t thought about urban agriculture before.