FEAST project description

Hello and welcome to the website for the Food, Equity, and Activism Study Team (FEAST) based at the University of Toronto in the Department of Geography and Planning. Our Research Team is composed of Professor Sarah Wakefield and her graduate students: Madelaine Cahuas, Michael Chrobok, Jina Gill, Lauren Kepkiewicz, Jillian Linton, Sam Walker, Madeline Whetung and Nil Alt.

Research Project

FEAST is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project that explores the various ways different communities organize around social justice issues, particularly – although not exclusively – in relation to food. We are especially interested in how equity-seeking groups (particularly communities of colour and Indigenous communities) in North America engage with social justice and /or food system issues, as well as how “mainstream” environmental and food activist groups reach out to (and /or work in solidarity with) equity-seeking communities.

The overall project consists of a series of separate but complementary case studies. These case studies each highlight a particular issue, focusing on how differences in class, race, and indigeneity affect inclusion (and exclusion) in spaces and organizations, and how these processes operate at different local, regional, and national scales.

A multi-sited, team ethnographic approach is used; multiple venues are accessed for shorter periods than in traditional ethnographic research in order to gather data across multiple sites and scales. The researcher in charge of each case study will embed her/himself in our partner communities and organizations, conducting participant observation as well as in-depth interviews and document analysis. Analysis will focus on identifying how individuals, communities, and organizations work within (and across) different perspectives on what constitutes sustainable and equitable food systems, and how their work is structured by the overlapping systems of oppression that shape our society. Through this analysis, we hope to identify positive strategies for working across difference, and also to highlight additional opportunities for collaboration and inclusion. Research findings will be shared with project partners in a variety of ways throughout the process, to ensure that the study meets the needs of our partners and the wider community.

Migrant farm workers in times of COVID

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As the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Southwestern Ontario put migrant farm workers in the spotlight, various dimensions of the temporary foreign worker program have also received coverage in the Canadian media. The most salient topic in this public debate was the essential nature of farm work at a time when the pandemic crisis put a strain on the food supply chain, making it vulnerable to shortages.

To be sure, the pandemic exposed some of the weakest links along the Canadian food supply chain such as working conditions, food pricing, climate change and export reliance. This exposure has reminded us how the food supply chain is not a linear scheme as the term chain suggests, but rather a complex and multi-layered assemblage of networks mobilized by the work of people and nature. This realization also brought to the centre stage those who typically remained behind the scenes: the migrant farm workers.

However, the acknowledged essentiality of migrant farm workers has so far proved futile for improving the abject material conditions of their employment. On April 13th, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada released news that the federal government was taking steps towards “keeping Canadians and workers in the food supply chain safe” (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2020). According to the press release, the federal government would provide employers with $1,500 for each of their temporary foreign workers in order to ensure the conditions of protection from COVID-19, including a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. The news was received with criticism by many farm worker and public health advocacy groups who have been drawing attention to the power dynamics underlying the employer-farm worker relationship (Bogart, 2020; Dunsworth, 2020; Emmanuel, 2020; Rawal, 2020). Governed by the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), this relationship has time and time again been problematized for its dependence on the goodwill of the employer. The most critiqued aspect of Canada’s temporary farm worker regime has been the employer’s power to “name” the workers whom they wanted for the following year (Weiler & McLaughlin, 2019). While naming can provide a degree of job security and quicken the bureaucratic process of a worker’s return to Canada for the following season, it is important to note that the power to name is exercised entirely at the employers’ discretion, giving the employers ultimate authority over the workers’ futures.

In the case of the COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario farms, the provincial government opted to maintain the highly exploitative migrant farm worker regime characterized by poor working and living conditions as well as a lack of a reasonable path to permanent resident status. On June 24th, a public health guidance was published by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), simply allowing migrant agricultural workers who tested positive for COVID-19 to continue working if they are deemed “critical to operations” (Office of the Premier, 2020). The corona-positive workers were advised to “adhere to public health measures’ ‘(ibid) despite the fact that working and living conditions at most farms were not conducive to the required social distancing measures. In fact, the lack of separate sanitation facilities and basic hygiene supplies had been issues waiting to be addressed long before the pandemic. While the Medical Officer of Health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit rescinded the CMOH guidance, the guidance remains in effect for the province (Grant & Baum, 2020) .

Migrant agricultural workers in Ontario lived and worked under conditions of precarity and exploitation for many years before the pandemic. Premised on the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), the legality of migrant farm workers’ presence in Ontario is entirely tied to their specific employer (Hennebry & Preibisch). If the workers experience unsafe living and working conditions, they find themselves in a thorny situation where quitting that particular farm might mean not receiving a positive seasonal evaluation from the employer, hence risking their return the following year (Weiler, 2018). Although in 2019, the Canadian government took steps towards preventing temporary foreign worker vulnerability by allowing migrant workers to apply for open work permits (as opposed to closed work permits that directly link the workers and their rights to their employer), the revised guidelines still require the workers to prove employer abuse before qualifying for an open work permit (Weiler & McLaughlin, 2019). Further, finding another employer who is already enrolled in the SAWP program can prove to be quite difficult for migrant workers (ibid).

These power dynamics inherent to the employer-farm worker relationship has made it very hard for the workers to stand up for safe living and working conditions. This systemic issue has been amplified by the pandemic, especially after the provincial government’s recent public health response that has privileged the economic gains of the agri-food industry over the health and lives of temporary farm workers. Any legal protection that is put in place to protect this vulnerable group of workers will fail at the enforcement stage as long as the workers know that they can be fired and sent back to their country of origin at their employer’s discretion. While the pandemic brought some visibility to the temporary farm workers’ essential role along Canada’s food supply chain, the structural issues of the SAWP still remain as roadblocks for a just and equitable society so long as the root causes of COVID outbreaks among migrant workers in Ontario are not addressed.

Works cited

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. (2020, April 13). Keeping Canadians and workers in the food supply chain safe [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/agriculture-agri-food/news/2020/04/keeping-canadians-and-workers-in-the-food-supply-chain-safe.html

Bogart, N. (2020, June 29). Advocates demand Ontario shut down farms as COVID-19 cases soar among workers. CTV News. https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/advocates-demand-ontario-shut-down-farms-as-covid-19-cases-soar-among-workers-1.5004897

Dunsworth, E. (2020, June 13). Canadians have farmed out tragedy to the migrant workers who provide our food. The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-canadians-have-farmed-out-tragedy-onto-the-migrant-workers-who-provide/

Emmanuel, R. (2020, June 23). Migrant advocates call on feds to expand EI, CPP to foreign workers. Ipolitics. https://ipolitics.ca/2020/06/23/migrant-advocates-call-on-feds-to-expand-ei-cpp-to-foreign-workers/

Grant, T. & Baum. K.B. (2020, June 20). Windsor medical officer won’t let migrant farm workers with asymptomatic COVID-19 back to work. Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-windsor-medical-officer-wont-let-migrant-farm-workers-with/?cmpid=rss&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

Hennebry, J. L., & Preibisch, K. (2012). A model for managed migration? Re‐examining best practices in Canada’s seasonal agricultural worker program. International Migration, 50, 19-40.

Office of the Premier. (2020, June 24). Ontario Takes Immediate Action to Stop COVID-19 Outbreaks in Windsor-Essex [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://news.ontario.ca/opo/en/2020/06/ontario-takes-immediate-action-to-stop-covid-19-outbreaks-in-windsor-essex.html 

Rawal, S. (2020, June 30). Re: Public Health Guidance on testing and clearance [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ShailRawalMD/status/1277996991964946432/photo/1

Weiler, A. M. (2018). A food policy for Canada, but not just for Canadians: Reaping justice for migrant farm workers. Canadian Food Studies/La Revue canadienne des études sur l’alimentation, 5(3), 279-284.

Weiler, A. M., & McLaughlin, J. (2019). Listening to migrant workers: should Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program be abolished?. Dialectical Anthropology, 43(4), 381-388.

 

 

Farm to Table. Here to There.

Good things grow…in On-tar-i-o. Is the jingle sounding in your head now? Another question for you: have you ever thought about who those good people are that grow those good things in Ontario? Take a two-hour drive outside of Toronto and you’ll see them. Its temporary migrant workers (but by now, you probably already knew that).

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent restrictions that have been put in place,  I’ve begun to give some thought to migrant workers’ mundane mobilities. Mundane mobilities, for the purpose of this piece, refer to everyday logistics: where people work, sleep, eat, grocery shop, destress, etc. Mundane mobilities also extend to include how frequently, and with how much ease and permission seasonal agricultural workers are able to leave the farms they work at to shop, socialize, and explore their surroundings.

While non-essential, status-bearing Canadians have been instructed to stay home for the benefit of all, precarious immigrant workers travelled across countries and have been harvesting the good things. Yes, it may be possible to maintain a social distance in a field, but it may be more challenging to distance within living quarters. The report of 177 migrant agricultural workers from one farm testing positive for COVID-19 in June is alarming for numerous reasons. For one, these incidents highlight the cramped conditions that these workers work and live in. Secondly, an outbreak of such magnitude indicates how disposable temporary agricultural migrant workers are assumed to be. And finally, a lack of choice for the seasonal migrant workers is underscored. Had migrant workers had the opportunity to refuse unsafe work, without the fear of having their salary affected and thus their mundane mobilities curbed, perhaps there might have been fewer cases. Had migrant workers had the opportunity to refuse unsafe work, without the fear of being deported without receiving their full pay, perhaps there may have been fewer cases. Lack of access to income and a looming fear of its consequences impede migrant workers’ abilities to exercise their mundane mobilities safely and with confidence.

The precarious nature seemingly inherent to temporary migrant work is only amplified during COVID-19. It is odd that while migrant workers are healthy enough to sow and harvest, they remain unworthy of Canadian status. Perhaps it feels like I threw ‘status’ at you out of nowhere, but, consider this: without status one might be hindered from performing some everyday tasks. For the temporary worker, the mundane task of going grocery shopping might come with some risks, which might not be contemplated by the average citizen. For example, an accident is an unfortunate occurrence for most. But for a temporary migrant worker, an accident could reveal their disposability.

Switching gears now to wrap this all up, I pose yet another round of questions: during quarantine have you been able to stay at home and leave home with relative ease? To work from home, or apply for financial aids with ease? Now think, how different it would look if the people who harvested the foods that you can buy at grocery stores could too, answer yes to the above questions.

References:

Bogart, N. (2020, June 20). Advocates demand Ontario shut down farms as COVID-19 cases soar among workers. CTV News. Retrieved from https://www.ctvnews.ca/

Vulnerability of Migrant Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Migrant workers are vulnerable at all times, however the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these vulnerabilities. The recent outbreaks amongst works on farms and greenhouses has placed a spotlight on the issues of migrant worker health and safety (CBC News 2020, Guthrie 2020). News stories about the conditions of migrant labourers have increased exponentially from pre-pandemic levels, especially those focused on why agriculture has become the new centre of COVID-19 in Canada.

Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to their overcrowded on-farm housing conditions, their dependence on their employers for continued legal employment and re-entry next season, and their lack of access to healthcare. The framing of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) means that migrant workers rely on their employers for housing, transportation, and their continued stay in Canada. Their housing is often extremely cramped with little privacy or space for workers (Mojtehedzadeh 2020). These bunkhouses are also infrequently inspected by government authorities and are only inspected before the migrant workers arrive (Mojtehedzadeh 2020). In addition to cramped housing, migrant workers also have limited access to healthcare in Canada. Their transportation is entirely reliant on their employers – many of whom are restricting workers movement during the pandemic – and there is a significant delay between their arriving in Canada and their receiving a Canadian health card. All of these issues underscore how dependent migrant labourers are on their employers under SAWP. Since workers’ stay in Canada is contingent on their employment, if they lose their job they could be deported. This puts them in a dangerous position that limits their ability to speak out against their working and living conditions, even if their employers are in violation of COVID-19 regulations.

Setting aside all the issues that await them in Canada, COVID-19 has also presented challenges for migrant workers in reaching Canada. The pandemic’s escalation in March led to restricted borders and flights around the world. Workers’ ability to travel to Canada has varied widely by country. Some workers were forced to sign waivers before they were allowed to leave their home country, while others were not allowed to leave at all (Migrant Workers Alliance for Change 2020). Travel complications also arose out of the closure of many embassies and consulates. Many workers in Mexico had to reapply for visas, at considerable cost and loss of time (Richter, Williams, and Skerrit 2020). These delays all result in lost income for migrant labourers.

COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone, but migrant labourers are without many of the protections that other Canadian workers have. Their and dependence on their employers for housing, access to healthcare, and access to basic information about their rights means that they are often unable to protect themselves from exploitation and the public health crisis caused by COVID-19.  Complications arising from travelling during a pandemic have also resulted in lost income. The outbreaks on farms and greenhouses have highlighted the plight of migrant workers and it behooves us to examine why they are so vulnerable.

 

Works Cited:

 

(2020, June 11).  Montérégie farm struggles to contain COVID outbreak among migrant workers.  CBC NewsRetrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/foreign-workers-farm-infected-covid-19-1.5607320

Guthrie, J.  (2020, May 27).  COVID-19 outbreak at Ontario farm highlights deep problems in Canada’s seasonal agricultural worker program.  Rabble.  Retrieved from https://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/views-expressed/2020/05/covid-19-outbreak-ontario-farm-highlights-deep-problems

Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (2020).  Unheeded Warning: COVID-19 & Migrant Workers in Canada.  Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.  Retrieved from https://migrantworkersalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Unheeded-Warnings-COVID19-and-Migrant-Workers.pdf

Mojtehedzadeh, S.  (2020, May 11).  A study urged better standards for migrant workers’ housing.  Nothing was done.  Now COVID-19 has struck.  The Star.  Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/business/2020/05/11/a-study-urged-better-standards-for-migrant-workers-housing-nothing-was-done-now-covid-19-has-struck.html

Richter, J., Wadhams, N., & Skerritt, J.  (2020, March 18).  ‘There Won’t Be Anyone to Harvest the Crops.’  Coronavirus Travel Bans Squeeze Migrant Labour.  Time.  Retrieved from https://time.com/5805487/migrant-labor-food-production-coronavirus-covid19/

Food deserts and supermarket development programs in the United States

PhD Research Project – 2017 to 2020 – Michael Chrobok

BACKGROUND: Since 2004, government programs promoting grocery store construction have spread across the United States, a response to accessibility concerns raised by the ‘food desert’ discourse. While studies have already taken place examining the effects of new retail on diets, research on supermarket development programs remains limited in 3 ways:

  • First, accounts of policy creation have often treated events as happening in a “bubble”, neglecting the links that actually exist between places and policies.
  • Second, not much attention has been given to the decision-making processes that have led to the adoption of retail-based ‘solutions’ to accessibility issues – issues that have more complex structural causes.
  • Finally, little is known about how incentive programs actually operate compared to their stated goals, and what impacts these initiatives have beyond food consumption patterns.

CASE STUDY: My research addresses these knowledge gaps through a study of the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program in New York: the first municipal policy in the U.S. to use a combination of zoning and financial tools to promote supermarket development at an urban scale.

My thesis asks and seeks to answer 3 related questions:

  1. How is the development and functioning of FRESH linked to policy action occurring in other spaces and scales?
  2. Why was a retail-based solution chosen as the preferred policy ‘fix’ for food access issues in New York?
  3. How does the operation of FRESH compare to how the program, its aims, and outcomes have been spoken of by its champions? To what extent does this program work towards food ‘justice’?

METHODS: Document analysis of public policies, meeting minutes, and incentive applications will let me trace the history of supermarket development programs in the U.S., and will show how key players have spoken about these initiatives over time. Geographic information systems (GIS) analysis will allow me to map the distribution of development incentives and explore their connections with neighborhood need in New York. Interviews with actors involved in the design, administration, and outcomes of FRESH will shed more light on how the program is linked to other jurisdictions, and will reveal who has been helped or harmed by the development projects this program has encouraged.

CONTRIBUTIONS: Academically, my work will offer new insights into policy circulation and transformation, contributing to a “policy mobilities” literature that hasn’t really considered the recent explosion of interest in food-related government programming. My study will also be of interest to scholars of ‘revitalization’ as my thesis highlights the implications – for community members, small businesses, and civic leaders – of development incentives in neighborhoods experiencing economic decline and disinvestment. Beyond the university, my thesis will help American policymakers better understand the impact their programs are having on key stakeholders and could shape how initiatives like FRESH emerge or evolve. Finally, as programs promoting supermarket development remain rare in Canada despite local struggles with food insecurity, my work will provide officials here with valuable lessons to learn from.

CONTACT INFORMATION: For more information about this study, or to volunteer for an interview, please contact me by telephone at (929) 215-1323 or by email at michael.chrobok@mail.utoronto.ca.

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING: 

  • Alkon, A. H. (2013). Food justice: An overview. In K. Albala (Ed.), Routledge international handbook of food studies (pp. 295-305). New York: Routledge.
  • Bedore, M. (2014). Food desertification: Situating choice and class relations within an urban political economy of declining food access. Studies in Social Justice, 8 (2), 207-228.
  • Birch, K., & Siemiatycki, M. (2016). Neoliberalism and the geographies of marketization: The entangling of state and markets. Progress in Human Geography, 40 (2), 177-198.
  • Cummins, S., Flint, E., & Matthews, S. A. (2014). New neighbourhood grocery store increased awareness of food access but did not alter dietary habits or obesity. Health Affairs, 33 (2), 283-291.
  • Elbel, B., Mijanovich, T., Kiszko, K., Abrams, C., Cantor, J., & Dixon, L. B. (2017). The introduction of a supermarket via tax-credits in a low-income area: The influence on purchasing and consumption. American Journal of Health Promotion, 31 (1), 59-66.
  • Gottlieb, R., & Joshi, A. (2010). Food justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Infahsaeng, T. (2014). Inner-city grocery store development as community economic development: A case study of the New York City Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program (FRESH). Unpublished master’s thesis, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts.
  • Levkoe, C. Z., & Sheedy, A. (2017). A people-centred approach to food policy making: Lessons from Canada’s People’s Food Policy project. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 1-21.
  • McCann, E., & Ward, K. (2013). A multi-disciplinary approach to policy transfer research: Geographies, assemblages, mobilities and mutations. Policy Studies, 34 (1), 2-18.
  • Peck, J. (2011). Geographies of policy: From transfer diffusion to mobility-mutation. Progress in Human Geography, 35 (6), 773-797.
  • Shannon, J. (2013). Should we fix food deserts? The politics and practice of mapping food access. In A. Hayes-Conroy & J. Hayes-Conroy (Eds.), Doing nutrition differently (pp. 249-274). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  • Swyngedouw, E., Moulaert, F., & Rodriguez, A. (2004). Neoliberal urbanization in Europe: Large-scale urban development projects and the new urban policy. In N. Brenner & N. Theodore (Eds.), Spaces of neoliberalism: Urban restructuring in North America and Western Europe (pp. 195-229). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Temenos, C., & McCann, E. (2013). Geographies of policy mobilities. Geography Compass, 7 (5), 344-357.
  • Ulmer, V. M., Rathert, A. R., & Rose, D. (2012). Understanding policy enactment: The New Orleans Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 43 (3S2), S116-S122.
  • Usher, K. M. (2015). Valuing all knowledges through an expanded definition of access. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 5 (4), 109-114.

Local Food, Global People: Community Report

Over the 2016 growing season, interviews were held with immigrants growing food locally in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to learn more about their experiences. The following report summarizes the common experiences shared and main concerns raised by participants, as well as a series of recommendations that were offered to improve the food system as a whole. The report notes the many reasons that immigrants choose to grow, the importance of farm organizations/incubators in providing physical spaces and supportive communities essential to growing food, the challenges of running a farm business, racialization in the farm community, and the need for more government funding and support.

Read more by clicking the link below:

Local Food Global People Final Community Report 2017

Cleveland: A Radical History

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“Cleveland: Cold Night, Warm Lights” by Dustin Jamison is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Thanks to a small grant from my department, I’m happy to announce I’ve launched a new project: Cleveland: A Radical History. This is a website hosting a collaborative bibliography that collects resources helpful in understanding the historical geographies of Cleveland, Ohio, from a critical and radical perspective. If anyone wants to contribute they can get in touch.

Check it out here: https://www.radicalcleveland.org/.

Sam’s AAG 2017 and “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop Roundup

I just got back from attending the American Association of Geographers’ 2017 annual meeting in Boston, MA. The day before I also participated in the  “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop at the University of British Columbia. Both events went pretty well and I thought I’d try recapping some of the major points like I did last year, as I found it a helpful exercise for processing what I saw. Note that like last year, I’m summarizing here from memory and incomplete notes, so if I misrepresent anyone’s research feel free to get in touch at s…@mail.utoronto.ca and tell me!

Doing Critical Geography I and II

Our research team FEAST organized a paper session and a panel on ‘doing critical geography’ that was designed to invite everyone to reflect on challenges they faced translating critical geographic theory into method. This was a common challenge we graduate students faced and ended up talking about a lot at our weekly team meetings. The paper session saw a nice variety of challenges and approaches, with Jillian providing some great examples of how she tried to incorporate three methodological principles into her work: 1) mutual benefit, 2) restructuring power relations through research and 3) challenging the idea of neutrality.

I spoke about two major methodological challenges I faced (participants having different recollections of past events and my own adopting of the ‘program speak’ of planners and nonprofit staff I was speaking to) and how I tried to view these as a form of data and indicative of my positionality rather than the ‘shortcoming’ they might be viewed as by a positivist paradigm.

Paul-Antoine Cardin gave us an interesting look at his role in the Tshishipiminu Partnership of the Mashteuiatsh reserve (of the Montagnais du Lac St-Jean Innu band) and Laval University, which is working on collaborative Community Impact Assessment of hydroelectric and natural resource projects in the area. He argued that their process of “engaged acclimatization” was a form of slow and embedded scholarship that saw mutual benefit for both sides of the partnership and worked towards decolonizing knowledges.

Désirée Rochat and Leslie Touré Kapo presented some collaborative work based on a debate they are having regarding the role of activist-scholars in researching popular education, racialization, and youth in the global city. They argued that the majority of research on racialized urban youth ignore complexity in favor of fitting research findings into established stereotypes. Instead they argue that activist-research needs to incorporate a greater focus on 1) orality, finding ways to communicate beyond written text, 2) avoiding exploitative partnerships that shift the burden of research onto participants, and 3) a focus on conflict and youths’ own theorizing about their everyday experiences over time to avoid unhelpful generalizations.

In the panel session we had some very grounded discussions of scholar-activism and positionality on researching nonprofits, social justice, and food. Participating were FEAST’s own Madelaine Cahuas and Lauren Kepkiewicz in addition to Naya Armendarez Jones, Kristin Reynolds, and Sarah Nelson. While each panelist (and audience member!) had different approaches, one takeaway for me was the need to breakdown expert/non-expert or academic/activist binaries through different forms of knowledge production and dissemination, characterized by e.g. Madelaine’s use of testimonio, Lauren’s member-checking, or Naya’s use of the university system to benefit activists through e.g. distributing money from grants.

Overall I thought the sessions went well; we’ll be meeting shortly to discuss potential venues for publishing some of this work.

“The Whiteness of Theory” – Ananya Roy

For the rest of the post I’ll just be summarizing and commenting on a few of the talks I found most interesting this year. First up is Ananya Roy’s “The Whiteness of Theory” from the session 2444 Who’s Afraid of Racial Geographies? Variations on Anti-racist Critique. Fraser started her talk by referring to Dawson’s (2016) critique of Nancy Fraser’s (2014) “expanded conception of capitalism.” Fraser argues that capitalism requires patriarchy for its reproduction, but as Dawson points out, she fails to incorporate an analysis of racism in the reproduction of capitalism.  Roy uses this as a prominent example of the failure of “capital T” Theory (i.e. formal architectonic academic theory) to account for race. She proposes connecting the black radical tradition and postcolonial theory to form a global theory of racial capitalism. While she agrees in principle with Fraser that any critical theory requires a theory of capitalism and its reproduction, she argues that starting from theories of capitalism that center the experience of people of color (she points to Du Bois, Robinson, and Fanon, among others) will work against the color blindness of much critical theory within geography.

I found the talk interesting for two main reasons. First, I find it interesting that Roy is pretty explicitly waging this critique within geography. She mentioned Laura Pulido’s (2002) essay “Reflections on a white discipline” that details her (and others’) need to engage less with geography and more with ethnic studies due to the multiple forms of intellectual and personal ignorance of race and racism she encountered in the discipline. While Pulido has maintained a relationship with geography, it seems to me she works more selectively in geography today due to the tiring work of having to continually explain or bring up race in the discipline. The (what seems to me) increasing discussion around race and postcolonial theory in geography and the path forward suggested here by Roy gives me hope that a generational shift might be occurring. However, as many have pointed out, the institutional structures maintaining the “unbearable whiteness” of geography persist and it will take continued sustained and coordinated action – especially through antiracist work on the part of white people – to make change (Derickson, 2016).

Second, her talk fit in well with the sessions I was attending this year. It seems lots of geographers are (re)turning to Du Bois’ (1935) Black Reconstruction in the Trump Era. This work was engaged with in at least five of the talks I saw this year as geographers continue to ask the perennial question of how to work towards liberation under racial capitalism and democracy. Of course, there are no easy answers, but this passage from Black Reconstruction chosen by Lisa Lowe in her discussion of how the British Empire imported Chinese bonded labor to the Caribbean to break/avoid slave revolts presents an inspiring vision of global solidarity:

“It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny. [. . .]

Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts. [. . .] The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” (1935, p. 15–16)

 

Planetary urbanization and comparative urbanism

For this last section of the post I want to reflect a bit on the comparative urbanism, postcolonial theory, and planetary urbanization debates in urban studies/geography. While this is of course a long-standing and on-going debate, I engaged with it a bit more than usual this year with a conference before the AAG and at several sessions at the conference.

The discussion occurring at the “Doing Urban Studies Differently” workshop at UBC was part of a continuing conversation happening in urban studies around comparative urbanism, postcolonial theory, and planetary urbanization, arguably the central debate in the field today. Attending the workshop were Jennifer Robinson from UCL, Eric Sheppard and Helga Leitner from UCLA, Jamie Peck from UBC, and an assortment of graduate students. There was a panel with faculty, a panel with graduate students discussing their research, and break-out sessions where we discussed some empirically-focused papers. Thanks to UBC Geography graduate students for organizing the event.

I thought the workshop went well, at least leading to some productive discussion about modes of comparison and more detailed discussion of the empirical case studies. In reading and discussing I found Robinson (2016a, b) the most useful statement of her positions. The tables in both pieces summarizing comparative tactics or schemas are useful for thinking through the possibilities of comparing cities or processes of urbanization. I wish I had seen them when considering my comparative method for my Master’s!

However, the central point I found lacking in the discussion at the workshop (and at the conference as I detail below) was the question: what is theory for? While Leitner and Sheppard made reference to ethico-political commitments in motivating their theorizing, to me praxis is central here. To get a bit cheesy I’d return (surprise, surprise) to Marx’s Thesis 11: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Theory should be evaluated based on how it helps you understand the world in order to change it. The follow-up here is that in order to evaluate theories you have to have some way of comparing or evaluating them, i.e. you have to think about explanation. I don’t mean that you have to revert to a positivist scientific idea of an empirical truth, but you do have to have some standards for assessing the relative merit of theories for understanding the world. This was a point of agreement at the AAG session I’ll talk about later: if your theory can explain the phenomena you are interested in, that’s great. It is conceivable that urban studies will have different competing theories, many of which offer compelling explanations.

The conversation continued in a different venue at the AAG. Christian Schmid (one of the primary theorists of planetary urbanization along with Neil Brenner) organized six sessions on the topic. I only attended the final one (3213 Planetary Urbanization 6: Critical Appropriations), where they invited a few of their interlocutors to come and present. Jennifer Robinson was there, along with architecture professor Milica Topalovic and urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone. Robinson urged the planetary urbanization team to again consider a more revisable and modest mode of theorizing, suggesting that the empirical issues they were wrestling over in the previous sessions should be taken as proof that the particular and the universal will always be held in tension. Topalovic said she found the ideas of planetary urbanization compelling, but has been unable to articulate them with architectural practice. I wish she’d said something more concrete about her struggles to do so.

I found Simone’s talk perhaps the most interesting of all the planetary urbanization stream talks at the AAG. He was the discussant, so no paper title, but it was something like, “Extended/Extensive, Intensive/Compression.” I’d never seen him speak before; he has a very distinctive spoken word style of delivery. He distinguished himself from the other talks by engaging directly with some of Lefebvre’s ideas from planetary urbanization theory, in his case the ideas of extended and concentrated urbanization (see Brenner, 2013). These ideas were originally presented in a materialist political economy mode of the expansion of logistical and infrastructural networks (extension) and the concentration and accumulation of capital (concentration). Simone, however, playfully adopted the same ideas to think about multiple coexisting and overlapping temporalities, modes of inhabitation, global connections, etc. He thinks from Jakarta to ask Brenner, Schmid, and collaborators, under contemporary processes of urbanization, “what is concentrated? What is extended?” He finds that it is not only material political economic relations, but a multitude of forces. He questioned their “romance with integration” and the need to find explanation in the accrual of details. I’m not sure their projects are ultimately fully at odds, but I certainly found his presentation (and its style) thought-provoking.

Starting directly after that session (likely not a coincidence) were four sessions titled “Critical urban theory in the ‘urban age’: Voices from another planet” (3449, 3459, 3649, 4249) organized by Natalie Oswin from McGill University and Geraldine Pratt from UBC. I went to the first three sessions and overall I thought there were many great papers. I was a bit disappointed that many of the papers didn’t directly engage with the ideas of planetary urbanization (like Simone did above), but also recognize that this was explicitly theorizing “from another planet” (a feminist, postcolonial, and queer one) and that there is a certain politics to simply presenting another way of doing things rather than directly engaging. There has also already been a lot of that direct engagement at past AAGs and in journal articles.

I’ll just talk briefly about one of the papers from this track, “Splanetary Urbanization” by Cindi Katz, mainly because it offered the most direct critique of planetary urbanization – and it has a great title. Katz is playing on the idea of “man-splaining” here and that summarizes the central critique she’s making here: that planetary urbanization is very much a “theory boys” project. She supports efforts to move away from technocratic empiricism in urban studies, but finds their mode of theorizing masculinist. She offers two critiques:

  1. Brenner and Schmid’s theory evacuates social difference and agency. They pay very little attention to social reproduction, difference, and subjectivity. A key critique for me is that she points out that while they have done much to translate and understand Lefebvre’s work on the production of space, they do not include his work on everyday life. Katz therefore concludes they focus too much on one side of the dialectic of Lefebvre’s work.
  2. In their theory there is no outside to the urban, which again has the effect of removing agency and leading to accounts of social activity devoid of people or a sense of political possibility. A key point for me that she made here is that social practices are analytically separable from urbanization processes. She instead continues to advocate for a minor theory approach, making more revisable, relational, fluid, modest, and populated theory claims.

Katz illustrated thes points through two examples. First, she discussed her ongoing collaboration with Gwendolyn Warren, who was the young community researcher involved in Bill Bunge’s Fitzgerald project in Detroit in the 1960s. By working with Warren, she is uncovering the hidden history of the project, in which Warren was largely absent (erased?). She views this as a way of minor theorizing from another planet by drawing connections across time and space, gesturing towards structural theory, but always peopling the account and dwelling in subjectivities and interpersonal relations.

Her second example was the map Riot! from Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro’s (2016) Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. This map also draws speculative connections across space and time, for example by showing that the Fugitive Slave Riot of 1826 occurred just blocks away from 2011’s Occupy Wall Street.

Overall I thought Katz did a great job identifying the masculinist presentation of planetary urbanization theory. However, I’m personally not ready to give up fully on the idea of “capital T” theory. I still see value in being able to make generalizable, large-scale conjectures about how the world is and how it is changing. I think one needs to have some idea of that in mind to inform one’s research and politics. How else can one theorize social structures and systems like capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.? I suppose I need to do more work to think about how to both offer compelling explanatory theories that are politically helpful while avoiding masculinist cultures of theorizing. I will turn to Katz’s (1995, 1996) earlier work on “minor theory” and the other oft-discussed approach at the workshop and conference: conjunctural or relational comparison approaches (Hart, 2016; Peck, 2016, 2017).

Bibliography

Brenner, N. (2013). Theses on Urbanization. Public Culture, 25(1), 85–

Dawson, M. C. (2016). Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order. Critical Historical Studies, 3(1), 143–

Derickson, K. D. (2016). Urban geography II: Urban geography in the Age of Ferguson. Progress in Human

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction in America: an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and

Fraser, N. (2014). Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism. New Left Review, 86, 55–

Hart, G. (2016). Relational comparison revisited: Marxist postcolonial geographies in practice. Progress in Human

Katz, C. (1995). Major/Minor: Theory, Nature, and Politics. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(1), 164–

Katz, C. (1996). Towards Minor Theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(4), 487–

Peck, J. (2016). Transatlantic city, part 1: Conjunctural urbanism. Urban

Peck, Jamie. (2017). Transatlantic city, part 2: Late entrepreneurialism. Urban Studies, 54(2), 327–

Pulido, L. (2002). Reflections on a White Discipline. The Professional Geographer, 54(1), 42–49.

Robinson, J. (2016a). Comparative Urbanism: New Geographies and Cultures of Theorizing the Urban. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(1), 187–199.

Robinson, J. (2016b). Thinking cities through elsewhere: Comparative tactics for a more global urban studies. Progress in Human Geography, 40(1), 3–29.

Solnit, R., & Jelly-Schapiro, J. (2016). Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Strategies for Academic Solidarity: Responding to the Muslim Ban

On Friday, January 27, 2017, the President of the United States, Donald Trump signed an Executive Order halting all refugee admissions for 120 days and suspending entry to the United States for both immigrants and visitors from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for 90 days, during which immigration processes would be reviewed and altered. This order, known to many as the Muslim Ban, came into immediate effect with little explanation of protocol, trapping people on either side of the border and others within the liminal space of airports. While the ban has been temporarily overturned and continues to be fought in the courts, the initial impact has already had devastating effects and many refuse to take the risk to travel to the United States in this climate of uncertainty.

In light of the ban, many in the academic community – individual academics, departments and several institutions – quickly spoke out condemning the ban. As a research collective, we at FEAST also want to explicitly state our opposition to this racist, discriminatory policy and the rhetoric of hatred and fear that it both utilizes and promotes. Considering that thousands of scholars are unable to enter the United States due to this ban, and many more Muslim and racialized scholars feel unsafe doing so due to fear of being similarly targeted or harassed, we have discussed both amongst ourselves and in larger forums what the appropriate action for academics on either side of the border should be, and how best to oppose this exclusionary policy and support those immediately affected.

An early suggestion in these discussions was an academic boycott. The United States is host to many important academic conferences that serve as a key forum for discussing ideas, collaborating and building connections within and between disciplines. If many scholars were going to be shut out as a result of these policies, then perhaps these discussions should not take place without them. As geographers who had planned to attend the annual conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in April, this question is the subject of continuing debates in our department, but also within our research group.

In particular, we felt that the official statement released by the AAG was weak in comparison to those of other academic societies, and also its commitment in relation to those “affected” by the ban somewhat lacking in detail.

A boycott and withdrawal of academic labour is an important show of solidarity with those who have no choice in the matter. Done collectively, it also sends a clear message that business is not as usual and that there is widespread opposition to acts that affect our academic community. This kind of action can also be effective in spurring change, whether in the form of reallocation of funds or the creation of satellite meetings organized in alternative locations that allow for full participation for those excluded.

However, withdrawing from academic conferences also means that those voices are not present, and some argue that the sharing of critical academic work is even more important in an increasingly hostile political environment. By attending a conference, the opportunity exists for physical disruption and taking up of space, both inside the conference and in collaboration with activists and organizers in place.

Nonetheless, the risk remains that once in attendance, resistance will be reduced to a cursory acknowledgement of the ban and nothing more. These points are not easily tallied and each academic weighing this decision has different positionality and different stakes – personal and professional obligations vary, and not everyone stands to lose the same amount.  Finally, as has been pointed out before, this ban represents a new version of a long standing policy of hostile borders and exclusionary migration practices in the United States and elsewhere. Well before this ban, Muslim and racialized people have encountered discrimination and barriers to entry that are legal, bureaucratic, and financial. So while scholars may be definitively banned from attending conferences at this time, there are many who point out that attendance was never truly an option. How can a response address more than this particular moment, but fight these injustices more globally?

The students and faculty of the University of Toronto’s Geography and Planning department drafted  a statement to the AAG calling for specific actions that should be taken to improve upon their earlier stance, but also to make fundamental changes to the association over a longer time scale. The statement has been shared widely and currently has over 600 signatures from academics all over the world, both by those planning to boycott and those who plan to attend.

As members of FEAST, we agree with this call for action and have decided at this time to move forward with our planned sessions, understanding that there will be gaps in the program as some of our participants opt not to attend. However, we intend to use our time at the AAG (including some of our session time) to highlight how this is not a business-as-usual conference. We also intend to find ways to organize on the ground to make sure that those who are not attending are not forgotten. We believe that the AAG should be taking the necessary steps to reimburse funds to all those who are affected by the ban, not only those who hold a passport from one of the seven countries, but all those who due to personal convictions or unwillingness to submit to harassment are also unable to attend.

In this situation, we do not see the decision to boycott or the decision to attend and organize as existing in opposition to each other, but rather as varied strategies that each have a place in this struggle. There are different ways to be in solidarity with those affected and each person, perspective, and situation will warrant a different strategy. There is a clear need for meaningful long term change within the AAG. In one of the demands, the statement mentioned above also calls for the AAG to, “ support Indigenous sovereignty and social, racial, and environmental justice.” We maintain that this kind of systemic change requires multifaceted approaches from a range of actors. Resistance is not uniform, but if we continue to read the work of those who are directly affected, listen to the voices of those who are marginalized and follow the lead of the communities that are already organizing, it can be unified.

 

My Summer Working with the FEAST Group-in 250 Words or Less

Though I’m pretty sure I went over.

What an honour it is to briefly detail my time working as a research assistant! I am positively bubbling with joy at having made a mark with this collaborative research as well as weighted down by sorrow at the realization that summer has ended (it’s in fact winter at the moment I’m writing this) along with my time working with FEAST. In any case, let me begin!

Let’s talk about my summer working with the FEAST group~

sarablog

I was blessed to spend my summer doing quite a lot of different things. I spent a lot of hours at work, eating, hanging with friends, eating, going to church, and eating my way out of my former pants size…did I mention eating? Honestly, it could and should be said that working for the Food Equity and Activism Study Team (FEAST) this past summer as their very first research assistant represented one of the most productive ways I spend my time. As a die-hard food lover, I am grateful to have been able to study food issues through this RA-ship, and am thankful to God for the opportunity to do so.

To say that this RAship fed my interests would be an understatement. I’m exceedingly glad to have spent a little under four months with my nose buried in writings about Indigenous food systems, recipes and dish preparation. I’m still revelling over thoughts of frybread (see Danovich 2015)!

My academic adventures this summer did not only cover topics of food. I also explored, reviewed, and catalogued issues of education, sovereignty, territory, land rights and more. Further, I read about disparities in health, politics, and economics, including inequitable pricing of commodities. I was distressed to learn of Indigenous histories in residential schools that have continuing effects today that contribute to ongoing problems and inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Learning about the Canadian government as well as other settler governments’ treatment and interactions with different groups of Indigenous peoples really opened my eyes to the damage governing powers in modern times are able to wreak and subsequently “justify” and “rationalize”. Even after working on this study, I remain unsure how settler governments and communities, and even myself now more conscious of these issues, can begin to address the violence Indigenous peoples have faced and continue to face. But I know that I am glad for this FEAST group, which represents a positive step in a more informed and conscious direction.

Ever since I left the city of Toronto at the end of my 4th year in my undergraduate career, I hoped to receive the opportunity to work as a research assistant. And so to see this desire realized places me over the moon and beyond the stars. I’m still attempting to process the skills I was able to develop running through tasks, including first-hand experience with the University’s prestigious archive system.

I have officially completed my contracted work with the FEAST group but my hope is to continue the research I began this past summer. It’s been a pleasure to work with a group as heavily invested in its work as its members. I’m looking very forward to seeing the future impact FEAST may bring about.

And so I say goodbye, but hopefully this will not be the last you hear from me!

Yours truly,

Sara TurnerTurner

Ps: Please check out some of my favourite links!

http://gutsmagazine.ca/home-grown-hunger/

http://www.eater.com/2015/6/8/8716011/native-american-food-restaurants-resurgence

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/01/23/food-cost-far-north_n_6531152.html

https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/allyship/

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