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Food, economic development and us

Malik Yakini

Malik Yakini

Q& A with Malik Yakini, Executive Director of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network on economic development and opportunity challenges/solutions for the majority Black city of Detroit.

Michigan Citizen: What do you see are some of the challenges to Black economic development  in Detroit? What’s the greatest challenge?

Malik Yakini: A lack of group cohesiveness is the first and biggest challenge. There’s a lack of understanding and action based on the understanding that (Black people’s) destinies are interwoven. What many ethnic groups have done to build economic power is to patronize their own businesses thus creating a circulation of wealth in their communities. We’re not compelled to do that because of our lack of sense of peoplehood. Additionally, African Americans often have limited access to capital therefore our projects are often under resourced. And we tend to gravitate toward business that require low start up capital.  The third factor has to do with not having a robust business culture within our communities and so we’re much more oriented to being consumers than we are to being producers and we have insufficient opportunities for the development and mentoring of new entrepreneurs.

MC: How does Detroit’s Black community overcome this challenge? Is the onus only on Black people?

MY: While we are primarily responsible for transforming our own reality we didn’t get into this situation by ourselves. The system of white supremacy has systematically extracted wealth from African American communities and transferred it to white communities. Land, which is the basis for generating wealth ultimately has not been made available in an equitable manner.  The reality is there were terror campaigns that through violence disposed African Americans of their land.  In more recent times, the development of freeway systems decimated Black business districts in many cities throughout the United States, facilitating population growth in suburban areas.

It also facilitated suburban residents being able to easily travel into the core city for employment and recreation. So, the decimation of Black communities and business districts along with suburban malls, and the breaking down of legal segregation worked together to extract wealth from Black communities and transfer them to white communities.

Therefore, all people seeking justice has a responsibility to assist, in a respectful way, Black economic development.  But still the primary responsibility for transforming our reality is on us.  So what can be done? Black economic development is not divorced from social justice generally, the current tendency toward the development of two Detroits, one that’s becoming highly developed, highly invested in, gentrified and mostly white-led, and the rest of Detroit, which is predominately African American and other people of color.

This kind of dual narrative has to be opposed and equity and justice has to be the lens through which any development in Detroit proceeds. Black people need to make every effort to support and hold accountable Black businesses and institutions to pursue every opportunity to manufacture and or sell items and services that we use. We need more cooperative businesses and we need to create more opportunities to train and support Black entrepreneurs.  The power of institutional purchasing has to be a major factor in Black economic development in Detroit.  We should be seeing contracts proportional to our numbers in the population from the city government, the county, the state, the federal government, public universities and all other public institutions and private ones too. Another thing we could do is develop communities of practice where Black Detroiters who are interested in business development meet regularly to exchange knowledge and skills and make each other aware of available resources, and develop  a collective set of values so they can take collective action to maximize the impact of their programs, actions, efforts, etc.

MC: How can the city (local government, business community, public education system, even newcomers) help in this effort? Is it realistic to believe they will?

MY: Black people are mainly responsible for shaping our own reality. All justice loving people have the responsibility to support economic development; that includes the city government, and all other levels of government and all public institutions. They need to go beyond this surface level tacit support of urban business development and be much more intentional about circulating wealth within Black communities.

MC: Some say leadership (politicians, ministers, the Black middle class) pretty much failed at any effort toward Black economic development. Do you agree?

MY: I don’t look at things as pass or fail. That type of reduction of analysis is not helpful. In spite of the condition in which we find ourselves, I don’t want to minimize the importance of previous efforts to create economic development. It’s not that they failed, it’s that we need more and newer ideas. We need an analysis of the present condition of what we’re facing. We need to figure out how we fit into the global economy and develop strategies. We can’t use strategies from 40 years ago when significant changes in the structure has happened since that time period.

MC: What is DBCFSN/D-Town Farm’s role in the economic development and/or opportunities for Black Detroiters? Is your co-op a part of the solution? Explain how?

MY: Food has to be prominent in any discussion about Black economic development in Detroit. Capturing even a small percentage of the millions of dollars African Americans in Detroit spend outside of Detroit on food could be a tremendous economic driver. Our modeling through D-Town Farm, of the potential to grow significant amounts of fruits, vegetables and herbs in Detroit, is designed to encourage the use of portions of Detroit’s vacant land for agricultural production. But agricultural production by itself is not sufficient. The majority of the economic value in the food system is in the middle layers where food is processed, packaged and distributed.  And so we have to develop the infrastructure to do those things. That’s where the real economic development comes.

The mindset that we’re in a technological age, therefore agrarianism is a step backward, is a view of the world that has proven itself unsustainable.

So, as we rethink what cities need to be to be sustainable in the future, we have to rethink the relationship between cities and agriculture, cities and green spaces. And so it’s going to cause us to have to stretch our thinking and re-conceptualize what cities are, so there’s not such a sharp divide. No matter how technological a society becomes, it is always dependent upon agriculture.  What we believe and what we’re working to prove is that it can be (a driver in the economic development of the city overall). DBCFSN currently operates the Ujamaa Co-op Buying Club. Membership in the buying club is currently free.  Co-op members can choose from an online catalog of several thousand healthy foods and household options and purchase them at below retail prices. We are very concerned about the wealth extraction strategies currently playing out in our communities.  Massive amounts of Black wealth are transferred to other communities both through our shopping in those communities and through making purchases at stores, in our own communities, owned by other ethnic groups.  We have to stop the massive bleeding of Black dollars from the Black community. As a way of modeling strategies for reducing the loss of African American food dollars,  we are making significant strides toward the development of a cooperatively owned full-service grocery store in central Detroit. We are currently in the pre-development phase, meeting with architects, doing market research, meeting with community members and so on.   We expect the store to include an incubator kitchen, a cafe, a community meeting space, office space and a community garden.  We are committed to co-ops as the best option available, within a capitalist system, to empower and circulate wealth in our communities.

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