Theordore Richards is a good friend of the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago. We have been inspired by the Wisdom Project and the wonderful, innovative work they are doing, so this article is particularly upsetting to read. We feel it's important that the kind small-minded and mean-spirited ignorance displayed by their neighbors in Michigan be called out for what it is. This is prejudice and fear-mongering of the worst sort, and should not be tolerated. “NOT Welcome!” read the email. I stared at it for a while. We were not welcome to build our farm in Baroda, Michigan, apparently. Even though, in the same email, the neighbor claims he does not know what we are doing. ["It is not clear to me what the complete objectives are for this project, who will be 'farming' this land, and why you thought it would be appropriate placement in my front yard! NOT welcome at all." - Gregory Davis] But hey, I thought, this is just one neighbor. No big deal. But then I got the call from Mike Moran. Mike is running the farm in Michigan and had just returned from a hearing with the town board. A dozen or so neighbors had showed up, bringing pictures they’d printed from our website, bringing wild accusations about what our plans, bringing, most significantly, fear and ignorance that we’d been taught was a thing of the past. I’d seen “Eyes on the Prize.” I knew that when my wife’s family moved to a white neighborhood in Chicago in the eighties she’d faced similar prejudices. But this was 2014. Dr King’s birthday is celebrated as a big, collective “thank you” for getting rid of this kind of thing, or perhaps as a “Day of Service” where people do nice things like feed the homeless. But addressing issues of systemic racism and exclusion are not really part of the narrative.
In an article in the local newspaper, another neighbor, Leslie Arbanas, is quoted as saying “it’s not the right place.” Why? Because, according to the article, “the presence of inner city youth, including high school drop-outs… could… hurt property values.” To be clear, none of the youth on the farm have been “high school drop-outs.” Most are headed to college. But that really shouldn’t matter. Let’s get to the heart of the matter: “inner city” is code in America for black and brown. She is making the same argument that was made in Dr King’s day: We’re not racist; we’re just afraid that the presence of black people will hurt our property values.
Speaking of narratives, some in this small town, apparently, had been working pretty hard at creating one. We were introducing a “rehab center” was one such story, because, you know, there are pictures of black kids on our website and they must be drug addicts (this would include my five year old daughter, by the way). Particularly telling about the hate mail I received and about the hearing Mike had to endure was that the narratives seemed to be based entirely on the images on our website. No one had read any of the words. But they’d seen those scary pictures of kids planting corn. (To see the pictures, go to The Chicago Wisdom Project Website)
It didn’t seem to matter, in this meeting, that false accusations were made, or that no one actually knew what a non-profit was [this made our donations page particularly suspicious: "Where is all the money going?!"--I wish we had this problem]. As on Fox News, it was possible to give equal weight to lies and truth, if the lies were repeated enough.
And speaking of Fox News, since this is where I suspect many of these people surely get their information about the world in general, let me turn to the role of the image in this controversy. The images were the focus of the fear and of the efforts to get rid of us. Images, too, I suspect, were at the root of this fear. Like most white Americans, their only experience of black or brown people comes through the images–along with the race-bating and hate-mongering commentary–they had seen on their televisions. These people probably don’t even realize they are racist. Ms. Arbanas, for example, claims that race isn’t an issue–”it just isn’t the right place.”
This makes our work at The Chicago Wisdom Project all the more important. What we have been trying to do for years now is give young people the opportunity to tell their own stories, to create their own narratives. Our youth are well aware–far more aware than those who would attempt to deny them the right to work and play and learn and create at Wisdom Farm–of the negative images of them in the popular discourse, of the deficit narrative that attempts to attribute the injustices of our society to the failures of the oppressed. Our work is to help to create a counter-narrative that tells a different story.
This story can be simplified, however, for those not ready to hear all this. One narrative is this: The Chicago Wisdom Project is bringing to the tired soils of Michigan a new way of farming. Permaculture instead of industrial agriculture. There seems to be a connection between the cultural malaise in Middle America and the agricultural malaise of Middle American Farms. They are afraid of children where they should be afraid of the fact that their farming practices are toxifying the land and depleting their soil.
To be clear about what we are doing, we’ve been working hard over the last year to create a space for our youth to come to get their hands dirty, to experience the quiet and beauty of nature, and to let their imaginations fly free. It is a context for our youth’s rites of passage ceremony, a place to create memories, ideas, art. But Wisdom Farm is, first and foremost, a farm. Somehow, our neighbors didn’t see it as a farm [notice the scare quotes around "farm" in the email from Gregory Davis above] because there was learning and art and music and storytelling and conversation happening. (You can find more about it at the Wisdom Farm Page.)
In 1966, Dr King came to Chicago to fight housing discrimination. It was considered one of the great failures of his career. In the north, he faced fewer legal barriers to his work for equality, but just as much hate. It would have been far easier to change a law than to change the hearts of people who simply told African-Americans, “NOT welcome!” I am not ignorant of history; I realize that much has changed for the better in the last forty-eight years. But I can also say that–sadly from my own experience–there is much work to be done.
We realize that we can do more to work with our neighbors, to help them understand our work and to acknowledge that their presence on this land before us should be respected. Indeed, we’d love for them, or their kids, to join us in our work. We’d love to engage them honestly in a way where we could learn from each other. And the truth is, we’ve got a lot of work to do: we don’t want to spend our time and energy at board meetings or in court houses. But sometimes the lesson plan you bring to the classroom is not what needs to be learned, especially when the world is the classroom. Standing up for themselves against prejudice can be a great lesson for our youth. No one, in any neighborhood in America, can tell our youth they are not welcome. Both our neighbors and we need to learn this lesson now, even forty-eight years after Dr King came up north.
Theodore Richards is the director and founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project. He is the author of several books, most recently Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto, finalist for the USA Book Award. His second novel, The Conversions, is to be released in October. He is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including two Independent Publisher Awards, The USA Book Award, and the Nautilus Book Award. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughters.