Queer Ecojustice Project   //   queerecoproject@gmail.com   //

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Mo Browne

Doing some Un-Learning

I was born on the East Coast, but I lived lots of my life in Virginia. I wasn’t born in Virginia. I would say from about from 4 to 26—basically all of my life was spent in Virginia and I basically grew up in Virginia Beach and then spent the latter half of from like 19 to 25, 26 in Richmond, VA. Virginia Beach is very interesting, to be nice. It's a predominantly conservative suburban area. It's also on the border of Norfolk, which is one of the larger Naval bases on the East Coast so we had a lot of people whose family were in the military. A lot of those people in the military were my family. It was about as typical a Suburban childhood you could have. It was just myself and my mother and my mother’s extended family in that area. Yeah, it was fine for the most part. A lot of un-learning that needed to be done once I left because like I said I was raised in the conservative semi-religious area. There are a lot of things that I felt personally I was raised to be a certain way and later realizing that that was all a bunch of bull hickey so yeah, the beach was amazing though.

By the time I was in high school I was exerting my power where I could. But it was a very much   like saying I didn't want to go to church anymore and my mom kind of was like, “Okay I'm also not going to church so that's fine.” But [I was] also holding onto a lot of things that until I went to college I didn't let go of. I was definitely not very pro, what's the word... I was raised [like] you wait until marriage until you sleep with somebody. You wait until marriage until you have kids. There wasn't really any conversation around what it meant to identify along the spectrum as far as LGBT. There wasn't any conversation around your body at all and owning your body. I didn't really feel ownership of my body anyway. I don't know if your parents or my parents specifically or my mom specifically [do this], [but she] made it very much like, “You're in my house and I go to work to support you and myself so you need approval for anything you want to do to your body.”

"There's no guidebook for how to show up for queer ecology"

Mo Browne

Mo Browne

"There's no guidebook for how to show up for queer ecology"

A Foodie is Born

 

I started to look at my diet and I had always been thinking about and talking about and researching what it would be like to be vegetarian or vegan. But that big shift in thinking about my diet and what I ate and what I thought about food had this giant rippling effect until now. And I was also with those people that I really [felt] affirmed by and they were all vegetarians and vegans or paleo and I would ask them questions about it. And Richmond is very huge vegan friendly place. So it was in that [space] that I started or people started having conversations around “Where does our food come from?”, “What does it mean to be local and be organic?”, and talking about local food access.

So I changed my diet; I was vegetarian and then became vegan overnight and those questions of who is growing our foods and what about your area [has not addressed problems]. Parts of Richmond are a food desert. I started asking, “How do I as a person show up and address the situation?” So I started volunteering at the urban ag project in Richmond and that was my real first time working with the soil and putting my hands in the soil and growing up, my grandpa had a big green thumb and he planted rose bushes all around his house and he would get us excited about helping him, which was always something that stayed with me and I attribute, going back even further, I attributed with him having that in me being so connected to the Earth. But it wasn't until post-college and I had all this time and I wasn’t going to class anymore. So I started volunteering in addition to working and I was there for about 4 years and I really enjoyed being there and I felt more connected to the community and I was so excited about telling people and taking pictures and giving food away cause our whole thing was growing food and donating it to churches and sometimes it would go to market and we started selling to grocery stores that we had leftover and we had 10 pounds of squash and I'll be like, “Yeah, you want it?” I felt good about that. And also just holding on to the fact that I'm working full-time and I'm not dedicating enough time to this as I want to.

 

To Roots and Rhizomes

 

I was in a hetero relationship at the time so while all this was going on—me questioning my identity was still happening and my queer community was outside of the food work that I was doing up until I started working at this local grocery store that specializes in all natural. Like the Berkeley Bowl. Almost exactly like the Berkeley Bowl if people wanted to get an idea and there were a lot of queer people working there. But it still felt like this separateness happening and people there at that store were young 20-somethings like myself. I hung out with the people around my age and we were having conversations about this—about food justice—and wanting to work in a farm and wanting to volunteer at urban ag nonprofits and starting little backyard gardens. I wouldn’t say they were a focus of the conversation, but they were talked about. I felt like I was discovering two different things at the same time and it definitely felt like they were separate.

It was me coming to the conclusion that kind of like when I was in high school where I wanted to move out of Virginia Beach to Richmond. It was reoccurring I think I need of move out of Richmond to really start immerse myself in this food justice work and really feel like myself again and so I ended up applying to CASFS, the Center for Agroecology and Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, and I got in and I didn't think in a million years that I would. And so it was basically like okay well that was like a mini move from VA Beach to Richmond and now I'm going to make this mega move from Virginia to California and I knew one person. She was in San Diego and my best friend in high school and I was in Santa Cruz. For folks who don’t know, Santa Cruz to San Diego is 8 hours. So I was like I’m about to make this huge leap of faith and hope that this program that I’m going to is everything I hope it is.

 

When I moved out to California in April of 2016 and when I got to CASFS it felt like every move I had made up until CASFS was affirmed. At CASFS, for the first time both worlds came together and I met people who for the first time told me about what queer ecology is and what does it mean to be a queer farmer and foodie. And each one has their own story and it looks different from each person and my mind was blown and it felt like for the first time in my own body that I felt validated and I felt like okay I'm able to hold all these things being a queer black woman who works in food justice or works in the ag-world and is doing the work that she wants to do and that was earthshattering to my core. I say a lot of that is attributed to Edgar and the folks who had been there in the previous season who I met and I stayed there for second season. I was in Edgar’s shoes when I was the one still learning but now I'm teaching. So all the new people came in who were in my position that I was in last year and just being like so affirmed. And so when I heard queer ecologies I was like, “Okay what is that?” And I was like, “Now how do I be a part of that?” There's no guidebook to how to show up for queer ecology. And I think the term itself still feels relatively new, as someone who’s only heard of it about 2 years ago but just to everybody.

 

Rooted in What?

 

I had gone to a conference that was supposedly rooted in queerness and agriculture and all the queers are supposed to be here who worked in ag and that conference was also really hard because it was predominately cis gay white men who were there. [These were people] who worked in more so the tactical and policy areas of ag but [there were] hardly any farmers in the room. We talk about queer ecology yet you have representatives from Monsanto who are active sponsors of the conference and so it was like the other side of the spectrum where I felt like I was going to feel community there but felt even more isolated even though at the very least we all identify in some way on the queer spectrum and I left that conference feeling like not good. And then there were smaller conferences that were amazing. I think the best conference that I’ve gone to so far was the Black Urban Gardeners’ Conference that was in Atlanta and there was a space specifically for QTPOC farmers and foodies there. You talking about affirmed, affirmed [to be with] queer and trans people of color. I guess now folks use [another term] to be more inclusive, QTBIPOC—queer, trans, black, and indigenous people of color.

But it just felt like all the things I identify with are represented in that conference. More so the queer ecology space I’ve been to, [which was] inclusive and diverse. To be affirmed in a place that was identified queer and trans was like “Wow!” That was my first run through of conferences my first year at CASFS and now I'm in this how do I show up at conferences in all of my identities [mindset]. And the best conference I went to was BUGS [Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners] that was because I felt affirmed.

 

We’re Here to Stay

 

“I know why I exist in this body because of queer ecology”

             “We’re just literally asking—or I’m asking that you validate or recognize that we’re here and exist.”

 

When I talk to folks [I say] I'm into queer ecology or I am queer ecology. They’re like, “What does that mean?” and I hear that question a lot, more often than not, and I'm happy to bring that consciousness to it. And I also think that my peers have been steeped in it for a long time, probably a long time and definitely longer than I have and yet I'm still wondering how I engage with it as far as how do we talk about queer ecology down to the basics. Quote unquote the basics looks different for everybody; it can be constantly changing. But yeah I think definitely still having that conversation so that people who identify as queer know about it. And I share this with everybody; I just feel like if I could just make someone else feel like how I felt that light bulb moment of like, “Wow I really almost know… I know why I exist in this body because of queer ecology,” then great, I feel like I’ve done my work.

 

When I think of queer ecology: I think of sustainability; I think about organic; I think about acknowledging Indigenous practices long before any of us were on the continent when this country was formed; and, just acknowledging all that and providing space for people to really engage with that information and also realizing that the bigger Ag community is Big Ag—it’s those conventional and even larger Organic Farms still. We're small and we're spread out and it feels big when we’re together but even when we gather we’re still small compared to companies and the people we're working against or rather don’t line up with. There's more to being organic than getting your food locally. It’s peeling out all these layers, and once again not even [just] the queer community, but if we’re going to call ourselves this umbrella of queer ecology and sustainability [we need to do this peeling] because the larger Ag world doesn’t make space for us. If they do, much like in the history of this country, they repackage it and then make money themselves. 

 

I think I feel good talking about queer ecologies— all the foundational aspects—and how we think about it. And I've been associated with it for two years. So once I'm tired of going through the 101, or I feel like enough people got it, I think my next question for myself is “How do I take it a step further?”