Reflections on Scholarly Activism, Local Food and Gentrification in the American Rural South

I spent several years of my life studying and working in the American rural south, specifically southeastern North Carolina.  I worked as a graduate assistant on a project could be characterized as sociologically-driven activist research, which attempted to combat rural poverty,  food insecurities, and the destruction of local agricultural economies.  We (my colleagues and myself) knew that the disintegration of small farming operations in the region (and those sprinkled throughout other parts of the US) was a result of several global processes: the centralization and industrialization of agricultural production, the migration from rural to urban centers that accompanied the industrialization process, and neoliberal structures that aggravated processes of economic and social disintegration occurring in rural and urban communities alike.  Armed with this knowledge, we thought we could work to improve these deleterious social and economic conditions.

In order to fight the rampant poverty, food insecurity and economic stagnation in southeastern NC, my colleagues and I partnered with “small farmers” (those typically making <$10,000 a year in farm income), local food buyers (such as restaurants, grocers, and local schools), and private consumers.  Through this partnership we coordinated a massive local food movement that connected small farmers with those who were most interested in buying their products, which effectively created new local food economies and revitalized many dilapidated or disenfranchised rural communities in southeastern NC.  This was assumed to be good for everyone involved, and seemed to be a good way to push against the juggernaut of global neoliberalism, agricultural industrialization and urban centralization. All of the empirical evidence we collected seemed to support these assumptions – money was staying in the region, farmers were increasing their income and growing their businesses, and local buyers were consuming nutritious, organic food at a decent price.

I left this project several years ago to continue my studies in Virginia, but I recently returned to North Carolina to visit family and friends.  During this visit we stopped at a local “foodie” restaurant.  They were selling locally produced food – meats and vegetables – at a premium in relation to the cost of living in the area, and almost everyone in the restaurant was young, white, and displaying the cultural capital associated with liberal progressivism.  I didn’t think much about the setting while we finished our meals, but as we left the restaurant I began to think about the downtown area in which the restaurant was located, and the economic and social history of that area.  If we had visited the same area 10 or 15 years ago, we would have seen a downtown completely devastated by the processes I outlined above.  Now the downtown area had been revitalized as a hub of local commerce and public activity.

But revitalized for whom?  From my perspective, there were very clear class and color-lines dividing the downtown area and the “peripheries” of the community.  For instance, the local black community was almost completely absent from the downtown scene, and working-class participation also seemed to be minimal, even though both working-class and black neighborhoods were located only a few blocks away from the downtown area.  Those who were benefiting from the local food movement and rural revitalization were those who were relatively affluent to begin with (the white middle class) while the relatively disadvantaged were excluded.  Suddenly the local food movement was starting to seem like a pretext for gentrification.

Of course, this wasn’t the intention of any of the players in the local food movement.  I hadn’t even considered gentrification as a possible outcome when working with other activists and community members, and I’m sure the thought hadn’t crossed their minds either.  After all, we were a local group working against a global neoliberal discourse that encouraged gentrification in urban areas.  And yet here it was, in the rural south, staring me in the face.

This experience has stuck with me since my visit, and having pondered it for several weeks I’ve come to a few preliminary conclusions.  First, I think this is entire experience is a practical example of why the local-global dichotomy is most certainly false.  I say this because – in this particular instance – the empowerment of disadvantaged workers at the local level did nothing to disrupt power structures at a global level.  Instead, this local empowerment was absorbed by the neoliberal power structures already in place.  Thus it is more appropriate to understand the local and the global as dialectically related, as equal parts of a larger totality.  What occurs in the “local” will most certainly occur in the “global” as well – and it may itself in unpredicted or unexpected ways.

Second, gentrification is not only occurring in urban environments, as is commonly suggested.  It is also occurring in rural environments.  Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the urban form seems to have penetrated the rural?  This is a concept that I think deserves more discussion.

Third, and finally, it has become obvious to me that scholarly activist needs to develop a reflexive component.  As the popular adage goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.