Featured Leader: Marcus Hill

In this Featured Leader piece we hear from Marcus Hill, Board Chair of Island CultureZ, and get his reflections on the food system and current affairs, and learn more about his efforts to introduce the solidarity economy framework to food councils throughout North Carolina. We first connected with Marcus several years ago through an FSLN mini-grant to support attendance at CoopEcon and are excited to see how he is continuing to merge cooperative/solidarity economics into food systems development work. Read on to learn more about Marcus and get inspired by his candor and commitment to creating a more equitable food system.

You and your journey

Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)
I’ve had over a decade of experience in food policy council and food system development efforts in North Carolina via starting, coordinating, and/or serving on 6 councils from the neighborhood to the state level. My background is in public health (MPH, Yale ’08) and solidarity economic development (serving on the board of the US Solidarity Economy Network since 2015, an organizational member of the New Economy Coalition, and Joint Coordinator of the global Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social & Solidarity Economy (RIPESS)). I’ve served on a number of community leadership advisory councils including: 2 of our state-level philanthropic foundations (Z. Smith Reynolds and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust); the NC Food Resiliency Project sponsored by the Duke World Food Policy Center; Johns Hopkins University’s inaugural national food council gathering planning committee (the 2021 Power of Food Forum); an advisory council for our 2013 regional food system assessment (and co-author) as well as our county-level farmland protection plan.

Since 2015 I have been working with a small group of committed community co-conspirators in Winston-Salem, NC to start Island CultureZ — a new equitable community wealth-building initiative in our marginalized and historically excluded neighborhoods to create viable, neighborhood-level routes toward food production, land reclamation, and market access and rekindle some of our old foodways that so-called “urban renewal”  and gentrification all but wiped out in our local Black community.  Despite all the food system efforts, my full-time position is with the Coordinating Center of a national phase-3 brain health clinical trial (sponsored by and in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association) as the study’s lead recruitment strategist. 

What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
The idea of getting involved food systems work began in graduate school. I was working on my Masters of Public Health with a concentration in health policy and perhaps a deeper concentration in challenging most of the presented pedagogy. The public health charge seemed too wrapped around a paternalistic emphasis on intervening in people’s lifestyles while overlooking structural and empowering efforts (systemic change) that addressed political, economic, social, and cultural determinants of good health. I wanted to challenge some of that so I put some energy toward exploring an anarchist conception of public health and proposing a non-hierarchical and federated network of community-controlled health councils in my thesis to cap off that experience. It basically argued that if communities had more control over their own futures, they’d be healthier.

After graduate school, I audited one of Will Hooker’s permaculture courses at NC State and that helped root some social, cultural, and economic potential and self-determination in food and I heard Nikki Henderson of West Oakland’s People’s Grocery speak around that time and she brilliantly elucidated core elements of a food system in ways I had yet to hear them presented  while diving into what that development work looks like in a social justice context.
As I moved back to Winston-Salem in 2009, there was a broad-based local food conversation emerging and some new market opportunities coming forth, so in 2010 I proposed the creation of our region’s first food policy council and worked with a team to bring that together and conduct our first regional food system assessment (published in 2013).

I liked the idea of the food policy councils because they always struck me as unique microcosms of participatory democracy – a place where community members could come together to deliberate issues, amplify opportunities, and figure out ways to create leverage toward change. They also, by their nature, seek to be radically inclusive as they pursue representation across the community and food system. By doing so in a participatory democratic context, decisions can be made with input across the whole food system (production, processing, distribution, retail and consumer-side, and waste management/reclamation) so it’s more difficult to externalize negative impacts and unduly burden any one part of the food system if it’s all represented (speaking highly aspirationally, of course).

Ultimately, food councils presented a way for communities to do-for-self and acquaint each other with new possibilities, amplify old realities and knowledges, and challenge a corporatized food system and a dominant form of so-called community development that treats cities as luxury real estate items to be consumed. 

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you, or someone you look up to. Why and how has this person impacted your life?
There have been many, but I would definitely love to mention Paula Daniels who I met through FSLN’s mentorship program. She might not know it, but she graciously played a crucial role in helping me breathe some new life into my food system development work. I was heavily in burnout territory at the time we worked together and I was simultaneously trying to figure out how we could make our food council sustainable while staying engaged in the community efforts we had been developing. The reality was it was time to pivot as the food council had run its course for a number of reasons and she was a tremendous help in my thinking through a new direction for my work that’s still gaining traction today. 

Leadership and learnings

What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with.
I suppose time management, valuation, and focus can be large challenges for me. It feels like there’s never enough time for projects, yet I spend too much time on projects, and the more time I spend on projects, the more other projects arise that demand time. I tend to join groups, boards, initiatives to build new relationships and open up doors of opportunities for the types of projects I would like to see more of, but I wonder about better ways to build meaningful and lasting relationships without feeling like I have to join everything. 

What are you most excited about in your work?
I experimented with running our county-level food council as a community-owned service cooperative. The idea was that the community at large could own and support the work of the council and its deliverables would be progressive local/regional food system advocacy and accessible infrastructure for engagement. I pushed for this arrangement as hopefully a community-based revenue stream to keep the work going and to bridge conversations between food system development work and cooperative/solidarity economic development worlds (the latter always seem more rooted in understanding and addressing root causes and developing alternatives while local food conversations seemed a bit more stunted in not being able to grow too far beyond neoliberal responses to food system inequities).

From that arrangement, our food council joined the board of the US Solidarity Economy Network and grew connections with groups across the country and beyond engaged in progressive, grassroots economic development. We then began creating a council spin-off project called Island CultureZ (501c3 as of last year) that’s a hyperlocal, BIPOC community-led, decolonized community wealth-building, solidarity economic initiative rooted in food system development to ensure more land and market access for urban farmers. We are starting a producers cooperative, a neighborhood-level food council, a community land trust, a community-owned cooperative development fund, we’re initiating policy work for increasing local purchasing, we purchased 2 buses last year to help with farmer and food transportation, and we’re working on fortifying a collaborative of supportive anchor institutions that recognize mutual benefit in working with us and can help us realize our ambitions without needing to control the project. Our website is not live yet, but you will be able to find it here: www.islandculturez.org

Simultaneously, at the state level, I’m working with Community Food Strategies to help introduce this solidarity economy framework to food councils throughout the NC-based council network. The idea here is that while there has been some excellent food council-driven organizing across the state, galvanizing visions around what equitable systemic change work actually looks like still seems to be elusive and that’s something the solidarity economy framework may be able to offer. In that vein we are working on highlighting practices that coincide with a solidarity economic framework (practices that uphold values like equity, cooperation, sustainability, and participatory democracy) that can be adapted by our food system development practitioners and communities.
This feels like a different approach to development work in our area and I’m pretty excited about its potential.

Reflections on Current Affairs

COVID is impacting the food system in a number of ways, and in some cases, one can argue that more attention is being paid to the value and resiliency of local and regional food systems. What is one change you’re hoping to see to the US food system and how do you think we can get there?
I think the labor shortages we’re seeing across the full spectrum of the food industry is telling (no, screaming) of what a broken system it has been and how much business models prey on exploitable labor. I’m hoping this leads to reform, a reckoning within the restaurant industry in terms of viable business models that can accommodate equitable wages, new investments into collective and cooperative ownership of food enterprises, a new interest in CSAs for food provision, and increased attention paid to wage theft across the industry.

Discussions around America’s past and present-day systemic racism have caused many to consider how to build anti-racist food systems. How might those involved in the movement for equitable food systems ride this momentum to reach this goal?
There’s a lot of ground to cover here. In terms of race, there’s an aspect of it that doesn’t get talked about much and I think that’s keeping us from winning more ground faster and that’s that race – particularly whiteness and blackness – is historically a political construct. The common refrain is that it’s a social construct, but that’s an apolitical dodge. The mechanics more precisely are that whiteness as an identity has always been a political construct and fierce point of alignment. In that sense, it’s worth noting the political economy of value (in other words, power) that runs in the lineage of the black/white paradigm if we’re ever to see some meaningful level of reconciliation.
The political economy here is that whiteness’ value plays out as conceptualized humanity and blackness’ value plays out as exploitable commodity. In all the ways you can’t make capitalism nice, sustainable, non-exploitative, regenerative, you can’t make whiteness non-privileged or the humanity within blackness valued as they’re antithetical to their core purposes and defacto definitions.

The identities within community on both sides run deep: a deep love for whiteness and a deep love for blackness within communities. The realm of cultural identities assigned to these labels are mightily significant. That said, what I’m talking about here isn’t culture but political economy – namely the inequitable distribution of power, value, influence, entitlement that blackness/whiteness signifies by latent definition, or more precisely by action, access, policy, history, statistics, etc.

As such, an anti-racist food system should acknowledge how this racial political economy and racialized capitalism works to properly counter with solutions that don’t just bandage the hemorrhaging but properly heal and create a truly inclusive and equitable realities.

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