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New wave of lawmakers creates voices for Black farmers in state legislatures

State Senator Kim Jackson feeds her goats
Posted at 9:27 AM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 16:03:08-05

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — It’s easy to define people by stereotypes, but a new wave of lawmakers is defying them – and bringing equity as a result.

In Stone Mountain, Georgia, for example, Confederate symbols, Confederate street signs, and a giant Confederate carving loom over a community that today is largely Black and aiming for diversity. The city, like so many where we live, defies easy definitions.

So does its most prominent resident.

State Sen. Kim Jackson is a farmer, a priest, a podcaster, and, as of this year, an elected official.

“I like to tell people," she said, "Stone Mountain is represented by a Black woman queer farmer, and the people who created that carving could never have imagined that.”

Across America, she’s one in a wave of Black female legislators seeking to do right by Black farmers.

In Illinois, State Rep. Sonya Harper successfully pushed a Farmer Equity Act to make their policies more inclusive. In Ohio, State Rep. Juanita Brent is the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee and has advocated for minority hemp growers. In North Carolina, State Senator Natalie Murdock introduced a Black Farmer Restoration Program and hosted a Black Farmer Summit. Different legislators in different states, with farming in their past or present, hope to steer a fair future.

“I think, oftentimes, because we’re dealing with policy, we have to think in large swaths, which ultimately ends up making people think in stereotypes," Sen. Jackson said. "So, when you have somebody who brings a mash-up of identities, it really helps to bust through some of those stereotypes.”

Three hours south of Stone Mountain, Albany, Georgia, is complicated too. It’s a largely Black town in a largely rural space, with hundreds of Black farmers historically cut off from markets and loans.

“There are so many who struggled for so long," said Shirley Sherrod, head of an initiative for Black farmers called the Southwest Georgia Project. “You know, when you go up against the door so many times and it’s closed, most folks would have given up.”

This past spring, the Georgia state legislature budgeted $100,000 for the organization to help its farmers better reach customers.

Sherrod said it's the first time in 50 years that the organization has received state funding.

“It says to me," she said, "that until you get people in office who understand your plight, who are willing to fight for what they know is right, it won’t happen.”

From the inside, Sen. Jackson agrees.

“I’m having a hard time going on record saying this, but this is just the facts," she said. "In Georgia, funding has gone to people who know people. And when your commissioner and all the commissioners in Georgia have been white men and white farmers, they’ve helped out their friends."

Sen. Jackson is a Democrat, but her budget request cleared a largely Republican state legislature. Her journey, much like her city, is complicated. But within those complications are common bonds. That’s where she pins her hope.

“There is solidarity amongst farmers, no matter what your race is," Sen. Jackson said. “We know what it is to work outside. We know what it is to work with your hands. We know how fickle the industry can be. I’m excited to be turning a new page."