Developing Leaders for Good Food Change in our Communities
By: Jude Barry, Food System Specialist, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems
A special thanks to Antonio Cosme and Akello Karamoko for speaking openly about their plans for leadership and food system change in their Detroit communities.
Don’t you love that feeling of walking away from a conversation inspired? This happened recently when I sat down with Antonio Cosme and Akello Karamoko - two energetic and determined individuals who are passionate about improving their Michigan communities and supporting those who are historically underserved.
I had the honor of talking with Antonio and Akello just as they completed the MSU Student Organic Farm’s Organic Farmer Training Program (MSU OFTP) with support from the People of Color Scholarships funded by the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems (MSU CRFS) and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, in addition to other financial support.
They shared their experience and some of the challenges they face and are overcoming in becoming leaders for community food system change.
Antonio explained that people growing up in urban areas don’t have family who farm and have limited experience of growing food.
“My Grandma had a garden but working on a farm, as we did with the MSU OFTP, provides farm experience that is super important. I have taken courses, been involved in farm planning and seen my studies implemented through watching plants from seed to harvest.”
Mr. Cosme continued, “People of color in the community I am from tend not to have the intergenerational financial support to help to fund this type of experience, so the MSU CRFS People of Color Scholarship was helpful. I could not have afforded this experience without the scholarship.”
Akello added how the MSU OFTP was an important addition to his previous experience, as well. “This was a new experience for me. I started urban farming before I came to the MSU OFTP when I was in the Keep Growing Detroit youth apprenticeship program,” said Akello. “The MSU OFTP was an opportunity to see farming in a different way. Everything I have done on the MSU OFTP has been new to me.”
The value of the program went beyond broader technical skills. It offered valuable networking opportunities, too.
“I have made new connections to people,” Mr. Karamoko explained. “Doors have been opened to me. People have made ways for me to succeed in this program. Because of it I feel I am ready for the farming boom that’s happening in Detroit.”
Both have great plans for the future, but were also very open about the challenges that they face as leaders of color. Antonio identified areas that need to be addressed to empower his community to restructure a good food system in Detroit.
“My plan is to use the information I take away from the MSU OFTP to promote healing in my community. One of the challenges I think we need to address is the need for people of color to have land in rural areas. People of color need that. I see this as a strategy for regaining wealth that we have lost. We also need to expand agriculture in our neighborhoods. I hope to work on social healing and change in the culture and social fabric of my community.”
In addition to land access, Antonio talked about improving food access in his community. “People in my ‘hood can’t afford organic food. They also can’t afford food from my farm to enable it to be profitable. How do I make the farm profitable and help the people in my community? I hope to find a way to enable these two outcomes to not be mutually exclusive.” And Antonio has many ideas and visions to improve social justice and food access in his community.
Akello also has plans for food systems change in his community.
“New things are popping up for me. I have a job to go back to working as a farmer of Keep Growing Detroit. In the long term, I would like to buy land and show people that you can make money farming Detroit. We don’t have to be the working class earning lower wages. I would like to be an example to younger people so that they can follow in my footsteps and see that farming in Detroit is a valuable career.”
Akello echoed Antonios views on land. “Our communities need more access to land and capital, building knowledge and keeping land once it is acquired,” It was suggested that having supporting networks in farming is important. “It would be helpful to have a pipeline of talented individuals between Detroit and MSU to help grow our base of knowledge in our communities.”
Communities seeking to make good food system change are helped by strong leaders who have vision, energy and an ability to strategize and network with the people who live in their neighborhoods and beyond. Antonio Cosme and Akello Karamoko have all of these qualities and more. It will be interesting to see their stories unfold and to observe their impact on food system change in their Detroit communities.