Kiani Conley-Wilson wants to remake the food system
If there’s one thing the pandemic has brought to light, it’s the rampant inequalities that exist across our food systems. One in four households experienced food insecurity in 2020, and food pantries and mutual aid networks have struggled to keep up with demand. The question of who can eat, and eat well, and who can’t has never been more urgent.
Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, which is dedicated to “equity in access to land, sustenance, and power in the food system,” is working to fix those inequalities. With an eye toward Indigenous and Black rights, its food sovereignty programs help feed and teach more than 10,000 people a year, whether by providing raised garden beds to city dwellers, delivering free “solidarity shares” of produce to local residents, or working on land-return initiatives for northeast farmers. And when it comes to inspiring others to join in the mission, Soul Fire Farm relies on Kiani Conley-Wilson.
Conley-Wilson is a community organizer, activist, and food-justice gardener. As the community empowerment coordinator at Soul Fire, they organize programming around such topics as racism in the food system and teaching children how to grow plants from seeds. They also engage directly with the community in their role as founder of Common Greens, a local community garden and education center. And at 26, Conley-Wilson is further spreading their message by running for city council in Troy on a platform of protecting renters and immigrants and committing to environmental stability.
Eater: How do you see yourself making change in the food world with Soul Fire or any other projects you have going on?
Kiani Conley-Wilson: My biggest impact is probably with Soul Fire. We focus on two things there: food apartheid — making sure that folks have enough food to eat and have agency over the food that’s growing and available to them — and stopping racism within the food system. I work on both of those with the Soul Fire in the City program, providing raised [garden] beds for folks. Sometimes I get to help harvest for our solidarity shares that go out to families and help those in need. I also do our training: It’s almost like an introduction to racism and the history of the food system and how it functions today, breaking down the ways that our food system has been and continues to be oppressive. I also have a community garden where I teach some kids on the block how to grow food and plant seeds.
How did you get involved in community farming and education?
I was introduced to urban farming in college. I studied sustainability studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is here in Troy, so I put down roots. I took a class that really highlighted the good, the bad, and the ugly of the food system. And it really opened my eyes to how there’s a way we can connect with one another. We can make differences and changes on an environmental aspect, on a style aspect, and even on an economic aspect.
I picked that up a bit more after I graduated. I did an internship with a local community garden group when I was still in school, but after I graduated, I realized that I really liked to get my hands in the dirt, connecting with other folks and teaching and learning about the food system.
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in doing similar work — especially right now in a pandemic where these issues of food insecurity and racism around food systems are more apparent than ever?
I would recommend they check out their local farm. Soul Fire is not the only farm that’s fighting racism and also providing food for folks in need. And I would say don’t be afraid to kill any plants. I’ve killed so many plants in a few days! You really wouldn’t believe it. I barely consider myself a gardener. Don’t get discouraged, and do whatever feels right for you. Not everyone’s going to be good at gardening, and that’s totally fine. There are different ways to get plugged into the food system. It doesn’t just have to be growing things from seed.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in the past year?
I remember when the pandemic first hit and I was like, “Oh, quarantine; we all have to social distance.” I was just going through my head: How is all this going to work? How are we even going to have meetings? How are we going to get our groceries, our necessities, and all that stuff? Seeing how we’ve been able to adapt and do things more virtually, do more phone calls, things like that have been really fascinating to watch.
What do you hope to accomplish in the year ahead? You’ve got your city council race coming up.
June 22nd is the primary, and then November 2nd is the general election and that’s across New York State. So obviously that’s a goal of mine, to hopefully win this primary and the general election as well. There has been a lot of really great energy around that. With Soul Fire, it’s making sure that these programs I’m hosting are successful and people find them fruitful and helpful. And then with Soul Fire in the City, it’s trying to nourish those relationships and make sure everyone has what they need. I think one last goal is just making sure I rest. Because I feel last year I didn’t see too much resting, and this year, I’m really trying to prioritize that.
How can readers support your work?
Soul Fire has a whole bunch of resources (including this food sovereignty guide). You can support Soul Fire and follow us. But something that we really emphasize with Soul Fire is thinking beyond the hero narrative: It’s not just Soul Fire that’s doing stuff. I really encourage readers to look for the things happening around you that interest you.
Konrad Odhiambo is an award-winning portrait, wedding, motocross, and lifestyle photographer in Troy, New York.