Spare Me Your Guilt: Try Doing Something

Wringing her hands, the woman looks around at the other panelists. We’re discussing the appropriation of poor skills, the rise of hipster backyard gardening, the erasure of people of colour and low-income people involved in the explosion of backyard farming, ‘artisan’ food production, and related trends. We’re talking about how when you make the lives of marginalised people trendy, they are cut out of their own histories, and their own lives become inaccessible.

‘With all this talk,’ she says, ‘I feel like I should tear out my backyard garden.’

A master gardener rushes to assure her that this is the exact opposite of what to do, and I jump in as well, but as I do so, I think about the larger state of activist conversations and how sometimes people appear to be stuck on performative guilt, unable to move on to action. I’m using backyard gardening as an example today, but this could easily apply to so many other things.

Backyard gardening is awesome. Growing your own food is fantastic. If you have the space and werewithal to do so, and you want to, you should absolutely do it. You might learn some amazing stuff, you might find that you really love it, you might change the way you eat and think about food. Raising your own livestock or microlivestock will definitely change your relationship to food, and give you a deeper understanding of where food comes from; you aren’t going to become an expert on farming, but you will come to a deeper knowledge of yourself and the society you live in.

And it is fantastic to see such an explosion of backyard gardening, growing support for something which was historically viewed as pretty weird, or something that only poor people did. Now, across the US, we’re seeing organisations springing up to provide education, classes, further training, mentoring, and all kinds of services who want to try their hand at growing things. This is all great stuff.

Many people get into this fad with innocent or good intentions, and they’re shocked and horrified when they hear valid critiques that explore the class and race problems with the backyard gardening fad. The ‘tear out my garden’ response is one I’ve heard on more than one occasion, an outburst of guilty feelings from someone who believes she’s doing the wrong thing because she’s engaging in something that’s being criticised. Maybe she even thinks she’s a bad person, or is being judged for growing kale on her back deck.

But she’s not a bad person, and while she is participating in something that has a troubling framework, that doesn’t mean she’s doing a wrong thing. In fact, her knowledge creates an opportunity to do a right thing, and that thing definitely is not tearing out the garden she’s been labouring over, returning to the grocery store as a primary source of fresh produce. Her awareness, her education, is a tool for power.

Instead of feeling guilty, I want to see her turning that guilt into meaningful action. One small, simple step: acknowledging the history, roots, and framework. Owning what she’s doing and embracing the history of the thing she loves. That’s a critical step, but it’s not the end, because from there, you have to go to finding a way to combat the appropriation and the erasure of the people who originated, maintained, and fiercely clung to those skills.

Try supporting organisations that offer soil testing, containers, clean soil, and other support to people who might not be able to garden safely in their own soil. Get involved with groups that coordinate community gardens for people who have no space at all to garden on their own, and support programmes that get fresh produce to people who don’t have the space, time, energy, and/or ability to garden at all, even if they have access to a community space. Centre the experiences of everyone, not just middle class people picking up a fad, to ensure that things like backyard gardening remain accessible to anyone who wants to do them; that’s taking action, turning guilt into something meaningful.

On the less dirty and ground-level end of things, connect with public officials. Oppose bans on gardening and livestock, because more and more cities are pushing people around with ordinances limiting the types of gardens and animals they can have, when they’re not tearing out perfectly usable edible gardens because they’re ‘unsightly’ or ‘too tall.’ Fight to preserve free and open access in a city or town, and back up people of colour and low-income communities when they need help; work in solidarity with them to make sure that there’s never an official meeting without a representative of the gardening community, phone in to oppose proposed ordinances along with them, protect their right (along with yours) to produce their own food in the way they’ve been doing for decades.

I see a lot of people getting to the guilt stage, engaging in public performances of raking themselves over the goals in contrition because they grow some vegetables in their yards, or keep chickens because they like fresh eggs. I’ll be honest with you: I have zero interest in that. I have no interest in your guilt, and I don’t particularly want to see it. Deal with your issues on your own time, not mine. You feel guilty? Do something about it. Look around to see what needs to be done. Ask people how you can help if you can’t figure it out. Think critically about the discussions you’re encountering and follow the thread through to the end. Like, say, if people are discussing how tighter ordinances on chicken coops are making it hard for people to build their own, something that affects primarily low-income people, that’s a cue to get on the horn or the typewriter to the people making those ordinances to get them modified or repealed.

And maybe for reasons of time, ability status, and other demands, taking action is hard for you. No one should be demanding that you take to the streets and there’s no one right way to do activism (despite what some may tell you). Taking action can be as simple as reaching out to educate other people. Setting a goal of writing one letter a week to an elected official. Picking one issue, making it your issue, and sticking with it. ‘Action’ takes a lot of forms.

Working in solidarity with people doesn’t mean you need to know everything all the time. Everyone’s always learning. But constant performances of contrition are a waste of everyone’s time, and when people have to invest energy in making you feel better, that’s energy that could have been devoted to change that we lose.