Where Are We Going?

Asking the Right Questions of Our Companies
June 4, 2018

            This spring, I was generously sponsored by Serve-Learn-Sustain to attend the second annual Aglanta conference. The event was a joint effort by Agritecture Consulting, the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience, and Southern Company, bringing together stakeholders in government, industry, and non-profits to discuss the future of urban agriculture in smart cities. The conference focused on seven intersections of agriculture with smart cities: resource management, operations, finance, education, distribution, retail, and urban development. There were 33 speakers and 7 panels over the course of the two-day event.

            Overall, the conference was enjoyable and informative. I was able to network with urban farmers, EPA staff, tech entrepreneurs, and education reform advocates. I even happened to meet a man who is converting a superfund site to a hydroponic organic farm in my hometown of Brunswick, Georgia. However, there was a moment during one of the panels that left me disappointed, a moment where I felt the panelists were not leading, but rather falling behind.

            The question came at the end of a panel on smart urban development and how urban agriculture can be relevantly incorporated into the cities of the future. The moderator, Atlanta’s own Director of Urban Agriculture, turned to the panelists, all white males, and, with a big smile on his face, said, “Now, before we go, I just want to acknowledge that there are a lot of white guys on this stage! How do you all envision the urban agriculture companies of the future becoming more accessible to women and people of color?”

            Every panelist immediately looked intensely uncomfortable. They glanced at one other and then at the crowd waiting for a response. And then, to my complete disbelief, I watched four industry entrepreneurs answer the question in much the same way. They spent the opening part of their responses listing the number of women and people of color currently in leadership positions at their companies (one man said excitedly, “I even work for a woman!”), and concluded by speaking about urban agriculture initiatives they were familiar with that were spearheaded by women and people of color. None of them, not one, articulated a plan for increased equity within their own company, or even how the broader movement could do a better job with inclusivity.

            Equity is a cornerstone of sustainability in all cases, but when it comes to urban agriculture, questions of food justice and inclusivity must take center stage. As tech entrepreneurs, product development and implementation is vital to the success of these men’s companies. But the people who are truly in need of urban food are those who do not traditionally have access to fresh, healthful produce, and these people are overwhelmingly women and people of color. If the companies on the cutting edge of new agricultural technologies do not represent their interests, what progress is really being made? The purpose of urban agriculture in smart cities should not be to find more innovative ways to feed affluent people. It should be to expand access to healthy food to those who lack the resources to get it any other way. And there is no better way to ensure this happens than to diversify the seats of power in these companies.

            The answers to questions of inclusivity within companies should not begin with enumerations of what those companies look like now. They should begin with explanations of what the company is planning to do in the future. The question is not “Where are we now?” but “Where are we going?” This is the only way to ensure that the solutions our companies generate are equitable as well as innovative, and thus sustainable in the long term.