It was a first-of-it’s-kind, type of day that will go down in the history books: April 26th marked the inaugural Illinois Black Farmers and Growers Lobby Day at the Capitol. It also happened to be the first official Black Farmers Week celebrated in Illinois.
A coalition of nearly 80 Black farmers and growers along with several supporting organizations teamed up with Representative Sonya Harper, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee. The goal was to advocate for a suite of bills that address the needs and barriers that Black farmers face, including access to land and capital, heirs property, and historical discrimination in federal and state farm programs. (Scroll to the end of this story for a description of each bill and how you can add your support too!)
For many advocates, the day started even before the rooster crowed with a 4:30am bus ride to the Capitol. The sense of ownership of these issues and passion to get this legislation over the finish line came through in the amount of people that descended on the Capitol steps.
After seeing how many people made the long trek to Springfield to voice their support, one farmer noted “I didn’t think anyone understood what was on the table, but when people show up like this, it shows they care about the issue and about who they are impacting.”
Running on pure adrenaline, since there weren’t any coffee shops open that early, advocates arrived at the breakfast ready to mingle. They filled up on some Custom Cup Coffee and loaded a plate from Queen B Catering to help fuel all the walking, talking, and step climbing they were about to embark on at the Capitol.
At the breakfast, Advocates were welcomed by Representative Sonya Harper who introduced a show-stopping lineup of speakers including Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, Director of Agriculture Jerry Costello, Speaker of the House — Representative Emanuel “Chris” Welch, and Legislative Black Caucus members Senator Doris Turner, Senator Mattie Hunter, Representative Cyril Nichols, and Representative Lakesia Collins.
Lawmakers praised farmers for coming to use their voices and shared their commitment to support farmers of color.
After getting fired up — and fueled up — advocates made their way to the press conference at the Blue Room in the basement of the Capitol.
Rep. Harper kicked things off enthusiastically saying, “Happy Black Farmers Week!”
She shared that she’s been fighting for this equitable agenda for the past eight years.
“As ag is the largest job producing industry in the state, it has become the least diverse industry,” Rep. Harper said. “For the past eight years I have been proud to champion healthy food access, farmer equity, and cannabis equity. We can never do too much to ensure folks have access to healthy food, no matter what district you live in.”
Leaders from numerous organizations stood at the podium to share their story and support for the suite of equity bills, including
Akin Carter Co-founder of the Black Oaks Center
Bweza Itaagi of Grow Greater Englewood
LaQuandra Fair of Growing Home Inc.
JR Flemming of the Cannabis Equity Coalition and Hemp for Hoods
Amanda Goins, a student at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences
Pastor Scott Onque of Faith in Place
After hearing their inspiring stories, advocates made their way through the Stratton Building and posted by the rail in the Capitol rotunda waiting to talk to their legislators.
A group of farmers from the south suburbs stopped by Senator David Koehler’s office and shared their stories with his legislative aide, Aaron Tebrinke.
After meeting the group Aaron looked at everyone and said, “I have a good feeling about this, follow me.” Aaron took off in a flash with the group barely having time to gather their thoughts and tell their feet to follow. He led the advocates down elevators, through hallways, and across the parking lot to the Howlett Building where the Senate was meeting. He stopped outside the Chamber doors and said to the group, “Wait right here.”
Moments later, Senator Koehler appeared and was delighted to meet the group of farmers and advocates. Everyone introduced themselves and then Carmen Holmes, a Black farmer from Harvey and enthusiastic member of the Alliance, took the lead in sharing her story and explaining the bills they were advocating for. After asking a few questions, Senator Koehler turned to Aaron and said, “Sign me on to co-sponsor all of these bills.”
The group let out a cheer and thanked Senator Koehler for his overwhelming support.
This is just one of many stories that was shared around a conference table as the group debriefed their lobby experience and enjoyed lunch from Luminary Kitchen and Provisions. This story, and all those that were told around the table, reinforce the fact that when we organize together and show up in numbers to make our voices heard, action will be taken and change is possible.
This was the first ever Black Farmers and Growers Lobby Day, but it will certainly not be the last. As the group celebrated cosponsors and new connections, they also dreamed up future plans for the next visit to Springfield and maintaining these relationships and coalition.