Urban Farmer Xavier MaatRa Is Building Trust
Written by Vocalo Radio on June 26, 2019
Chicago is a city known for its creative community of artists, activists and influencers. In our ongoing series, “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” we feature the voices and people who contribute to our city’s rich cultural diversity. This month, we celebrate Pride, and in this installment, we hear from Xavier Danae MaatRa.
Xavier MaatRa is a nonprofit consultant, community educator, activist, and urban farmer from Southern New Jersey currently thriving in Chicago, IL. For over a decade, he has traveled the country as a labor organizer, social justice workshop facilitator, and youth advocate.
Xavier is Xavier is currently thriving as a part of the Urban Growers Collective’s farmer incubator program where he acts as the owner and operator of Chi City Foods, a farm and eco-campus driven by the passion to provide poor and marginalized groups in Chicago with access to fresh produce and training opportunities in urban agriculture.
How long have you been in Chicago and where do you live now?
When I first came to Chicago I was right on the border of Evanston and Chicago over in Howard. Now I am in the South suburbs of Sauk Village. I’ve been in Chicago for about 13 years now. When I first got here, it took me nine months to find a job and a part of what I did to step away from the depression and the chaos and anxiety of looking for a job was working in the community garden that was across the street from our building. So that had a big impact on where I’m at now. When I came to Chicago, I was coming from being a union organizer and wanting to go back to doing more grassroots organizing, and working with young people more. The first job that I was able to find was working at the Broadway Youth Center via Howard Brown working in their drop-in space.
Howard community when I was there, it was right before the gentrification happened. That whole area right there, it was still kind of on the edge of (you know they set things up) being neglected. Right before people started to come in and buy up pieces. I can still remember seeing certain folks, who I will call gentrifiers, rushing from the Howard Red Line station in fear and seeing where they were about to build that high rise. But also enjoying the diversity of the Haitian and a lot of African immigrants that are in that area too. Howard has changed a lot since I first came which was around 2008.
How has the city shaped you and your mission?
I’m from a farming town. It wasn’t until I moved away from there, and I was in an urban center, that I realized how I was so used to being able to have access to produce. Since I’ve been in Chicago, I’ve realized that having produce in every grocery store is not a staple. It’s not always there, I was learning about food deserts and learning that most people don’t have a relationship to soil understanding where food comes from. But that understanding was something that I had experienced because of the small farming/college town that I grew up in.
Since I’ve been here a lot of my work has been with young people. There are young people in Chicago that I work with, on the Southwest side, who have never been to the lake, who don’t go to parks, who just stay in their area. Their association with the soil or farming is with slavery… or with just bugs, or it’s too hot we don’t want to do that, or that’s just something that people below us do. Rather than seeing that we are connected, we all need soil, we all need clean water, we all need healthy food, we all need to know what’s in our food. So, I think my work with young people has definitely shaped me a lot.
In my work as a community organizer I feel like my specialty, and my love, is teaching via popular education. One of the reasons I moved into farming was that I wanted to bring the intersections of race, politics, health and liberation together to have a hard skill, right? We talk about liberation, and we talk about changing the world, and we talk about a new society, and we talk about resisting, right? How about food, shelter, clothing? How are we going to build a society where we’re going to find new ways to relate to each other that aren’t rooted in capitalism, transaction, or exploitation? I wanted to create a space where people can reconnect to some of the skills we lost because of oppression and colonization, but also build new ways of relating to each other, and have a relationship to our food, have a relation to the soil, while we build trust. We all have experienced so much trauma and pain that sometimes when we come together there’s so much there that we don’t know how to just connect and to build trust.
What do you love about Chicago?
One of the things about Chicago that I’ve grown to love is that when I look back, and I see certain folks who have been here in these last six to ten years…I see how they have pushed the political discourse, how they have shaped from the bottom, from the grassroots, from what people would call radical and out there. I think that has been a big part of shaping me as a person, shaping my political vision, and the work that I have done with young people. I think it’s part of why, for me, at this point in my life, I am able to take all those pieces and all those experiences and merge it with farming as a hard skill. I’m hoping that, one day, my farm and my Echo Campus can be a place for people to practice new ways of relating to each other on our way to liberation.
At the end of the day, what would you like to have given back to the community?
I just want to create a space for us to practice our humanity because so often the way the world oppresses us, because of our different identities or because of different systems of exploitation, we’re always in defense, right? We’re always in opposition. But just to have a space where we can remember that, you know, we don’t have to say anything, we don’t have to analyze anything, we’re just going to eat this okra, we just going to eat these sweet potatoes. We have to remember that this is what our ancestors did to get us to this point! They had moments where they could just be, and they could just eat and laugh and make music, and be together. We have to be able to have those moments to heal and just be. Just as much as we need to have those moments where we’re ready to hit the streets, and to resist and to risk our lives. So I just want to create spaces where we can be humans in between creating our strategies for liberation and rebelling, and transforming what’s around us.