The website for Tanya Fields’ The BLK Projek describes her vision as seeking “to address food justice, public & mental health issues as they specifically relate to under-served women of color through culturally relevant education, beautification of public spaces, urban gardening and community programming.”
All true. But the high-minded rhetoric doesn’t quite capture the drama of the moment when Fields decided to engage in some direct-action urban guerrilla farming by cutting the lock on a gate to a vacant lot near her home in the South Bronx.
“It was Memorial Day, 2010,” she recalls. “We were giving out vegan hot dogs, and planting sunflowers, and cleaning up weeds.”
And then suddenly the owner of the lot, who hadn’t answered Fields’ calls for a year, showed up. And then the police got involved. And then Fields had to scramble to find the cash to pay for a new lock and repairs to the gate.
It’s not easy being a food justice activist in the South Bronx, says Fields, who was born and raised across the river in Harlem. It’s especially tricky when you are the mother of four and depending on food stamps to keep everyone fed.
“If my name was Lauren and I was from Wesleyan, and I was living in Brooklyn, there would be people coming out of the woodwork to help me,” she says wryly.
But she’s not complaining. And what else would you expect from a woman who had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X by age 10, and whose father raised her to believe that “if we saw something that we thought wasn’t right, then we should speak up and we should try to change those things”?
Fields didn’t realize exactly what wasn’t right in the Bronx, however, until her kids started having trouble breathing.
“I always say to people there was no epiphany,” she says. “My kids started to get sick. That was it, you know. Both of my daughters, by the time that they were a year old, they had already been hospitalized twice, always for something respiratory.”
Fields started look for answers. She joined up with another South Bronx activist, Wanda Salaman, the executive director of Mothers On The Move.
“Wanda helped me connect the dots,” says Fields. “Did you know that there were 32 open-air waste transport stations in the South Bronx? Did you know we have a water treatment facility, and that around the corner from that water treatment facility is the plant that processes 71 percent of the sludge of the city? Did you know that they have terrible practices in terms of how they handle that sludge? Did you know that the type of particulate matter that is prevalent in the air at 2:50 p.m. is the worst kind, the kind that gives kids asthma? ”
“I just became ravenous. I started to read up on everything. I started finding out about the state of the South Bronx. I started finding out about all of these different things in my community, good and bad, that contributed to the lifestyle that I was having with my kids. And I started thinking about food.”
“I have a very special relationship with food,” says Fields. “I like it a lot.”
She chortles delightedly. “This was right before food exploded on the national landscape. So I feel a little bit like I’m a pioneer in my community. Because I was talking about food when everybody was like ‘Oh, that’s cute, Tanya, but you know, we’re talking about air quality right now.'”
She looked around her neighborhood, a classic food desert, and noticed that it was full of empty lots — 10, she says, in “a one mile radius.” She wondered why her neighbors weren’t growing their own food. Eventually, she found herself cutting that lock.
And she’d do it all over again, she says –“absolutely” — if it weren’t for the fact that the police have told her that they would arrest her for any repeat unauthorized farming escapades.
But that doesn’t mean the citizens of the South Bronx won’t be hearing more from her in the future.
“I have this big personality,” says Fields. “I am a big woman. I have strong opinions. Sometimes people value those opinions. Sometimes it sparks some very intense conversations. But I have a lot to offer. And I am all up for making noise.”