Profiles in the fight for environmental justice: s...

Profiles in the fight for environmental justice: shane bernardo

shane bernardo. Photo by Cybelle Codish.

For the first 13 years of shane bernardo’s life, his Filipino immigrant parents ran a grocery store on the west side of Detroit that attracted Southeast Asian, West African, and Afro-Caribbean Detroiters. The family grew a garden each year, with plants like bitter melon, yardlong beans, and Chinese eggplant. The garden and store were ways for bernardo’s family to stay connected to their culture while living in an unfamiliar place where they often faced othering and discrimination due to their racial background.   

Those early immigrant experiences, bernardo says, were the foundation for the food justice path he now finds himself on. 

“The awareness that I grew up in was how much our food staples were connected to our identity, which connected us to our ancestors, which connected us to our ancestral lands, and our land-based traditions,” he says. 

Even so, he remembers being less than enthused sitting in his high school guidance counselor’s office years ago, discussing the results of a career finder test that had shown he was best suited to become a farmer. 

“I laughed at it,” he recalls. “Are you kidding me? The last thing I want to do is be a farmer.” 

A path back to the land

At the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s in Detroit, bernardo’s family was forced to close their grocery store. The store “would constantly be broken into,” he says, after his father refused to become involved in the local drug trade. 

When the store closed, bernardo noticed a huge impact on his father’s mental health. 

“A lot of his and our identity came from being able to maintain our cultural traditions around food,” he recalls. “Food served as a proxy relationship between ourselves and our location in the diaspora.” 

As bernardo got older he began learning about the history of the particular food his family had sold at the grocery store, and how the food similarities across Filipino, Carribean, and West African communities in Detroit came to be. 

“A lot of these staples, recipes, and culinary traditions, and the commonalities that we shared all between them came as a result of who we were colonized by and who we traded with.” 

Through this knowledge, he began to make connections between his parents’ experience — leaving their homeland, losing their grocery store—and the intertwined issues of food, justice, and healing that has become the essence of his work. 

By planting culturally relevant foods, maintaining traditions, and reconnecting with his culture by getting back to the earth, bernardo is seeking to use food as a mechanism for healing, and for fighting against the long lasting imprint of colonization. 

“The basis that I was raised with around food and culture gave me a foundational understanding of how all these pieces fit together.”  

Food organizing as vocation

These days, bernardo is pretty close to being the farmer that his guidance counselor told him he would be. 

After working at Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit for more than six years, he co-founded Food As Healing, a vehicle for food justice organizing. He collaborates with farmers across Detroit, catalyzed by his work with Allied Media Conference, to help them source food from Black and brown farmers in the city. He also tends a robust garden of his own where he’s growing everything from herbs to watermelon to cabbage to three different varieties of garlic. 

During the covid crisis, bernardo has been working with a variety of food pantries and banks to help transition them from offering charity to supporting food justice

“Charity work maintains the status quo of chronic poverty and hunger and structural racism, and food justice addresses the disparities around power that make them issues,” he explains.

Examples of food justice might look like cooking classes that raise awareness around the chronic diseases that disproportionately impact people of color and low-income communities. It might look like resource- and skill-sharing, or supporting efforts to build community gardens. In contrast, food charity may look like a food bank that solely hands out food — which is important in addressing immediate food insecurity, but doesn’t promote systemic change. 

In addition to food justice organizing, bernardo works as an anti-racism facilitator and consultant for various groups and organizations. One of those roles is as cohort facilitator for the 2019-2020 Detroit Equity Action Action Lab (DEAL) fellowship —  a program designed to bring people together working to address systemic racial oppression in Detroit. 

For bernardo, the issues facing Black, brown and indigenous communities today: climate change, a fragile industrial food system built on exploitative labor practices, and economic precarity, are aspects of “a system predicated on the ideals of settler colonialism, structural racism, and cis-hetero-patriarchy.” 

He believes one way to get at the root cause of these issues is by advancing community empowerment through food justice, because of the personal relationship people have with food.

Think of your favorite dish, he says. Most likely it came to you right away and you have fond memories of it, commonly related to cultural or familial traditions.

(bernardo’s favorite dish is lugaw, a porridge made with chicken stock and leftover rice, topped with fish sauce, green onions, and fresh cracked black pepper. It’s a dish his grandmother used to make, and he says, it’s good for relieving congestion.) 

Elevating Black, brown and indigenous voices 

Years ago, bernardo and several other Detroiters started an environmental justice storytelling collective in Detroit. 

“We started it as a way of interjecting the voices of residents of color in Detroit into the white-washed mainstream of the environmental justice movement,”he said. “In addition to our voices and our stories we also wanted to interject that things like gentrification are a form of environmental racism. Mass foreclosures are a form of environmental racism. Water shutoffs are a form of environmental racism.” 

While the group hasn’t met in a while, he says “the work that we set out to do still lives in some way or fashion.” 

He gives an update on what the co-founders are up to now, because it’s important to him to highlight that he’s not the only one doing this work including Michelle Martinez, coordinator at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (and the subject of Planet Detroit’s first profile in this series), Ahmina Maxey, co-director at the Transforming Power Fund, Siwatu-Salama Ra, who works to connect motherhood and environmental justice, Marcia Lee, who started an urban sanctuary, Bill Wiley-Kellerman who is actively writing in his community, and Rhonda Anderson, an organizer with the Sierra Club.

He also points to many organizations that have been doing the work including: Feedom Freedom Growers, Georgia Street Community Collective, Oakland Ave Urban Garden, Brother Nature Produce, and Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

“It’s this idea of co-liberation. I didn’t invent the work, it’s been done before, and I’m adding to it,”   he says “Folks have really been doing this work for a long time. That orientation is important for seeing how all of our liberation is intertwined in one anothers’.”  

And then there’s him, he says “trying to promote this idea of food as healing and how to tap into our ancestral database as part of that work.” 

To hear more from bernardo, you can read his personal essay recently published in Tostada magazine. He appreciates developing reciprocal relationships with others and hopes that people who want to connect with him to share their story, hear his, or a combination of both, will contact him here.