A Practice of Freedom

by Neal Santos

The farmers you see featured in "A Practice of Freedom" are friends and colleagues I've met through my years of being a photojournalist and through me and my husband Andrew's time running Farm51. I present these portraits with minimal fuss, and hope that they evoke a feeling of familiarity, as if you could see these faces in every corner in any neighborhood. These portraits convey diversity, they convey leadership, and they convey domesticity in overlooked spaces.

And now, more than ever, do I think that food and farming can be healing, in bringing people to the table, breaking bread, breaking barriers, and allowing us the opportunity to be decent neighbors to each other.  This will always be a good place to start.

I'd like to thank the many people for helping me make this possible. To my husband, Andrew, for his encouragement and for everything he has taught me, to all the subjects featured for lending their powerful voices, to my friend Amy Laura for her guidance, friendship, and counsel, and to the editors of Jarry for publishing the story in their third issue, available for purchase here. 

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To understand the significance of urban agriculture in a city like Philadelphia, you have to look at its history. The Great Migration of African-Americans who moved here from the South. The exodus of Philadelphia's wealthy in the Sixties and Seventies, which resulted in empty homes and vacant land. The generations of elder Philadelphians, many of whom are African-American, Hispanic, Latino, and Asian, with deep ancestral roots to farming and gardening. In a city full of abandoned plots, they are the ones who transformed the plots into vegetable gardens. They're farmers, but more importantly, they're community leaders and activists, leading by example to demonstrate that empowerment comes from reducing drug crime, transforming vacant land into safe spaces, planting seeds, growing food, and building community. 

A lot of parallels can be drawn here to the queer experience. The work of farming is hard, unglamorous, uncomfortable, and has inherent struggle - a struggle that cultural outsiders and queer people may be more capable of overcoming than most. The process of embracing it, and embracing the odds, helps us gather as a community and define ourselves on our own terms. 

In Philadelphia--the fifth-largest American city, and the one with the highest rate of deep poverty--urban gardens and farms continue to grow in the city's most marginalized communities, where violence and drug crime occur regularly and where access to fresh food is a struggle. The city has over  40,000 parcels of vacant land. The owners of these properties range from the City of Philadelphia and its numerous agencies, to private individuals, both living and deceased, many of whom are tax delinquent. 

Beginning in 2008, my husband Andrew and I with the help of our friends and neighbors built a farm on two parcels of vacant land adjacent our home, which we call Farm 51. What was once teeming with urine-filled plastic bottles, old license plates, rubber tires, a gun, and mountains of weeds, is now a lush garden brimming with flowers, fruit trees, vegetables, chickens, and bees. For six seasons, we held weekly farm stands, selling what we grew to our friends and neighbors. We've since put the farm stand on hold but maintain the land, and Andrew now works full-time as a flower farmer for his business, Chicory Florals

Even without the farm stand component, Farm 51, like many of Philadelphia's urban farms and gardens, continues to be a neighborhood safe space, a productive garden, and a community common ground. If it's hard to picture two openly gay men homesteading in the Philadelphia 'hood, take a close look at the faces you see here, We aren't the first, the only, or the last. 

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Meet the subjects of this photo essay, Jeaninne, Owen, Chris, Jonah and Tracy, a few of Philadelphia's hardworking urban farmers, community leaders, and activists. 

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is a native Philadelphian, with family ties to the south. He's queer, black, and trans and has been working throughout the city's agricultural community for seven years. Currently, he works for Teens4Good Community Farm in North Philadelphia.  When we met, he'd finished his day and was locking the garden gates, and he emphasized the continuum that is sustainable farming: "[I enjoy] getting opportunities to teach youth who are just as excited about this work as I am, to pass on the lessons that I've learned, am continuing to learn."  

"Identifying as a queer black and trans farmer, I am hyper aware of social issues, and I am vigilant with the way I go about this work: Acknowledging the ways we can create a better environment by creating safe spaces and encouraging the youth I've taught. Continuing the traditions of my elders and continuing to be taught by the land and people I am fortunate to work with." 

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of Congolese and Filipino descent, identifies as a lesbian and works as a co-director of Urban Creators in North Philadelphia.  When we met to take her portrait, she wore a maroon Black Lives Matter shirt. For Jeaninne and her team at Urban Creators, they saw potential for community enrichment in the vacant land that now houses their operation. "It's our goal to make our farm a space where boys and girls from the block can trade their guns for shovels, bullets for seeds, and transition the selling of crack to the selling of kale," she said. She and her team host massive festivals and block parties there, including the Philadelphia installment of the national LIFE is LIVING festival, where instead of stepping through rows of dumped tires, trash, and concrete, the neighborhood's youth dances amongst rows of flowers, papers, and herbs. 

"To understand the earth as a feminine energy has made me realize and accept my own femininity. As a masculine-presenting woman I fought my femininity until I started working the land. Watching the curves in flowers and fruits, seeing how they were just like mine--I found the mother in myself nurturing."

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For Chris

growing food provides spiritual nourishment, and is in his blood. He's tall, wears his long hair under a hat, and has a tattoo of an okra plant on his arm. " I was raised to respect food and those who grow it," he says. "I was also raised with strong pride in my African and Southern U.S. heritage. I believe I was called to grow food and re-teach my African-American people in Philadelphia this art as I learn from them how we have survived." He co-runs the community farm at Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philly, working with African-American high school students and elder community gardeners. Chris' passion for farming led him to his husband Owen. They met at a food justice conference in Milwaukee. 

"We who love differently have been indispensable for our people. We hold and tell the stories. My elder gays used to say, "Telephone, telegraph, tell a queen!" I want to take it cosmically. We take care of our people! Something about the narrative I chose to accept-that my farming gay is a way to fulfill my unique role in my community-keeps me going. Farming for me is one of the most available, powerful, and effective ways to help me piece together this story for me today." 


is the soft-spoken, shorter one of the pair. His voice lends itself well to his music and his queer folk duo, My Gay Banjo. He started growing food at the age of fourteen in rural Connecticut. When we met up, he was walking through his patch of heirloom corn he grew, not for consumption, but for seed saving. "Keeping seeds connects us to our past and to our collective future," he said. "When we keep our seeds, we hold onto our freedom." Owen works for William Woys Weaver's Roughwood Seed Collection, primarily as a seed farmer, preserving and protecting rare and culturally important heirloom seeds. "In a time when we are losing more seed varieties to globalized, mechanized, hybridized, and genetically modified agriculture, I farm as a practice of freedom." 

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and her family manage one of Philly's established community gardens, Bodine Street Community Garden . Its history is storybook: three contiguous city lots, formerly abandoned and trash-strewn, now central neighborhood green space for the community surrounding it. It's been around for 36 years, and its impact to the neighborhood and the people living around it is long lasting and immeasurable. "When we first got involved we were one of a few gardeners, and about half of the space was unused. Now we have awaiting list of dozens of people with an average wait time of three to four years," she said. "Neighborhood relationships and friendships have started in the garden and permeated to the entire neighborhood." 

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The foods and vegetables I ate as a Filipino-American child once prompted my peers to pick on me in the school lunchroom. In adulthood, however, they helped catalyze friendships with people like Chris, or Tracy and Jeaninne, who both have Filipina mothers. Vegetables and plants like bittermelon, moringa, and okra help us relate to one another. We geek out on their uses, both as food and medicine, and how these foods create meaningful connections for us beyond our lives as farmers. 

My relationship with Andrew and all of these farmers has served to solidify my deep appreciation for farming, for food, and for all the potential for community that springs from it. All the connections--these separate, diverse, and wonderfully different seeds of urban farming and queer experiences--illustrate that farming is much more than growing food on available land. It gives us roots in our city. 

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