Cleo Silvers delivered the following keynote at our 2nd annual Food Ed Hub Awards Event. We thank Cleo for sharing her words and experience with us.
Cleo Silvers began her career as a community and labor organizer as a VISTA Volunteer and activist in the South Bronx beginning in 1966. Cleo went on to work as a labor organizer with several organizations such as Black Workers Congress. Today, Cleo works as a consultant for the Cossitt Library in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, and Crosstown High School, where she is part of a mentoring program for sixth graders to high school students. Cleo is the 2022 recipient of an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from City University of New York/Lehman College.
Good afternoon, friends, colleagues, loved ones, and honorees,
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak at your second annual Food Education Awards. Before we begin our dialogue and honor our 2021-2022 most deserving food advocates, I could not go forward with our discussion without also honoring your predecessors and some of my mentors.
There are many more inspiring details you can learn about our predecessors’ efforts, so I encourage you to do some more reflective research about them. Once you have researched them you will be even more inspired by these brilliant food and education activists.
To begin, we want to honor Dr. Mary Swartz Rose, the founder of the academic field of food and nutrition education, and for her 1922 booklet out of Columbia University: Teachers College Bulletin—Food Lessons for Nutrition Classes.
In addition, how amazing to have this profound Food Education event on the birthday of our revolutionary mentor and Harlemite, brother Malik Malcolm X. Whether it was a coincidence or not, I thank you for the thought.
Even before I arrived and got involved in the South Bronx in 1966, some 56 years ago, in 1959, Evelina Antonetty established United Bronx Parents (UBP) because she recognized the inequities in how our children were being educated and she wanted a quality education for her children. The goal and focus of UBP was to fight for the education system to serve Puerto Rican and Black children and to provide an equal quality education as was being delivered to more affluent children and families.
Evelina Antonetty was a mentor to me at the beginning of my work in the South Bronx. Ms. Antonetty, with her team, Kathy Goldman and Ellen Lurie, and the community's parents, showed me how to educate ourselves so that we understood the entire system and then how to fight against the structural injustice baked into the system. We learned how it impacted our community. The first powerful activist event I was involved with was when Ms. Antonetty discovered that the food for the kids in our community was second- or third-day food sent from Queens, Riverdale, and Yonkers. This was when I met my first Black Panther and my first Young Lord. We went to the lunchrooms in several of our schools: the meat was green around the edges, the milk was already sour when it was delivered, and the bread was stale. We collected the food in large black garbage bags and loaded it into a truck and headed down to the Board of Education with the parents. When Ms. Antonetty stood up to deliver her arguments on behalf of the parents regarding the health conditions in the schools, we (the Youth) were asked to pour this bad secondhand food into the well of the meeting room. Yes, this was a dramatic display to get the point across to the board members, but the result was that the children of the South Bronx finally received fresh milk, fresh foods, and no more moldy meat or bread. By the way, children dressed in veggie outfits might be just as effective these days.
Simultaneously, the Black Panther Party was beginning in Oakland, California. The Free Breakfast Program is the first project to help the Black community, communities of color, and disenfranchised communities achieve better nutrition so our kids would be able to compete on a level playing field in the school systems. We were told that no one could afford to feed children free food. So, we exposed to the world that it could be done in over forty-five communities dotted all over the United States. Suzanne Cope, in her book, Power Hungry, says, quoting me, "Starting in 1969, and for several years afterward, in church basements and community center kitchens in cities and towns around the United States, thousands of kids sat around a table every school day morning”, eating hot, "cooked from scratch" I should add, “breakfast served by the young adults of the Black Panther Party. At each seat, there was a plate and utensil set, a cup, and a napkin. The children learned to use their fork and knife properly, eating eggs and grits and bacon and toast, washed down by juice or milk or hot chocolate—whatever local businesses had donated that week." I was up at 5 AM at the breakfast program on Intervale Avenue.
I want to share with you that later when I returned to New York City in the mid-90s I had a short stint working at the Community Food Resource Center, founded and led by Kathy Goldman. The job they gave me was to monitor the food quality at about forty schools in districts seven and nine. As a community organizer, I met quite a few parents. They had so many complaints about the quality of the food the children were receiving. The major complaint was the children were never served any of the foods they were used to eating at home, and parents and kids wanted that. The second complaint was that the children never received cooked food. They were requesting to have stoves installed in the school kitchens. So, we organized parent/teacher nutrition committees. And we, the coalition of nutrition committees, wrote a letter to the head of the New York City school foods asking for a meeting to discuss these issues. I think his name was O'Neil or something like that. His initial answer was "Who do these parents think they are?" We wrote again and he answered with a date and time for the meeting. But along with that, he requested to have the head of that "Cleo Silvers" on a platter. I was able to attend the meeting with the parents. Before we could begin the meeting, he asked the parents assembled around the table, which one of you is Cleo Silvers? One of the parents stood up and said, it's me. Then two or three other parents stood up. Mr. O'Neil said OK, and the meeting continued. Eventually, I was fired because he requested it. However, I have three letters of recommendation from nutrition committees, two plaques praising my work as a child nutrition advocate from parent/teacher/student nutrition committees, and not only those things, but we also had a fabulous going away party attended by almost all the parents and kids as well as teachers and district leaders. That party was held in the District Seven offices, off 149th Street and Third Avenue. Eventually, the parents had their requests answered even without the organizer and catalyst, who had gone on to another struggle. The parents had organized themselves and continued to fight.
Another group I want to honor is the community garden fighters in New York City and in particular the founders and proprietors of the Padre Plaza Success Garden. We started that garden sometime in the 2000s, over at the For A Better Bronx, a community environmental justice organization office. We decided to either begin or support several community gardens in the community because there were no markets or places where fresh fruits and vegetables could be purchased for anyone in the community. We called them "food deserts."
I point particularly to Padre Plaza because it was only a lot on 139th Street and St. Ann's Avenue, next door to a church. The lot was full to about five feet high with old tires and other junk. Old men in the day and young men in the evening used to hang out in there. Sometimes they were smoking or doing drugs or maybe just talking. A few of us went over there and stood around. We finally told the old men that we wanted the lot to start a garden. They told us that they didn't know who it belonged to and someone had asked the church if it was theirs. The church said no. We reiterated that we wanted to start a garden and that we had tools, materials, and seeds to get it started. We went away and then a few days later the lot was cleared of all the old junk and tires and was hoed and garden ready. We don't know who did it and were not sure when exactly it happened but with the help and leadership of Sheila and Mike Young, we got the garden started and offered shares to individuals in the community who were interested. We started growing vegetables and over the years they dug a pond and constructed a bridge over it, then built a gazebo, began a composting program for the entire community, began a summer camp for the kids of the South Bronx, and so much more contributing to the health and unity of the community.
Please see the newspaper article about the garden of which I am so proud.
I share these stories with you to inform the next part of the discussion, this is for those who want to know how to continue to fight to change the world without getting tired, for those who are worried about "burnout", keep this in mind.
These things are the key to keeping your "hand on the plow" just as our ancestors did, to get us here today.
Unmitigated commitment to the struggle.
Certainly, if what you are struggling for is good and correct, helpful and in the interest of all the people, that we will be successful ultimately.
Complete unity is the glue that holds the group together.
Confidence in the people.
That if we hold on to and remember these ideas, there is no possibility that we will not be successful.
Thank you all for your time and attention. Congratulations and continued success to the awardees and the organizations. Don't give up on doing the right thing and making change where it is needed.
ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!