Feeding Detroit

Date: 22 Feb 2024 | posted in: Building Local Power, Detroit | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
Lanay Gilbert-Williams, born and raised in Detroit, experienced a childhood marked by both trauma and love, instilling in her a deep sense of community. On this episode of Building Local Power: The City Series, Lanay shares her journey to becoming the board president of The Detroit People’s Food Cooperative, a grocery store grounded in the principles of Black community ownership and food sovereignty. Inspired by the Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network, the cooperative embodies intergenerational and interracial collaboration. In sharing her story, Lanay emphasizes the importance of local self-reliance, advocating for solutions grown within the city and tailored to its residents. The Detroit People’s Food Cooperative represents a vital step towards fostering food sovereignty in a neighborhood historically affected by food apartheid, contributing to Detroit’s journey towards greater self-sufficiency and empowerment.
Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome back to another episode of Building Local Power Detroit, our first stop in a multi-city series where we explore how to build local power from the experiences of people who were doing just that on the ground in their respective cities. These are the people who are proving what’s possible when a community comes together to shape its future. We talk to community leaders, advocates, activists, entrepreneurs, elected officials, all who have powerful stories about the drive to write Detroit’s next chapter. We think these stories will be illuminating in their own right, but also hope they inspire you on your journey to build local power wherever you’re listening from. I’m so excited to do this tour with my co-host, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: I am so excited too. What’s going on, Reggie? How are you?
Reggie Rucker: I’m great. And I know you’re just as excited about this episode as I am, but it takes on a special meaning for me because it’s an episode about food and I love food. I mean, everybody loves food, but I truly have this special relationship with food. And, Luke, I know I keep throwing old nostalgic music at you, do you remember this old Boyz II Men song, A Song For Mama?
Luke Gannon: Reggie, you taught me everything. Of course, I remember the song.
Reggie Rucker: Okay. Good. So Boyz II Men, although originated from Philly, they were signed to Motown Records. So there’s your Detroit connection. But there’s this line in the song about the loving you is like food for my Soul, and it was on the Soul Food movie soundtrack, but that line hits, especially today. I thought about it for this episode, the way that food has a way of stitching families together, communities together with love as the fabric. We talk today to a leader of a food co-op in Detroit. And boy, does she embody everything about that essence of love and community and the power of food to sustain it and hold it all together? I truly can’t wait for you to hear her story and message. So, Luke, why don’t you go ahead and take it away.
Luke Gannon: Thanks, Reggie. It’s true. You really said it all. So with that, let’s jump right into Lanay’s story. Here’s Lanay.
Lanay Gilbert-W…: My name is Lanay Gilbert-Williams. I am the Board President of Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a black led, community-owned grocery store that’ll open this year in Detroit. I am a native Detroiter, so born and raised here. I have birthed all my babies here. My parents are here and my family is here. So Detroit is home for me. I am probably like many Detroiters, one who had a childhood filled with the trauma and love. My mother was a single mother of my siblings and I. She had been on drugs, she’d gone through recovery. My siblings and I, my sisters, we were teen moms. I’ve gone to 13 different schools before graduating high school, right? So we’ve moved even more than that. We were moving every year, every year and a half.
Detroit is in my bones. It’s what I know. That’s why I’m still here. It’s what I know. And it is a villagey type city, right? So it’s a big city, but we all are comfortable around each other. Like any city on the planet, all the shadows roll together, everybody in the light rolls together. So Detroit is home. I love the way we do. It’s a love-filled place.
Well, my mom in going through Narcotics Anonymous. Growing up, as children have always seen her helping people, being around people of different ethnic backgrounds. That’s how NA goes. Everybody shows up and they’re open and they’re vulnerable and they’re supportive of each other. I’ve always seen my mom in those spaces, always. I don’t remember my mom not being the person that she is, even when she was an addict. She has literally always been her. And so she is loving and she’s helpful. I’ve gone to her house before and she say, “Hey, meet so-and-so. I met her at the dentist’s office earlier,” and invited her over for dinner.
When we were younger, she used to stop and pick other moms and children up who were walking with groceries and say, “Kids, move over, get in the back.” We’re like, “Here she go again.” And she [inaudible 00:05:19] thing. She like 117 pounds. She like 5253, but this is just who she is. She is absolutely phenomenal and she’s still that way today. She’s a mama through and through. She’s a community mama through and through. And so all of my siblings, we are that type of people. We’re community people. Anybody who knows us know we can walk into a space and we’re going to be serving in some type of way or people will know us in a short amount of time. But that’s how my mom is.
My dad, if you live in this neighborhood, everybody knows who Mr. Gilbert is, “You’re Mr. Gilbert’s daughter, right?” So for both of my parents to say their name to anyone who knows them, it opens the door. It automatically builds trust between you and them because, “I know your mama. I know your daddy.” They know all their neighbors here in the city of Detroit. They’re those type of people.
Luke Gannon: The idea for Detroit People’s Food Co-op was inspired by an allied organization called the Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network. At the core of both of these organizations is community.
Lanay Gilbert-W…: This is an organization that has been knee-deep in the fight for black food sovereignty here in Detroit for over a decade, right? So the importance is to ensure that in this predominantly African Americans city, the people in this city have a space and opportunity to govern their food system. Detroit People’s Food Co-op has 14 plus years in the making. So it’s Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network that put together the steering committees, went out, did research, raised the money for the market studies and things like that. So this is important. This co-op is important for a number of reasons here in the city of Detroit, and even in the neighborhood in which it’s being built. The building itself is co-owned by the Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network and another organization, Develop Detroit. So the co-op is an anger tenant in the building. So that organization envisioned the co-op. And then once it was created, it’s become its own entity. So in this $22 plus million building where the primary tenant on the first floor in this building was literally built to house the co-op. So it’s built to suit.
Luke Gannon: Food is essential to life, and it’s not just the physical nourishment. The cooperative is constructed by and for the community working hand in hand with local vendors and farmers to ensure that dollars remain within the community, circulating and fostering local economic sustainability.
Lanay Gilbert-W…: The city is predominantly African American, and the majority of the grocery stores, the gas stations, all of the stores period are not African American owned or run, right? In this historically black city. This is not something that our children are used to seeing. It’s important to give people in any community the right and the opportunity to govern their food system. Food should be healthy, it should be affordable, it should be culturally relevant. If you go into a Hispanic grocery store, an Italian grocery store, an African grocery store, you will see foods that are relevant to that community. That is not something that you see in the city of Detroit. That is not something that our children are used to seeing. Our children are not in the habit of seeing the adults in their community create the solutions to the most basic issues in the community. It needs to happen. So not only is this co-op Black-led, again, which is important.
We have two smaller Black-owned grocery stores that opened up within the last two years. They’re small. Our larger grocery store, Kroger, Meijer, Walmart, those are not community-owned. Those are not Black-led. Those do not reinvest their money in the community like a co-op does, right? Detroit does not have a food co-op. Detroit People’s Food Co-op is the only co-op. We’ve had food co-ops in the past. We have no food co-ops right now. So the community is not getting to govern its food. So it’s important that it’s Black-led. It’s in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of grocery stores, right? People tend to call these areas food deserts. In the Black food sovereignty space and movement, we don’t say food deserts because we acknowledge that a desert is naturally created. If you have anywhere on the planet that there is no access to food, that’s a food apartheid, that is intentionally created, that’s strategic. There’s food everywhere. This is not a food desert in which we’re building a grocery store. This is some intentional things being done.
This is a community that used to house another community, Black Bottom, right? So as the United States of America decades ago [inaudible 00:11:37] this clearance of a lot of minority communities throughout the U.S., it was called slum clearance or something like that. There was an act to clear the slums in many communities across the United States of America. Here in Detroit, that’s in a community called Black Bottom, where you have thriving Black businesses, majority Black people lived in this area. Detroit built 75 freeway through it. This is the same area in which the co-op is being built. That’s important. So historically, that’s important.
Black people in this city where we have 30 plus percent living at or below poverty level, the majority of our parents live at or below poverty level. I think it’s like 43, 45% of our children live at or below poverty level. Black folks need a win. Our children are watching our communities go through gentrification where people were going from the majority of our stores not being run by the adults in our children’s community, and now we have new adults moving in the community who are acquiring power that still yet our young people have not even seen the adults in their community acquire. This is absolutely necessary.
So on top of all of that, it’s a community-owned grocery store. So Detroit has different populations. We have African populations, African American, Indian, Asian, White. We have all these different ethnicities represented in Detroit, but it’s a segregated city. We have large Arab population, we have Dearborn. For all these different populations, we don’t come together, we don’t work together. We tend not to even go into each other’s neighborhoods. This is the only opportunity that Detroit has right now in which people from all these different communities can come together and run this business together. That’s crazy. It’s an absolute heaven.
Luke Gannon: All revolutionary ideas stem from a pressing need in a bold vision. The executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network has long been dedicated to initiating and organizing systemic changes within the education and food spaces.
Lanay Gilbert-W…: The executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network, his name is Malik Yakini. I met him when my 19-year-old had entered into kindergarten. I was a homeschooling parent and I said, “Either my child is going to be homeschooled by me or be in an African-centered school.” We had a few African-centered schools here, schools that teach your Black child about Black history, 365 days a year instead of only 28, 29 days in February, who teaches our children about their ancestry and their city’s history. And so I enrolled her in this school and he was the principal at the time. He was a co-founder of this African-centered school in [inaudible 00:15:05].
And he’d been known for doing a lot in the Black community, to assist the community in being self-determined, right? In creating solutions in the community. He has done things like, assisted with the creation of the Detroit Food Policy Council, the National Black Food and Justice Alliance. He has done a number of things to just bring us together because, again, it’s necessary. And this is how so many people got involved. When he talked about the food co-op over a decade ago, I said, “Whatever it is that he’s doing, I know he’s going to pull it off, and I know he is going to back it with a sincere heart and he’s going to bring awesome people together,” just because I knew his character.
So I am in the habit of collecting elders in my life, I love to gain wisdom, I like to listen to it, I like to listen to the stories and the history. And he is one that I’ve gone to time and time again over the years to ask questions about serving in the community, “Where do you think I would best serve in the community? How do you think I could help out?” I would randomly send him messages and he would just randomly answer. It’s always available to give some tidbits of wisdom. So when he talked about the food co-op, it was just a thought, but I was like, “Hey, where can I pay my money?” Right? So many of us were like, “Take my money.”
Someone asked me recently, “How did you get this many member owners to invest in something that’s not even built yet?” It’s because we knew the people involved. This board of the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, each board member has their own following. These are people who love people, right? They love people. And in loving people, they also love themselves and love their community. So just like they stand up for other people, they stand up for themselves and their community. It’s an amazing table to have a seat at. So I just wanted to get involved. I’d been a member owner for quite some time. And in the past few years I said, “You know what? Let me join a committee. Let me prioritize time. We have enough time to do everything. It just depends on how we prioritize it. Let me prioritize time to add on to the Detroit People’s Food Co-op.”
I am a mom of six. It is important to me to live, be a living example of the principles that I teach to my children. And I say to my children, “No matter where you live on the planet, wherever you live on the planet when you’re older, I want you to pay attention to the issues in the community and determine what part of what solution you’re going to play.” They have to see me doing that in order to embody that. Me watching my mother is like, “If you’re my child, people will be able to recognize you by your works. Don’t show up and say you’re mine and you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to do, right?”
Luke Gannon: When election season arrived, Lanay started being mentored by another committee chair. Eventually, this chair asked Lanay if she would consider running for a board position. Lanay decided to run and was successfully elected. Following her service on a committee and learning under the guidance of her mentor, she eventually became the board president. But along the journey to bring the Detroit People’s Food Cooperative to fruition, they’ve encountered various obstacles.
Lanay Gilbert-W…: The majority of the co-ops across the U.S. are not Black-led. And so Black-led co-ops have the same obstacles and that is getting access to funding just like any Black-owned business. So that was probably the main obstacle is getting funding. I know that the DBCFSN had to go through a whole lot with the city, and getting the land, the back and forth. I know in being a guest speaker at an organization here in Detroit that supports people of color, I’ve been asked by people in that organization, “Are you going to continue to say that the co-op is Black-led? Aren’t you worried about that? Aren’t you concerned that you’re going to be sued? Can you legally say that? Aren’t you scared that people are going to call you racist?” I heard a whole lot of crazy stuff that day.
I thought that was so odd because it’s an organization that supports people of color, number one. Number two, these were all elders. And I thought, “Have you never had to fight for anything in your life? Why would you attempt to make me question what I’m fighting for if it’s not wrong?” We are in a predominantly African American city. I have children who are not in the habit of seeing the adults in their community create the solutions in their community. They see the killing of unarmed Black men. We are in that whole era where not only do these things happen, but they’re widely publicized and social media makes it even bigger.
Our babies don’t see us doing big things for us in our communities. They see us being beat down, or because of generational poverty and generational trauma, they see us beating each other down and they can easily believe that this is just who we are as a people. They’ve not seen us at our best because they aren’t old enough to know about all the thriving Black communities and businesses we’ve had, the work that we’ve done because a lot of those things got erased.
For elders to say those things to me, for a split second, made me wonder, “Should I be the one in a space talking about Black stuff? Am I stirring the pot? Do I want to be the one that stirs the pot?” It’s my husband impressed upon me the need to speak the truth at any time and in any room. And he said, “Whatever it is that you say and however it is that you represent the co-op will be on point because they chose you to be the board president and knew who you were before becoming a board president, right? You’ve been represented up until this point. Just get up there and talk the truth.” And after I did that, some city council members came to me and said, “My goodness, you said so many things up there that we can’t say out loud.” That was weird. “You’re elected public officials, you mean you can’t speak about the elephants in the room?” It was feeling really Twilight Zone-ish. For me personally, that has been an obstacle.
But when I get into a room with the member owners, again, Black, White, every other ethnicity you can imagine, they love it. They love being in a room with somebody who’s willing to say out loud what we all see, but we don’t talk about. I am grateful to inherit the wisdom of the generations before me, but I don’t have that fear. And if ever I do, then I need to be stepped back or put down. And I love this younger generation that’s coming up because they are willing to address the elephants in the room.
Luke Gannon: While the Detroit People’s Food Cooperative is becoming a reality, thanks to an intergenerational vision, one that seeks to give back to the very people who conceived it. And in America where privatization reigns supreme, it can be challenging for individuals to grasp the notion that ownership doesn’t have to be confined to the individual. It can be shared.
Lanay Gilbert-W…: The myth in impoverished communities is that the only way that you can own something is if you are a rich white male or if you are a millionaire of any ethnicity. It’s been really hard to get the community to understand that they own the grocery store and that they govern it through coming to committee meetings and joining all of the different processes involved, their votes, the work that’s really hard. It’s over 2,200 member owners of the grocery store and counting from all over Michigan. It’s really hard to get people to wrap their head around this business model that you can come together, pull your money together, and you can move mountains. They’re not buying that, and that’s hard.
Luke Gannon: Despite the challenges, Lanay continues to be motivated by what the co-op means for the Detroit community.
Lanay Gilbert-W…: Self-reliance in a city, it means to me that those in the city, again, are creating solutions from within the city and supporting each other. We are circulating our money in the city. That’s not something that’s happening in Detroit right now. We have many business owners who come into the city, they make money and they take it right back out of the city. A self-reliant city utilizes its resources to care for itself. Detroit needs that. It is important for a city to grow its solutions from within the city, solutions that are relevant to the residents in a city, and that’s how I see a self-reliant city.
Now, when it comes to the co-op, we accept vendors. We’ve been accepting applications from vendors all over the state of Michigan. On our application, it states that we prioritize local vendors. We also prioritize vendors who are people of color. It is very important for people to know that when they shop in the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, they are putting money in the pockets of people in their community. And this grocery store, you will have local products. Local vendors will be feeding families in the community. We’re looking for staff members from within the community. So we’re adding to the self-reliance of the city.
Luke Gannon: At the heart of this vision is a simple principle, love.
Lanay Gilbert-W…: It’s a book that was in my mom’s bookshelf when I was younger. I think she used to go to secondhand stores and buy a gazillion books. And she’s one of those moms where if you said, “I’m bored,” she’d say, “Go read a book.” And so there was a book titled Love by an author, Leo Buscaglia, I believe an Italian author. And he actually studied love so much that he was giving college courses on it. That’s one of those elephants in a room, right? We all have experienced love, we all talk about it, we don’t talk about it, right? How it influences us, how we utilize it, how it shapes the world around us. And that was a book at 12 or 13 changed my life. And every few years, I read it again just to remind myself of how important it is to love on purpose, to prioritize loving.
And for me, again, as a mother, I talk to my children a lot about fear. And I believe that love is an awesome solution to combating fear. So I say to my children, “Sometimes if you watch the news, you’ll see that there’s an agenda going on to make people hate each other, make us fight each other, make us fire ourselves. And I want you to know that’s strategic. You have to focus on love. You have to love yourself.” Again, you can’t fight for Black food sovereignty if you’re Black and you don’t love being Black. I love other people who are not Black and I love myself, I love my children, I love my community, right?
And so that fuels me to be in spaces and speak about the importance of us loving each other and loving ourselves, loving the differences that each of us has, respecting that we are different. No, we are not all the same. You cannot love a person if you’re not willing to see their differences and what makes them them. So the Black community should be allowed to be Black however it defines that. And so should every other ethnic group. And then we should all bring our A game, what we love to the table, and share it with each other. That book inspired me to do that as a young child.
Luke Gannon: There was so much wisdom, history, knowledge, and love in this story. Thank you so much, Lanay, for sharing your story and your love with us on the show today.
Reggie Rucker: Great job, Luke. Thank you so much for this. And, Lanay, we see you doing big things. Thank you. And next to all of you, our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back again in two weeks with another story out of Detroit. But in the meantime, check out the show notes from today’s episode to dive deeper into what we discussed today. And as always, you can visit ilsr.org for more on our work to fight corporate control and build local power. Or just send us an email to buildinglocalpower@ilsr.org. Let us know what’s on your mind. This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. The podcast is edited by Luke Gannon and Téa Noelle. The music for the season is also composed by Téa Noelle. Thank you so much for listening to Building Local Power.


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Music Credit: Mattéa Overstreet

Photo Credit: Em McPhie, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Luke Gannon and Mattéa Overstreet

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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