What Paulo Friere and bell hooks Can Teach Us About the Food Conversation

What drew me to teaching, more than the content of my field, was the opportunity to work with others. I was in love with this idea that I could walk into a classroom, sit down, and engage people in a conversation about things we felt were important. At some point during my education, I was introduced first to the work of Paulo Friere and then later to bell hooks. What I loved about their approach to teaching was that it fostered communication and cooperation between interested parties without encouraging relationships based on what I felt were pointless hierarchies. Perhaps one of the reasons I thought these structures of authority were pointless was because growing up my family was poor and I spent a good deal of my early years at the bottom looking up. The thought of being in a position of authority, thus being on the top and looking down, did not feel genuine. I felt like a fraud and that just wasn’t who I was going to be as an educator. While I may have had more schooling on how to write, my students were the ones that had to teach the class why we needed to learn it.  

So what does this have to do with Food and the Humanities? Quite simply, I found that the types of conversations I was having in my classroom—and mind you that I began my career teaching developmental education at a community college in Southeast Philly—were the very conversations that should be happening about our food system, but were not. The discourse I have observed about our food system both on a local and national level does not only appear to be top-down, but the language being generated is one that is absent of the culture and intellectualism that is so uniquely human.

This is why I believe that not only should we engage ourselves in a humanities focused conversation about food, but that the communication also flow horizontally. This is where I believe we should take a page from Friere and hooks. In bell hooks essay, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” she argues not only for the need for a democratic discourse, but also how the absence of such a conversation is disempowering.

In this particular essay the discourse hooks challenges is in regards to race and gender. What she points out is that those who are in the privileged position to both create language and control the conversation are not those whom it is for, nor are those who are the subject of this discourse empowered under the present system to be the authorities of their own definition. According to hooks:

Often individuals who employ certain terms freely—terms like “theory” or “feminism” —are not necessarily practitioners whose habits of being and living most embody the action, the practice of theorizing or engaging in feminist struggle. Indeed, the privileged act of naming often affords those in power access to modes of communication and enables them to project an interpretation, a definition, a description of their work and actions, that may not be accurate, that may obscure what is really taking place.

So I’ll use myself as an example to highlight how this relates to the food system:

I am a white cis male, middle class, I have a college education, and I work in an institution for higher education. All of these things influence my level of authority. So I could go out and read some books about food, grow a couple tomato plants in my backyard, write a book about it, and then profess that I have the answer to this food system issue. By the way, I would not be the first balding white guy with glasses to do this.

In this situation the value I bring is that as a humanities scholar, I am creating language for others to use when they feel the need to talk about food on a humanistic level. Now what happens when my work, shaped by my identity and my understanding of the world, is used to enact change in an environment it does not speak to? Worse yet, what if the work I’ve done and the language I’ve created is used to devalue those who are trying to create their own solution?      

In response to this, hooks believes that, “—we need new theories rooted in an attempt to understand both the nature of our contemporary predicament and the means by which we might collectively engage in resistance that would transform our current reality.” This collective engagement, I believe, is the first step we should take if we want a food system that is both functional and democratic. 

-Kelly R. Allen, Northampton Community College