Trust, transformative justice and JBG

One of Texas' largest organic farms closed without warning last month. But people noticed. And they are pissed.

The closure of Johnson’s Backyard Garden has left dozens without jobs and hundreds of CSA subscribers and customers without vegetables. The longtime organic farm was a large purveyor of produce to local school districts and participated in community relief, and its abrupt demise has left many with questions about equity, access and power within Austin’s local food system.

The Austin food community has been rattled these past few weeks at the news that Johnson's Backyard Garden was closed, indefinitely and perhaps permanently. 

News outlets have reported on the reaction from CSA subscribers, but the story of what happened at the farm and with the owner, Brenton Johnson, has been left to whispers, rumors and a Reddit thread.

Former employees released a statement indicating that they had all left their positions but that they wanted to work toward saving the nearly 300 acre farm, which is one of the largest organic vegetable farms in the state.

More than a month later, there’s been no official word from the owner, who (I believe) is the only person left with the company and operation. (He does not have a business partner, and JBG isn’t a family business.)

It’s been clear something is afoot since the CSA took a monthlong break in August, but the reality of the closure, temporary or otherwise, is setting in for the folks who have paid for a full season of a CSA aren’t getting their money back any time soon.

That hundreds of acres of organic farmland are going unused is tough news for the people who work every day to increase access to local food and farmland.

Dobbin-Kauv farmer Tiffany Washington is one of those people. Washington, whom I profiled during my last year at the Statesman, has just more than an acre in East Austin.

Earlier this week, she shared her thoughts about the situation through the lens of race inequity, and I realized that I hadn’t yet considered the systemic issues that have contributed to this whole ordeal.

So today, when I was on the hike-and-bike trail for some exercise, I decided to do a livestream from Zilker Park, where I shared a few thoughts on the situation.

I thought I was responding rather than reactive, but I can see that I was more emotionally activated that I should have been to be commenting — nobody wins when white women cry about racism. I take responsibility for that.

But fast forward several hours and several deep conversations with people in the food system, I realize that opening this can of worms today opened up some important conversations about what has been happening and how things are unfolding. 

Not all of those conversations were easy because trauma isn’t easy. And being called out and called in aren’t easy, either.

Let’s talk about these ideas for a minute:

“Calling in” rather than “calling out.”

It’s a strategy in the transformative justice movement, and I’ve read the most about this subject from Adrienne Maree Brown, author of "Pleasure Activism" and "We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice," which is part of her "Emergent Strategy" series. 

In it, Brown explains why we need "justice practices that go all the way to the root of the problem and generate solutions and healing there, such that the conditions that create injustice are transformed."

If we don't try to get at the root of the issue for us collectively and individually, we will perpetuate systemic oppressions.

Addicts don't get a free pass for abuse when they are in crisis, and victims of abuse don't get a free pass if they perpetuate that abuse on others.

A community's silence can be abuse, too. 

More from amb: 

"When the response to mistakes, failures and misunderstandings is emotional, psychological, economic and physical punishment, we breed a culture of fear, secrecy and isolation." 

People are experiencing high levels of active trauma, and I'm clearly still working through plenty of it. This isn’t simply the case of a guy quitting his farm job. There’s community trauma and grief, even if no one says it by name.

I'm not involved in this situation directly, but I can take some cues from "Emergent Strategy" on what to do when things like this happen: 

Listen with a "why" framework. What's the root of why this is all happening or each of us is reacting in the way we did?

Ask: What can I learn from this that will help us improve our humanity? Not 'What can the other person learn from this?' And remember: Never a failure, always a lesson.

Create new possibilities. How can we create more possibilities? What are the rooted problems in my community and what do deep, foundational and rooted solutions look like?

Don’t check out. Take good self care and also pay attention. Find that balance so you can stay engaged with what’s going on in the world. Then ask yourself: How can my real time actions contribute to transforming this situation (versus making it worse)? 

Brown advocates for direct communication when possible, but that’s not the safest option when dealing with possibly violent situations. 

When people tell you and show you that they don’t feel safe, believe them.

Finally, I want to leave with one more AMB quote:

"I feel like we are responsible for each other's transformation. Not the transformation from vibrant flawed humans to bits of ash, but rather the transformation from broken people and communities to whole ones. I believe transformative justice could yield deeper trust, resilience and interdependence. All these mass and intimate punishments keep us small and fragile. And right now our movements and the people within them need to be massive and complex and strong."

This one helps me remember that it takes a willingness to fumble to grow a movement into something “massive complex and strong.” We do that through these small interactions. These Instagram DMs and Facebook comments. “Hey can we talk?” texts.

They might not feel like they get us anywhere, but they contribute to the trust-building that has to happen for any meaningful change to take place.

That is something that I’m celebrating today. That there’s enough trust in this community for people to talk to each other. For us to not have to entirely understand a situation in order to be shaped by it.

For one person to speak up and inspire a bunch of other people to start talking, not to gossip but to grow and learn and change.

For more on transformative justice:

A Roadmap Away From ‘Cancel Culture’ and Towards Transformative Justice

What is/isn’t transformative justice?

On Cancel Culture, Accountability, and Transformative Justice


Hi, all. It’s me again.

I usually send newsletters once a week to paid subscribers, but I’m sharing this week’s trio of posts with all subscribers because I didn’t think they belonged behind the proverbial paywall. (If you do want to chip in for the paid subscription, my self-employed bank account thanks you!)

I hope these posts about ancestral healing, Clarksville and transformative justice have resonated with you.

If this is the first time you’ve read one of my posts — thanks for stopping by and I hope you’ll consider signing up to receive the newsletter each week.

If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you’ll know that I frequently turn to “Emergent Strategy” when looking for wisdom about being a human in the 21st century.

Because I’ve learned so much from it, I wanted to announce that I’m organizing a community book club that starts on Oct. 27 to talk about “Emergent Strategy” in a virtual group setting.

We’ll have an in-person launch gathering on Oct. 16, followed by three Zoom meetings in October and November. You can sign up at