Inspired By… Shane Bernardo on food justice, water as life & community resilience


garden tour

Welcome back to Inspired By…, Tostada Magazine’s occasional series where we interview the artists, innovators, and leaders who are working to create change in our communities. Each dispatch, we aim to chat with an influential figure in one of Detroit’s many food and drink places and find out what inspires their world. For this edition of Inspired By…, contributor Steffi Cao talks with Shane Bernardo, a Filipino-American community organizer, facilitator and lifelong eastsider, about his work with Food as Healing, a collective of efforts to fight issues around food and water in and around the Motor City. He was recently among a group of chefs, farmers, fellow organizers who facilitated the Dream Cafe at the 20th Allied Media Conference in Detroit.

Driving on Woodward Avenue, churches, liquor stores and fast-food restaurants flip by as you make your way into the heart of Detroit, the belly of the gentrified beast. In the last few years alone, the city has faced government-enforced water shutoffs, rapid corporate takeover by companies like Quicken Loans, and widespread obesity and diabetes as its citizens receive limited access to healthy, fresh food. Especially in historically Black and low-income neighborhoods, the results of this systemic oppression can be felt in the very landscape.

It’s this sort of oppression that Shane Bernardo and others have been pushing to change for years, long before the city became known as the next so-called dining hot spot. Resources like the Oakland Avenue Farmers’ Market on the North End aim to bring some of this power back to Detroit residents, by offering affordable produce as a food alternative. For many, urban farming has become an answer to the scarcity of food. And activists like Shane Bernardo wants these gardens to provide a home for culture, equity, and above all, good food.

How do you define food insecurity and food inequality?

Those are two very big questions, and they’re very much interrelated. So if we can be clear, food justice is about adjusting systemic inequities, and the second one is about power. And I would also like to make a distinction between food security and food justice because a lot of times the two terms are used interchangeably but they mean different things. Food security is addressing issues around accessibility, availability, and affordability of good, healthy food, while food justice is more oriented towards why those are even issues in the first place.

Tell me a little more about your background. Has that affected your activism today?

I grew up on the east side of Detroit and I’m first-generation in my family here in this space. It had a really big impact on my work, actually. Growing up in the city of Detroit and seeing so many changes over those years, and how structural racism played a role in that, and also, coming from an immigrant family was a very unique experience and has lent itself to the work I do around food justice and community organizing.

The part about coming from an immigrant family is pretty notable, and the reason why I say that is because it’s helped me develop my analytical mind and not taking things at face value. When I was growing up, I always had to think with two minds. I had to navigate current social situations, and I had to do that both as a young person, but also as someone whose identity was not immediately reflected in my immediate environment. I always had to really break things down for myself and be really inquisitive, and ask questions about why things were the way they were. I haven’t really had the luxury to take things at face value– I had to dig deeper, I had to ask questions, and that helped develop a healthy sense of curiosity for me. And it’s that curiosity that has really lent itself to the kind of work that I do here in Detroit, and also within the food system around food justice. So constantly asking “why?” and also looking at overarching systems of power that are always at stake and shaping our reality.

Talk to me a little about Food as Healing. Why is this work so important?

In organizing work, and in community organizing and social justice work, we need to push back against systems of power and oppression, and we also need to heal ourselves while we’re doing that work. Organizing work can be really thankless and tiring work, and can really deplete you of your emotional and mental capacity. You can even say your spiritual capacity as well. There’s a direct link between our ability to heal ourselves and our ability to dismantle systems of oppression. We have to do both of those things.

What actions do you hope any person in Michigan can take to educate themselves about food justice?

I think one thing I would suggest is reading about the mass water shutoffs in Detroit. Water is food, and we would die without water. So I think it would really help to see what food justice work looks like in the city of Detroit in particular. It’s very hard for people to think about this in a theoretical way without having some real-life experience.

The action steps, for me, is creating communities of resilience. So what I mean is, one thing we’re experiencing in Detroit is a corporate takeover of resources like water systems. These public systems are failing us, so what do we do in the interim? One action we need to take is to ask ourselves, how are we going to meet our basic needs while also resisting corporate takeover?

One thing I hope to impart to my community is that we have everything that we need. We don’t need to go outside of our community to accomplish our goals, to accomplish our vision, and to create the kind of community we want to see in the world.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to get involved in issues around food justice, Bernardo recommends to check out the following organizations: People’s Water Board Coalition, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, We the People of Detroit,, and The Poor People’s Campaign.

This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.


Author: Steffi Cao


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