Malik Yakini has been fighting for racial justice since he joined student walkouts at his middle school at age 13. As an adult, he became an advocate for greater inclusion of African American history and culture in Detroit public school curriculums. As an offshoot of those efforts, he co-founded the Nsoroma Institute — a private (and later, charter) school for K-8 students — where he and his colleagues could establish their own curriculum. He served as director of the African-centered school for 22 years.
Yakini, who turns 65 this month, is also co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which aims to combat food insecurity in Detroit’s Black community. The organization has operated the city’s largest urban farm, D-Town, in Rouge Park for more than 20 years. Now Yakini is leading its latest project, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, which DBCFSN plans to begin construction on this summer. When it’s finished, the North End building will house a full-service grocery store that will improve Detroiters’ access to healthy, locally grown food. We asked Yakini to tell us about this new project and how it fits into his career as an activist.
Hour Detroit: Tell us about your career in local activism.
Malik Yakini: I’ve been involved in the Black liberation movement my entire adult life. I started in 1969, when I was a student at Detroit’s Post Junior High School, which had frequent protests. In high school, I became a student organizer, and in college, I was a member of the Pan-African Congress USA. I’ve since been involved in a number of local campaigns against various types
How did you get interested in the problem of food insecurity?
My personal interest in nutrition led to my involvement in urban agriculture, through which I learned about the lack of food sovereignty among Black communities and how it relates to other kinds of injustice.
Why did you start DBCFSN?
When I was a child, there were at least seven chain grocery stores within walking distance of Detroit’s neighborhoods, but as I got older, I noticed them disappearing. Even the stores we do have now aren’t owned by African Americans, meaning their profits are being extracted from our communities, instead of circulating within them to create collective wealth and well-being.
What inspired the Detroit People’s Food Co-op?
We’ve been working to create a food co-op since we started DBCFSN. We’ve always wanted to even out the inequities created by capitalism so everyone can live a high-quality life, and we think cooperative economics will be the best alternative system to help us galvanize that collective wealth and power.
What do you hope the co-op will do for the community?
We hope it provides a consistent source of high-quality food for Detroit residents while also benefiting local growers, empowering them to patronize other local businesses, and so on. Economists call this the multiplier effect, and it creates a more vibrant economy. We also hope it can act as an example of self-determination, disproving the idea that Black and brown communities don’t have the capacity to create our own economies that benefit our people.
How has the pandemic affected DBCFSN?
It forced us to shut down this spring, and we lost a month of our growing season. Even when we came back, we had to prohibit — and later limit — volunteers, on whom we rely heavily to get the work done. We also had to rethink how we move our produce, because most of the farmers markets we’d previously sold at weren’t open. We partnered with Oakland Avenue Farm to set up an online ordering platform and curbside pickup.
What motivates you to continue working toward community food security?
I can’t just exist on this planet and ignore its vast inequities; we all have a responsibility to work for what’s right. I aligned my life with the pursuit of liberation, equity, and justice early on, and I’ll continue to pursue them until my last breath.
What among your accomplishments brings you the most pride?
I ran the Nsoroma Institute for 22 years. Many of its attendees are now doing wonderful work in the community. One woman, Siwatu-Salama Ra, has become an advocate for environmentalism and justice in women’s prisons. Another graduate, Ali Dirul, is the founder and CEO of Ryter Cooperative Industries, which installs solar energy systems throughout the city. Seeing that has been very motivating.
What’s your favorite thing about what you do?
I’m tremendously fortunate to have a career that aligns with my life purpose.