Restoring the Commons By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Restoring the Commons

By Shea Howell

June 31-July 7, 2012

Corica Jefferson has been lovely doing what women have done for thousands upon thousands of years. She has been raising chickens at her home on the East side of Detroit. She sells their eggs. “It’s how I make my living. I share eggs with my neighbors and the kids come over and feed the hens and rooster. This is my life. I love being around animals and I love my birds. It’s very therapeutic.”

One day last week this quiet scene was shattered. Animal control officers surrounded her house. “It seemed like 20 people surrounded the place. It was like a drug raid. They said I couldn’t keep the chickens. I would have to get rid of everybody. They said a duck that stays in the backyard was a federal crime. I don’t know what to do. I can’t believe this.”

It seems one of Ms. Jefferson’s neighbors complained to the Health Department, saying she was “keeping a cow” in her yard. She’s not. She does have 3 baby lambs that are helping her keep overgrown areas mowed. “There Jacobs sheep,” she explained, they keep the grass drown and I spoil them with treats, they are humble animals that love you.”

Ms. Jefferson has appealed to the Detroit agricultural community for support. Myrtle Curtis of Feedem Freedom growers said, “The city has really dropped the ball on so many regulations, there must be a way for people to keep their animals.”

At the heart of this controversy are competing ideas about what kind of city we are creating. From the view of the Mayor and the Shrinking of Detroit folks, small agricultural efforts like those that have sustained Ms. Jefferson are considered a nuisance and a potential health risk. They bristle at the idea that cities would contain not only gardens, but animals. They think this way because they have neither a sense of history nor a vision for the future.

For much of human existence, access to common land for gardening and small animal grazing has been crucial to self-sufficiency and self determination. Eco-feminist scholars like Vandana Shiva, Starhawk, Maria Mies and Silvia Federici have carefully demonstrated that the destruction of the commons has been a central force in the development of capital and the establishment of exploitive relationships.

In a recent interview in Politics and Culture, Federici says: “There is a direct relation between the destruction of the social and economic power of women in the “transition to capitalism” and the politics of food in capitalist societies.

“In every part of the world, before the advent of capitalism, women played a major role in agricultural production. They had access to land, the use of its resources and control over the crops they cultivated, all of which guaranteed their autonomy and economic independence from men. In Africa, they had their farming and cropping systems, which were the source of a specific female culture, and they were in charge of the selection of seeds, an operation that was crucial to the prosperity of the community and whose knowledge was transmitted through the generations. The same was true of women’s role in Asia and the Americas. In Europe as well, under the late medieval period, women had land-use rights and the use of the “commons”—woods, ponds, grazing grounds—that were an important source of sustenance.”

The Detroit City Council should act swiftly to grant a waiver to Ms. Jefferson so she can keep her animals. After all they give waivers to the incinerator for pollution and to casinos for neon signs. Surely they can make a space for a woman who is contributing to supporting life.

Then they should ensure urban farming policies give every neighborhood access to a commons. This is a critical step in creating a city that will be self sufficient, cooperative, and caring.