Revisionist History and Chicago State University

Revisionist History and Chicago State University

The email subject line was “seriously??????” It came from a reputable source so I opened it.  My day was shot before I could even drink my first cup of coffee.  The email referred to yet another reason for me to blog about Chicago State University and the aquaponics project.  This time it wasn’t going to be praise for the sterling efforts of Emmanuel Pratt, a young man who as Naomi Davis of Blacks in Green puts it, is the “Rock Star of Aquaponics”.

My cup of java, so lovingly made by my spouse, cooled as I heated up.  Apparently, Dr. Daniel Block of Chicago State University’s Department of Geography believes he has single handedly lead the way for developing urban agriculture for black people in Chicago.  Dr. Block is white and I only mention that fact because he makes a big deal about it in the abstract he and De Paul University Research Assistant at the Egan Urban Research Center, Nadya Engler (also not black) mention it.  Certainly Dr. Block has been traveling around the country talking about urban agriculture.  You can find his talks on You Tube, his Power Point presentations and papers on the web.  You will rarely if ever see him working in the aquaponics lab at Chicago State University.  I’ve made a many trip out to CSU/ Sweet Water Aquaponics Lab over the past year or more.  My husband volunteers out there.  Guess what, never seen Dr. Block there, unless he was passing through to show of the work of Dr. Emmanuel Pratt, the same Emmanuel who has put together aquaponic learning systems in dozens of Chicago public schools; hauled in dirt and plantings for local community gardens and taught thousands of minority kids about science, technology and math through aquaponics.  Interestingly though, Block never introduces Dr. Pratt as the brains and brawn, in fact the heart and soul of the project when he (Block) chooses to visit the lab with VIP types.  I have always found this mildly insulting.  But what I am feeling this morning is anything but mild.  I am livid.  Here is a blurb from the abstract submitted by Dr. Block to the Association of American Geographers.


Chicago State University is a predominantly African-American institution on Chicago's South Side with an increasing interest in Urban Agriculture education.  In 2010, CSU opened an aquaponics center, creating a great deal of community interest. Building from this, curricula in Urban Agriculture were created within the Biology and Geography programs, which balance preparing graduates for professional careers in urban agriculture and general training in the life and social sciences.  CSU also coordinates a community urban agriculture network and linkages to Chicago community colleges and youth programs.  These are generally led by myself, a white male, and are attended by a racially mixed group of community gardeners and other interested parties. The ultimate goals of these programs are to make Chicago State the center of a South Side network of interest in Urban Agriculture and to create an academic pipeline for students interested in urban agriculture.  The racial dynamics of this effort have been interesting.  For both many participants and many at the university, the project is about racial uplift, in particular the development of black entrepreneurship.  However, many (but not all) of the professors working on the project are white, and the project has received attention, before it has fully developed, from majority white institutions who wish to partner with a predominately black institution working on urban agriculture education.  This presentation will discuss the evolution of the new curricula, connections between community, race, and student learning, and this project as an example of an applied community geography approach.

Has Dr. Block forgotten not only Emmanuel Pratt, also a professor at Chicago State University in the department of Geography, but also leaders in the industry of urban agriculture like Will Allen, urban agriculture and food industry authoritarian, Orrin Williams?  It appears that whenever a trend moves into the realm of genius and innovation people of color are moved to the back of the bus.  The flip side of this is evidenced by a telephone call I received earlier this week.  It went something like this.

“Mom, I know you are very involved in urban agriculture and S.T.E.M. education what do you think about the “learning gardens”?  I took a look at the website for the Denver based group The Kitchen Community installing the learning gardens.  I’m all for teaching kids to eat better.  I am a strong supporter of project based education.  What worried me was a cartoon I found at the Occupy CPS website.  This made swallowing my veggies difficult.  Was my son being asked to support a hot button topic that might put him in a seat with Jean-Claude Brizard, off of the bus entirely and running for your political life?  Put a black face in front and let him/her take the stoning.


Comments are welcome and if you feel the need, make a call out to the President’s office at Chicago State University.  Ask them how did a professor of Geography at their institution get away with re-crafting history before it can even be made?  I think that’s called fiction.



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    Thanks Danie for your comments.

    I think I probably should explain my presentation and my position at CSU a bit more. I am the director of the Neighborhood Assistance Center. The center (which is mainly me and an assistant) works with neighborhood groups to do community led research. We can make maps for community groups, as well as help with surveys. We also facilitate community collaborations. Over the past three years, I have facilitated the Roseland-Pullman Urban Agriculture Network (this is one of the collaborations referred to in the abstract). I am also, with a group of professors, but led particular by a Biology professor (who as I say in the abstract, is white) trying to set up an urban agriculture curriculum at Chicago State as part of our Biology and Geography majors. I am also the principal investigator of a grant from USDA to help create this new program. I also work on food access and food justice projects, and I am part of many local coalitions. I have worked closely, at different times over the past thirteen years, Orrin Williams, Erika Allen, and LaDonna Redmond, as well as Emmanuel. I don't garden much, except in my own yard, but I do bring people, mainly African-American people, together and I try to connect them with resources to assist in their own projects. I don't run the aquaponics center (I didn't say I did), but I do hold community meetings there. Last month I also helped organize a small scale aquaponics workshop that Emmanuel gave. I hope to have a network meeting there next week (as long as there isn't a school group).

    The point of the talk, which perhaps is inelegantly put in the abstract, was to explore the dynamics of being a white person working on projects that are specifically related to building food justice, as well as urban agriculture education, in the South Side black community. I explored what I felt were ethical issues, such as when I should and should not give advice.

    The organizers of the paper "session" I was in were interested in having reflections on issues of race in urban agriculture work. It was a hard talk to give, as it was very personal and introspective, and I am used to talks involving data and results, and this was more talking about experiences, but this is what I was asked to do and I hope I had something useful to say.

    I certainly did not mean to claim that I have done anything to create that urban agriculture movement on the South Side, and I apologize to Emmanuel Pratt particularly if I made any claims that could be construed that I began or run the aquaponics center. He also does a lot of work with schools and community colleges. I do too, but I should not have overlooked Mr. Pratt's work in this section of the paper. I was referring to a specific collaboration that I am coordinating. Mainly I was referring to the networks I coordinate and the urban-ag curriculum, which I have co-coordinated. Finally, Emmanuel Pratt is the director of the aquaponics center, and also teaches a class a semester in the geography department. He is a great colleague, but while he teaches in the geography department, he is not a professor in the department.

    Finally, I would like to take issue with one claim. I generally stay out of the way of VIP's and have never led any around the aquaponics center or anywhere else on campus!

    Thanks again, I think these racial issues in the urban ag. movement need to be talked about and discussed.


  • In reply to Daniel Block:

    I think I have received a half dozen emails from people who are furious about the submitted abstract. I hope they will take the opportunity to have open discussion about why your presentation (abstract) has caused such an uproar. Discourse is certainly in order.

  • My take on this blog is that Professor Emmanuel Pratt should be given credit. During my review, Daniel Block, a white man of prestige who claims participation in this Chicago State aquaponics project, gave no credit to the man who greatly contributed to the project and deserves credit, Dr. Emmanuel Pratt, a black man. When will it stop that white men/women take credit for the work of blacks/African-Americans? The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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    Replying to both Danie and Pattywatty27:
    I’d like to apologize again if my abstract made it seem that I was claiming to be a leader in South Side urban agriculture. While I do help lead an urban agriculture curriculum project on campus, my role in all the work I do with community organizations on the South Side is to facilitate and partner, not lead. If I appear to have taken credit for the success of the aquaponics center, please know that was not my intention at all. I would be happy to talk to you or your readers about the presentation and our work at CSU more.

  • This representation of the aquaponics center in particular, and of CSU in general, is highly problematic for the following reasons.

    First, Mr. Block draws attention to the aquaponics center, acknowledges his whiteness yet fails to acknowledge that Emmanuel Pratt, who started the aquaponics center and is currently the director, is a Black man. During the last two years I have had the privilege of spending a substantive amount of time volunteering at the CSU aquaponics center. I did watch one of Mr. Block’s community meetings held in the aquaponics center, he is there on occasion. I am not saying he does nothing, however, to my knowledge he has no extensive interaction with/in the aquaponics center in and of itself.
    Prefacing an abstract to be presented at an academic conference with a ‘hot’ topic like aquaponics in urban agriculture is surely an attention-getter. To that end, it most definitely reads as though Mr. Block is claiming responsibility for the aquaponics center and the urban agriculture efforts at CSU overall. Again, he acknowledges his whiteness, but by stating that “many (but not all) of the professors working on the project are white” he gives precedence to the efforts of he and his white colleagues and basically devalues the work of his black counterparts.
    What is the point of this? How does this contribute to any substantive dialogue on the burgeoning urban agricultural projects at CSU?
    Secondly, Mr. Block, states that, “the racial dynamics have been interesting”, to that I ask, how so? Do you mean how you are received as a white man at a predominantly black institution in a predominantly black section of the city? Or, is it interesting that you are white and you are/have partnered with white institutions? If it is the latter, I am unsure of why that is very interesting at all. A white man working and partnering with white institutions is simply status quo and sounds like nothing more than a traditional interaction of racial normativity through which, yet again, the lived experiences of black people are being viewed, perceived and told through the white lens.

    Block misses the point entirely, working at CSU doesn’t erase his ‘white privilege’. He acknowledges he is white but fails to acknowledge his ‘whiteness’. He fails to give credit to Emmanuel Pratt, a black man, who runs the center and is an active leader of agricultural projects in the community. He fails to recognize the urban agricultural work being done by the people of color at CSU, students and instructors alike. Instead, he highlights ‘his’ white efforts and those of his white counterparts in a black space and, in doing so devalues the work of Mr. Pratt and CSU overall.

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