Editors’ note: Malik Kenyatta Yakini is an activist and educator who is committed to freedom and justice for African people in particular and humanity in general. Yakini is cofounder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), which since 2006 has managed the seven-acre D-Town Farm. DBCFSN is also leading efforts to create the Detroit Food Commons, a thirty-thousand-square-foot facility on the city’s North End that will include a food co-op, café, kitchen incubator, office, and community space.
This is the third in a four-part series of articles from the summer 2018 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Nonprofits as Engines of a More Equitable Economy.”
Nonprofit Quarterly: Could you talk about your background?
Malik Yakini: I was born in 1956. Both of my parents were postal workers. They didn’t go to college, but there were many people with college degrees working at the post office. It was a vehicle for upward mobility.
The 1960s was a period of great hope—it was a relatively prosperous time for a lot of people in Detroit, and things were opening up for many Black Detroiters. The neighborhood we moved into had opened up. Black people followed Jewish people—that seemed to be the pattern, and that’s what happened where we moved. Restrictive housing covenants were breaking down. The auto industry was booming. Blacks were moving into jobs.
We were in and out of each other’s houses. We used to have block parties. There was a real sense of community in my neighborhood. All of our parents knew each other. That was my experience, and it was a wonderful childhood.
In 1966, I played Little League Baseball on the field at Detroit’s Central High School. A year later, the field was turned into a military base with the 101st Airborne Division, after what at the time we called “riots” but which activists in Detroit now call an “urban rebellion.” In recent years, social justice activists have challenged the language—a rethinking, a reframing of history.
That year was a watershed moment; in some ways, Detroit history can be divided into pre- and post-1967. It was a huge defining point, a period of tremendous hot-fire Black consciousness. Detroit was an epicenter of that—it was certainly a strong epicenter of this Black revolutionary consciousness.
I turned thirteen in 1969. Thirteen is a critical year in many traditions. You go from childhood to the beginnings of young adulthood. It is a time when you’re very impressionable and create a concept of yourself. I was going to a school called Post Junior High—one of many schools that were centers of Black consciousness. Walkouts, protests, were mostly at the high school level, but my junior high was also active. In 1969, a teacher of mine played a recording in the classroom of Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots.” I don’t follow behind any man, but Malcolm’s life example and teachings had a profound impact on me. In fact, in many ways my activism is rooted in hearing Malcolm X for the first time.
That was the beginning of my social activism, and we saw it as the Black liberation movement more than a movement for social justice.
Early on, one of the tenets of Black radical thought was this sharp critique of capitalism. I read Mao, Marx, Black radical thinkers, becoming very committed at a very early age to the idea that capitalism is in many ways the root of our problems—not the only problem, but a huge factor. I’ve been anticapitalist for the vast majority of my life, and anti–white supremacist. Those are the two pillars. Sometimes I was in a kind of strange space, because many Black nationalists didn’t have a clear analysis of capitalism. Much of what some Black nationalists were proposing was a painted Black version of capitalism. Even though I wasn’t a Marxist, I was always willing to be supportive of groups that were. If we agree that capitalism needs to be dismantled, we have a strategic alliance. But many of the Marxist folks didn’t understand revolutionary nationalism, where you have a clear analysis that there isn’t going to be any kind of Black sovereignty as long as capitalism is intact.
There are multiple tendencies within the Black liberation movement. The New Afrikan Independence movement—of which Chokwe Lumumba [1947–2014] was a major voice—are secessionists, and seek to carve out five states. Some favor repatriation. With Rastafarianism, many ultimately hope to return to Africa. Then there are those that see the city as the Black man’s land, and seek to build zones of power in cities. In many ways, the Black liberation movement has been fragmented. No matter which of the paths you take, the dismantling of capitalism is the necessary prerequisite. You’re not going to be a sovereign socialist state existing side by side with capitalism.
In college, I was chairman of the Black Student Association at Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti. We ran a free breakfast program at an elementary school, patterned after the Black Panther Party, and we also had a co-op—a buying club—that we called the Ujamaa Co-op Buying Club. We would take orders in our organization and the community, and two of us would make the forty-minute drive to Detroit’s Eastern Market on Saturday, buy things in bulk, and divide it up. At that point, I didn’t know anything about a food movement, but cooperative economics was part of our thinking.
In 1989, I cofounded Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered school rooted in the ideas of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, and cooperative economics. The school was designed to give African-American children a sense of where they fit into their own cultural and historical continuum. I directed the school for twenty-two years, and doing gardening work there in the late