Addressing Climate-Forced Displacement in the United States: A Just and Equitable Response

By Julie Maldonado

The climate crisis is ravaging communities nationwide and disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who are losing their homes and livelihoods due to more severe and frequent storms, rising seas, erosion, flooding, extreme heat, wildfires, and various other climate events. These communities are further disenfranchised through inadequate and inequitable public policy responses to our climate crisis, including extreme weather events, which further exacerbates and even creates the unfolding, accumulating disasters.

To motivate action to advance community-led solutions to climate-forced displacement in the US, the Legal Justice Coalition (facilitated by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Lowlander Center) and the Rising Voices Community Relocation & Site Expansion Working Group issued policy recommendations earlier this year. The set of recommendations is designed to guide policymakers to address the shortfalls of official current responses to the threat of climate-forced displacement but also challenges them to launch a concerted effort to respond to this urgent crisis. At the heart of these policy recommendations is the need to center the agency, leadership, and self-determination of frontline communities in addressing climate-forced displacement.  

The policy recommendations for both Congressional and Executive Action include the need to: 

  • Increase resources for frontline communities
  • Grant government funds directly to communities
  • Make FEMA more equitable
  • Establish a just response to support adaptation-in-place and/or relocation
  • Create a human rights governance framework

The US Government Accountability Office identified that “unclear federal leadership is the key challenge to climate migration as a resilience strategy.” Currently, there is no lead federal agency tasked with managing and coordinating the federal government’s climate crisis response, nor is there dedicated funding to support community relocation efforts and/or adaptation measures to prevent communities from forced relocation, instead of adaptation in place. 

As detailed in the full policy brief, while the need for dedicated funding for adaptation in place and relocation is clear, it is critical that government programs and policies and the process of disaster planning, response, and recovery should go beyond only financial support for material upgrades to homes and infrastructure. The entire process must account for the true costs to a community, including loss of sacred sites, cultural values, burial sites, health and social well-being, and other intrinsic values—which frontline communities, and in particular Indigenous Peoples, experience when separated from their ancestral lands and subsistence way of life. This is why it is even more imperative that Tribes and community representatives are included in disaster planning at the state and federal levels.

The federal government should establish a governance framework for climate-forced displacement that protects the rights and dignity of communities and provides them with financial resources and effective support. This process calls for a better partnership between science and governance grounded in principles of justice, and for that partnership to jointly explore pathways that put relocation in the context of a larger set of adaptation measures to better understand the tradeoffs across these options over time.

To achieve a response to climate-forced displacement in the United States that centers justice and equity, the UUSC and Rising Voices-Working Group coalition offers a summary and topline recommendations, along with the full policy brief

This coalition of community leaders, legal advocates, researchers, and allies invites you to join in urging our elected officials in the Biden Administration and in U.S. Congress to center equity, justice, and human rights in addressing climate-forced displacements in the United States. 

Please refer to the initiative webpage to read the recommended policy solutions and to sign-on. We looking forward to working with you to #SupportClimateJustice. 

Julie Maldonado, Associate Director

Julie Maldonado is a cultural anthropologist and serves as LiKEN’s Associate Director. As part of this role, she is Co-Director of the Rising Voices: Climate Resilience through Indigenous and Earth Sciences program, in joint partnership with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/National Center for Atmospheric Research (UCAR/NCAR), and is the lead for the LiKEN-produced PROTECT film, in partnership with Paper Rocket Productions. She also works with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals to facilitate and support the development of tribes’ climate change adaptation planning and vulnerability assessments. Julie is a lecturer in the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Environmental Studies Program and for Future Generations University. She is also a founding member of the Culture and Disaster Action Network (CADAN). 

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Rising Voices 8: Finding Community Amidst a Pandemic

By Jackie Rigley

I became a research assistant for LiKEN in January of 2020 and I was looking forward to attending Rising Voices 8 in April. Then, March came along and the Covid-19 pandemic unraveled any plans of an in-person workshop. I was disappointed that I would not get to experience the Rising Voices workshop; however, a few weeks later, we got news that the workshop was going to be held virtually.

At the Virtual Rising Voices 8 (VRV8) Kickoff event in April, I did not know what to expect. The program began with a series of videos from fellow Rising Voices participants introducing themselves and their homes. It was refreshing to see new faces and places as I had been sheltered at home for a month. Host Kalani Souza immediately lifted my spirits with his energetic introduction and storytelling superpowers. Conversational topics highlighted Indigenous community experiences not only related to the pandemic, but also topics such as food and water systems, climate variability, and other adaptations to the present challenges. Although many difficult experiences were shared, there was always recognition of the resilience of Indigenous communities. Rising Voices members exemplified a strong faith in one another and effort to help whenever possible. The Kickoff event introduced me to a warm and welcoming community and left me reflecting on everything that had been discussed. 

Thus far I have attended Rising Voices workshops focused on energy, phenology, community relocation and site expansion, and water. Each workshop has expanded my understanding of these separate issues, but also reminded me of the common themes among them. The collaboration of Indigenous and Earth sciences is at the heart of each conversation. Members of Rising Voices recognize the need for this partnership in addressing climate change and climate events. However, in order for this collaboration to thrive, the way that Indigenous Knowledges are valued more broadly must change. Indigenous ways of knowing are often misunderstood and disregarded by Western scientists in the United States and beyond. Indigenous communities have held the wisdom of adapting to climate variability for thousands of years prior to Western colonization; they are key knowledge-holders for climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

Ultimately what stands out to me in my Virtual Rising Voices experience is the intimate community shared by its members. No matter your background, Rising Voices welcomes you with open arms. Each opinion is taken seriously and respected. Even in the virtual space, the personal connection felt significant. I’ve met various family members and pets of Rising Voices members. It has been a blessing to meet people that I share values with, and to truly feel like a part of the Rising Voices family. I have encountered many role models through this experience. On top of being a place to share knowledge, Rising Voices is also a safe space to share emotions and personal experiences. We celebrate one another’s successes and empathize with each other’s challenges. My first annual Rising Voices workshop has been enlightening and inspiring. I look forward to participating in this event for years to come.

Jackie Rigley, LiKEN Research Assistant

Jackie graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) in Winter 2021, majoring in Environmental Studies and Sociology. She grew up in Chicago and going to school in California piqued her interest in protecting the natural environment. She is a board member on the UCSB Coastal Fund, which allocates funding to various projects involved in protecting the Santa Barbara coast environment. She studied abroad in Southern Chile where she had the opportunity to conduct research related to sustainable tourism. She is passionate about environmental justice and the power of community resilience in the face of climate change. Outside of school she loves exploring Santa Barbara, cooking, and painting. She is really interested in changing how cities are developed. She wants to work in Urban Planning, and help build more resilient, sustainable, and humane communities. Jackie is also interested in learning more about fighting climate change on a local, city-wide level.

Searching for Connection in a Time of Distance

Article and Images by Sarah Morairty

I feel that I am not alone in saying that at this point, I am completely lost. We are all no longer able to live the lives we were accustomed to. Our existence, in a way, has been utterly and irreversibly altered. These social distancing protocols have imposed a whole new twist to life, and one that none of us saw coming or were remotely prepared for. During this time of distance and confusion, we are all looking for something to feel connected to.

Generally speaking, our daily lives typically consist of activities and things that give us purpose, whether they be exercising, owning a pet, working a 9-5, going to school, etc. I feel that we as humans are always trying to find our individual purposes, a feat that was hard enough before this crisis. Now, social distancing has added an even more difficult complication. Every day, we have to wake up and figure out how to translate our old lives into a new, more restricted one. Every day, it seems we are presented with another unforeseen consequence of the virus: some are losing their jobs, some are losing loved ones, loved ones are dying alone, healthcare workers are working at maximum levels, students who are graduating in spring aren’t able to have graduation ceremonies, the list goes on. For some, the worst consequence is that they have to be locked inside all day with only themselves and their thoughts.

Amid all this negativity, though, there are beautiful phenomena blooming out all around us, both figuratively and literally. In the figurative aspect, social movements of caring and helping each other are growing. Social media has been a never-ending venting/therapy session where strangers from all around the world can find support and validation from each other. People have become more understanding and compassionate. On the literal aspect, with the retreat of human activity, ecosystems around the world are making comebacks and beginning to thrive again.

Nature continues to move forward, even when it feels like our world has come to a halt. I find this inspiring and beautiful. It seems like many people, including myself, have been looking towards nature for a sense of comfort. Us human creatures have this subconscious yearning for connection to other beings and life, a biophilia that drives us to continuously seek these connections. We are all creations of Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit, and our Earth Mother. We are all connected and have large impacts on each other, and now is the time where this is being made very clear.

I urge us to look toward our communities’ teachings and Earth Mother for guidance. The medicine wheel has brought some organization into my newly unorganized life. I learned from one of my elders to use each section to represent an area of my health and well-being: spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental/intellectual. Each week, I make sure to keep track of the things that I have done to maintain each section. When one area is lacking, I can take more time to fill in the holes. In this way, I am ensuring that my well-being is holistically being cared for. 

Yellow flowers on green stems. Large  brown bee on one of the flowers.

Right now, we are in the time of spring, ziigwan, the yellow section of the wheel. In my tribe, it is a time of renewal and new beginnings. Just as the land is awakening and creating new growth, we can utilize this shift from COVID-19 to grow and start anew. While we cannot go out and do all the things we used to before, there is much to see around us. Go outside and look at all the fresh growth. Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, spiders are spinning their webs, squirrels are scurrying amongst the trees. Take advantage of the clearer skies and look at the sunsets, the stars, and moon. Enjoy the beauty that each day brings.

This period in our lives is difficult and even painful at times. But we mustn’t let the negativity consume us, lest we all become windigos1. Stay kind to your neighbors, to your environment, and to yourself. I wish you all the best in this challenge of reinventing ourselves and our futures.

1A windigo (there are different variations in spellings from tribe to tribe) is someone who has become overwhelmed with greed, selfishness, and/or negativity and has thus turned into a wicked monster. It is a warning tale of my tribe against these negative characteristics.

Sarah Morairty, LiKEN Research Assistant

Sarah is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. She is part of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. She is a passionate activist for the rights of Mother Earth and marginalized communities and has research interests in sustainable development, climate change and its impacts on communities of color, traditional approaches to land and resource management, economic and political approaches to the transition towards a green society, food sovereignty, cultural preservation and protection, and institutionalized marginalization. She wants social and environmental justice for all, as well as a healthy and positive future for our children. As she says: “In the words of my ancestors, ‘Maamawi mashkogaabawiyang’; together we stand strong. Let’s build a better world together.” 

The Rural-Urban Divide: How We Got Into This Mess, How We’ll Get Out

(image by Future Generations University)

A Future Generations University Webinar

LiKEN invites you to join Anthony Flaccavento, with guest speakers Kathy Cramer and Erica Etelson, on four free webinars in June hosted by Future Generations University. Please join us in taking a deeper dive into the rural-urban divide, how we got into this mess, and how we’ll get out. 

To Register for the Free Webinar 
7:00 – 8:00 PM EDT
Tuesday, June 8th, 15th, 22nd, 29th, 2021
More information about the series.

More about the webinar series: The rural-urban divide is deep, widespread, and it is getting worse.  Liberal people from cities and suburbs think most rural folks are ignorant, racist, uncultured, stuck in the past, and their communities heading towards oblivion.  Many in the countryside view urban people, academics, and the government as elitist, contemptuous of rural ways, and dismissive of the people living and working there.  While race and racial resentment play major roles in this polarization, the divide between urban and rural is perhaps the most poorly understood component of our divisions.  And it’s killing us and dividing all of us, enabling the richest people and biggest corporations to dominate our democracy while the great majority of us fight amongst ourselves.  How did we get here and how do we begin to overcome the rural-urban divide?  More to the point, what role have people who espouse a fair and just world played in exacerbating the divide, and what must we do differently?

LiKEN and Appalachian Voices are proud co-sponsors of this Future Generations University webinar.

How Have Disinfection Byproducts Impacted Eastern Kentucky’s Drinking Water?

By Sarah Birnbaum 

New research shows that failing infrastructure causes significant contamination of drinking water in many Eastern Kentucky water systems.  One kind of contamination is disinfection byproducts, which result from the mixing of organic matter and chlorine-based disinfectants during the water sanitation process. Improper maintenance of infrastructure is the main culprit for these violations, as there may be leaks in pipes or low water pressure that can permit organic matter to mix with chlorine, causing these byproducts to form. When consumed or inhaled, disinfection byproducts can yield adverse health impacts, including increased risk for certain cancers in addition to an increased risk for cardiac birth defects. The University of Kentucky, Martin County Concerned Citizens, and Ricky Draper (LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator) recently completed collaborative research in Martin County that found elevated disinfection byproduct levels, with 47% of samples being above the EPA maximum contaminant level (Pratt 2020). Additionally, 99% of residents have had issues with their drinking water including, but not limited to: odor, color, and taste.

To continue this research, I examined disinfection byproduct levels of adjacent counties in Eastern Kentucky through the Kentucky Drinking Water Watch website.  Data analysis demonstrated trihalomethane (THM) was the most frequently elevated disinfection byproduct, often exceeding the EPA maximum contaminant level. Additionally, it was discovered that two other nearby counties hold similar violations to Martin County: Wolfe County (22 violations 2009-2019) and Boyd County (41 violations 2009-2019), bringing up concern for possible disinfection byproduct exposure for residents that reside in these areas. Overall, Martin County still holds significant disinfection byproduct violations, (33 violations 2009-2019). This research has provided a step to address water contamination in Eastern Kentucky and help identify where new infrastructure is likely needed to combat disinfection byproduct contamination. Hopefully, in the near future, Eastern Kentucky residents will have access to clean, safe drinking water free of disinfection byproducts. 

white woman with brown eyes and long straight light brown hair. Smiling. Wearing a white shirt.

Sarah Birnbaum, LiKEN Research Assistant

Sarah is a senior at The University of California, Santa Barbara double majoring in Environmental Studies and The History of Art & Architecture planning to pursue a career in Environmental Justice. Within the realm of Environmental Justice, she is especially interested in sustainable community development and public health. Outside of school Sarah enjoys hiking with her German Shepherd, doing yoga, and cooking new meals. She has been excited to be a part of the LIKEN team, having the opportunity to learn from community members, in addition to having the ability to share her knowledge and passion for Environmental Justice with others. 

New Policy Brief Calls for Equity and Justice in Response to Climate-Forced Displacement

“Climate change is the existential crisis of our time, and it’s clear that our current system is failing those who most need—and deserve—federal assistance after a national disaster. The good news is that there are affordable ways of reversing that damage and building a more equitable system. We call on policymakers and elected officials to take the initiative and work to solve these problems before it’s too late.” -Rachel Gore Freed, Vice President and Chief Program Officer at Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Federal disaster response efforts have long disproportionately benefited the white and the wealthy, but the growing impact of climate change makes it critically important for policymakers to steer more resources and assistance to Indigenous Peoples, communities of color, and other marginalized populations. On April 12, 2021, the Legal Justice Coalition (facilitated by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Lowlander Center) and the Rising Voices Community Relocation & Site Expansion Working Group released the policy brief, Addressing Climate-Forced Displacement in the United States: A Just and Equitable Response. The brief, co-authored by 36 community leaders, legal advocates, researchers, and allies from across the United States, highlights the inequity and injustices of climate disaster response and recommends concrete, high-level policy solutions.

To learn more visit the initiative webpage where you can find links to the full policy brief, specific recommended policy solutions, and join the Legal Justice Coalition in advancing a shared agenda that prioritizes the needs and solutions of frontline communities facing the impacts of climate change.

How much is a glass of water?

by Sana Aslam

Ricki Draper (past LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator) and Mary Cromer (Deputy Director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center) published an Appalachian Citizens Law Center (ACLC) report (September 2019) examining water affordability and the impact of rate increases in eastern Kentucky’s Martin County.  County residents have been organizing around water quality and demanding accountability from their local district government since a 2000 coal slurry spill into the nearby waterways. Martin County has one of the highest costs for water which many residents do not rely on for drinking, cooking or hygiene. This is due to the water’s known murky color and hazardous qualities. 

The study grounds itself in the issue of water burden, which the authors define as the percent of a household’s income spent on its water bill. Presenting water burden for households in 10 income brackets and using the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standard for affordability, the study finds that water is unaffordable for over 45.8% of Martin County households.  The EPA upholds that a water burden of 2.5% or above is unaffordable, and for 18.1% of Martin County households with incomes below $10,000 — the water burden is 6.5%, which is more than twice the EPA threshold. Findings indicate this burden is even higher for Martin County’s 1,229 SSI recipients, who would be spending 7.97% of their income on water with the district’s rates. This is more than three times the EPA threshold. 

16% of household water meters were disconnected between July 2018-June 2019, further demonstrating the unaffordability of the district’s current rates. Martin County residents cannot afford ongoing rate increases. The district claims the increases are to acquire revenue to fix the water system, but this system has neglected residents for years. Residents are concerned about how the district allocates public revenue towards projects that do not best serve the needs of their communities. 

The report concludes with several suggestions for responding to the affordability crisis, such as asking the district to protect citizens – especially their most vulnerable – from ongoing rate increases. The authors urge the Public Service Commission to consider affordability when setting public utility rates and to explore alternative rate structures. 

Since the report was published, the water district has entered into a contract with the outside management company Alliance Water Resources. In the study report, the authors note that over the past year, the district’s water loss rates have varied from 72.8% in August 2018 to 57.4% in February 2019. In September 2019, the average water loss rate for the year in Martin County was 69.54%. 

At the Martin County water board meeting held in July, the district reported that the water loss rate was 70.77% in June 2020. Six months into Alliance’s management, 37, 173 gallons of water were lost out of the 52, 524 gallons produced. Citizens have also expressed recent concerns over higher water bills, which Alliance has said is due to their transition to new software that reads to the nearest ten gallons as opposed to the nearest 1,000 gallons. Martin County citizens continue to advocate for infrastructural changes and an urgent need for funding to be allocated towards improving water quality and water affordability. 

Martin County Concerned Citizen meeting.
Photo by Roger Smith, The Mountain Citizen.

Eastern Kentucky Water Network 

LiKEN has helped convene a vibrant Eastern Kentucky Water Network (EKWN), composed of organizations and individuals working passionately on water issues across Eastern Kentucky. The network was formed in late 2019, and continues to meet bimonthly since then. EKWN provides a platform for stakeholders to work together to secure clean and affordable drinking water and improved watershed quality in Eastern Kentucky. The Network hopes to equip Eastern Kentucky residents with the capacity to affect and change water related policies at the local, state, and national level. 

MCCC collecting water tests at an intake site. Photo by Ricki Draper.

Tap Water Study

Martin County residents have long distrusted their district’s water system. For more than a decade, residents have regularly received notifications in water bills that disinfectant byproduct levels have exceeded EPA maximum contaminant levels. 
A recent collaborative tap water study — the first of its kind — confirms how water in the county exceeds the U.S. EPA maximum contaminant levels for cancer associated disinfection byproducts and coliform bacteria. 

The University of Kentucky College of Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES) and citizen scientists from Martin County Concerned Citizens worked together to pilot the study. Over the course of the 2018-2019 calendar year, Ricki Draper and Nina McCoy visited 97 households in Martin County to collect water samples for chemical analysis and to administer a survey aimed at evaluating community health concerns. 

Preliminary findings were published this year and reported back in a community forum in July. 47% of household samples had at least one contaminant that exceeded at least one U.S. EPA maximum contaminant level or secondary maximum contaminant level. The study also found that 99% of respondents reported concerns with their drinking water, including problems with odor, appearance, taste, and water pressure. Only 12% of respondents reported actually using tap water for drinking water. 

UK-CARES and MCCC will continue to work to examine these issues more in depth and to develop technical tools to help water utilities respond to the problems that have been identified. 

“If you are interested in participating in the East Kentucky Water Network, please contact Betsy Taylor

Jars of water from Martin County Water District customer’s tap, posted on “Martin County Water Warriors” Facebook Group by Hefner Hare, February, 2018.
The Teamsters delivering donated bottled water to Martin County during a water crisis. Photo by Ricki Draper.

Hunger, Religion, and Public Anthropology

Cover jacket for 2019 book, edited by Devon Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover, Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health.

Article originally featured on FoodAnthropology

article by Betsy Taylor

Is feeding the hungry, a key moral value in religious teachings across cultures? I was recently asked this by a pediatrician concerned about child hunger in low income communities in the U.S.  This piece weaves together contributions from our anthropological hive mind, after I posted her query on two anthropological digital platforms.


It is impossible to overstate the importance of reciprocal food exchange to the maintenance of group cohesion and egalitarianism in horticultural and foraging societies–through daily and seasonal practices grounded in and by myth and ritual (Rapaport 1979, 1984, 1999). To give just one example among many, a Yanomami hunter cannot eat the animals he kills, but must share the meat with his family and others and “…the reciprocal exchange of meat and other foods between individuals becomes a critical factor for the maintenance of village cohesion” (Good 1989, 131). (Also, for a broad look at the intertwining of food and social life in all societies, see Mintz and DuBois 2002.)

Ceremonial food distribution

Akissi Britton says, “In Orisa traditions of the Yoruba (of Nigeria) and Yoruba diaspora–Afro-Cuban Lucumi and Brazilian Candomble–while there is not the same “mandate” as in the Abrahamic faiths, there is absolutely a concept of food sharing that is an important part of ritual.  After many large (and small) rituals in which animal sacrifice takes place, for the ritual to “take” or be completed it is essential for the food to be prepared and shared with the community.  There is also the practice of feeding those who come to do the long and hard labor of ceremony, which is a sign of reciprocity and giving thanks to the workers of ceremony” (personal communication, Akissi Britton, December 2020, for more, see Perez 2016).

In Sikhism, equitable sharing of food is particularly central to Sikh identity and practice — in the tradition of the langar (or free kitchen). In Gurudwaras (Sikh temples), this volunteer run, community kitchen is very important. According to tradition, it was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, who possibly drew from a 4th century reform food practice in Hinduism. Guru Nanak specifically designed langar to inculcate equality that breaks down barriers of religion, caste, race, creed, age, gender, or social status. The value of equality is embodied in the great care taken to create seating arrangements that put everyone on an equal level, and volunteers are carefully trained in the values and traditional protocols for equal and courteous service for all regardless of their status. This practice has globalized with the Sikh diaspora, and langars around the world often attract many hundreds, including many unhoused people. (For more, see Nesbitt 2016.)

A community meal in progress at a Sikh langar. Photo by Harisingh at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pervasive practices of food sharing throughout the many varieties of Hinduism give moral value to the giving of food and the renunciation of greed for food (even while food taboos are key mechanisms in maintaining caste and other hierarchies and inequalities).  Food is distributed to the poor from temples as part of AnnaDaan – ritual food donation, and in the giving of Prasad (food distributed as a blessing).  Merit is gained from alms given to mendicants who ask for food (whether because of poverty or as part of a spiritual vow).

In Buddhism, general practices of compassion include food sharing. For instance in Theravada countries, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar,  food redistribution is often directed toward monks, and temples often redistribute the excess to any who come to their grounds, as well as in frequent holidays.

Scriptural mandates

Care for those who are on the margins of societal provisioning is a recurrent admonition in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scriptures, with repeated stated obligations to feed widows, orphans, and even the stranger, and strong injunctions to charitable giving of food in general. 

The dynamic interplay between the needs of self and neighbor can be seen in one of the most important Muslim scriptures regarding hunger: “He is not a believer, who having filled his stomach, went and slept all the night while his neighbor remained hungry although he was aware of it (72 Hadith Al-Ausat by Rabrani).” Some interpretations of this principle include a strong class analysis: Hadith Number 8: The Reason for Zakat, A Trial for the Wealthy:

On the authority of Abi Abdullah (Imam) al-Sadiq (peace be upon him): Zakat has only been enforced as a trial for the rich and as a provision for the needy. Were people to carry out the zakat of their wealth, no Muslim would remain poverty-stricken and needy; he would manage with that which Allah has decreed. Indeed, people are only impoverished, needy, hungry and unclothed as a result of the sins of the wealthy. (Man La Yahdhuruhu al-Faqih, Volume 2, page 7)

These scriptural injunctions shape daily practices in fascinatingly complex ways (Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2009, Deeb 2006, Taylor 2015).

Food sovereignty: decolonizing our understanding of food equity

Indigenous movements are distilling ideas of food sovereignty that emphasize that moral questions about the distribution of food must be embedded in rights to land and production (Cote 2016; Grey and Patel 2014; Mihesuah and Hoover; Vernon 2015). Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel says “Without the ability of community members to continuously renew their relationships with the natural world (i.e., gathering medicines, hunting and fishing, basket-making, etc.), indigenous languages, traditional teachings, family structures, and livelihoods of that community are all jeopardized” (Corntassel 2008, 118).  These movements engage contemporary struggles with perspectives that draw on traditional wisdom and practices, while situating claims within universal human rights frameworks (for more on rights to food in international human rights frameworks, see Messer 2004). This cosmological and moral vision is grounded in dynamic, living, placed relationships among land, ecology, and humans that reconnect the production and consumption of food into local social and cultural webs of mutual responsibilities and relationships and  “…challenges the hegemony of the globalized, neoliberal, industrial, capital-intensive, corporate-led model of agriculture that created destructive economic policies that marginalized small-scale farmers, removed them from their land, and forced them into the global market economy as wage laborers…[and] requires examining the efforts being made by Indigenous communities to restore these relationships through the revitalization of their Indigenous foods and ecological knowledge systems” (Cote 2016, 2). 

What can public anthropology contribute to the multistakeholder effort to end hunger?

It is difficult to summarize anthropological knowledge on this topic–for the general public or for policy makers–because there is such a lavish variety of cultural expression in norms about feeding the hungry. But, anthropologists have a lot to contribute to public conversations about food equity and the role of religion.  Specifically, we can help to make real the poetics, power, and appeal of these forms of human generosity across diverse traditions, to support broad collaborations and inter-cultural appreciation of the diversity of gifts that different religious traditions bring to ending hunger. These thick descriptions of cultural diversity can provide evidence for a different view of human nature from that embedded in much of our hyper-competitive and increasingly unequal society. Public debates about hunger in the early 21st century are continually distorted by the undertow of several centuries of market ideologies that attribute a magical capacity of market competition to solve social problems of inequitable distribution. This magical market cosmology can make hunger seem inevitable because inequality looks natural if competitiveness is deemed the dominant trait of human nature (Reid and Taylor 2010).

Emerging Indigenous voices can make particular contributions because they bring a different grounding to these questions from religions grounded in scriptural injunctions. For instance, scriptural calls to feed the hungry in Abrahamic traditions have a universalizing force and clarity. But, Indigenous spiritual practices rooted in land- and community-based practices bring different powers and perspectives for ethical action that very directly engage issues of equity and justice around the full food chain (from production to consumption to regenerative recycling).

Acknowledgements: I thank Deborah A. Frank for posing the original question, which I posted onto the American Anthropological Association and the Environment and Anthropology Society listservs.  Many thanks to  those who responded with helpful scholarly citations or their distillations of literatures in areas of their expertise (shown in parentheses): Leslie Sponsel (Amazonia and Hinduism); Robin Hide (New Guinea); Akissi Britton (Yoruba); Murray Leaf, Jerome Krace, Shahbaz Ahma, and Devayani Tirthali (Hinduism); Devayani Tirthali and Robert Williams (Sikhism); Christopher Taylor (Islam).

Betsy Taylor is a cultural anthropologist and Executive Director of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network ( Over the past 25 years, she has worked for community-driven development in Appalachia the U.S., and in South Asia — seeking to integrate issues of health, agriculture, forestry, culture and environmental stewardship.  

References cited

Benthall, Jonathan & Bellion-Jourdan, J. 2009. The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World. London: I.B. Tauris. 2nd ed.

Corntassel, J. 2008. “Toward sustainable self determination: Rethinking the contemporary Indigenous-rights discourse”. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political.33(1): 105–132.

Cote, Charlotte. 2016. “‘Indigenizing’ Food Sovereignty: Revitalizing Indigenous Food Practices and Ecological Knowledges in Canada and the United States”. Humanities. 5:57(1-14).

Deeb, Lara. 2006. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Good, Kenneth. 1989. “Yanomami Hunting Patterns: Trekking And Garden Relocation As An Adaptation To Game Availability In Amazonia, Venezuela”. PhD Dissertation. University of Florida.

Grey, Sam and Raj Patel. 2014. “Food sovereignty as decolonization: some contributions from Indigenous movements to food system and development politics”. Agriculture and Human Values. 32: 431–444.

Messer, Ellen. 2004. “Hunger and human rights”. In Human Rights: the Scholar as Activist. Carole Nagengast and Carlos G. Velez-Ibanez (Eds.). Oklahoma City: Society for Applied Anthropology. Pp. 43-64.

Mihesuah, Devon and Elizabeth Hoover (Eds.). 2019. Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health. University of Oklahoma Press.

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In Knott County, Kentucky, Gingerbread Is Remembered For Its Connection to Local Politics

By Nicole Musgrave

Published December 23, 2020 at 9:04 AM EST

When you hear the word “gingerbread,” you might think Christmas. But in southeast Kentucky, when people of a certain age hear “gingerbread,” they think Election Day.

In a special report as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Nicole Musgrave, traces the surprising history of gingerbread in Knott County, Kentucky from everyday treat, to election time tradition, to fundraising champion.

Gingerbread Was A Household Staple

In her cozy kitchen in Hindman, Kentucky, LaRue Laferty watches over her teenage grandson, Jaxon Conley, as he makes a fresh batch of gingerbread. All of the ingredients are sitting on the green countertop of the kitchen island. So are the necessary tools, like metal baking sheets, measuring spoons, and a KitchenAid stand mixer.

Laferty, who is in her 80s, has a head full of short, white hair. She wears glasses and a green cotton face mask, and uses a walker to move around her kitchen. If you ask folks around Knott County who the best gingerbread bakers are, Laferty’s name usually comes up.

“I don’t really profess to be a gingerbread-making queen, but I do make a lot,” she says.

When she was growing up, gingerbread was a year-round household staple.

“Anytime we went to grandmother’s, she had it,” Laferty says. “And my mother made it all the time, she kept it made.”

Knott County gingerbread isn’t crisp, snappy cookies, and it’s not moist, fluffy cake. It’s somewhere in between. Bob Young is a local historian born and raised in Knott County. He is in his 70s and he remembers most of the women in his family made this style of gingerbread.

“Gingerbread as we knew it here was just a glorified biscuit,” Young says. “And full, absolutely full of molasses.”

Before white sugar became easily accessible in southeast Kentucky, molasses was the primary sweetener. Every fall, sugarcane farmers hosted stir-offs. Folks gathered to watch as the sugarcane juice was boiled down to a sticky syrup, and they left with full jars to stock their pantries.

Aside from powdered ginger, the other ingredients—flour, fresh eggs, buttermilk and lard—were things people already had on hand. That made gingerbread inexpensive.

“Gingerbread was something that anybody, anybody nearly could get,” Young says.

LaRue Laferty (left) watches her grandson, Jaxon Conley, portion gingerbread batter onto a metal baking sheet in the kitchen of her Knott County home. Growing up in neighboring Floyd County, Laferty’s mother used to make gingerbread for candidates during election season. (photo by Nicole Musgrave)

Just A Nice Little Way To Ask For A Vote

One place you were sure to find gingerbread in Knott County was at the polls on Election Day.

“The candidates, they would hire good gingerbread makers in the community to make gingerbread, and they would give it out at the polls,” Laferty says.