Hank Harrera

Hank Harrera on Social Justice and Economic Equity

Hank Herrera, M.D., has worked in the world of social justice for a long time, and his passion for the work still burns bright. “Right now I am focused on the people of Oakland,” Herrera says of his work with the HOPE Collaborative. “We’re working on health, the environment, making sure that people have fresh, affordable local food; safe, attractive places for activity and play and strong neighborhood economies,” he says.

At the top of Herrera’s list in creating an equitable community is the need for economic development. “I work primarily in communities of people of color that are low income,” he says. Herrera says that making sure there is equity, offers up some tough challenges, including accessing the necessary capital to make things happen. “We all know the elements of a socially just food system,” Herrera says. “Many people feel that ownership and equity are critical in developing a truly just system.”

Herrera is also the founder of the Center for Popular Research, Education and Policy (C-PREP), devoted to participatory action research, capacity building, and policy development with communities seeking to achieve self-reliance. He understands the importance of having capital to make change and to the balance of power. “Without capital, we are all at the door knocking, instead of being at the table,” he says. The economic power and equity, as a pivotal part of the civil rights movement, got derailed over the years, he says.

“If we think of the food system as the farmer, the processor, the warehouse, the distributor and retail person-these are the people who manage logistics of the supply chain,” Herrera says. “We are not thinking of a global system-we want that supply chain to be locally owned and operated by the people it serves.” With community based economic power in place, Herrera says there could and should be a supply chain for every neighborhood, a chain that is greater than its parts.

Herrera says the obstacle to having a truly equitable system and economic power is structural racism. “Maybe it wasn’t done on purpose. It just happened through public and private policy decisions,” he adds. In the Oakland project, which is a part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded Food and Fitness initiative, the team is trying lay the groundwork to overcome structural and systemic inequities, overcome these barriers and achieve social and economic equity.

Before trailblazing in Oakland, Herrera, who is a psychiatrist, worked in Rochester, New York. “People there had no choice but buy most of their basic food outside of the neighborhood and therefore to take money for that food out of the neighborhood,” Herrera says. Together they worked to get a full-service grocery store right where people live. “It is a way to build wealth and assets for neighborhoods.”

Herrera also has his eye set on equity in farming and the land. “If laborers are good enough to work the land, why aren’t they able to be owners.” To that end Herrera says there is work going on with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) to recruit farm workers to become farmers and farm owners. There are also programs nationally to train new immigrants as farmers.

“When I got involved in the work of social justice for people of color back in 1991, there weren’t that many people in the field,” Herrera says. “Now lots of colleges have programs academic programs focused on socially just, sustainable food systems. The change in the number of people doing this kind of work is explosive.”

Interview with Andrea King Collier