Fighting for Good Food: Paul Quinn College and Social Justice

I am on quite a few mailing lists of historically black colleges and universities. From time to time, I receive something that is really innovative and refreshing, including a story this week from Paul Quinn College. I think it deserves some attention.

Paul Quinn is a small—many would say struggling—historically black college in Dallas, Texas, that is forced to be incredibly innovative in order to survive and matter. Its president, Michael Sorrell, has become quite active in the city of Dallas and in some national circles.

One of the college’s most recent endeavors is a fight for a grocery store near the Paul Quinn campus. Like many predominantly black, urban areas in the United States, the community around Paul Quinn lacks access to healthy food. There isn’t a grocery store within a six-mile radius of the college and the community in which the college resides. President Sorrell has reached out to several grocery chains, and none of them are willing to move a store into the Highland Hills community (where Paul Quinn is located).

Frustrated, Sorrell and the Paul Quinn family transformed an unused football field into an organic, urban farm. They grow food for the college and community. This is a good start, but the neighborhood still needs greater access to healthy food.

Recently the city of Dallas began discussing the expansion of the McCommas Bluff Landfill, which is less than two miles from the Paul Quinn campus. According to the city, the expanded landfill would be state of the art and would create hundreds of jobs over the next 20 years.

Here’s President Sorrell’s stance on the landfill expansion: “If you can transform a dump that’s less than two miles from our neighbors into a cutting-edge facility, surely you can find a way to help us build a quality grocery store to serve these citizens, who live more than six miles from the nearest store. Economic development can come in many forms, but it starts with people being properly nourished—that’s food, not refuse.”

In an effort to educate the community (including Paul Quinn students) and open a dialogue between the community and the city of Dallas, President Sorrell hosted a conversation on the college campus. More than 250 people, including a large number of Paul Quinn students, attended the meeting. By hosting this meeting and leading the charge to challenge the city of Dallas and fight for a grocery store for the community around Paul Quinn, President Sorrell is fulfilling the historic mission of black colleges.

For over a century, black colleges have fought for social justice and civil rights—in this case, the right of the community around Paul Quinn to have access to healthy food. In leading such a fight, Sorrell is not only teaching students about their rights, but he is helping them to understand how to change the economics of poverty in urban areas. Sounds like a worthwhile lesson to me.

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