What’s in a Name? Reclaiming, Rethinking and Resisting Language by Elena Gross


Language can be a really important tool in building identity and fostering community. Being able to express oneself and represent oneself in one’s own language is crucial in reclaiming agency and power in a world that so often denigrates and usurps that power. With this, however, also comes the responsibility of respecting others’ identity through language and calling out (ourselves’ and others’) oppressive and/or hurtful language.

There has been an upswing in the last few years of urban farming and gardening communities in communities in the Bay Area and all across the country. This phenomena has often been referred to as “homesteading” as it derives much of its ethos from “homesteading” movements of the past, both historically (the 1862 Homestead Act) and culturally (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie). In the current exhibition at SOMArts, Refuge in Refuse: Homesteading Art & Culture Project, the word “homesteading” is again invoked by the guest curators as a celebratory reference to the creative and diverse community of folks who built homes, infrastructure, and friendships out on the Albany Bulb.

While the proliferation of “homesteading” culture has been great, there has also been push-back against the word “homestead” for the history of “racism, colonization and genocide” (Grow & Resist, “Homestead Act 2.0″) that it still conjures. For many, the word “homestead” is a reminder of America’s storied past of brutalization and inequality and to use the word today, while subsequently ignoring that history, feels oppressive and wrong.

This is a particularly relevant conversation to have in conjunction with Refuge in Refuse. The former residents of the Albany Bulb have been quite vocal about their apprehensions to the word “homeless;” they consider themselves “Landfillians.” The word “homeless” comes attached with its own baggage, assumptions and judgement. To be seen as “homeless” is to sometimes not be seen at all. In naming themselves the “Landfillians,” the residents take back control of their own image and demand you to see them as they are: people who define home differently. Though I’m sure there are homeless folks and communities out there who take pride in the label and may even organize around it, it’s just not the most appropriate word for the Landfillians.


Similarly, “homesteading” is not the most appropriate word for many urban farmers and agriculturalists today. There are conversations all over the internet, and all over the country, about some of the problems associated with the term “homestead” and alternatives to “homesteading.”

Gathered below are just a few blog posts to begin the discussion of what the history of “homesteading” is, who is leading the coverage of its current revival, who is being punished for it, and what are ways to engage in urban, DIY and sustainable living practices while still being sensitive to the needs of others in the community.

Grow & Resist, “Homestead Act 2.0,” and “Homestead Act 2.1,” Grow & Resist blog, April 2010 and February 2011 respectively. Click here and here to read. 

Resistance to terminology such as “homestead” is resisting racist structures (language, history, power, knowledge) which are deeply intertwined with the global capitalist agro-industrial complex.”

Illustration by Kelsey McGilvrey 

Marianne Kirby, “Co-opting the Coop,” Bitch Magazine, 2012. Click here to read. 

There’s no debating the sense of accomplishment many neo-homesteaders feel as they practice their newly learned skills. Blogs such as Hipster Homesteading provide direct insight into just how invested many people are in these skills. But when that sense of personal satisfaction comes with a price for already marginalized populations, we must examine our own practices.”

**Note: The irony of this discussion taking place in a publication named for another contentious-if-occasionally-reclaimed-term is not lost on me. That’s a topic for another time.

Eva Holland, “Opting Out: What is Homesteading, and Why Does it Matter Today?” Pacific Standard, April 2014. Click here to read. 

Abigail R. Gehring, the author of several recent how-to books on contemporary homesteading and self-sufficient living, writes: “Homesteading is about creating a lifestyle that is first of all genuine. It’s about learning to recognize your needs – including energy, food, financial, and health needs – and finding out how they can be met creatively and responsibly.””

This piece is not an all-out reclamation but it may give you a little perspective on what “homesteading” means to a number of people who find empowerment in it. Also, Abigail R. Gehring’s description of “homesteading” seems impressively fitting for its use in this exhibition.

All photos taken by Timothy Andrew Photography; illustration by Kelsey McGilvrey

The exhibition Refuge in Refuse: Homesteading Art & Culture Project is on view until March 14, 2015.

About the Author:
Elena Gross is a CCA Extern for SOMArts Cultural Center and a graduate student in the Visual & Critical Studies program at California College of the Arts.