What began with community gardens has grown into a movement. Urban farming has a positive impact in neighborhoods with limited access to produce, and it is on the rise in cities across the United States. Urban farming creates jobs, beautifies blocks, provides access to healthy food and connects the community. Here are seven (of many) African Americans taking the lead in the field of urban agriculture.
Favorite thing to grow? For Karen Washington, it’s collard greens: “Collards are traditional in the African-American household and cuisine. It’s about family, culture and storytelling,” she told The Root. Washington began her journey in urban farming in 1985 in her backyard, and her passion has since transitioned into a full-time career. She says that farming is important because the gardener controls what is planted, how it is harvested and what is done with it once it is fully grown. “There is power in growing food; it is spiritual and transformative,” Washington said. “Stick your hands in the soil and feel life.”
2. Will Allen
Founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc.
Will Allen, whose father was a sharecropper, grew up on a small farm in Maryland but did not take up farming as a profession until retiring from basketball at the age of 28. While living in Belgium, Allen observed intensive farming methods used on small plots of land. After returning to the United States, he began applying those methods to a small, vacant garden center in Milwaukee. It was there that he was inspired to teach farming methods to inner-city youths after they began asking him for gardening advice. “Start growing food. Even if you live in an apartment—if you’ve got a balcony, grow a pot of salad mix,” he said. “If you’ve got a backyard, grow something. Or go to a farmers market and engage with the local farmers. Shop on the exterior of the grocery store and look for the local sections.”
To Gail Myers, urban farming and food-distribution outlets in urban communities are ways to bridge the cultures of old and new. “It’s an opportunity for the black community to see themselves in food, to identify with it,” she told us. “It is a way to reclaim our community’s agricultural legacy.” Starting an urban garden does not take much. Myers said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for—just start it on your balcony or in your backyard, and then bring people around your food.”
4. Natasha Bowens
Creator and author of The Color of Food
After joining the food movement, Natasha Bowens instantly felt more alive and connected to the earth than she ever had before. She began discovering the historical inequalities in agriculture and the food system for people of color. When she was one of the few people of color selling food at a market a few years ago, some people did not take her efforts seriously. Her hope for the multimedia Color of Food project is that it will “help repaint this skewed and insulting picture of farmers that the bulk of society seems to hold so that farmers of color, urban farmers and small-scale farmers get the respect and value in their work that they deserve.”
5. Mchezaji “Che” Axum
Agronomist and director of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia
Mchezaji “Che” Axum, who originally planned to study pharmaceuticals in college, switched gears after learning about George Washington Carver’s teachings on local sustainability. It is very easy to lose knowledge about farming, even after one generation. “If you couple that with the history of African Americans and agriculture, there is often an apprehension to really get involved,” he told The Root. “But I always remind people that 3,500 years ago, there was a society of people who were the first to use sustainable agriculture. If you search for that first practice, it leads to one place: Africa, Egypt, the Nile Valley region.”
6. Tanya Fields
Executive director of the BLK ProjeK
The Bronx, N.Y.
“We don’t always see ourselves as part of an ecological system,” Tanya Fields told us. “Community gardens help people reconnect with the earth, and this is especially important in areas that are struggling and have fewer resources.” For the African-American community, farming and agriculture have often been associated with slavery and oppression, but, Fields said, “If we are able to access and reclaim land—not for the gain of others but for ourselves—we own the decision-making around what we put in our mouths.”
7. Tyler Ray
Urban Creators youth leader and garden apprentice
At the age of 15, Tyler Ray established Carlisle Gardens, a small community garden in his Philadelphia neighborhood, using tips from his Jamaican grandfather, a farmer for more than 30 years. “Urban farming and community gardens are so important because they bring neighbors together to work for the common good,” he told The Root. Now 17 years old, Tyler says that the best way to get young people of color involved in urban farming is to help them see that their hard work does not end after a couple of weeks. “It gives you a sense of pride. People will be able to see their hard work come to life—literally,” he said. “Seeing your crops blossom into healthy food sources will definitely make anyone become permanently involved.”
Nicole L. Cvetnic is The Root’s multimedia editor and producer.