THE LIBERATED BEAUTY SERIES :
BIPOC LAND ACCESS IS A COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY
By Christine Jairamsingh
As the season begins to shift and spring approaches, visions of future blooming gardens and warm weather tend to come to mind. Of course, growing zones vary, but generally this time of year sparks inspiration and ignites excitement for the upcoming or now-starting growing season. Sourcing seeds, planning layouts, and daydreaming about an abundance of thriving food and medicine is an enjoyable and necessary practice that sets the tone and puts magic into action early-on. And ultimately, these initial hopes and dreams will manifest into a living landscape that will likely bring a lot of joy, happiness, and fulfillment.
When taking part in this excitement and anticipation, there’s often one thing that doesn’t occur to plant-savvy folks, and that is: growing a garden is a privilege. It’s not something that is available to everyone and even those who yearn for the opportunity can go a lifetime without putting their hands in the soil. There are a number of factors that contribute to the lack of accessibility to growing space and farmland, and, as a collective, we aren’t discussing these roadblocks nearly enough. Unfortunately, many marginalized individuals view the satisfaction of learning how to grow their own food and medicine as something that will never happen for them, and that reality appears to be much more ingrained for people of color.
In my case, it took thirty-five years to find myself in a position where I had the space, resources, and time to grow a garden. Thirty-five years of working, renting, and often ending up in basement suites or homes with no growing space whatsoever. Or, if there was some available, there wasn’t the time for it between commuting, paying bills, and caring for my chronically ill body. My life has mostly been about only entertaining what’s essential for surviving, and, to put it simply, building a relationship to the land felt like a luxury – something only available to those with generational wealth and free time. I feel as though I “lucked out” by finally having the opportunity to put seeds in the ground, but, in a way, it was a fluke. I found the time because it coincided with the onset of the pandemic, losing much of my employment, and, fortunately, ending up in a rental with a yard.
For BIPOC, growing up in North American mainstream culture can mean that there are no easy or obvious entry points to establishing a relationship with nature. Hiking, camping, and accumulating expensive outdoor “gear” to be in those spaces can be entirely foreign and exceedingly white. Even attending schools centered around herbalism, gardening, nutrition, and topics related to land-based healing modalities tend to be inaccessible, both due to cost and the alienation of not having the option of learning alongside people with a common experience. I personally searched for organizations who understood the unique aspects of ancestry, trauma, socioeconomic, and cultural factors that influence my perspective and how I relate to the outdoors, but it seemed impossible – no matter how hard I looked.
Community gardens are commonly suggested as a solution. “Just sign up and get your own plot,” but what many fail to realize is that these opportunities usually involve long waiting lists, traveling to areas that are likely to have the space (read: wealthy, white and “safe” neighborhoods), and, once again, being subject to community that might not feel welcoming or familiar. Assimilation can seem like an outdated term, but when it comes to so-called nature and our experiences uniting with it in deep and meaningful ways, it does seem to still require some form of surrender and choosing to integrate into white spaces in order to gain access. After all, it is mainly white families who own most of the land.
I understand that this isn’t the experience of every person of color, but it can be for a staggering majority, which means it needs to be acknowledged. The exceedingly individualistic nature of our society is part of the reason why some can grow abundant gardens while turning a blind eye to the lack of opportunity for others, when instead we should all be considering how to increase equitable land access for everyone. Folks who own land and possess privilege can willingly step up and offer space to facilitate learning and reconnection. It isn’t the responsibility of those who have been excluded to convince others that they are worthy of what should be a basic and inherent right.
Consistent and meaningful interactions with the earth can facilitate one of the deepest forms of healing. To claim to be anti-racist and committed to the well-being of people of color is to fight for their ability to form a relationship with the land with no expectation of repayment, benefit, or profit as a result of their labor or growth. There are sometimes live-work exchanges in farming and herbal communities, which, in a lot of ways, is the green equivalent of internships. This arrangement is only attainable for those who are privileged and don’t have to risk survival by committing to unpaid work. Please keep this in mind when offering opportunities with strings attached. This is not reparations or true systemic healing.
As a settler and descendant of immigrants, land access and even learning about it has always felt daunting – like there were no spaces that I fit in or could fully explore in a way that resonated on a personal level. And yet, my experience is still one of privilege within the context of colonization. I share my experience as an example, but it by no means is representative of the perspective or experiences of people of color, as a whole.
What needs to be asked is how can we collectively create change that ensures people of color have equal and personalized access to gardening and farming opportunities, and what tangible actions are we taking to facilitate this? The ancestors of Black and Indigenous folks took care of the land we live on, and taught us ways to keep it thriving, as well as how to grow crops successfully and make medicines that are increasingly becoming commercialized. And yet, many folks and communities in these lineages are unable to connect to these traditions, nor are they reaping the rewards associated with their ancestral knowledge. How can we balance the scales?
In a practical sense, it’s a question that’s not easy to answer, but here are some ways I feel we need to start pushing forward:
1. Give land to Black and Indigenous folks. The best case scenario is to give land without an expectation of anything in return, while providing complimentary support and education, if needed, and allowing Black and Indigenous leaders to guide the process. A small-scale example is offering a corner of your yard to a BIPOC-run organization looking for growing space. A large-scale example is gifting a plot of farmable land without the expectation of repayment, or coming to a mutual agreement that is beneficial for both parties. Here’s an outline of what a large-scale land matching agreement can look like. There are land matching programs popping up everywhere and a simple search can lead to finding one in your area.
2. Donate to BIPOC-run organizations. There is an increasing presence of empowered, BIPOC-run organizations that are creating frameworks and safe spaces for people of color to learn how to grow and use food and plant medicine. Oftentimes, they have scholarship funds to invite folks who have barriers to access and donations can also be made to keep the organizations running and to facilitate their growth.
Here are a selection of organizations to be aware of and support. Your contributions help to give opportunities to folks who might not otherwise have the chance.
BIPOC-run seedkeeping, farming, and herbal education organizations:
Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust
Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance
The Gullah Geechee Herbal Gathering
Not actively supporting and advocating for BIPOC is willingly allowing injustice and inaccessibility to continue. Reconnection with the land results in collective healing and isn’t solely about repositioning land ownership – benefitting the most forgotten and overlooked also serves to benefit the whole. So, when planning your garden this year, take the time to consider those who don’t know what it’s like to grow their own food, or even to connect to their own traditions, and aim to contribute to change, if you can.
Disclaimer: Black and Indigenous communities are not monoliths. I acknowledge that there are many generalizations and oversimplifications above, but this is intended as a simple introduction to the idea of land access and food sovereignty. I write this with the intention of reaching folks who may not be familiar with these concepts, and who have an open heart and mind when it comes to transforming cultural practices in order to build thriving, anti-oppressive communities based on the principles of accessibility, anti-racism and non-discrimination.
THE LIBERATED BEAUTY SERIES