How can reconnecting to our roots help us to nurture a sustainable relationship to environmentalism? In this conversation, Amirio Freeman of Being Green While Black (BGWB) and Kate Weiner of Loam share how their personal identities have shaped their present work.
AMIRIO FREEMAN: I was inspired to talk about this idea of reconnecting to our roots from Sisters of the Yam by bell hooks. It's a self-help book that she initially wrote for black women but in one of the chapters she talks about how reconnecting with the earth is such a vital form of self-care and self-love. For her, connecting to these spaces that meant so much to her family was a great source of care, love, and security for her. After reading that book, I started to think about my own family and how we all have these really deep roots and connections to place. My grandfather on my mom's side is a gardener and I remember going down to South Carolina where he lives for the summer as a kid and watching him cultivate and care for the earth and just grow a million things like squash and cucumbers and collard greens...and it was amazing for me to see a black man do that kind of thing. I realized that my family had a really special connection to this garden and as I've grown older, it's made me want to protect spaces like that because it's part of our cultural preservation. Our histories are truly embedded in the environment.
I realized that my family had a really special connection to this garden and as I've grown older, it's made me want to protect spaces like that because it's part of our cultural preservation. Our histories are truly embedded in the environment.
KATE WEINER: Yeah, absolutely. And have you ever talked to your grandfather about his experience with gardening? Do you know what his relationship is rooted in?
AMIRIO: Actually, yes. This past summer, I asked him straight up Why do you garden? What's your connection? And I learned that his father was a farmer and that's how he sustained his family. So my grandfather actually grew up farming. My grandfather eventually left farming and worked in a factory but he always knew how to save seeds, plant seeds, and weed. For him it became a hobby rather than a source of sustenance but it was rooted in his relationship with his father who passed down these different agriculture skills to him.
KATE: That's beautiful. And I really love, too, what you said about relationships to the earth being an act of cultural preservation. Because so much of what I'm striving to do is find my way back into community and culture. Like so many people, understanding how to tend to the earth is a knowledge buried deep down in my ancestry but I don't have ready access to that relationship.
Like so many people, understanding how to tend to the earth is a knowledge buried deep down in my ancestry but I don't have ready access to that relationship.
AMIRIO: I agree. I also feel like nowadays there's such a doom and gloom perspective when it comes to convincing people to protect the environment and it's just not an effective way to get people to care. Remembering our roots to our environment helps us become invested in sustainability. When we can feel an emotional connection to the environment because we can remember that all of us have a personal story connected to caring for the earth—that's when we're going to start to see a huge shift in the global environmental movement.
KATE: Yes, definitely. For me what's so problematic about the doom and gloom perspective is that it's a really limiting narrative that doesn't take into account the multiplicity of reality. And more than anything, I think it's a colonial perspective because it assumes that life and death is linear rather than cyclical. Trying to look at climate change as a cycle really changes things. Right now we are in an incredible period of extinction and that's sad and awful but it's also laying the ground for regeneration. And it's so important to remember that we can be arbiters of regeneration even in the heart of so much loss. It's not only about having hope. It's about recognizing that the world is much more complicated than we could ever understand.
AMIRIO: I agree. I think that connecting to the environment from a place of life starts with us asking ourselves how do we want to be in relationship to our earth? So with that in mind, how do you personally connect to the earth? And how has your own family history inspired what you do?
KATE: I think a couple of things have shaped my relationship to the earth. Definitely learning more about my family's history. My grandmother's father's family were Jews from Eastern Europe who in the 19th century left for Argentina to live in a Jewish settlement in the pampas in part because they were experiencing so much violence and poverty in their home country. Her father came to New York when he was twelve I think, but his family who lived in Argentina were farmers. It was so interesting for me to learn about this part of my family history because although I had heirlooms in my house from that time—we have a faja hanging on our wall from my grandmother's uncle and Ladino newspapers chronicling life on the settlement—I otherwise had no real relationship to that aspect of my lineage at all. I didn't really understand what some of my ancestors did or how connected they were with the land. Studying old family trees and reading through books about the Jewish diaspora to South America suddenly made me realize that caring for the earth was in my blood even though I had no access to it. So, I try to honor that hidden heritage through gardening and herbalism. And I love what you said, Amirio, from an earlier conversation about being a joy-based activist, because that's such an important idea and that desire to live joyfully really shapes how I relate to the earth.
AMIRIO: That's such an important point. If we are always coming from a place of despair, it makes this work not pleasurable and then it's not sustainable. It's like telling five year olds to eat their vegetables. If you make it tantalizing, people are going to gravitate toward it and find it irresistible. But I want to touch on something you said about your family history and how farming allowed them to sustain themselves because it reminds me that when we remember our family's connection to the land, it not only teaches us that we all have roots in the earth, but also that we have access to other ways of living and other models for life. For so many people right now, their only option for fresh food is a Target or Walmart. We're dependent on these capitalist institutions that are wrecking our planet and that are contributing to an unstable food future. But when we reach back, we can see that people had sustainable connections to the land and we can use those past models as models for how to live today. We can live in a way that doesn't rely on the destruction of arable land and animal cruelty and inhumane labor conditions.
When we reach back, we can see that people had sustainable connections to the land and we can use those past models as models for how to live today. We can live in a way that doesn't rely on the destruction of arable land and animal cruelty and inhumane labor conditions.
KATE: And it's not just that it's a return to our roots because we are fortunate now that we don't have to do this kind of work in isolation. We can really honor our interconnection. That's one of the most beautiful aspects of this renewed interest in farming and gardening—it's about being part of a community and creating together. But you're so right that in so many ways, it's a tweak on these old models. It's crazy though, how even in the span of a generation, we can lose such an understanding of these models. Consider our culture of disposability. Most of our parents didn't grow up in that culture! This is such a small point, but I remember being surprised to learn that non-disposable razors were a thing. When I told my Mom that she was like, that's what I used to use! So part of the work now is to remember what was possible before we lived in such a disposable culture, before the food we ate was mostly corn and soy, before having a garden and farm wasn't a "quirk" but a way of life.
AMIRIO: And I think that reconnection is awesome, because so many of us who are interested in this kind of work are wondering how can we make things more sustainable and the reality is that we don't have to innovate much because all we have to do is look back at our ancestry and see how they lived. So many of the answers we need are right there.
KATE: Totally! There's a blueprint for all of this which is nice for us! One of the things I love so much about the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is that she talks about how there's a blueprint for reciprocal ways of being interwoven into our ancestry. It's comforting to remember that there have been times like this before and that if you really pay attention to the history of agroecology and community building, you'll find those tools.
AMIRIO: And like you said, it's all a cycle. This has happened before and we can always look back for the answers. So for you, when you are working with people who aren't as connected to their roots and ancestry, what is your advice for getting them to look back at their roots?
KATE: That's a good question! Part of it is that if you do have access to a family tree, which I know how fortunate I am to have, read it! Learn from it. Ask your family about their experiences and their history. And another part of it is about remembering that you are entitled to this history too. You don't have to grow up with a deep familial connection to the land to be entitled to beauty or to dig into herbalism or to learn about gardening. Sometimes people think that they are a fraud if they are passionate about these things if they didn't grow up with them but it's everyone's birthright! You don't have to have a grandmother who took you out into the garden and taught you about wildflowers to be entitled to explore that experience and care about it. So that to me is important to remember. What would you say? How would you answer that question?
You don't have to grow up with a deep familial connection to the land to be entitled to beauty or to dig into herbalism or to learn about gardening.
AMIRIO: I think it's important that we ask questions within our own families and really reach back to see what our people were doing. I love what you said about how it's our birthright to engage in the environment because when we expand this idea of the environment to any place—not just wild spaces—we realize that we all have a connection to the environment. We all have a favorite childhood spot; we all have a connection to place; and remembering that is how we remember that protecting these spaces is our birthright. And in terms of getting people to look back, I think we have to lead by example. As people who do environmental work, we have to reference our own personal histories. That goes back to having ownership of our identities. As a black person doing environmental work, I feel a responsibility for sharing how my own black diaspora history has influenced me and the work that I do. With Being Green While Black, I'm always thinking about what images I can curate that will inspire others to own their identities. What kinds of narratives can I show that think about herbalism within a black context? Or think about environmental activism within the history of a town that has been experiencing environmental racism for decades? I always try to link and to find narratives that connect to a black identity within sustainability. And I want to know, for you, how narrative fits into Loam?
KATE: Well, firstly, I really like what you said about trying to lead by example and I think that's what I have been striving to do. I want everyone to know that environmentalism is our birthright. Something I'm trying to do with Loam is show there are a lot of different ways to engage with the environment and no matter where you come from or who you are, you're entitled to have nourishing experiences with the world. Especially because right now, so many young people are changing space and there's something beautiful about that but it also deprives us of the opportunity to really understand place and love a place and take care of a place. So I'm trying to use Loam as a platform for finding ways to get back to a sense of place. Which is definitely not an area where I'm leading by example because I've moved like, eight times in the last two years, but I'm trying! I'm trying for a sense of place.
AMIRIO: I agree! Living in D.C., there are so many transient people. And I'm one of those people too. But having a sense of place is really important so if you are always moving and struggling to call a place home, it's hard to develop a passion for place. I think though we have to call any place you're in a home even if you are there for only two months. We can get involved in a community group and support local businesses and really try to appreciate whatever patch of earth we are on.
KATE: That's so beautiful. No matter where we go in the next day, we always have the opportunity to appreciate the patch of earth that we're on. I've been living in the same city for almost a year and a half now and I was so sure when I moved that I wouldn't be there for long that I didn't make these connections at first. I mean, I got a library card but that was kind of it. And now I'm like man! Why didn't I give myself permission to be rooted in place? Why was I so afraid of staying still? And I think that's a good thing to recognize moving forward because I don't want to struggle to identify changes in my climate. I want to be able to know enough of the place I'm in to know when things are changing.
AMIRIO: That's really important. Because often as environmental activists, we're so gung-ho on protecting the earth as a whole that we forget to engage with the little patches of earth we are living on. We really need to think about place making as a form of activism and resistance. Because once we have a connection to place, once we know our neighbors, once we know our community, once we have that wherever we are, we'll have a more robust and effective activism. The work we are doing is about loving the earth, the water, the air, and you can't do that effectively if you're not doing that in your daily life.
Once we have a connection to place, once we know our neighbors, once we know our community, once we have that wherever we are, we'll have a more robust and effective activism. The work we are doing is about loving the earth, the water, the air, and you can't do that effectively if you're not doing that in your daily life.
KATE: Yes! I love that idea of placemaking as activism. It's not only about protesting in the streets. It's about what you do day-to-day and how you choose to be in relationship with the earth.
AMIRIO: Yes, and it's like you said, when we look back at these ancestral ways of being within our families, they were practicing ways of being that centered on community building. Placemaking is an essential part of community building because you can't have community or be in community if you don't feel like you belong to that space. So for everyone reading this, really investigate the place you're in. Go walking in your community, pay attention to the sidewalk, the air, the trees, the animals, to everything, and imagine the space around you as being a sacred space. Once you do that, allow that sense of sacred to motivate you to not only protect that space, but also every other space on earth.
KATE: I love that! My friend calls it being a neighborhood naturalist. You go out in your neck of the woods and forage for beautiful things and make notes of your surroundings and fall in love with where you are. And I think that's the perfect takeaway for this conversation. To go out and grow where you're planted.