Skip to content Skip to footer

African Americans, Organizing and the Transition Environmental Movement

People of color show little interest in movements that require a commitment to a group process working beside white people.

Karen Washington, cofounder of Black Urban Growers (BUGS), at the Farmer's Occupy Wall Street demonstration on December 10, 2011. (Image: Food Democracy Now)

Karen Washington, founder of Black Urban Growers (BUGS), recollects:

I was at an environmental conference where no accommodation for the discussion of Black issues had been made. So, we found a room where we got together to talk about our concerns. As we were talking there was a knock on the door. A white woman standing in the doorway wanted to come in. Someone inthe room stood up and told her that this was a meeting for Black people, but she insisted that she neededto be part of the conversation because she understood and worked with Blacks. She was politely asked toleave. Ten minutes later, there was another knock on the door, and a white man who wanted to enter gave us another set of reasons why he should be part of the discussion. A brother stood up and firmly told him, ‘This meeting is for Black people only.’ Annoyed, the man turned and left. When whites come into the room, the conversation shuts down.

The Transition Towns environmental movement (Transition) has been critiqued by the Simplicity Institute for being run and populated by middle-aged, middle- and upper-middle-class, highly educated, post-materialist progressive white people. Since its inception, Transition has sought and failed to find ways to attract and retain people of color. The Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) observes that people of color will stand with white people in the protest and march-in-the street varieties ofenvironmental movements. However, people of color show little or no enduring interest in the type of movements, like Transition, that require a long-term commitment to a group process working beside white people.

Yet African Americans are participating in the transition to a post-carbon future – on Afrocentric terms. A case in point is the nascent Mid-Atlantic Wellbeing Circle in Charlottesville, Virginia. MATH is borrowing a page from the playbook of Afrocentric environmental organizers to better serve a diverse population in the Mid-Atlantic regional Transition movement. MATH is creating the space for Black self-organizing that enhances autonomy and sovereignty. The Wellbeing Circle focuses on healing, self-care and training in herbalism and holistic practices. Participants cultivate herbs that treat illnesses andconditions from which African Americans suffer as a function of centuries of exposure to structural racism.

The Autonomous Self-Organizing Imperative

Agroecology educator Chris Bolden-Newsome observes that as Black high school students work in the African Diaspora section of Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Garden,* they inevitably start moaning what sounds to them like a mournful Negro-spiritual-slave song. Bolden-Newsome, designer of the Diaspora Garden, recognizes this as “the kids’ humor wrapped in deep pain.” These young people don’t know thefull history of slavery’s legacy, yet at some level they recognize that the unfathomable pain is part of who they are. It’s the DNA of intergenerational oppression expressing itself as the students reconnect with the healing soil. Chris notes, “This intergenerational trauma is like an irritating grain of sand in a clam that creates something smooth and beautiful that one can live with. The pain yields a pearl.”

Yet Chris has never seen this spontaneous, cathartic work-song phenomenon happen in the presence of white student peers:

Black behavior is extremely different under the gaze of whites. I’m conscious of the fact that we work better in our own spaces. Black people are less expressive around whites.

Transition “initiating groups” are the engines that move localities toward resilience. The “initiating grouporganizing model,” executed well, requires trust-building among a core group of friends and neighbors who work together over the long haul. This requires ongoing meetings, socializing and deep collaboration.

Transitioners might consider what African Americans want rather than what white progressives want for Black people and for themselves in relation to people of color.

Activist Karen Washington encourages Black farmers to take back their narratives and stand in the truth of their own power:

We can’t wait for whites to invite us to the table. We have to make our own table, take control of our food system and set our own agenda. We’ve been brainwashed to think that if what we start doesn’t have white involvement and white approval, then it won’t work. We’ve been ‘whitewashed’ to want validation from whites…. Whites have a need to think that they are the brains behind what Blacks do because we can’t do it ourselves.

A distinct, robust Afrocentric agroecology movement is growing throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Its emergence is parallel to the mainstream environmental and eco-justice movements. Karen Washington (in New York) and Chris Bolden-Newsome (in Pennsylvania) join Renard Turner, president of the Virginia Association of Biological Farming in central Virginia, and others in building the autonomous sovereignty of African-American growers. Turner recently inaugurated the African American Agrarian Association for Sustainability, which links Black farmers and promotes standalone, off-grid, sustainable Black intentional communities.

Turner and Bolden-Newsome are determined to reconnect Black growers to food ways and herbal medicine ways that are traditional to people of the African Diaspora. Newsome and Turner both grow organic okra, collard and mustard greens, fish peppers, sorghum, cabbage, marshmallow, eddoes, black peanuts, Moringa trees, black-eyed peas, field peas and Caribbean tomatoes.

With Bolden-Newsome’s guidance, student members of ONYX, the University of Pennsylvania Black Honor Society helped fund, design, plan, till, weed and tell stories in the Diaspora Garden, which has become somewhat of a sacred space dedicated to the ancestors.

Owner of the 94-acre Vanguard Ranch and a proponent of Black intentional communities, Renard Turner asserts, “We have to reconnect with our own abilities, maintain our own communities and food systems. We need to own stores, the farms that supply those stores, and a lot more control over our destiny and lives.”

The Mid-Atlantic Wellbeing Circle in Charlottesville is walking through the doorway opened by these pioneering Black environmentalists. Networked at several scales, MATH affirms the authentic andstrategic need to build strong homogenous local initiatives of color so that true egalitarian unity in diversity may be sought at a wider scale in the network.

In true Transition form, MATH is stepping out of the mainstream template to build an organizingalternative that meets the emerging needs of the people it serves.

*The African Diaspora Garden is located at the Community Farm and Food Resource Center at Bartram’s Garden. The project is a partnership among Bartram’s Garden, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the City of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and the Agatson Urban Nutrition Initiative of theNetter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania.