by Syris Valentine
Clouds couldn’t keep the crowd away. Over four less-than-sunny hours on April 22, an estimated 400 people flowed through Yes Farm — the one-and-a-half-acre urban farm on Yesler Terrace stewarded by the Black Farmers Collective — to celebrate Seattle’s second annual Black Earth Day with food, music, and good old-fashioned gardening. The event was co-organized by the Black Farmers Collective and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle to celebrate Black people’s contributions to the environmental movement, provide a green space that’s welcoming for Black people who feel disconnected from the land, and encourage more people to get involved in the environmental justice movement.
For Nirae Petty, director of advocacy at the Urban League and youth representative on the Washington State Environmental Justice Council, co-organizing Black Earth Day is critical to her work as an environmental justice organizer. Petty said, “Black Earth Day is important because it changes the narrative of Earth Day. It changes the narrative of the environmental justice movement.”
Where most of the media surrounding the environmental movement focuses on the white faces doing the work — like those involved in the Earth Day Action that 350 Seattle organized to march from City Hall to the Amazon Spheres — Petty saw Black Earth Day as a chance to center the people who birthed the movement. “We try to highlight all of the Black environmentalists, Black advocates, and Black creatives that are in the movement and try to remind folks that we started this.”
The event showcased the Black and Brown leadership in Seattle’s environmental movement by inviting Black- and BIPOC-led organizations to show up, share resources, and talk to people about how they can help advance environmental justice — even through actions as simple as taking one of the free baby vegetable plants the event organizers handed out for folks to grow at home.
While Urban League volunteers handed out the plant starts, Front and Centered shared information about the environmental justice campaigns they’re organizing around, Nurturing Roots helped people make their own spice blends, and Basilica Bio organizers shouted over the music bumping on the farm and the cars cruising by, so that — as people grabbed plates dished up by aspiring Black chef Liza Thomas, and slowly gathered around the projector set up under the trees on the far end of the farm — the audience could learn the history of the environmental justice movement.
When asked about their presentation, Isis Garcia, Basilica Bio’s action coordinator, said, “it’s about educating people and empowering people, so they know they have the power to change their community for the better.” They aimed to empower their audience by highlighting the individuals at the forefront of the movement.
“I really wanted to focus on some of the Black female leaders in the environmental justice movement because I feel so empowered by them,” said Basilica Bio’s Olivia Feldman, “and so much of the environmental justice movement really comes from these amazing women, like Hazel Johnson,” who has been called the Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement.
Hannah Wilson, the farm manager for Yes Farm, echoed the importance of highlighting Black leadership in the environmental movement: “Black people not only have so much brilliance around stewarding the land but are also some of the biggest leaders in the environmental justice movement in this country.”
The leadership of Black people in the movement has been driven in no small part by the fact that Black communities are some of the hardest hit by natural disasters as banal as heatwaves and as extreme as hurricanes. But despite this leadership and the fact that Black people are more likely than white people to be concerned about climate change, Black folks are severely underrepresented in the outdoor spaces that promote environmental awareness. While lack of access is a contributing factor, safety is an even bigger one, which makes spaces like Yes Farm essential.
“I’ve heard a lot in Seattle about how being in the mountains or in like green spaces can feel very unsafe,” said Yeawa Asabi, a staff member with the Black Farmers Collective, “and I think having a space that’s cultivated around specifically centering Black folks and Blackness and supporting Black artists and Black chefs is really important.”
The importance of a Black-centered, green space was evident throughout the day. People of all ages showed up for the event to enjoy the space, get their hands dirty, reconnect with the Earth, and celebrate each other. People laughed and danced as the DJ, Ma’asha Kolomb, curated an uplifting vibe that kept smiles on everyone’s faces while they waited in line to enjoy the food Thomas prepared. Even after the food ran out and all the plant starts were claimed, people stuck around to enjoy the community that had sprung up that day.
The joy of the day was evident on everyone’s face, and it was a common thread running through everyone I spoke to. Ife Asabi, another Black Farmers Collective staff member, summarized it best: “Today’s been a blessing, a pleasure. I love seeing so many Black and Brown faces in this space all at once, and just centering themselves around nature, community, and love.”
The blessing, the pleasure, of Black Earth Day is something that both Nirae Petty and Hannah Wilson hope people will come back and experience next year when they organize the event for the third time. After all, if there’s one thing Petty hoped people took away from this year’s event, it can be summarized in three simple words: “joy in nature.”
This article is funded in part by an Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund) grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE).
Syris Valentine is a Seattle-based freelance writer who focuses on climate change and climate justice. Their work has appeared in Grist, YES! Magazine, Daily Dot, and The Urbanist. When they’re not writing, you can find Syris taking long runs around Green Lake, browsing the nonfiction stacks in the Central Library, or having hot debates about climate action with friends. You can follow them @ShaperSyris on Instagram and Twitter.
📸 Featured Image: People gathering for the second annual Black Earth Day at Yes Farm on Yesler Terrace. (Photo: Syris Valentine)
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