Outdoor Afros in Service of Urban Foodways and Farms

Enjoy this guest blog and trip report by Zoe Polk, an Outdoor Afro Regional Leader and a human rights attorney!

If you, like me, have been following the wonderful web series “Black Folks Don’t,” you know there are few things some of us just don’t or won’t do.  From swimming to camping to yoga to winter sports, the series has been profiling activities not generally associated with Black Folk, as well as challenging our own internal biases. We at Outdoor Afro have gotten a kick out of watching this series and saying back to the screen “Oh yes we do!”

Recently, I had the pleasure of volunteering for Oakland Food Connection (OFC) in an activity that even I would’ve said, “Black Folks Don’t!” – that is “weeding, raking, demolishing,  hammering, and building on a hot summer day- FOR FREE.” Yet we know that’s false right? Many of us urban Outdoor Afro’s have great grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins who farm, garden, fish for food and still live off the land.
I grew up in Virginia, and with a Dad that spent many summers on his aunts’ farm in Birmingham, Alabama.  And he, in turn, taught my sisters and I that backyards aren’t just for fun. While my twelve year old self would never believe I would one day say this, I am grateful that doing yard work was a big part of my childhood.  Not only because of the connection I still feel to my parent’s land when I go visit, but also because this Outdoor Afro knows how to use some yard  tools!  And let me tell you, this came in very handy during the time I spent at OFC.  Throughout the morning, I shifted with ease between a hoe, shovel, clippers, pick ax and a rake. By the end of the morning, we had removed weeds, rocks, fennel and overgrown grass to create a level ground for the vegetable beds and a future greenhouse for OFC.

OFC was started by Jason Harvey, an Outdoor Afro with over 12 years of experience working in environmental justice and food education.  Located in East Oakland, OFC inspires youth who live in Oakland’s most negatively impacted neighborhoods to make healthier decisions about the foods they put into their bodies and to be stewards of their environment through urban farming and food production. They, moreover, become advocates for resources for their families and fellow community members.   Or as Jason put it “We work with youth to learn about food and what they put into their bodies and therefore have more confidence in themselves.”

Over four hours, I worked with several other volunteers prepare OFC’s backyard to become the garden for their weekly farm stand.  Jason and I talked about his lifelong passion for his work, and his recent visit to his relatives in Mississippi, where his discussions about environmental justice and getting outside fell on deaf, air-conditioned ears. I also met William, a young man who was quick to tell me what he learned about fast food and being a vocal advocate for his and his community’s health.
At Outdoor Afro, we like to say our mission is re-connect black folk with nature.  On that beautiful sunny Oakland morning with OFC, I did exactly that.  And I made sure to call my Dad afterwards and thank him for creating that initial connection.