Blog editor’s note: This #BlackHistoryMonth, 23andMe employees are celebrating joy and resilience in the Black and African diaspora through events, art, and conversations. We’ve also curated a series of guest blogs about people who embody that joy and resilience – and are harnessing these strengths to uplift their communities and create a better future. Today, we’re highlighting Nyema Clarks work in building a urban farm to build a community around wellness and connections to the land.
By Gennette Cordova
Tucked away in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle is Nurturing Roots, a community farm founded by Nyema Clark in 2016 as part of a movement to reclaim her people’s history and relationship with agriculture.
“I feel like, as a Black woman, all I hear about is ‘roots’—that’s our engagement with agriculture,” says Nyema. “I wanted to find an alternative way to visit, to view, to think about agriculture.”
Growing up in the urban, multicultural community of Seattle’s South End, Nyema’s exposure to different cultures informed her view of the world and food, in particular.
“My neighborhood was very diverse,” she says. And that diversity extended to the kitchen. ” At my kitchen table I was eating just about everything. My friend across the street might be making lumpia; I could get a soul food meal from grandma; or I was able to get authentic chicken soup from my Vietnamese neighbors.”
Nyema grew up in an environment that emphasized all aspects of “growing.” Her mother, a florist, instilled in her the vital importance of growing professionally, mentally and emotionally. Her father, who was interested in landscaping and carpentry, exposed her to the practice of building with her hands.
“It’s always intrigued me. I always wanted to learn more, (about) Black folks in farming,” says Nyema. “Learning about George Washington Carver, the crazy land swaps and land grabs that happened. Identifying how structurally things are all messed up, I just dove head first into the agricultural side.”
In Seattle, like many cities around the country, health disparities such as higher instances of asthma among Black and Hispanic children can be attributed, in large part, to environmental racism.
The evidence of racism and income inequality were evident throughout her childhood. “I don’t want to say it was a typical urban environment, because it was very unique. It was beautiful but also sucked knowing that a lot of my friends had asthma. And now I know why.”
Still, it was this environment that cultivated Nyema’s mind for business. Her entrepreneurial inclinations began with grade-school lemonade stands. That eventually led to the formation of her company, Avenue South, a small specialty seasonings shop at Seattle landmark Pike Place Market. While she enjoyed the exploration of value-added products, she became deeply invested in the idea of feeding her community with no monetary value attached.
Nurturing Roots was the logical expansion of this investment. The nonprofit has flourished, tended to by her commitment to “Robin Hood the system.” In this moment, where racial and social justice is under a magnifying glass, Nyema is intentional about addressing systematic oppression with an emphasis on food and environmental justice.
Claiming Her 40 Acres
“A lot of my trauma was associated with realizing we were brought here in servitude,” she says. For many Black Americans, especially those of us who grew up in cities, we naturally connect Blackness and farm work to the hundreds of years of barbaric, American chattel slavery, that confined our ancestors to coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar, and cotton plantations.
Nyema is resolved to reclaim farming as a means to reconnect with history and healcommunities. To further this vision, she has turned her focus to land ownership. She recently received funding to purchase the commercial space that currently houses Nurturing Roots, and she’s close to sealing a land transfer deal with the Seattle Parks Department to obtain 38 acres called Red Barn Ranch in a suburb of Seattle.
“My plan for Red Barn Ranch is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that includes Black farmers, Black healers and young people,” she says. “I wanted to be able to start a fire under the city’s ass to get them moving.” adding “You guys have land and you’re not doing anything with it? We’re paying taxes on it and the community could use it? What are you doing?”
For Black Americans, there’s a symbolism in coming into possession of nearly 40 acres—the amount of land, along with a mule, famously promised and then denied to former slaves.
“That’s why I tell everybody it’s all of ours,” she says. “We all are about to get our 40 acres finally.”
In acquiring this space, she aims to attain financial security, freedom to carry out her purpose and conjure a spiritual remedy for a time when our ancestors could own nothing, not even themselves.
“Personally, I’ve seen a lot of land taken from not only our community but my family. We had a house in the [city’s historically Black] Central District, it was foreclosed,” says Nyema, touching on a shared experience for many Black people in Seattle.
“My model encompasses everyone being able to own a piece of land even though this document says Nurturing Roots on it,” she says. “We don’t have individual plots at Nurturing Roots. Someone asked me before, ‘can I come and grow my garlic there?’ And it’s like, ‘yeah, but it’s gonna be amongst all the other garlic and then anybody who comes can pick it. Are you okay with that?’”
Physical, Mental and Spiritual Wellness
Community is prioritized at Nurturing Roots, along with self-sufficiency and food empowerment. In South Seattle, the area’s lower income and higher unemployment predictably correlates with the sparseness of grocery stores, compared to other parts of the city. Beyond providing a much needed additional source for fresh produce, addressing a wide range of health issues from the expansion of access to nutrition-based education and fitness training to more ambitious goals like “taking control of our own sovereignty when it comes to healthcare” are on Nyema’s agenda.
Understanding how isolating many corporate spaces can be for Black workers, she sees Nurturing Roots as an opportunity to give her loved ones an alternative to more traditional working environments. So far, she’s been able to staff her operation entirely with people who are dear to her, some who she’s enjoyed decades-long friendships with. Nyema envisions a communal system with currency based on bartering, exchanging labor on the farm or some other offering, with the hope that the community she creates can detach their sense of self-worth from a dollar amount.
With Nurturing Roots, she is intentional about centering healing and health, not just through nourishment of the body but nourishing the mind and spirit, as well. After years of feeling constantly undervalued in professional settings, with her farming project she felt her identity—as a Black person, a woman, a South Seattle native—being celebrated in a way that she’d never experienced before.
“Spiritually, it’s like I’ve been restored doing this work—almost like a baptism,” she continues, moved to tears. “Now, I couldn’t go back and work for someone if I wanted to. I needed to value myself. I needed to explore being a strong woman and have it not look like something else. It was tough to find in these artificial spaces.”
With the region boasting a wide range of agricultural products and a growing emphasis on sustainability, Nyema hopes her work will plant seeds in the minds and imaginations of her peers and younger people in the city.
“People need to see us doing it,” she says “People need to be able to see themselves engaging in this practice.”
Gennette Cordova is a writer and organizer currently based in Brooklyn. Originally from Seattle, she has written many times about the struggles and successes of Black women.