Black Community Building Collective: Free, Fresh Produce at Nurturing Roots
The Black Community Building Collective is a coalition of 15 Black-led organizations brought together by United Way of King County to build relationships, form strategies that impact the Black community, and implement those strategies with United Way funding that cedes decision-making power to communities. The Collective launched in 2020 to invest $3 million in local, Black-led organizations. We’ve invested an additional $1.5 million in 2022 and we anticipate more funding in later years.
United Way features monthly spotlights of Collective members. This month, we’re spotlighting Nurturing Roots, a Beacon Hill-based community farming program focused on healthy food choices. We recently visited the organization and founder Nyema Clark to learn more.
United Way of King County: What are the origins of Nurturing Roots?
Nyema Clark: I founded the program seven years ago, really because we saw the need for food justice in our community. We wanted to find more supports around food sovereignty, being able to assist individuals of color, predominantly Black folks, on how to get back into agriculture and being self-sustaining in terms of their health and their food. There was a big push around seven years ago around social justice issues in general on Beacon Hill. I was doing a lot of work with the No New Youth Jail campaign, and we founded Nurturing Roots because we had the opportunity to start growing food in a vacant space. It really originated because communities were losing spaces to grow food and health disparities were heightened in our community.
United Way of King County: What is your background?
Nyema Clark: I grew up maybe 10 blocks from where our offices sit on Beacon Hill. I went to Rainier Beach High School, and I definitely didn’t think I was going to be a farmer in those days. But professionally I found my career in agriculture and now in self-sustainability. I started growing and I was a value-added producer at Pike Place Market. I was making seasonings and vinegars. My expertise kind of started there.
United Way of King County: What’s it like to farm in Seattle?
Nyema Clark: Farming in Seattle probably looks different [from other parts of the country]. I’m usually the only “Chocolate Sista” at our farm conferences and retreats. We are few and far between here. Being in the Pacific Northwest a lot of folks migrated here to get away from those stigmas and working the field, and that is part of our ambition too—to transition our thought to “This is healing. This is benefitting your family for generations to come. This is love, tending to the soil.” But it is scarce.
Even my own family says, “Why are you out there getting your hands dirty?” And I said, “This is what we are known to do, even before servitude, it was taking care of ourselves.” There are triumphs when I meet young girls who have never seen a Black woman farmer. They get excited and inspired to create their own facets in these lanes.
United Way of King County: What do you grow in that space and how big is the space?
Nyema Clark: We are on a quarter acre lot. When I talk about what we grow, I like to first and foremost say we are growing humanity. We are tending to the soil and growing a lot of fruits and vegetables, but truly the best thing we are cultivating is the humanity among everyone who participates. We just had folks from United Way and the Black Community Building Collective come out, and it was great seeing them light up just picking grapes and blackberries!
We have foods that aren’t indigenous to our environments, so we have a coffee tree, we have pineapples. We have frogs and chickens. There is such a vital diversity; just like human beings, we need to have multiple types of plants growing next to each other so they can familiarize themselves with each other and use each other for our strengths.
When I’m not here, folks come in and grab tomatoes or collards, whatever they need. We want it to be an ecosystem similar to blackberries on the side of the road.Nyema Clark, founder of Nurturing Roots
United Way of King County: What types of yields do you get?
Nyema Clark: Here we focus on cultivating the practice. Structurally, if we were to, say, weigh produce and give it to you, I would have to have a scale that’s mandated by the county. Similar to tabs on our car, we would have to have a license for that scale and pay for it to be to date. I eliminated that by just taking a piece of kale and handing it to folks. I can give you a bundle and it’s not required that I have any state requirements or back-office stuff. For us, we found the monetary value of food is false. We need to be able to encourage people to come out and grab a carrot. We don’t necessarily keep a track of our yields because a lot of it is free-foraged; folks can come and grab. When I’m not here, folks come in and grab tomatoes or collards, whatever they need. We want it to be an ecosystem similar to blackberries on the side of the road.
United Way of King County: That is great at a time when basic needs, such as fruits and vegetables, are so expensive. How do you help people to grow their own?
Nyema Clark: Last year we were able to give out 250 Veggie Grow boxes: seeds, soil, plants and instructions. We give those to community members to grow at home.
United Way of King County: How have you been able to keep it going?
Nyema Clark: Fortunately, I started digging on how to fund programs. I found out there are all sorts of nonprofits. But they have these for-profit entities that can pay for their structures. Once I was able to get a fiscal sponsor, we were able to do grant writing. We have repeat donors who help sustain the work. The program is based on the ecosystem; I can save seeds, we can save water, we can pitch in and plant things together, and then the sun does its job. It doesn’t take a lot to run it.