MEET THE BOARD: Raqueeb Bey
Who are you and what kind of work do you do?
My name is Raqueeb Bey and I’m the Founder and Executive Director of The Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op (BUGS). We are a collective of Black growers in the western Pennsylvania, mainly in the Pittsburgh area, who come together to pursue equity in each others’ projects and to fight unfair and unjust food systems in Pittsburg urban ag. My career by trade is in finance but I found myself in the food sovereignty world by accident. I have a long background of being an activist and doing work for fair housing and gentrification movements however, when I started gardening a few years ago on a consistent basis I found there was a need to advocate for Black growers. I like to say I'm an urban agriculturalist because that includes farming and business but it also includes activism, housing justice and food sovereignty.
What is your motivation for doing this work?
My parents had a bit of land in the backyard when I was growing up that they used for growing food. They had everything- greens, and strawberries. My father had 12 fig trees in the yard. I would help them occasionally. When we moved back to Pittsburgh in ‘82 I became a Girl Scout. My parents expressed to me the importance of helping people.
I lived in the historical Hill District which is mostly a Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It was underserved and still is. I came from a middle-class family however my parents always told me to help the less fortunate. Pretty soon Western Pennsylvania Conservancy opened up a community garden in my area. It was about a half an acre and residents could each get a plot. My whole family had one. A lot of the older people in the community had one too.
As a young woman I moved to Atlanta in the 90s, just like everybody. I came back to Pittsburgh in 2000 to help my mom take care of my Pops. He wanted me to help weed the plot and I said okay. It was a Saturday and a lot of the older neighbors were out there and I started pulling “weeds” and they started yelling at me saying “You're pulling up food!” I learned a lot from them. After my father passed, I still kept up the garden. Eventually they made me the Community Garden Manager which was a simple volunteer position. I helped settle disputes and pass out plots. In 2002 that garden shut down because the water source was from an apartment complex next door and they got a new manager. The manager didn't want us to use their water anymore. This was actually an organization we ended up fighting for fair housing later down the road. Unfortunately, I didn't know anything about rain harvesting back then.
Near my house, there was a barbershop that opened up in the 40s called Harry Orlando's Barber Shop. He had a small garden on the side of his property that I would help with occasionally. In 2007 we had a tornado touchdown in Pittsburg, and it knocked down a lot of buildings. Harry's Barber Shop was one of the businesses that got knocked down.
After that, an organization started a farm called Landslide Community Farm. All of the older Black people that were indigenous to the area said, “Do you see those hippies? They started a farm!” All you saw was a bunch of white people in this Black neighborhood. Their community outreach was really bad. There was only one Black person in this core group. I went to that woman, who I knew, and asked if my friends and I could get a plot to grow food and teach our children. It was a great time. We served healthy vegetarian meals and taught them African centered culture. We named it Mama Africa's Green Scouts. The mission was to teach Black children how to grow food. That next season in 2012, they asked me to be on the Board for Landslide. I've never been on a Board but I agreed. I remember my mom said to me one day, That year a lot of the other children in the neighborhood wanted to join our farm. We wanted their families to come too. We didn't just want to teach the children we wanted everyone to learn. Some of those kids went home and started their own backyard gardens. Then, people without kids started to join. There was still an issue of neighbors feeling uncomfortable with Landslide because it was still mostly white people. They knew they needed someone from the neighborhood to help them with their outreach. We were making some progress, but I was still hearing complaints. I was seeing this everywhere, not only in the Hill District, but all over Pittsburgh. That summer I hosted Black Power Days at Mama Africa Green Scouts. We just wanted Black people there that day. It was our way to try to get Black people involved and interested in this work. The leading urban ag organization here in Pittsburgh reached out to me and they came to volunteer. I started to get invited to policy meetings for urban ag. I noticed that once again I was the only Black person there. Why is there only one Black person at the table when they are making policies about Black neighborhoods? I was shocked. Once again, I was seeing it all over and I'm hearing it from a lot of Black growers. We were left out of grants and funding opportunities. These large, white-led organizations were getting thousand dollar grants and we were getting $25 gift cards for supplies. That’s when I decided to start BUGS. We had our first meeting in June 2015. There were 12 of us. Each of us had different projects we were working on that we managed or volunteered at. We all had the same story so that’s why we decided to come together to fight systemic racism in Pittsburgh. Our kids were being taught by people that don't look like them. My daughter was the first Black person hired at Grow Pittsburgh. The food policy committee I sit on has Black people leading policy now. We made some dents, but we still have a fight. We were fighting for five years just to have a voice at the table. We are not only doing local work, but statewide, regional work. We are at the table now, but now we need our own table.
BUGS Pittsburgh picked a neighborhood to work in. We settled in Homewood which is in the east part of Pittsburgh. It is an area that experiences food apartheid. There has been no good grocery store since 1995. There are 6000 residents, mostly Black people. It's very underserved, so we decided to work in that area. There are corner stores everywhere with lots of unhealthy food. The city council put a Family Dollar there. If they had asked what the residents wanted, they would have said a grocery store.
We started a farm in Homewood. This is our fifth year. We have a farmers market. We have a plan for a cooperative grocery store that’s resident-owned. Hopefully that is going to happen in the next year or so. They created the Homewood Food Access Working Group, who is committed to work on issues around food insecurity. Food access shouldn’t be a competition. It's about creating food sovereignty. If we work together we can make these things happen.
Why did you decide to join the NESAWG Board?
I meant Tracy and Kirtrina Baxter in June 2019 at a conference here in Pittsburgh. I liked NESAWG, but even more, I liked that they were striving for racial diversity. I respect their work.
What are three tips that you would recommend for anyone who wanted to get into this kind of work?
You need to have community support. We like to use a method for community Development called Ubuntu. It’s a South African word that means, “I am because we are”. No one is by themselves. For our co-op grocery store, we have bi-monthly meetings for the residents. In the new year we are going to pace it up to once a month. It's all about what the community wants in this grocery store. That's where a lot of organizations fail. Community outreach is paramount. I know sometimes it's hard but you can leave flowers on someone's door or stop and start a conversation with a neighbor. It's not a big neighborhood but if they're not okay with what we're doing, we will not do it.
As far as farming I'm hardly on the farm anymore unfortunately. Now I mostly do administrative duties. I love the farm work but it's important to have professional development in your organization.
My next tip is on the social justice level. To Black and Brown folks, you have to have the love for your people. You have to want the best for your people. We all experience oppression. For white people, I would tell them that we don't need anyone to come in and save us. You wouldn't believe how many times white people will come on the farm and tell us how to run it. There are so many of us especially on the BUGS team that have years and years of experience. I do not have a problem with asking for help but do not assume that I need help.
What would have been the hardest lessons or challenges in your work?
Once again, it’s challenging explaining to Black growers in the region that there is no competition. We all need to come together as a collective to work to make sure all the Black growers in Pittsburgh have what they need. Another issue is land access. I thought Philly had a good model for land access but after talking to some urban growers there like Soil Generation, Urban Creators or One Art, I realized it's not that easy and the people who got land were lucky. We do have some programs like Adopt-a-Lot here in Pittsburg. We have not had any problems with our land but it’s mainly because we have the support of the community. We are trying to work with the city to create other programs for better land access. For example, we are trying to start a pilot program to secure land for three farms.
Another thing that has been challenging is understanding that we need our own space sometimes. It is okay to have our own space sometimes to solve challenges within our community. You must remember that even though we might be separate sometimes, we are all responsible for dismantling white supremacy.
Do you have any books or authors that you recommend to learn about the food system or helped guide your personal journey?
One of the books I like is The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities by Will Allen. Monica White’s book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, is a good one. I also like Food Justice Now!: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle by Joshua Sbicca, Farming While Black by Leah Penniman and Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas by Judith A. Carney.
How do you want to be remembered?
I tell people all the time that I don't think I'm anyone special. I'm always surprised when I go out and people know me. I didn't do anything new. Maybe new to the Pittsburg area, but there have always been black agriculturalists since before slavery times. I guess I just want to be remembered as a person who was serious about helping their people.