Meet the Board: Sister Anna Muhammad
Who are you and why did you decide to join the NESAWG Board?
My name is Anna Muhammad and most people call me Sister Anna. I live in Springfield, Massachusetts. I work with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and that’s the Massachusetts chapter. My work is in Springfield but I work throughout the state of Massachusetts, in Boston and Worcester. I've been with them for about five years working with community gardens in Springfield and Boston, and primarily with housing developments.
My first introduction to NESAWG was through Betsey Johnson. [NESAWG was] having their conference in Baltimore and she said, “I know your mom lives in Baltimore. I know you lived in Baltimore and they're going to have their conference there. You should check it out”. I was blown away by what I saw. I got introduced to Reverend Heber Brown. I was familiar with the work he was doing in Baltimore for all the years that I lived there. I knew they had such a thriving Urban farming gardening scene. I got a chance to meet folks from DC and Philadelphia, and I was very impressed by their work, particularly the work in our communities. I could see people who led our organizations participating in leadership and that was very moving for me. I was very appreciative of that work, especially knowing learning a little bit about NESAWG’S history being a mostly white-led organization. That turn around that was just amazing to see and showed me that this can happen.
The next year I went to the Philadelphia conference and was once again blown away. It was great to see the rally at City Hall to maintain land for urban gardens and urban farms. Looking at that scene, and again seeing an increase of people of color especially in leadership roles was very exciting. When I went to Jersey City last year, I was once again blown away. I had a chance to participate on the conference committee that year. It was a very moving event, and again I was just impressed by the work and the honesty of working towards racial equity. Those of us who are privileged, have to put our privilege to work for people who are not. What sealed the deal is when we had a fundraising drive and the money went to the Ramapough Lenape Turtle Clan and their effort to start the Munsee Three Sisters Medicine Farm out of New Jersey. Just the fact that an organization like NESAWG would help fundraise and turn over a great percentage of the proceeds like that represents what being an ally is all about.
They made a call from board members and I thought ‘yes!’. You want to be part of a moving train like that. I am the equity director for NOFA and to see an organization that was very similar in makeup to NOFA make that 180 turn, made me want to get closer to find out what lessons we can learn and to also contribute a little bit of what I've learned to NESAWG. The whole idea is that maybe I have a little something to offer but just watching that level of work, commitment and dedication was very moving to me and encouraged me to want to be a part of this.
What is your motivation for doing this work?
It has truly been a blessing for me. I don't come from agriculture, I actually come from finance. My husband got me involved in gardening when I moved from Baltimore to Springfield, when we got married in 2007. It’s a hilarious story because when we bought our home here, it came with a nice area that was meant to be a garden. He was going on and on about how we can grow our own food and I am looking at him, thinking, ‘I didn't do any of this’. I told him he could work on it himself, but I wasn’t going out there and getting dirty. I don’t do bugs. I had one plant in my office when I was working and it was all crispy and crunchy. It died. We went back and forth for about a year. I didn’t think I could grow anything, and to prove to my husband that I couldn't do it, and to get him off my back, I said I would try. I will start withsomething simple like tomatoes and cucumbers and we would see if they would survive. They did a little more than survive, they thrived! We ate quite a bit from our garden and what was the hook for me was that I didn't have to go to the store as much. We're vegetarians so shopping outside for dinner was a blessing. I live in the Mason Square area in Springfield and when I moved here, there were not too many supermarkets. The food [at our local supermarket] looks horrible. The vegetables look like they are gonna go into cardiac arrest. You are taking a chance every time you go into that store. The community has been trying to get a full-service supermarket here for a long time with no movement. That is kind of what encouraged me to keep growing. We talk about “do for self” and this was a way I could do that, but I realized I didn't know what I was doing. [So] I ended up searching heavily for help and that's what I ran across Gardening the Community and NOFA Mass. At the time Gardening the Community, didn't have their farm yet but they would do any small soil health classes and I went to a couple of them that were in the area. I asked if I could volunteer and I got started working with them and helping them. I told them about the side plot at my house and that I had no idea what to do with it. I asked them if they wanted to farm on it, and they did. After a while they asked me to consider being on their board, which I did. At the same time I started doing community garden workshops here as my knowledge
increased. I started going to the NOFA Conferences and really doing my own self study. Around 2015 I went through NOFA’s beginning farming course to increase my knowledge and I was paired with urban farmers, Daniel Staub and his wife Kristen and they were a tremendous help and still are to this day. The coordinator for that program told me that they had an opening for a food coordinator and I should consider applying. I thought to myself that this is an all white organization. Did they really want me to join? I didn't think anything was going to come of ibut next thing I knew was that I was offered the job. I'm still the Food Access Coordinator there, along with being the Equity Director.
It was that search for information that got me connected to those groups but it was really looking at my community and realizing that my husband and I came into some information and we wanted to help other people get that same information. That’s how we pay it forward.
I remember when I brought home my first bag of garden goodies to my mom to Baltimore. She is an avid grower. She was looking through the bags of cucumbers, sugar baby watermelons and tomatoes I brought and asked me which farmers market I got them from. My husband said that we grew it ourselves and she was so pleasantly shocked. She was calling friends to tell them that I turned into a real gardener. I do have my husband to thank for getting me started. It is also part of what we do in terms of our faith and in terms of the message of the most honorable Elijah Muhammad. It is about helping others. Without that message and without my husband pushing me along I wouldn’t be here talking to you.
What are three tips that you would recommend for anyone who wanted to get into this kind of work?
Find your why. It can be difficult sometimes, especially when you're trying to collaborate with other organizations. You have to find your why. What is it that caused me to do this work? What moves me to do this? That’s what is gonna keep you focused and grounded even through the difficulties.
Another tip, is to always look for the common denominator. NESAWG is a network. From my work with Food Solutions New England on behalf of NOFA Mass, I've come to appreciate what it means to work within the network. Working within a network, trying to find common ground can sometimes be difficult so you have to look out for what unifies you. What's the one thing that we can all come together on to get the job done? Particularly in our communities during this time with COVID, and what's happened with George Floyd I have been reminded of what's the one basic thing that we’ve got to focus on. You are gonna have disagreements when you work in a network. Whether you’re an ally or a group that’s really boots on the ground you have to find your common denominator. After that, you can get to work and the work will go much easier.
Lastly, is to be open. It's okay not to always be the lead singer. You can play the guitar or be the backup singer sometimes. It's alright to be in the background offering support. In different times, different skill-sets are needed to take the lead. We all need to focus on the end result. For us, it’s making sure that we all have access to healthy food, and that all of the food and farm workers get proper and equal access to resources. Sometimes you have to step back and leave the ego at the door.
What would have been the hardest lessons or challenges in your work?
The hardest challenge that has turned into the greatest win, is to meet people where they are and weave together their knowledge with what I have to make a tapestry of success. When I work with the youth I learn so much from them. It's not me so much me teaching them, but what can I get from them. When I meet with some of the families and we talk about gardening we do it from the standpoint of “what do you like to eat?”. If you grow what you like to eat, it keeps people's interest. A lot of times you grow the stuff then think, what do I do now? Let's plan the garden based on what you like to eat! When we talk about what they want to eat, I learn about sancocho or sofrito. It is fun for me. I can learn about their family and their traditions.
It can be very challenging sometimes because we have such a traumatic history with agriculture. When we start talking about gardening with folks, they recognize the need but they also see the trauma. I've had youth say “that’s slave work”. I've had grown ups say “I don't want to go back”. Some people don't want any part of farming because they see it attached to poverty and for some Jim Crow. It is attached to painful memories so we acknowledge that, and then we try to remember the good memories. I try to help them understand that in this climate we’re in now, the more that we feed ourselves and our community, the better we're going to be. It's been a challenge that is turning into a win and it's really a blessing to see.
Do you have any books or authors that you recommend to learn about the food system or helped guide your personal journey?
I have a lot so I can give you the short list. I talked a little bit about my personal foundation so definitely Message to theBlackman in America by the most honorable Elijah Muhammad. That is something that keeps me grounded. The Holy Quran because there is scripture in there that tells us as a people we must be good stewards of what Allah has given us. Being a good steward of the soil is one of them and being a good steward of each other. When you're talking about process, The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food by Steve Solomon gets into some of the science of soil amendments, how to read soil tests, and how to give recommendations. Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman is very good and one I still go back to. If I were to get into more of the technical stuff, there are John Kempf’s writings on dealing with microbiology and soil amendments, Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, and all the writings from John Jeavons. I have gone to a couple of his workshops on double digging or bio-intensive digging which is a way of no-till growing. Hands-On Agronomy by Neal Kinsey is good. I actually went to his class and it's understanding soil fertility, how to read all the tests and how to give soil recommendations. Lastly, any book by George Washington Carver. In school all I got was that he discovered peanut butter but he did a lot with organic growing, composting, and rotational crops at Tuskegee. His biography called A Life, talks about him as a conservationist. He used all these practices that were helpful in conservation particularly in the time of the Dust Bowl. He was using techniques like cover cropping and rotational crops to restore soil from harsh cotton crops. He would plant peanuts, yams, mustard greens, and sorghum opposite of cotton to put back into the soil what cotton had taken out. He was the father of what we know today as regenerative farming. He also had the Tuskegee Institute wagon where he took this information to different farmers who couldn't come into Tuskegee Institute. I try to read as much as I can about his work and his experiments.
How do you want to be remembered?
I think in the short of it, I want to be remembered as somebody who tried to contribute, someone that was a team player and tried to help make our communities a more safe and decent place to live.