Currently — March 20th, 2023
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In honor of Women’s History Month, Currently is spotlighting the women and femmes who are—and continue to be—the backbone of the environmental and climate justice movement and pioneered the work to protect communities.
Leah Penniman is the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm working to dismantle racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system, and the author of Farming While Black and Black Earth Wisdom.
She started farming with her husband Jonah when they couldn’t find fresh produce in their Albany neighborhood. In 2011, Penniman co-founded Soul Fire Farm with the larger mission to end racism in the food system and reclaim a connection to working with the land. Since then, she’s facilitated food sovereignty programs, including a subsidized farm food distribution program for communities in a “food apartheid.”
“‘Food apartheid’ is a term that Karen Washington introduced me to and refers I think more accurately to the situation. A desert is natural, but there's nothing natural about your zip code being the number-one determinant of your life expectancy, usually highly correlated to race,” Penniman told Vogue. “The fact that certain people have food opulence and others have food scarcity is not because of personal choice.”
An expert agriculturist for over 20 years and a farmer for almost 30, Penniman has dedicated her life to telling the history of Black farming, uprooting food apartheid, writing love letters to the land in the form of books, and training the next generation of BIPOC activist farmers. She also worked as a high school biology and environmental science teacher for 17 years.
Penniman’s books also serve to give credit to the contributions of African Indigenous cultures, as many of the practices central to modern regenerative agriculture, like raised beds and compost, descend from them.
“We use Afro-Indigenous and regenerative practices—fancy words that essentially mean we’re trying to farm using the best advice of our ancestors and we’re trying to farm in a way that actually makes the environment better and not worse,” Penniman told Vogue.
The nonprofit farm grows mostly perennial crops, like berries and herbs, as their roots allow them to hold onto moisture and carbon, enriching the soil amid droughts and floods. Many scientists have even linked them to mitigating the effects of climate change.
Over 10,000 people have completed Soul Fire Farm programs, passing their newfound knowledge to their own communities, and starting their own farms and community gardens.
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