Before terms like anti-racist, food justice, community gardens, farmers markets of color, or Black farmers markets were sexy hashtags, Mama Asantewaa was on the ground advocating for such things absent of social media. If you live in Bushwick, thank her for the trees that line the streets. Yes, that was her.
Somewhere in the Republic of Brooklyn, a fierce warrior queen emerged to fight for fresh food in her community. Today, Asantewaa Gail Harris still works toward greening urban spaces and wellness of Black and communities of color.
She is called Mama Asantewaa for a reason. Set into the bones and blood of Asantewaa Gail Harris is wisdom and leadership from her ancestral lineage of warrior women. Forged by her commitment to increase health in Black and communities of color through fresh food, she still works even as a great grandmother. How do we know? When Black Farmers Index launched, Mama Asantewaa phoned and emailed Ark Republic. She wanted to learn more about what was then, an initiative fresh out of our creative ovens.
A Brooklynite who relocated to New Jersey, she was excited to see a project started by a Newark-based company. Since, she keeps us abreast of critical issues for Black farmers. In that time, we discovered that Mama Asantewaa is founder of the Community Vision Council. Her council is a coalition of “community based organizations, small businesses, faith groups and concerned individuals” focused on food justice and human rights advocacy.
Her food justice advocacy started two decades ago. As a Bushwick resident, Mama Asantewaa discovered the range of health issues experienced by Black Brooklynites. Because of the access to fresh and affordable produce, residents of African descent and Latinos were more likely to develop health issues such as obesity and diabetes. “We had been around to all of the Greenmarkets in the city and did not see farmers of color,” Mama Asantewaa told The Nation in a 2002 article.
In response to the impact of health disparities on communities of color, Mama Asantewaa mobilized local groups to start farmers markets and other options for folks of color. The focus was for neighborhoods to obtain fruits and vegetables often absent in the bodegas that commonly dot their neighborhoods.
But, before food, Mama Asantewaa sought environment justice. Born in Brownsville, around where Mike Tyson and Al Sharpton got their swagger, she is Brooklyn all the way down to her socks or Crocs. When she lived in Bushwick as President of her Block Association, she petitioned for trees to be planted. The trees you see behind her in the picture still are there. “I feel excited when I see them so grand, tall and beautiful after nearly 40 years,” said Mama Asantewaa.
Spanning decades of activism, the now graceful elder has worked with farmers, urban agriculturalists and community gardeners for decades. A founding member of Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners/Black Urban Growers Conferences, she has worked in a number of organizations, policy groups, committees and conferences for something that seems so simple: bring healthy farm fresh produce to local neighborhoods. But in the years, as we all know, what can keep a community healthy is an act of resistance for some. So, Mama Asantewaa keeps on resisting.
In November, she was a part of several projects that brought fresh food to New York of North Carolina, and other wellness initiatives. Recently, she received a Legacy Award from the Foundation for Black Women’s Health, and a Caffie Greene Community Building Award in Fierce Networking.
While her work has received many citations, proclamations and certificates over the years, she collects her flowers and keeps the movement moving. To the O/G who chooses her green thumb and activism as a weapon, we at Ark Republic bow to your brilliance. Shine Mama. Shine on.
ARK: How do you define your work?
AGH: My work focuses on human rights and social justice.
ARK: What population does your work serve?
AGH: The population that is served by my work are people of African descent who identify as “Black,” “People of color,” “minority,” “low income,” “poor” in local, regional and national settings.
ARK: How do you do your work differently than others in your field?
AGH: My work is grounded in Nguzo Saba aka “the 7 principles.”
ARK: How did you create an audience or community?
AGH: I am a “Great Grandmother in action” and would usually just show up, promote and do outreach. I have a background as an Information Specialist & Resource Developer.
ARK: How did the pandemic or protests change or shift your life?
AGH: This is not my 1st pandemic. In the late 80s I was a Founding Director for the National Resource Center for Women & AIDS. I am now a differently abled Elder, aka a Senior Citizen, who recognizes the CDC warning to maintain safe protocols in the face of COVID-19. As a result, I have not participated in any street protests or rallies, but I have participated in Zoom events, petitions and summits that have had a global reach. I am a Solution Builder and I do what I can!
ARK: How did you find strength in some of the darkest hours this year?
AGH: As a practicing Buddhist, my faith is a valuable asset. Our practice is not grounded in a “sabbath”, everyday is rich; no dress code and no Sanctuary gathering is required.
I am a child of faith and I recognize the importance of holding onto the best of what we have. Yes, these are trying times, but my courageous Ancestors survived WORSE and, in the last century, helped to create “the roaring twenties”, Jazz, the Harlem Renaissance and more.
ARK: Who or what gave you the courage to continue on?
AGH: Absolute truth
ARK: Which of your accomplishments gives you joy?
AGH: Wellness Wednesday (see below)
ARK: What is a philosophy or idea that keeps you grounded?
AGH: Absolute truth
ARK: 2021 and forward is about reimagining and repair. What is your great imagining or construction of what the world must look like and be?
AGH: I am engaged in preparing young ones (30 yrs and under) for leadership.
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