In the summer of 2014, Duron Chavis took to the stage at TEDx Richmond, VA with what he joked might be the longest title in the history of TEDx: HOW TO REVITALIZE-RVA BY INVESTING IN OUR LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM AND FOOD SECURITY BECAUSE EVERYBODY GOT TO EAT BUT NOT EVERYBODY IS INTO BASEBALL LIKE THAT. In fewer than five minutes, Chavis delivers an eye-opening, inspiring, raw and often melodic soliloquy building a case for veggies. For growing them. In abandoned lots and city spots. For giving the power back to the people. For urban agriculture.
Chavis is one of the semi-unsung heroes kicking off a conversation from within the communities they aim to enable. His TEDx talk still hovers at a low-key 8,000 views but the ripple effect from his words, and the seeds he’s planting, are sprouting conversations about the importance of cultivating agricultural solutions in unlikely environments. Full disclosure … I met Duron when I sought him out as a partner in community engagement for Sabra Dipping Company.
“All you need is a rake and hoe and a piece of fertile ground” sang Peter, Paul and Mary. But Chavis knows there is more to it than that. You need a public private collaboration to make the garden grow in urban ground. Gardeners, greens, government and good old greenbacks. And he’s not afraid to tell would-be corporate do-gooders where they can take their money and plant it.
We first met when you were at Renew Richmond. What are you up to today?
I am serving as Community Engagement Manager at Lewis Ginter Gardens – training community members on how to develop green space. My job is to steward others, to connect them to green spaces already in existence or to new ones they may want to develop and to teach them how to coordinate volunteers and build community ownership. The whole initiative is designed to create more sustainable public green space and to allow “the garden” to have a deeper impact in the region.
There is an ethos in my work about building trust in the community: work with instead of do for. The community is the expert. What we saw in the past is that you would have a group, or a corporation come in and we would see employee volunteerism, a plan, an awesome design. It goes in. And six months later? Weeded over. This is what happens when the community is brought in too late and is not part of the conversation, the planning and implementation.
My job is to create channels for corporate to connect to the community and plan it with them or to be an asset for a community that is already established, planning and designing. It is far more impactful for the community to be at the head of the conversation instead of the community being the project – a shiny project.
What kicked off your career in this space?
I’ve been involved in activist spaces since my early twenties. My first real job was at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia as a museum coordinator. I had also worked for department of social services for 5 years. I was an intake worker at Richmond DSS, I was the guy that interviewed folks for food stamps. That is what honed a lot of my focus around food, dealing with Medicaid and tax assistance and finding ways to build client resiliency so they wouldn’t have to come to us.
How did you go from that to getting your hands dirty?
I first got involved in agriculture by virtue of working with African American small-scale farmers when I launched Happily Natural Day, a grassroots festival dedicated to holistic health and social change. These farmers were coming to the festival as vendors. We started talking about food security first, not really food access. Through those conversations, I started learning more about what they needed and what the communities needed. I started a pop-up market with one of the farmers and that ran for 4 years or so. By virtue of that, we started to fill in the needs that were changing in the city. In 2012, we started the first urban garden in the area and that opened up another world of transformation. That was something I had not anticipated for myself. I started seeing the impact, not just the qualitative impact but, I that I can quantify the difference made by the transformation of a vacant lot. I saw this was even better than raising awareness.
You studied mass communications. What drew you into public service?
When I was younger, I did poetry and rap and there were always socially conscious messages in the music. One night, I was 17, I went to block party with my friends and there was a shooting at the party. The girl whose birthday it was shot and died. I was shot 3 times that night. I went to the same hospital. I was in the same ER. She and I were both in triage. She passed… in the prime of her life. I came out of that. There has got to be a reason why I survived.
Why am I still here? I have a lot of the energy- you have got to have energy to make a difference. I wanted to be conscious of giving back, to having a purpose driven life. That pushed me into the space. I graduated the top of my class that year and later went to Virginia State University on scholarship. When I was at VSU, I knew I had to do something to be the change. I came back to Richmond after VSU and then worked at the museum. There, I got to teach and talk and share the narrative of communities of color and African decent in Richmond. In that space, I got connected to local change makers, healers, activists. Their insights and wisdom helped me evolve to where I am and to this work. It has been a faith walk.
Can you talk more about being part of a “community of changemakers”?
You’ve gotta have a circle of people who are smarter than you – that have experience. Even before I knew about having mentors, I was connected into this space. I would say people might underestimate their circles of influence but being intentional about the people you take advice from, look up to, seek to emulate – that is what helps you have a higher level of success. It builds your trajectory and creates a path for you. At that age, I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing – I was just following my passion and connecting with people in those spaces. That helped me refine what I wanted to do. Sometimes though, experiencing was a better teacher. I’ve learned some hard lessons too.
What does success look like in urban agriculture?
You know, a lot of this work is about community self-efficacy. It depends on the different iterations different communities have, different needs and functions for green space from planting to storm water management. When we talk about community gardens and urban farms… when communities are involved and built in from the planning on the front end, those spaces have higher likelihood of success in perpetuity.
Are you more conversation-driver or hands-on contributor?
Both – my trajectory or my experience in this space and food and food access, I walked into it backwards. I was heavy into let’s do it, so we can impact the community. It was probably last 3-4 years –when life started to evolve and my experience in this space shifted from doer into the person to build capacity for others to do and now my role and responsibility is to cultivate new leaders. We grow dozens of gardens in the region – the reality is I realized quickly we could build hundreds of gardens but without growing growers, all would be for naught.
I try to manage delicately – dialogue facilitation and critical reflection with community. There is a lot of personal development that goes along with this work – people see the garden but don’t know what goes into the interpersonal stuff to create and sustain those spaces. Most of us want the cake without having to do the baking. You are gardening and growing relationships and if you are successful in that, the garden will take care of itself.
Ok let’s break it down. When it comes to corporate giving, what do you see as the role of community?
The community has to be at the front of any solution the community faces. Leadership and context and historical narrative… community has to play the role of creating a chamber or space for others who come in to assist. If the community that is indigenous to the space is not engaged, then it is really not going to be a solution that will work out. Know the community has to be the hands and head and they can collaborate, but without them being the leadership – it becomes a paternalistic solution that really undermines their resilience.
I talk a lot about sustainability and resiliency and in these types of ecological and urban agricultural work- the community needs to be able to respond to trauma and disasters that will come and bounce back and thrive. If we are not creating spaces where they can learn… then we are denying them the very sustainability they need.
What is the role of the corporation?
This is an essential role, the corporation as partner. It is about sharing power, sharing resources, sharing thought energy, sweat equality. Those are resources that communities often don’t have… they may not have 40 employees with time to volunteer or the funding to implement the solutions. Corporations can come in as allies for community members to be that fuel that can help evevate the community out of the situation they find themselves in. When corporations and communities can build authentic relationships – then it is not just a PR move or a picture, but really getting in there and committing themselves by identifying ways they can share their power with community. That is when we see amazing impact.
Can you think of any examples of where this has worked well?
There are a couple. Well, truthfully, our first Plants with a Purpose experience with Sabra was for me one of the first times I realized longitudinal potential with a corporate partner. We worked in tandem with the business, the employees and the George Wythe High School and created opportunities and volunteerism at the school. For me, that was a good example of a reciprocal relationship where we can impact employees, the community, the students and I’ve watched that evolve to where it is today including work within the community and with VSU Summerseat Urban Garden … from micro to macro and it all ties back to the urban gardens. It is hyper local. Start small and scale.
There is power in that listening. How vulnerable do you have to be to come to a community and listen? Take that listening and activate upon what was heard. It is actually marketing 101.
Anything else to add?
We are in an interesting space now, there are so many opportunities for corporations to define for themselves how they relate to the public sector, the non-profit, the municipal. If we can come to spaces with a willingness to commit to listening first and working with those who are most affected by an issue. Listen to them and make a commitment to activating on that – then we can transform the social issues on a hyper local level.
What are you reading?
Good Food, Strong Communities by Steve Venutra
Wha are you listening to?
Book of Ryan by Royce da 5″9.
Duron, I have a bucket of weeds that moved in after last year’s semi-successful herb garden endeavor – Do I dump it out and start over? Keep the soil you got- pull the weeds out – add some compost and keep it rocking – get in there get on your knees.
For more in this series of Q&As about the intersection of profit and purpose visit here.
About Duron Chavis: Chavis started his career in community advocacy as first a volunteer then an employee of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of VA. He worked as a museum coordinator developing programs and conducting guided tours for groups of all ages and backgrounds. In 2003 he founded the highly acclaimed Happily Natural Day festival as a grassroots effort to supplement the summer jazz concert that was held annually at the institution. The festival is a weekend long experience held annually in both Richmond VA and Atlanta GA that focuses on cultural awareness, health, wellness and social change.
Presently Chavis is engaged in coordinating innovative and dynamic initiatives around the topics of urban agriculture and food security in a culturally relevant way. In 2009 Chavis launched the Richmond Noir Market, a Saturday farmer’s market targeting low income communities located in what the USDA has designated as food deserts in Richmond Virginia.
Chavis has received numerable accolades for his
work. He served in 2011 as a Clean Air Ambassador on behalf of Earthjustice and
the Hip Hop Caucus. He is an alumni of Leadership Metro Richmond’s class of
2011, received Style Weekly’s Top 40 under 40 award in 2010, and the Style
Weekly Power List in 2014 & 2015. Chavis served as the inaugural director
of the Harding Street Urban Ag Center; a recreation center repurposed into an
indoor farm by VSU. Currently Chavis serves as Community Engagement Coordinator
for Lewis Botanical