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'A Return To Roots': Vermont Releaf Collective Celebrates BIPOC In Farm & Food

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A statewide network of Black, Indigenous and people of color in Vermont are planting the seeds to advance racial equity in land, the environment, agriculture and foodways.

The group, known as Vermont Releaf Collective, is made up of Vermonters offering their own expertise and resources for others who want to grow their own food, move from a business plan on paper to a start-up and more.

VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Wangene Hall, entrepreneurship organizer for Vermont Releaf Collective and a Quechee resident. Hall's family business is Global Village Foods, which is a VPR underwriter. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: One of the four tenets ... [of] Releaf, I think it might be a blind spot for folks who are white, and it's not as well-known, I think, and that's the "foodways." Can you kind of share the meaning behind that word first, in terms of how it's really fundamental in creating BIPOC community?

Wangene Hall: Yes, absolutely. So the important thing to know about BIPOC foodways, and specifically Black foodways, is that they come from the African diaspora. And so much of the rich heritage of even American cuisine really comes from Black, Southern cooking, that stems from those African cooking traditions.

And for me, it's personal. I can share a little bit more about that. But having grown up in a business that does this, those Black and diasporic cooking traditions are really important.

Tell us more about yourself, then, about being a Vermonter, and growing up, and tell us more about the business that you're in now.

So I am the director of marketing at Global Village Foods. But I'm also a second-generation entrepreneur. We're actually a family business. And what we make is allergy-friendly meals and samosas. You can find them in your local co-op. You can find them all across New England, our samosas are beloved by many people — hopefully — listening today. And our meals are in Whole Foods.

So for us, and for me, in particular, it's been a really, really important coming back to the family business. I worked in corporate for a while, did all sorts of things before coming back to the family business, to kind of take on that mantle of Black entrepreneurship. Because the legacy of Black entrepreneurship is so important. It really is about community-building, about heritage, about generosity and celebration of culture. And I think it's... what Black culture brings to entrepreneurship.

In Vermont, especially, there are literally a handful of BIPOC-owned and Black-owned farms. There'sClemmons Family Farmin Charlotte, there'san organic creamery in Strafford, and there's SUSU commuUNITY Farm, which has to do a lot with the Vermont Releaf Collective and bringing that to life.

I guess I want to just ask what the whole mission of the Vermont Releaf Collective is? Is it about helping Vermonters of color own farms and dairies and large operations? Or is it more about smaller gardens and providing produce for farmers markets, or for family or for supplying a restaurant?

So I would say that the mission of Vermont Releaf Collective is to create a space that's specifically for BIPOC people to celebrate our contributions and our involvement in the sectors of land, environment, agriculture and food systems.

And really, it's about what our members want to bring to these spaces. It's so authentic, and it's so genuine. Our core tenants are amplifying our own voices and experiences, sharing a platform to connect to develop our community. And then advocating for equitable opportunities and success in Vermont and beyond.

More from VPR: Strafford Organic Creamery Keeps On In Vermont's Troubled Dairy Industry

And I would say that the really important thing about Releaf and kind of the perspective that we bring is that community gardens and kind of that homegrown, that grassroots way of gardening, of farming, of building businesses, is just as important and just as essential a way to come into farm and food as is your more commercial or more kind of industrial-level ways of producing.

And I think that so much of both the power of Releaf and the power of these amazing emergent BIPOC businesses is that we're starting to see a return to roots and a return to that cultural wisdom. And a return to the ways that we used to make ... in the community.

How did it begin? Can you talk a little bit about [Liv] Peña, and her vision and how Vermont Releaf Collective came to life?

Liv Peña created Vermont Releaf Collective in July 2020. And really it was just about creating a space that she wanted to see. It was about an authentic desire for community. Her background is in farm and food. And so she created something that she wanted to see, and it resonated with so many people. It was really filling a need that just, it did not exist at the time.

I know for me, having grown up in Vermont, I did not think there were other BIPOC people here. I did not think there were other BIPOC people in farm and food. But she really just created something really powerful and exciting that people could get behind, and I'm grateful to her for that.

Describe the need for Vermont Releaf Collective.

The need for Vermont Releaf is twofold in my opinion. Visibility, I think it's really important to realize that there are first of all, there are BIPOC people in Vermont in farm and food. I think so often it's easy to feel invisible or to be invisible. Because if you say, "Vermont," people think, "white."

And I think that we're really changing the narrative and really saying like, "Look, we're here and this matters and here's why."

But I think the second is really just to create community. Vermont Releaf Collective is a BIPOC affinity space. It's BIPOC only. All of our members are BIPOC people and to have more than 130 people across Vermont who are creating these strides in farm and food is just so powerful, because it really speaks to the momentum and the generosity and the power of creation of BIPOC people.

"[T]he kind of radical and fantastic space that Vermont Releaf is, it creates a space where yes, you can acknowledge the microaggressions, you can acknowledge the challenges, you can acknowledge the struggles, but there's also so much space for liberation and joy, and celebration and reclaiming both this land and reclaiming the kind of the work that we're doing and the work that is still to be done in land, farm, food, environment, foodways." — Wangene Hall, Vermont Releaf Collective

A collective that is by BIPOC people for BIPOC people. I'm not so naive to think that this is shielding the organization from racial inequities. Racial injustice is still in Vermont. We know racism exists in Vermont. But can it in some way shield you?

I think to be a BIPOC person, you're always navigating white spaces, you're swimming in white spaces. I think that, and I want to choose my words carefully here, I think that not necessarily that Vermont Releaf shields you from what it is to be a BIPOC person, but Vermont Releaf gives you and gives us a space to process that experience, and to hold space for what that is. To really be both honest, authentic, and again, have a little bit more generosity for the human component of what it's like to be a BIPOC person to deal with microaggressions, to deal with the inequities, to have to kind of walk through a world that was not created for you to survive or thrive.

But I think the kind of radical and fantastic space that Vermont Releaf is, it creates a space where yes, you can acknowledge the microaggressions, you can acknowledge the challenges, you can acknowledge the struggles, but there's also so much space for liberation and joy, and celebration and reclaiming both this land and reclaiming the kind of the work that we're doing and the work that is still to be done in land, farm, food, environment, foodways.

And one last question! What advice would you give to a young non-white person who's either moving to Vermont or already lives in the state and wants to make Vermont feel like home?

I would say that it's really, really, really important to plug into a network, whether that's Vermont Releaf Collective or your local NAACP, or it's just local people of color that you know, or white allies that you know, can kind of understand and really be empathetic to what you're going through. I think it's deeply important to get connected to just some ecosystems in spaces that can really help you thrive.

More from Brave Little State: Homegoings: DonnCherie On The Art Of Authenticity

One last thing that I want to just kind of highlight for anybody listening in the audience who is a BIPOC person considering joining Releaf or learning more about Releaf, is that kind of the programming and the pieces that we do are so diverse. We have no-cost community dinners, often featuring food from our local BIPOC-owned food businesses. We also do community potlucks, as well. We have agricultural workshops. There's also farmer and grower conversation spaces. There's farm and garden tours. There's outdoor activities like hiking, sailing, fishing and camping.

We also, and this is my part as the entrepreneurship organizer, kind of provide resources for business technical assistance for our Releaf business owners. We also create anti-racist support and healing spaces that are BIPOC-only. And we have leadership and professional capacity-building cohorts as well as community retreats. Now these are all things that are in progress, all things that we're kind of co-creating, all things that we're doing in real time in a really powerful way. And it's just really exciting to be a part of that process, and to make this happen in Vermont, and in a space that again needs Vermont Releaf Collective.

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Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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