Guest Author
No Comments

Sprouting Through Concrete Toward Sunlight: Cavanaugh Nweze and the Marcus Garvey Liberation Garden

Decrease Font SizeIncrease Font SizeText SizePrint This Page

By Meghan Hendley Lopez with Harbeer Sandhu

The very fact that we are having a national conversation about what we should eat, that we are struggling with the question about what the basic diet is, is symptomatic of how far we have strayed from the natural conditions that gave rise to our species, from the simple act of eating whole, fresh food.” – Mark Hyman

“The highways and cars / were sacrificed for agriculture…We used to microwave / now we just eat nuts and berries.” - The Talking Heads, “Nothing But Flowers”

 

 

It has become impossible to go a full day without hearing discussions of food and food accessibility — from “foodies” sharing photos of local seasonal artisanal gourmet mac ’n’ cheese to gluten-free diet vegan cupcakes to the rising food costs that sparked the Arab Spring.

Instagram

Yet, in concrete sprawls such as Houston, we can still find ourselves stranded in food deserts — whole neighborhoods and communities lacking markets with fresh, affordable food. Since food deserts tend to coincide with lower incomes, and fresh organic produce and meats are sold at a premium, healthy dining is often out of reach for working class families, yet processed “food products” are cheap because their ingredients (such as corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils) are subsidized.

The discussion of healthy eating has turned into constant fervent action for Cavanaugh Nweze, an urban gardener and community organizer in the Third Ward. Nweze runs the Marcus Garvey Liberation Garden, named for the early 20th century Pan-African leader, for which Nweze won an Idea Fund grant and an invitation to speak at the 2013 TEDx Houston event, where he presented his dream of the “Living Grocery Store.”

Poor neighborhoods may lack supermarkets, but there is rarely a shortage of vacant lots. This is where the Living Grocery Store comes in. Nweze’s idea is to reclaim vacant lots and turn them into lush, vital sources of healthy sustenance while simultaneously teaching skills and putting people to work — transforming consumers of junk food into producers of healthy food.

Even before Nweze had the desire to start a non-profit or a community garden, he was surrounded by action through the work of his family. These examples shouted louder and spoke deeper to him in his childhood than the negative atmosphere that was brewing around him.

Handley Lopez photo 2“My desire to give my talents to my community was inspired by both my mother and grandmother,” says Nweze. “My mom once was a member and missionary for The Shrine of the Black Madonna. As I grew up, I had the opportunity to watch her and many other adults sacrifice material, wordly lives to build a better environment for their children.

“My grandmother was always active and outspoken about problems in her community. I followed her to board meetings. I sat at home with her while she called in to radio shows and they knew her by name. I remember watching the news with my grandfather, and guess who pops up being interviewed by a reporter concerning the most recent issues of her community in Dallas, TX? It was my grandma. She also spoke firmly, eloquently, and truthfully.

“So watching those two women and reading books about Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, WEB Dubois, Albert B. Cleage and so many others, I knew I would use my powers for the betterment of my household, community, and environment. I knew I wanted to do my part of reversing the ‘Brain Drain’ in my community and make it look cool while doing it.”

A vague idea came to him while Nweze studied accounting at Prairie View A&M University — a desire to start a non-profit organization that promoted revolutionary programs or actions that were outside of the mainstream. Nothing too specific. Then, after Hurricane Ike, Nweze and his close companions decided to cultivate a garden to ensure that their surrounding community would never go hungry, and have access to an abundance of fresh and nutritionally beneficial food.

“One of the most important aspects of my gardening projects is economic development and empowerment,” Nweze says. “Even before the garden, I tried to consume the best foods possible. However, I continually found myself driving miles across town, driving to other neighborhoods, to purchase food that would reach my standards of what I felt my body deserved [from corporate supermarket chains]. So, with the gardens I create, one of the most important things is decreasing the transfer of wealth.

“In the African-American community, our dollar stays there for only just a fraction of a second before it departs to never be seen again. Now, instead of only buying groceries, I invest in my community. At least a portion of my grocery bill can now be recycled in my community. We will have the capacity to employ people who can’t earn a living wage due to previous life mistakes, and we get to consume foods that are of fresher and of higher quality than I could purchase at the most expensive and fancy grocery store.”

In addition to presenting an oasis of health to the community, the Marcus Garvey Liberation Garden provides an outlet that can help decrease illegal activity in the neighborhood and replace these activities with positive actions.

“We are able to remove blight and decrease crime, just by planting a garden,” says Nweze. “I have neighbors who wouldn’t say a word to me before, now they stop their cars long enough to ask what it is that we are doing. Therefore, even if my neighbor may not choose to eat healthier, at least we now have the capacity to give their sons or daughters an alternative to earn a wage.

“I even hope and pray that people see what we are doing choose not to help us. They may choose to go home to their neighborhoods and do the exact same thing, maybe even better than I can. Now that’s what I want!”

Decreasing crime and promoting positive activity has been a cornerstone for Nweze and his garden, inspired by a companion who is attempting to better his own life.

“I have a very close friend who had some run-ins with the law, some years back, that prevent him from securing gainful employment.  We have had discussions about the hardships in his life, and how all he wants is to be able to work without taking penitentiary chances. Even before I could compensate him for his time, he was more than willing to volunteer, to help me do something positive rather than something that could put his freedom at stake.

“Being able to help him has helped me understand that we all have a role to play in this grand scheme. I am more than appreciative for his help, and I am proud that I can help put a few pennies in his pocket. So that’s just the first person’s life we have been able to touch in this manner, there are others, and as we continue to grow I know there will be more like him who just want a better way to earn a living and feed their family.”

This past spring, the garden and its leader received a prestigious grant that will help expand the project even further. The Idea Fund grant, funded by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and administered through a partnership between DiverseWorks, the Aurora Picture Show, and Project Row Houses supports projects that exemplify the unconventional, interventionist, conceptual, entrepreneurial, participatory, or guerrilla artistic practices that occur outside of the traditional frameworks of support. Nweze was thrilled to receive one of the 12 $4,000 grants awarded this year.

Regarding his plans for the grant, Nweze says, “This grant will help us cover the cost of supplies to do this work, but I think the greatest gift of receiving the grant is that it has helped me to think differently in how I conceive, conduct, and present my work.

“I have always loved the arts. So this grant and discussions I’ve held with other grant recipients have helped me think and work to present my work more creatively and aesthetically. It made me realize that I am an artist, too. Everyone is an artist in their own right. So to me the most important aspect is not only the funds received, but the acknowledgement as an artist puts a huge smile on my heart and will have an impact on my work from here and into perpetuity.

“It terms of a more concrete aspect, the grant has helped me to put people to work. I am grateful for volunteers, but having the capacity to use the skills of my friends and let them know they will be compensated for their assistance is a great accomplishment. The funds from this grant are also helping us to leverage funds from other organizations that are willing to match monies spent to grow and cultivate our particular crops. So, it’s been a blessing to receive the grant and be able to use my professional accounting acumen to be administer the funds in the most efficient way possible.”

As social awareness grows about problems with large-scale corporate agribusiness that requires huge inputs of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides while poisoning the soil and depleting the water-table, only to deliver plastic food that is lacking in both taste and nutrition (to say nothing of meat from factory farms and genetically modified organisms), people are voicing their desire for wholesome, whole, local, fresh seasonal foods. Foods with spirit, with soul, that are so much more than just fuel for our metabolism.

In his corner of Houston, Nweze and his vision have helped pioneer this discussion and change in a humble and honest way — with “fringe benefits” that go far beyond the tabletop.

“These gardens are our way to fight against this corporate world we live in. Food is just the first step. It’s one of the first things that we all can unite around. It’s the one thing that we share when we celebrate, and we share it in our most trying times.

“I have discovered that while working in a garden, selling produce at one of our stands, or even sitting down and eating this food we have grown, our conversations change. We speak and work to resolve issues that would be either swept under the rug or not even acknowledged publicly at all.

“So for me, food is just a beginning of so much more to come.”

To find more information about the Marcus Garvey Liberation Garden, visit: www.mglg.net or continue reading below.

 

 

More of the Interview with Cavanaugh Nweze:

MHL: Tell me a bit about your background, born and raised in Texas, and how your upbringing had ties to gardening.

CN: In terms of ethnicity, I would describe myself as a Nigerian-Mexican. My maternal grandfather maintained a garden until his medical conditions limited his physical activity, and he was a son of a sharecropper. My father, who currently lives in Nigeria, is also a small farmer and entrepreneur. He started a growing operation there around the same time I started my first community garden project. So it’s in my blood. Also, while being raised by my mother, I was immersed in a Do-For-Self Afro-Centric environment. I learned that one of the most important and valuable things we can do for our families and communities is work to produce as much of our own food as possible. Plus, I’m also an accountant by trade so that helps me to think about agriculture economically.

 

MHL: What was it that sparked your interest and desire to give of your tie and talents to the community?

CN: My desire to give my talents to my community was inspired by both my mother and grandmother. My mom once was a member and missionary for The Shrine of the Black Madonna. As I grew up, I had the opportunity to watch her and many other adults sacrifice material/wordly lives to be able to build a better environment for their children. My grandmother was always active and outspoken about issues of her community. I followed her (which felt like torture at the time) to board meetings. I sat at home with her while she called in to radio shows and they knew her by name. I remember watching the news with my grandfather, and guess who pops up being interviewed by a reporter concerning the most recent issues of her community in Dallas, TX? It was my grandma. She also spoke firmly, eloquently, and truthfully. So watching those to women and reading books about Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, WEB Dubois, Albert B. Cleage and so many others, I knew I would use my powers for the betterment of my household, community, and environment. I knew I wanted to do my part of reversing the “Brain Drain” of my community and make it look Kool while doing it.

MHL: While studying at Prairie View A & M, you founded a non-profit. Tell me about this along with how it developed into the current garden you oversea.

CN: Well initially the idea was to start an on-campus organization at PVAMU to be able to leverage the use of university facilities and resources to be able to enrich the lives of students. I was coming close to graduating, and while going through the process of forming the organization, I knew that I didn’t want to limit my work to the campus of PVAMU. So I talked to a couple of homies into starting a nonprofit organization with me. Our first goal was to promote other revolutionary programs or actions that were not main stream. Then a little after Hurricane Ike, we decided to start a garden to make sure our community would never go hungry and have access to an abundance of fresh and nutritionally dense food.

 

MHL: Beyond Houston, you’ve also traveled abroad expanding your horizons. What are some of the places you have been and how has that shaped you as an individual?

CN: One of the biggest impacts on my life was the six months while I lived in Mexico during college. I was exposed to another culture that was nowhere near as individualistic as typical Western/American culture. Of course I picked up some Spanish which I try to continue to practice, but the most influential thing to me was how I was treated as a Black Man. It was the exact opposite of growing up in America. Instead of being degraded and discriminated against, I was loved beyond belief. When I first arrived it was almost spooky. I was like why is everyone staring at me? Children walked passed me and looked with amazement like I was a comic book super hero. I was a celebrity for a few months, just for being a black man. After a couple of weeks, if I saw anyone smiling and walking up to me with a camera, they didn’t have to say a word. I was like, “Yes, I’ll take a picture with you.” It was amazing that I could be looked at in such a positive light just a few miles from my home, where sometimes I’m treated like I did something wrong for the exact same reason. It really changed the way I carried myself, and thought of myself. I walked with more confidence. It was like if they don’t know me, and think so highly of me, then it’s a must that I think higher of myself. I was invited to the homes of strangers. People wanted me to dance with their mothers and marry their sisters, haha! It was crazy. I even was invited to work out with the football team, and in a way had to turn down a scholarship by the end of the semester. I’ve heard stories of Black people in Europe who experienced things of that nature, but to have the experience just a few miles south of an imaginary line was very empowering.

Another journey, that’s very close to my heart was my first trip home to Nigeria. Mayne! It was so much. There were things that made me so happy I could cry, and other things that made my so sad I could cry. I feel that my experience was so much different from others because I was not only a tourist, but this was the first time I meant many family members. It was also empowering. Due to how I grew up separate from my father, I thought that side of my family forgot about me or was ashamed of me. However, that was very far from the case. My grandfather who was a Chief (OZO) in our town, was extremely proud of me and never even met me. He had already passed years before my visit, but the first night I was at my father’s house I saw a framed baby picture of myself that I thought only my mother and grandmother had. Turns out, my grandfather kept that picture framed in his home and it was one of his prized possessions. My grandfather bragged on me, before he met me. While my father introduced me to people in the village he referred to the picture my grandfather kept, then everyone who knew my grandfather knew exactly who I was. I met brothers and sisters I never knew I had. My Step-Mom is the Greatest. Once again, there were attempts to marry me off, haha. All in all, it humbled me, and proved to me how much work I had to do, both at home and abroad. There was so much that I plan on writing a book about that experience alone. Just like my time spent in Mexico, it was empowering and helped me become the man I am today.

 

Handley Lopez photo 3MHL: The Marcus Garvey Liberation Garden is located at your home in your front and back yard. How did it start and what are some of the plants you are cultivating there?

CN: Well the garden started at the church I grew up in, The Shrine of the Black Madonna. However, due to a disagreement about a couple of reasons that had nothing to do with feeding our community, we were asked to leave. So rather than, dissolve the project as a whole I was privileged enough to own a home that I could move the project to. Now the project is expanded to three residential sized lots that we are currently cultivating as a part of our newest project, The Living Grocery Store. One of the plants that we are infamous for is Kale, Red Clover, Moringa, and Callalloo (Green Amaranth). I really love herbs too and I’m experimenting on how to use them for medicinal purposes. So we also grow basil, cilantro, dill, mint and mullein.

 

MHL: This garden means more than just vegitative growth. It also means seeking self sufficiency, utilizing natural resources, and bridging the gab between modern food consumption and fresh to table. Please give me some examples of what these things mean to the garden and how it promotes these great points.

CN: Mayne! Where do I start? When speaking to people about gardening, I tell them I started gardening because of those particular reasons. However, the more time I spent gardening, the more reasons I found that I should do even more gardening. One of the most important aspects of my gardening projects to me is Economic Development and Empowerment. Even before the garden, I tried to consume the best foods possible. However, I continuously found myself driving miles across town to purchase food that would reach my standards of what I felt my body deserved. So with the gardens I create one of the most important things is decrease the transfer of wealth. In the African-American community our dollar only stays there for just a fraction of a second before it departs to never be seen again. So now, instead of only buying groceries, I invest in my community. At least a portion of my grocery bill can now be recycled in my community, we will have the capacity to employ people who can’t earn a living wage due to previous life mistakes, and we get to consume foods that are of fresher and of higher quality than I could purchase at the most expensive and fancy grocery store. We are able to remove blight and decrease crime, just by planting a garden. I have neighbors who wouldn’t say a word before, now they stop their cars long enough to ask what it is that we are doing. Therefore, even if my neighbor may not choose to eat healthier at least we now have the capacity to give their sons or daughters an alternative to earn a wage. I even hope and pray that people see what we are doing and they don’t even choose to help us. They may choose to go home to their neighborhoods and do the exact same thing, maybe even better than I can. Now that’s what I want.

These gardens are our way to fight against this corporate controlled world we live in. I feel that food is just the first step. It’s one of the first things that we all can unite around. Food. It’s the one thing that we share when celebrate, and we share it in our most trying times. I have also discovered that while working in a garden, selling produce at one of our stands, or even sitting down and eating this food we have grown, our conversations change. We speak and work to resolve issues that would be either swept under the rug or not even acknowledged publically at all. So for me, food is just a beginning of so much more to come.

Also, I was raised in causes that focused solely on the improvement of the African-American community. Not to say that I don’t want to improve my community, but through gardening we can improve a community of any ethnicity any place on the globe. So that’s what this is about, feeding people, employing people, and empowering people to improve the quality of life for themselves and those closest to them.

 

MHL: This garden also acts as a “living grocery store” bringing fresh and low cost organic food to those who may not have access to it otherwise. How has this impacted the community who engage with the garden?

CN: Honestly, we have yet to know. We’re still cultivating and haven’t planted our first seeds yet. I know one thing, people are very curious. You also have to understand some of the dynamics of the neighborhood in which I’m doing it. This is an area where prostitution and drug use runs much more dependable than public transportation. In my discussion with some of the people who walk these streets, the only real experience they have with gardening is their grandparents or while in the penitentiary. So there are people who know and have the skills to assist, but we are still learning their reactions. This one guy watched us for a few minutes, asked a couple questions then completely cracked up laughing in disbelief when I told him we were going to be growing food.

What I would like to see are people to start using the Food Stamp cards with us. Yes, we accept Food Stamps. I want to see people to start discussing recipes and ancient home remedies. We also plan to activate the space with a few activities not directly related to food so I’m excited, and staying open to the possibilities.

 

MHL: This garden also stands to help educate young people. What are some of the aspects of the garden that help with this learning process?

CN: Gardens have the capacity to educate children and adults. I have had people of all ages watch me cultivate and then come back by and see the okra plants taller than me. There are some vegetables people have never seen outside the grocery store. I would like it to be able to give children and hands on activity to use theories commonly used in Math and Science. I would like to become a field trip destination so children can not only see the difference but taste the difference. An urban farmer from California named Ron Finley says, “When kids grow Kale, Kids eat Kale.” So we’re just excited to be a catalyst for change and a hands-on outdoor laboratory.

 

MHL: You also see gardening as a way to decrease crime. What are the lessons and experiences through gardening that aid this?

CN: I have a very close friend of mine who has had some run ins with the law some years back that prevents him from getting gainful employment that others may be able to receive. We have had discussions about some of the hardships in his life and how all he wants to do is be able to work without taking penitentiary chances. He even once walked the streets that we are currently installing a garden on. Even before I could compensate him for his time he was more than willing to help me do something positive than be put in a position that could put his freedom at stake. Being able to help him has even helped me to understand that we all have a role to play in this grand scheme. I am more than appreciative for his help and I’m proud that I can even assist to put a few pennies in his pocket. So that’s just the first person’s life we have been able to touch in this manner, there are others, and as we continue to grow I know there will be more like him who just want a better way to earn a living and feed their family. So this aspect of our project has helped me personally to be more understanding and become a better teacher. Really just responding to this question, it helps me remember of how his assistance has helped me. He know who he is, hopefully he gets to reads this. Luv Ya Bro and Thank you!

 

MHL: Earlier this year, you received a grant from the Idea Fund. What do you/have you dedicated this grant to in order to aid the garden?

CN: This grant of course will help us cover the cost of supplies to do this work, but I think the greatest gift of receiving the grant is that it has helped me to think differently in how I think, conduct, and present my work. I have always loved the arts. So this grant and discussions I’ve held with other grant recipients has helped me think and work to present my work more creatively and aesthetically. It made me realize that I am an artist too. Everyone is an artist in their own right. So to me the most important aspect is not only the funds received, but the acknowledgement as an artist puts a huge smile on my heart and will have an impact on my work from here and into perpetuity.

It terms of a more concrete aspect, the grant has helped me to put people to work. I am grateful for volunteers, but having the capacity to use the skills of my friends and let them know they will be compensated for their assistance is a great accomplishment. The funds from this grant are also helping us to leverage other funds from other organizations that are willing to match monies spent to grow and cultivate our particular crops. So it’s been a blessing to receive the grant and be able to use my professional accounting acumen to be able to administer the funds in the most efficient way possible.

 

MHL: Much of this garden is also dedicated to the discussion of food accessibility and availability to those who seek it, especially when it lies outside the norm of trendy grocery stores and high prices. What have been some of the discussion points about this topic and how do you hope to further the conversation.

CN: I’m not a big talker, I’m a doer. However, we believe that the success of this project will demonstrate that people who live in these communities do want healthy food. Period. Through this demonstration alone, I personally believe or at least would like to see it become successful enough that grocery stores in my community will change how they present food. I am hoping that they realize they need to compete with us. Every price we set we make sure we are less than local stores, while making sure the quality is greater. So eventually even if someone in my community does not purchase food directly from us, at least they will be impacted by the work we have done.

 

MHL: As you move forward, what are some of your plans for the garden and what do you hope to see happen in the next few years?

CN: In the next few years, I would like to see this done on every vacant lot in the City of Houston. I would like to have the capacity to accommodate any land owner willing to dedicate their land to the cultivation of healthy food. Right now I am always approached by land owners, but I don’t have the capacity to keep up. I would like to have full-time employees that can earn at least $13-$15 per hour by growing food. So I am working on training individuals to be able to carry out this purpose any and everywhere we are invited. We’re getting there. Slowly, but surely.