On a breezy Wednesday morning, a tour group of gardeners and members of Pittsburgh's nonprofit community visited all the green spaces the neighborhood of Homewood had to offer. They saw the personal gardens of resident Amir Rashad, walked through shared plots and the garden manned by Operation Better Block.
Next stop, Westinghouse High School.
“We installed this garden about two months ago,” said garden educator Redding Jackson, who helps Westinghouse students and teachers with the project through local nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh.
“We planted a really nice spring garden [that] got eaten completely by deer last week,” Jackson said. They had planted strawberries, carrots, lettuce and other vegetables.
A block down from the school on an overgrown vacant lot, there’s not much for the deer to pick from, save maybe the large mulberry tree in the center. This is the future farm site of BUGS, the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers Cooperative.
“The land goes from here all the way to the alley, to that house over here, so you can see it’s a large space,” said BUGS farm director Dana Harris-Yates.
Student gardeners from Westinghouse will get exercise and learn more about growing fresh food, but the space is also meant to encourage mental healing.
In addition to things like yoga and meditation, Harris-Yates wants to bring "care farming" to the space. Its benefits are two-fold, she said. First, the simple act of working in the soil.
“Because when one is nurturing that plant, they’re nurturing themselves,” she said.
But they’ll also grow a variety of herbs and plants to consume for natural healing, which Harris-Yates said can address a variety of conditions, like post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.
Some studies have suggested that simply being around green space can improve a community’s health.
Harris-Yates said the farm’s amenities can be especially beneficial in Homewood, which is predominantly black and low-income. Harris-Yates and a number of other residents said there are a lot of positive things happening in Homewood, like the gardens, but the neighborhood often receives attention for its crime rate.
That crime often affects “children, who in this community have experienced a lot of death, a lot of trauma from various reasons, different home situations that may cause them to have stress," she said.
Despite the need for mental health care, she said many black residents are resistant to taking prescription medications, plus there are barriers to traditional medicine.
“If you don’t have insurance, of course, that’s always a lack of access,” she said. “If you don’t have transportation to get different places, that’s an issue. If you don’t see people that look like you, and they’re attempting to help you with mental health issues, that’s a barrier.”
She said she takes a more tribal approach to care.
Her methodology is rooted in her background in Western psychology, but she also practices reiki, or energy healing, and is the medicine woman of her Native American tribe. Her business, Cultural Oasis, sells things like herbal treatments, especially to the black members of her community.
“We’ve never really wanted to go outside our community to seek mental health,” she said. “And that might be a problem in some aspects, so what I decided to do was keep what made them feel comfortable. They used to go to their shaman…they used to go to their pastor, that’s where they went to for therapy and counseling.”
There’s a history of challenges for African Americans working to take care of their community, including farmers, according to BUGS founder Raqueeb Bey.
“This is nothing new,” she said. “After slavery, a lot of our ancestors who were sharecropping would have their crops burned down by the Klan, so they started farmers' associations.”
Bey said contemporary Pittsburgh farmers face their own set of challenges.
“As black gardeners and farmers, we needed to come together to work together to share work days for sweat equity. ... We found that in Pittsburgh, a lot of us weren’t sitting at the table who were black, and we needed to fight institutionalized racism that exists even in urban agriculture,” she said.
Last June, her organization started a farmers market in Homewood featuring a number of regional growers. That’ll expand to include an indoor market in the fall. They’re adding a market in Uptown this year, too.
Healing begins with a connection to the soil, Harris-Yates said, and her students will be able to provide the produce, medicinal herbs and plants she wants all of Homewood to experience.
“We play in dirt, and we teach children how to play in dirt, and we teach adults how to play in dirt,” she said. “It’s not going to kill you, you can always wash your hands.”