The Writer Helping People Care for the Land—and for Themselves

Narratively contributor Shanna B. Tiayon on homesteading, gardening, Black Lives Matter, and staying well.

The Writer Helping People Care for the Land—and for Themselves

Last year, in the throes of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fight for racial justice, Shanna B. Tiayon published an article at Narratively about Black women homesteaders. Shanna wears a lot of hats—she is a writer, a speaker, and the founder of consulting firm Wellbeing Works. She sat down with Narratively to talk about the fight for racial and food justice, and about what she has in store for the future.

The word ‘homesteading’ is a historically loaded word. Do you see the Black homesteading movement as an act of reclamation of that word or as an evolution?

 I don’t know if it’s really a reclamation because Black people and people of color have remained in this space without the fancy name and the title. It’s like doing something your whole life or generationally and then someone slaps a name on it and it becomes in vogue. 

People think that after slavery Black people ran away from agriculture, but that wasn’t the case. They were largely forced out by a lot of racist land policy, and lack of access to goods, lands, and material. 

A headshot of Shanna B. Tiayon.

Are the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement changing the way society views the link between food justice, sustainability, and racial justice? 

The pandemic, plus the current visibility of systemic racism, has heightened awareness of the disproportionate impacts of racism on Blacks. We’re disproportionately impacted by COVID-19; we’re disproportionately impacted by police brutality. And what it has done is create this interest in racial justice, along with this interest in health and sustainability, where more people are looking for alternative voices in the [homesteading] space. 

A lot of the people who were pushing and promoting our site were white homesteaders, who have, like, tens of thousands of followers. So whereas before they may have never looked to try to share their exposure with people who didn’t look like them, it has caused them to understand the role of representation, and that equity sometimes means you have to relinquish or share some of your power.

I loved your TED Talk on how to live in an unkind world. I’ve been thinking about those words — release, recant, respite — the 3 Rs. Do you see homesteading as linked to that process?

Yeah, absolutely. Particularly releasing, because it gives you somewhere else to channel that energy when you’re dealing with unkindness or injustices. It is definitely therapeutic and has been therapeutic for me and for my husband, who is my partner in homesteading.

Shanna B. Tiayon in the midst of homesteading.

In your Narratively article you mention the socioeconomic, structural and legal barriers facing the women you profile. Can you talk a bit more about that?

To be able to get land, you need capital. Some people have friends or family who can give them $20,000 or $30,000 as a gift; most people don’t. With Chantelle—her situation has since changed—but at the time of the story, part of her operation was on her boyfriend’s property. She recognized that to be problematic in terms of letting her have autonomy. She’s started a land campaign where her followers can donate money to help her procure land

We also have to ask ourselves the question of perception when minorities want to do something that deviates from the norm. What is the knee-jerk response from those who have power and authority? Are they supporters?  Are they partners in that? Or is it just, ‘hey, it’s not broke, so why fix it?’

Where do you see hope for change? 

 In a proliferation of community garden spaces where communities of people of color reside, and that allocate some portion of common area for the growth of communal food spaces. There’s also hope in co-ops. 

I do think that the government’s support of redistribution is a great idea—a lot of the reason why Black people aren’t farming more is because of racist policies. While there was that huge USDA settlement, it still doesn’t give back what was lost in terms of access to land and the capacity to grow your own food. I think BLM has shown what can happen when people come together around a cooperative, shared, common interest with some organization and some support and skills.

You have a project called Wellbeing Works and also run Black Suburban Homestead. Can you tell me a little bit more about the link between homesteading and mental and physical wellbeing?

 Wellbeing Works is my company. We partner with organizations to help them create better workspaces by giving them the tools, skills, and knowledge that they need to support the wellbeing of their employees. It’s going quite well. I think the COVID-19 situation has made employers see the distress and the need much more clearly. But the reality is that this has always been important. 

For Black Suburban Homestead, we have an e-course where our goal is to show people that you can garden in any home, in any space. People often become intimidated because they think they need this huge property and they need all these tools, but you just start where you are, and from there you can grow that and expand that. 

In terms of homesteading, our impetus for getting into it was my own well-being needs. I was in the second year of my doctoral program and I was in really bad physical and mental health. I needed to change something or I wasn’t going to make it. So a friend suggested we join a community garden. My friend never showed up, but I invited my family to join, and it’s been a wrap ever since.