This story was published in collaboration with YR Media (formerly Youth Radio) as part of the Equitable Cities Reporting Hub for Environmental Justice, an initiative led by Grist and Next City.
Jonshell Johnson-Whitten’s path to farming started when she was a teen living in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The area is known as a “food desert,” a low-income neighborhood with limited food access. But when Johnson-Whitten connected with a network of backyard gardeners, she discovered the potential for not just healthy food options, but also for community empowerment. “Being able to put [neighborhood] growers next to the folks who want to grow was the biggest part of inspiring people,” she says.
That was just the beginning. Now, Johnson-Whitten takes seriously her role as a Black community farmer. She’s the education coordinator at Grow Dat, a working farm and leadership program for young people, and she sees farming as a way to heal generational wounds in the African American community. “I like to have those conversations,” she says. Johnson-Whitten wants to change her community’s relationship to land to counter the disinvestment and industrial contamination that low-income neighborhoods like hers face.
“It’s not glamorous to work in food,” Johnson-Whitten says. But she understands that the work goes beyond growing crops. For her, being a farmer means caring for the health of the land, standing up against the things that harm it, and providing for a community in more ways than one.
It wasn’t environmentalism that sold Johnson-Whitten on farming. She was a teen who needed a job, and she got an offer from Backyard Gardeners Network, a local organization that educates residents about healthy living and sustainable growing practices. She says she took the job for the $10 an hour she could make as an intern working in one of their gardens. “The job was to canvass the neighborhood and … survey the community of the Lower Ninth Ward to see what they would be interested in doing in the garden, and how we could get them to come.”
Grow Dat Youth Farm is a nonprofit organization in New Orleans’ City Park that teaches young adults sustainable farming on its two-and-a-half acre farm to address food insecurity through its youth leadership training program. Youth farmers can bring home any produce that they harvest. 80% of the produce is sold and 20% is either donated or provided to youth farmers and their families. (Photo by Kathleen Flynn for YR Media and CatchLight Local)
The Lower Ninth Ward is a predominantly Black neighborhood where many homeowners were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The community has struggled to rebuild even years later. Growing up there, Johnson-Whitten recalls seeing drug exchanges from the window of the bus during her ride to school, and hearing stories about shootings on the local news. It made her anxious about how residents would respond to her, and who would be behind the doors she would be knocking on. “It was a little scary at first,” she says, “but then it also opened my eyes and helped me realize that the Ninth Ward isn’t as scary as people make it seem. And I lived there, too. So I was literally talking to my neighbors.”
Soon, she was getting those neighbors to use the garden as a resource hub. Elders would bring her recipes and she’d tell them what ingredients they could be growing at their homes. She helped host cooking classes and other events in the garden. She learned how to appreciate the “organized chaos” of gardening, and the joy of keeping plants happy, because, she says, “that’s when they’ll give back.”
Johnson-Whitten wasn’t just canvassing when she took her first farming job as a teen. She was getting reintroduced and reconnected to her neighborhood, an opportunity that many Black young adults in New Orleans haven’t had as a result of displacement and disinvestment.
She learned who was in the neighborhood and not just who was hanging outside. They were mothers cooking dinner for their children after going to school and work. They were grandparents and grandchildren, which resonated with Johnson-Whitten because she lived with her grandmother. She found that children had a genuine curiosity about being able to grow some of their favorite foods, such as watermelon and strawberries. And every time residents showed up to the garden for “Birthday Bash,” a monthly event celebrating community members’ birthdays, or “Kids’ Club,” a program inviting kids to the garden each week, they debunked their own negative stereotypes about the Lower Ninth Ward.
Back then, Johnson-Whitten says her grandmother asked, “Why would you ever do that when you can do anything else?” For her grandmother, like many Black people, particularly of older generations, the idea of working on the land invoked visions of slavery and of African Americans’ labor being exploited. The narratives around what it means to do farmwork as a Black person are fraught, and complicated. These conversations with her grandmother were difficult and opened generational wounds, but Johnson-Whitten was determined to open those wounds in order to heal them and reconnect with the land. “I’m a person who wants to get through that, because we have just as many rights to the land and being able to grow our own food as anyone else,” she says. “And I think with that huge ‘ouch’ there, that there’s also a lot of healing involved. So I’m also a person who wants to be involved with the healing of my community based on all of the injustices that happen every day.”
On a misty, muddy November morning in New Orleans, Johnson-Whitten is planting alongside a group of 10 adult volunteers on the farm at Grow Dat. Since joining four years ago, she’s moved up into a leadership role, and in addition to farming now coordinates programs like training the teens who help run the sustainable farm and doing educational tours with visitors and school groups about resilient agriculture.
She stops to pick and peel a satsuma, a type of orange that is small, seeded, sweet, and tangy. Johnson-Whitten might describe farming as unglamorous, but she doesn’t show it. Today, she’s wearing eyeshadow, a pair of glossy black Chelsea-style rain boots, and a green camouflage jacket over a blue faded shirt that reads “Grow Dat.”
Johnson-Whitten’s work advocating for her community now has a broader platform as well — through Grow Dat, she joined a coalition that includes other community-based organizations in Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states. In that coalition, called Gulf South for a Green New Deal, Johnson-Whitten meets with fellow advocates and receives updates on policies and laws being considered from the local level all the way up to the federal level. She’s then able to bring that information back to community members, to ask questions and push back when necessary.
“I just want to make sure that people are aware that decisions being made about what’s going on with the land are not being made with the communities that are on top of it,” she says.
Being part of the coalition has intensified her advocacy on issues like pollution from chemical plants, which she knows firsthand can result in community members dying from cancer and children developing asthma. It has also raised her awareness about key issues impacting her work in community farming, like soil contamination. Being at the table when decisions are made helps her advocate for the Lower Ninth Ward and other places like it — and she’s now involved in efforts to bring a Green New Deal policy platform to New Orleans.
“I can’t give Earth back its stuff. I cannot produce soil,” Johnson-Whitten says. “But what I can do is protect what’s already there and help it thrive better. And I try to give that perspective to folks.”
It’s the combination of helping both the land and her community thrive that Johnson-Whitten sees carrying forward wherever her path goes in the future. For her, the uncomfortable but necessary conversations around generational healing, the community-building and teaching, and the farming itself are all part of the work toward living together with the land, and seeking better outcomes for every living being in the ecosystem.
As she puts it, “Farming is healing. Farming is medicine. Farming is getting to a place where people are finding respect for the land and also themselves.”
The photographs for the project were created through a collaboration between YR Media reporters and CatchLight Local, a new collaborative model for visual journalism that is advancing trust and representation in local media.
Alexis T. Reed works with nonprofit news initiative Lede New Orleans and is a Gilman Scholarship program ambassador.