Cultivating Community and Slowing Down
For a year now, I’ve been interviewing creatives over on Instagram as part of my 1:1 with Lo series. I chat one-on-one with talented professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.
Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with Maya Marie. Maya is a Black urban farmer and foodways educator from Baltimore, MD who’s called Brooklyn, NY her home for over 10 years. She's invested in creating accessible spaces for Black and brown people to learn about food and health that center their personal stories and food traditions. She believes that food education can be a vehicle for communities of color to engage with their history and health while tapping into their power for social change. Her interests in food have led her to earn a culinary arts degree, to apprentice at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz where she studied Ecological and Sustainable Horticulture, and to study community health at Hunter College. When Maya isn’t farming, she continues to combine her love of cooking, agriculture, science, and history by pouring her heart into Deep Routes, a curriculum-based project meant to uplift Black and Brown foodways.
In this conversation, Maya discusses how food can help build community, celebrate culture, and teach us to slow down.
Lo Harris: Can you start by sharing a little bit more about yourself, your work, and how you got started?
Maya Marie: Because of my mom and with my grandparents having backyards and gardening, a lot of my interest into working with land and land stewardship as well as being in the kitchen really started at home for me.
My background professionally is in urban farms and urban spaces or just larger farms. But mostly throughout my life I’ve stuck to the smaller scale of things, which I think is a little bit underappreciated, but it still has a lot of worth and value, especially with people having their own agency around growing food.
I hadn't really heard of urban farming until I got to college. The culinary school that I went to happened to have a farm that they had just started and they had volunteer opportunities. I started volunteering there, then I became a staff person there. Over time, the institution that was holding the farm wasn't offering a lot of funding support, which is often a challenge with these types of programs. So I ended up, along with a lot of the other farm crew at that space, leaving to start focusing on other aspects of the work that I like to do. So I'm still in gardening spaces in the city and in the urban farming circles, but trying to find a way to do it more sustainably and also get paid well for that labor.
In culinary school, I was never really interested in working in restaurants. I was always interested in wanting to work in the community aspect. I wasn't really sure what that would look like when I was in culinary school, but over time, I've seen that either through teaching classes or workshops, like through Deep Routes and partnering with other organizations in the city to offer classes.
I’ve always been interested in foodways and cooking in a way that brings folks together or allows me to connect with people and not be detached.
LH: What drew you to studying food and urban farming and why do you want to create a curriculum for Black andBrown people specifically?
MM: There are so many things that draw me to wanting to work with food. I think one of the initial childlike things is enjoying using my hands, really enjoying having my hands in the soil. Some of my earliest memories of growing food had been with my grandparents -- getting to harvest things. You see something start out at a certain part of the season -- like early in the spring -- and then by the end of the summer or the middle of the summer you're harvesting things.
A lot of it comes from my family and that interest being nurtured from a very early age. My mom was really curious about cooking and really involved me and my siblings. I was homeschooled and for social studies or for science, we were cooking. Let's try out this dish and you'll learn about these ingredients from this part of the world. Even being very low income, she would try to find ways to do it.
The magic and the curiosity that my mom showed and also instilled in me at a very young age continued to grow as I got older.
That's evolved over the years as I've learned more about food history. I’ve refined that from Oh, I like working with my hands to oh, there are people who've been doing this and there are things in my lineage and I know exactly who I'm feeling called to.
LH: I see parallels between art and food. When I think about my creative community, it's often from this idea of “How can I expect to reap a bunch of flowers when I'm never putting anything back to soil?” I'm not planting any seeds, I'm not sharing any fruits. If I’m not doing anything for anybody else, how can I expect to have everything?
MM: Yeah, I really agree that there is an importance of pouring into your community and giving back even through the work of reconnecting folks to what their food is or reconnecting to their own food stories. Also an important aspect is being able to understand the value of what's around you and who's around you and how you can pour into that.
Whoever you consider your community -- growing and working with plants, I think you learn to expand that. As well as working with other people you learn how to expand that.
What does community look like? What does it mean? What does that term mean, because it gets thrown around a lot. But what does it mean for you? I think understanding histories and stories can really help you get to a place where you have a bit more clarity.
LH: What legacy are you hoping to provide through your work for future generations?
MM: I think what would be really lovely to see as a legacy is that folks are really excited to learn about food and not just in a surface-level way. Maybe it starts at a surface level, but they have the tools to go deeper, they have the resources to go deeper, whether that means they want to learn about farming or they’re not thinking about farming or gardening or land stewardship in a way that's the common narrative. The first thing that comes to mind isn't going to be enslavement. I hope that with this work, folks are given the tools to acknowledge those stories and histories while also being able to create a relationship to foods and plants and people in a way that feels really good and joyous.
LH: We live in a world that often values quantity over quality, instant gratification, over working it out over time. How do we get ourselves to slow down and appreciate more?
MM: Reading some of my favorite food writers can be helpful because there's something about reading their life experiences that makes me want to slow down. I'm like, oh, they did all this stuff over expansive years. There's time.
And I try to remind myself by putting up sticky notes. I try to put up sticky notes that literally say, I can be excellent without exploiting myself. I can do excellent work without causing myself stress. What I learned in college was the opposite. It was like, you’ve got to do all-nighters, you’ve got to take five classes so you can graduate on time. You've got to be at the top of your game. Offering grace to other folks, I think, starts with offering grace to myself and slowing down.
LH: Who are some of your favorite food writers?
MM: Psyche Williams-Forson. She's one of the first people who I read who was like, Yeah, Black women have been at the forefront of foodways and food culture for centuries. She has a new book that came out last year called Eating While Black that's really good. And I really love Ashante Reese.
LH: What’s your favorite food to grow?
MM: I really love growing greens like collards and mustards. But I also have been really getting into growing grains on a small scale. So, sorghum is one of my favorites as well. I'm trying out growing rice for the first time this year.
LH: Any upcoming projects with Deep Routes that people should know about?
MM: We're working on a Haitian foodways curriculum called An Manje. We're currently fundraising. Our donation link is in the Deep Routes IG bio link. We’re raising funds to both pay the contributors as well as to get the curriculum translated into Haitian Creole and Spanish. And we’re getting it printed because our first curriculum was just digital, but we'd like to have this one printed for folks to flip through because it's going to have recipes.
If you want to join any of our classes, sometimes we'll have hybrids or virtual ones, but we also do a lot of in-person ones in New York and the Tri-State Area. To stay up to date go to the link in our bio and sign up for our newsletter.
Follow Deep Routes on Instagram @deep_routes and learn more at deeproutes.org.