Personality: Duron Chavis
Spotlight on Resiliency Garden project leader
5/21/2020, 6 p.m.
Hundreds of raised garden beds distributed throughout the region, ready to house healthy crops. Hundreds more in demand by residents in Richmond and its neighboring counties. And potentially hundreds of new urban farmers, ready to work and serve their communities at a time of great need.
The coronavirus hasn’t just impacted social and economic institutions. It also has increased many inequalities that already existed for marginalized communities.
Duron Chavis, founder and director of the Happily Natural Festival, knows this well and is moving the nonprofit toward correcting one of these issues— an inability to grow, maintain and obtain healthy fruits and vegetables in food-insecure communities.
“It’s really important,” Mr. Chavis says. “Even before COVID-19, communities of color struggled with lack of access to healthy food, but now that issue is even more amplified.”
Mr. Chavis founded Happily Natural in 2003 while he was working at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia. It was originally and simply Happily Natural Day, a summer festival celebrating the African-American community, showcasing history and building pride in ancestry.
For more than a decade, the festival has shone a light on this history through a variety of ways, including “the promo- tion of holistic health, cultural identity and social change,” according to Mr. Chavis, aided by community partners and an enthusiastic audience that stretches as far as Canada and the United Kingdom.
In the years following its creation, Happily Natural has evolved to encompass a much larger mission. Today, the nonprofit isn’t just reconnecting black people to their history, but to the land itself, “through sustainable agriculture and resilient food systems.”
To achieve that goal, Happily Natural is operating the Resiliency Garden project as part of the Beautiful RVA coalition. The organization delivers raised beds to the community without charge to help increase access to healthy food for communities in need throughout the region during the pandemic.
Since April 1, the group has delivered more than 100 beds, with more than 300 requests received from across the region. It’s a telling sign of both the lack of options for many when it comes to healthy food, but also a deeper desire to expand skills and mitigate the stress of the current moment.
As Mr. Chavis puts it, “farming and gardening are ways to build self-sufficiency and relieve anxiety during this stressful time.”
Moving forward, Happily Natural is helping build urban farms across the city in an effort to localize Richmond’s food system. The organization is collaborating with the Mechanicsville-based Farm to Family, with an eye toward a plentiful, healthy summer harvest for the community.
Happily Natural also is developing a six-week boot camp for people new to growing food, as well as a 12-week training program for the city’s urban farmers.
Mr. Chavis is aware of the limits of the group’s ability to do this work and more, as their need for volunteers and community contributions is tempered with the knowledge that, as a black nonprofit, they see less support than similar groups. But they soldier on regardless, ready to address a clear and present need in the Richmond area.
“So many people are losing their jobs and are immunocompromised right now,” Mr. Chavis says. “Being able to grow your own food helps ensure that, no matter what happens with the food system, you will be able to feed yourself.”
Meet a back-to-the-earth advocate and this week’s Personality, Duron Chavis:
Occupation: Urban farmer.
Date and place of birth: Sept. 24 in Richmond.
Current residence: North Side.
Education: Virginia State University, mass communications.
Family: My partner, Nikiya Ellis, and our children, Asaun, Zion, Kinyasa, Tahja, Kai and Mali.
Volunteer position with Happily Natural: Founder and director.
When and why Happily Natural was founded: To celebrate blackness through the promotion of holistic health, cultural identity and social change. Founded in 2003 while I worked at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, the event started as a festival celebrating blackness that instilled pride in being of African ancestry.
How Happily Natural has evolved: Happily Natural has grown to be more than a festival through its promotion of reconnecting people of color back to the land through sustainable agriculture and resilient food systems. When COVID-19 dies down, we look forward to getting back to delivering the festival. But in the meantime, we are planning for a virtual version.
No. 1 objective: Right now our focus is on building food security.
Strategy for achieving it: Our primary work is urban farming and teaching people how to farm sustainably to feed their families. Our main initiative today is the Resiliency Garden project where we deliver raised beds to the community at zero cost to help increase access to healthy food for food insecure communities throughout the Richmond region during COVID-19.
Number of people you serve and how: So far, we have re- ceived more than 300 requests for raised beds across the region. To date, we have delivered more than 100 raised beds since April 1. We have developed a system of socially distanced volunteerism where folks deliver wood, build boxes and provide soil and seedlings to folks in need. We also provide online videos and instruction to help build folks’ skills in growing their own food.
We could do more: If we had more funding and volunteers, we could do more faster. As a nonprofit, specifically a black nonprofit, we know the studies show that we get less funding than our white counterparts. We also are an all-volunteer run effort so we don’t have a development staff or grant writers on our payroll to assist in our fundraising efforts.
How Happily Natural is financed: We are funded in this work through the generous contributions from community members.
Happily Natural COVID-19 response is providing: Support for the community in becoming resilient through the act of growing your own food. Farming and gardening are ways to build self-sufficiency and relieve anxiety during this stressful time. So many people are losing their jobs and are immunocompromised right now, and being able to grow your own food helps ensure that no matter what happens with the food system, you will be able to feed yourself. It’s really important. Even before COVID-19, communities of color struggled with lack of access to healthy food, but now that issue is even more amplified.
Upcoming projects: We are building urban farms across the city to help localize our food system. Currently, we are collaborating with Farm to Family in Mechanicsville and look forward to having a lush and abundant summer harvest of healthy fresh fruit and vegetables for the community to partake in.
How I start the day: Thankful for the opportunity to serve and excited about how to improve our work.
If I had more time, I would: Write a book about the 20 years of activism I have participated in through Happily Natural Day and other initiatives. I am a native Richmonder and have been active in many initiatives throughout the city. And if I had more time, I would definitely love to tell my story in full.
A quote that I am inspired by: “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.” ― Paulo Freire, from “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
Kindergarten taught me: Sharing is caring.
Best late-night snack: A fruit smoothie.
Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I love graphic design. I am an artist, having had to learn how to design flyers and posters for Happily Natural over the years.
Book that influenced me the most: “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin.
What I’m reading now: “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi.
My next goal: Launching a six-week boot camp for new growers and developing a new, 12-week training for urban farmers in the city, and looking forward to supporting black and brown people in being integral elements in a resilient and equitable food system.