Duron Chavis: Urban Renewer Exclusive Interview

Duron Chavis started his career in community advocacy as first a volunteer then an employee of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of VA. He worked as a museum coordinator developing programs and conducting guided tours for groups of all ages and backgrounds. In 2003 he founded the highly acclaimed Happily Natural Day festival as a grassroots effort to supplement the summer jazz concert that was held annually at the institution.

Happily Natural DayThe festival is a weekend long experience held annually in both Richmond VA and Atlanta GA that focuses on cultural awareness, health, wellness and social change. Chavis has worked with Dr. Llaila Afrika, Dr. Phil Valentine, Hakim Bey, Dr. Neely Fuller, Queen Afua, Runoko Rashidi, Ashra Kwesi, Ashanti Alston, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, Dead Prez, Popmaster Fabel and many more community activists, scholars and organizations from all over the country.

Presently Chavis is engaged in coordinating innovative and dynamic initiatives around the topics of urban agriculture and food security in a culturally relevant way. In 2009 Chavis launched the Richmond Noir Market, a Saturday farmer’s market targeting low income communities located in what the USDA has designated as food deserts in Richmond Virginia. 2012 marked the development of the McDonough Community Garden, an urban agriculture project that promotes sustainable food growing, horticultural therapy and environmental stewardship.

Chavis has received numerable accolades for his work. He served in 2011 as a Clean Air Ambassador on behalf of Earthjustice and the Hip Hop Caucus. He is an alumni of Leadership Metro Richmond’s class of 2011, received Style Weekly’s Top 40 under 40 award in 2010, was featured as Richmond Free Press’s Personality of the Week and most recently was nominated for the 2012 Golden Trowel Award by Tricycle Gardens for his work around urban agriculture and food access.

Who is Duron Chavis?
I am the son of a Alvin Tyler and Pamela Chavis. I was born in the Southside of Richmond Virginia. I am the father of Asaun, Zion and Kinyasa Chavis. I am an artist and an activist. I am the founder of Happily Natural Day. I start and manage urban gardens. I am a part of the movement to raise the social consciousness of African people globally.

What is your greatest passion?
My greatest passion is learning and then taking what I learned and doing something with it. So I guess being creative would fit in as greatest because it is the thread that runs through all the different things I do and have done. For the past 12 years I have coordinated a grassroots festival called Happily Natural Day and it really has been in this crucible of organizing that I have learned so much while having to apply. From visual design, marketing, web development, to social entrepreneurship, workshop facilitation, event planning and management, sponsorship acquisition to now urban agriculture, I never stop learning always trying to be more efficient as a worker for the people.
When did you realize your passion?
I’ve always been a reader. I think I fell in love with organizing specifically around these topics of natural living when I was in college. I was that guy. The guy with the argument about why we want to be Greek and not Kemetic who hosted the debate the day after you saw him do a poem on the racism in academia at the open mic.

I got tired of talking about consciousness though and felt it was important to create spaces that we can come together. After I got back from college I worked for the Black History Museum and did a lot of educating as a tour coordinator. From that space we did the first Happily Natural Day and it has been an evolution ever since.

How did the concept of Happily Natural Day come about?
Happily Natural Day was birthed during the 50 year anniversary of Brown vs. The Board of Ed. The Kenneth Clark Doll Study was a very important piece of evidence used to desegregate public schools. In the test the researchers found that black children had a higher affinity toward white dolls than black dolls and the implied conclusion was that due to segregated schools children of African ancestry were affected negatively in terms of self identity and self acceptance.

Black children reported black dolls as bad, ugly, mean etc. The same study had been done numerous times since Brown vs. Board only to find the same results applicable 50 years hence. Happily Natural Day was created to instill pride in people of African descent using hair as a reference point; pulling on the then burgeoning natural hair resurgence in the black community. Using hair as a catalyst for a much deeper conversation about health holistically as in mind body and spirit; Happily Natural Day as a concept has promoted loving yourself as a person of African descent not only outwardly in an aesthetic sense but fully in terms of community, economics, and identity period.

What top 3 elements, do you feel made HND 2014 a success?
The 3 elements that made HND 2014 a success were teamwork, partnerships and shared vision. In the planning of the festival this year we reached out to folks who shared common missions and made deliberate agreements to work together to bring the festival to fruition by working together. As a result of that, several partnerships were formed one with Black Girls Run for the 5k and another with the VABF (Virginia Association for Biological Farming) for the urban farm school.

The vision of both those organizations to ensure healthier communities through their respective work allowed Happily Natural Day to be a point of access upon which to pivot in creation of new satellite programming for the festival that allowed us to go deeper and wider with our promotion of health and wellness in the community.

What are some of the major challenges you have had in bringing Happily Natural Day to the public?
The major challenges have been finances. The festival was created specifically for the community. it wasn’t created with the vision of getting rich off of it. So as a result in the beginning it was being done all for the love. This was a good thing but along the way it created challenges; not insurmountable challenges, but challenges that forced me to understand the concept of sustainable social change.
The festival had to pay for itself. So that unique balance of growth and equilibrium had to be cultivated and sustained. With every year the festival grew in attendance and as a result that meant venues had to change which mean more expenses. This reality lead to a swift crash course in sponsorship development in order to offset the costs. Fortunately we have been able to develop meaningful and productive relationships with our partners allowing us to grow seamlessly into new venues to meet the expectations of our supporters, while not having to dilute the mission statement and meaning of the festival either.

Where do you see your efforts in 5 years? Goals?
Five years from now I see myself operating a successful urban farm enterprise while coordinating Happily Natural Day in several states. I see my oldest sons in high school. I look forward to employing people in the work that I do and they having the capacity to live comfortable in positions where they are helping the people while doing what they love. I got this thing for Tiny Houses so I really want to get into that and start building them on urban farms. I look forward to a happy marriage and staying true to this path and evolving with it as I have been.

I currently am developing a 1 acre farm in Richmond VA. I also have an indoor farm under development with Virgina State University. So out of those two projects I look forward to taking the models and honing them to the point of success. I am excited about the capacity of urban farming to solve the problem of food insecurity and poverty simultaneously. As we continue down this path I see so many opportunities in developing urban land for local food production and Happily Natural Day will serve as a marketing arm for those efforts where ever we find ourselves doing it.

I love to travel and want to be able to have places where people can stay so the tiny home concept makes me tingle when I think we can set up a small farm in an urban area that can accommodate someone living there for a couple days while working on the farm or coordinating the festival. That seems like a tangible dream to me. Profitable urban farms around the country with festivals that celebrate living naturally? Who wouldn’t want that?

What was the spark that lit your flame and passion for urban gardening?
hnd farm schoolThe conversation about urban gardening was part of the evolution of Happily Natural Day. Over the years our relationships with various aspects of the community have grown and one of those relationships has been with black farmers. Having black farmers at the festival as workshop facilitators and speakers opened us up for very candid conversations about nutrition and food security.

One year a farmer by the name of Azibo Turner of Vanguard Ranch remarked that it was amazing that we were doing so much to promote health and wellness in the black community; but posed the question of how could we talk about wellness but not talk about where food comes from. From there we held some panel discussions on that at the festival and from those conversations concluded that we needed to do pop up farmers markets in food deserts. The farmer we worked with during those pop up markets would talk with me about gardening and farming every Saturday from 1 to 6 for about two years and as soon as we had land available we started to garden and now we farm.

What do you see has been the most difficult part of getting people involved in urban gardening?
The most difficult part of getting folks involved in urban gardening has been getting people inspired to make a commitment to the project beyond just stopping by once of twice or coming to a workshop at the garden. The thing about urban gardening and urban farming is that it is a lifestyle change.

It requires a level of time investment that many people are not ready to make. This is why it is important to have urban gardens and farms that are close to where people live so that they can remove the excuse of it being too far away or off the beaten path. That for me was one of the things that made it accessible – having the garden a couple blocks from my house made it so whenever I came home I had to pass the garden. Community gardening helped to infuse bonds within the neighborhood that didn’t exist before and that helped keep people engaged. Developing relationships with your neighbors through gardening helped renew the sense of home for me.

Seeing the garden become a sacred space for people kept and keeps me engaged. Now that we deal with farming the incentive of being able to feed communities keeps me excited in addition to the capacity to generate wealth through food production. Not that we are looking to get rich while farming, but the fact that the farm provides a foundation for a sustainable system of programming all year round with a myriad of lessons for community engagement and increasing healthy food access gets me up in the morning excited. I think people being able to realize that they are a part of a movement that has tangible results attached to it is a great incentive to get people involved. Those who are serious about changing the community will see the impact in just one growing season.

How can we (the internet world) assist you on your mission(s)?
Find an organization and join it. Start a garden and grow food. Reach out and find a way to collaborate with those who share the same mission and goals as you. Find your thing and do it to the maximum. Do your work for the love of lifting up the people where ever you may find yourself. That helps me by raising the vibration in our community to where social change is the primary thing we are talking about. Be good to yourself but most importantly be good to others.

Love & Light.

L. NuNuu Sekou
Instagram/Twitter/Google+: @LNuNuu

This interview originally appeared: http://htfdconnect.com/duron-chavis-urban-renewer-exclusive-interview/2/

Leave a Reply