BROOKTONDALE, N.Y.—In an effort to attract more people from marginalized communities to agricultural spaces, the Jane Minor BIPOC Community Medicine Garden serves as a sanctuary for Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) individuals to connect with the environment, each other and themselves.
Community herbalist Amanda David founded the Brooktondale garden on their home’s side yard three years ago. David is a longtime upstate New York resident, growing up in nearby Chemung County and moving to Tompkins County 23 years ago.
David said once they were able to buy a house with an acre and a half of land attached to it, they immediately knew they wanted to turn the land into a community resource for BIPOC individuals.
“I decided to turn that [land] into a community garden so that other folks could have access to land to steward and land to grow on and make medicine and heal and build community,” David said.
David described that while there were other places in Tompkins County for individuals to access land and learn about plants, soil and agriculture, they particularly wanted to address a shortage of BIPOC-focused gardening spaces. David found that there wasn’t a “safety and community building aspect” for BIPOC growers locally, and David wanted to be part of creating one themselves. The garden’s name stems from a heroic Black herbalist from the pre-Civil War era whose story personally inspired David.
In the beginning, the land where the garden now sits was completely overgrown and untended, David said. Currently, the community garden includes a teaching pavilion, communal and individual beds, a community herb drying shed, a lending library of herb books and tools, a free farm-fresh egg fridge and a free herbal medicine cabinet. The garden is now surrounded by a fence which brings privacy and security and keeps animals from eating the plants.
Last year, four goats and a flock of chickens and ducks were added to the garden’s grounds. They produce nutrients for the soil and eggs to be distributed for free, as well as providing some joy and creating learning opportunities for members.
David described that these infrastructure changes have created a place for people to spend time together and connect.
“What was overgrown brush is now beautiful, beautiful gardens and so much food and medicine is growing,” David said. “So it’s been quite a transformation.”
Garden membership includes two tiers: “personal stewardship” for individuals looking to regularly contribute to land tending and community gardening and “community builder” for individuals that cannot commit to regular stewardship but still want to be involved in land care. Each tier includes work-hour requirements in exchange for access to certain garden resources and events.
David estimates that this year there are approximately 10-12 members of the “personal stewardship” tier, which grants members the opportunity to steward their own personal bed, with 25-30 additional members of the communal tier. Both the individual and communal beds are exclusive to individuals that identify as BIPOC.
The space frequently facilitates classes, work parties, food and medicine mutual aid and garden events during the growing season. According to David, these events are open to the entire community and bring in a larger list of individuals. Work parties — which occur on the third Saturday of each month — are both social and productive, with families coming to complete seasonal and routine tasks while they eat, play and talk together.
For the most part, the larger community has welcomed the BIPOC focus of the garden, David said, with some exceptions. The garden centers on the perspective that herbalism can be used to sustain life and insulate members from oppressive systems that can negatively affect health.
“I think people really understand the need of having safer spaces for BIPOC, queer and trans folks to come together and heal together and connect together and build community together,” David said.
According to David, members continuously express their gratitude for the healing nature of the garden.
“So many folks that come through […] say over and over again how this is the one place where they feel safe and comfortable, where they can shed all of their masks and all the boundaries that they have to have up,” David said. “And they’re able to come here and really feel like they can be themselves and [be] vulnerable and connect with plants.”
Garden selections emphasize bioregionalism, which refers to growing plants that support and balance the regional ecosystem. Garden practices are also developed to build understanding and recognition of the colonial legacy of the land, with the garden located on Gayogohó:no’ and Onöñda’gega’ land.
For members, it is emphasized that a relationship with land should center on reciprocity, not ownership. Plants are looked at as autonomous beings to be shown respect and given gratitude.
The garden’s namesake refers to herbalist, healer and emancipator Jane Minor. Minor was enslaved in Virginia, and she earned her freedom by successfully treating both Black and white patients throughout a lethal 1825 fever epidemic in the state. Through continuing to work as a herbalist and healer, Minor earned enough money to purchase the freedom of at least 16 other Black people from slavery.
For David, Minor serves as a “North Star.” As a Black herbalist that originally learned herbalism within a Western context, David recounts never hearing about a Black herbalist mentioned despite years of study. When David started learning about herbal traditions from Black individuals in Africa and Black individuals enslaved in America, they were particularly moved by Minor’s story.
“For me, having this tangible [story showing that] herbalism and connection to land and healing is a means of liberation, that’s my inspiration and that’s the why behind everything that I do,” David said. “Not too many people know about Jane Minor, so I figured if I named the garden after her, then her story would continue to be told and to inspire folks.”
Before establishing the garden, David was already deeply involved in farming, gardening, landscaping and land stewarding on local farms. As a community herbalist, David regularly gathered plants for consumption and medicinal purposes and sold herb products at local farmers markets.
Two decades ago, David established Rootwork Herbals, which includes various community initiatives that facilitate fulfilling relationships between people and the environment. Rootwork Herbals initiatives include the BIPOC community care clinic We Care for Us, educational programs like Woke Without the Work, and the establishment of BIPOC sanctuaries at herb and agricultural conferences. The Jane Minor BIPOC Community Medicine Garden exists as a facet of Rootwork Herbals, which funds its programs through the People’s Medicine Reclamation Fund and help from the Garden Sustainer program.
“The Jane Minor garden fits into [Rootwork Herbals] really beautifully because a lot of my students will come out to the garden for immersion classes or will steward beds in the garden, a lot of the videos that I film for my school are filmed in the garden, and students can come through at any time to make medicine and to be with the plants,” David said.
Future plans for the garden include completing the construction of the hoop house and adding more garden beds. Furthermore, David noted that three to five years from now, they would ideally like to move the garden to a larger space within a welcoming community to facilitate more members and larger events.
David views the healing effects of the garden as creating a ripple effect to benefit members, their families and their community in transformative ways.
“[There’s] so many ways in which particularly people who come through the garden are facing systemic oppression and all the things that make life really difficult,” David said. “Being able to be in the garden with people and see the joy and see them being able to relax and hear conversations and see people making medicine for their community and for their family, that fills me with hope [that] there are other worlds that are possible, and, in this little way, we are creating one of these worlds.”
Julia Senzon is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Voice.