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Ray Williams is a busy man. When we connected on the phone earlier this week, he was on site at Yes Farm in Yesler Terrace, getting ready to unload soil and distribute 60 plant boxes to elementary-school students who are part of a summer program tied to the affordable housing development.
Yes Farm, perched above I-5 on two acres overlooking the downtown skyline, is a collaboration between the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), the Washington State Department of Transportation, and the Black Farmers Collective — a group of urban food system activists that serves as the organizing entity behind the project.
It’s a plan that’s been in motion for several years, but this is the first growing season that Ray’s vision for an inclusive, education-based growing space is being fully realized.
Assisted by EarthCorps’ Hannah Wilson, volunteers and residents are growing and harvesting collards, squash, flowers, and other crops — some of which is going directly to families in need, via organizations like the Rainier Beach Action Coalition.
As managing director of the Black Farmers Collective, Ray’s got his sights set on the bigger picture. It’s wonderful to be able to feed someone with farm-fresh produce, he says, but it would be even better to develop a new local food system that can help sustain the community economically.
“If you just grow the food and give it away, then that is not sustainable, because you gotta live,” Ray says. “So we’d love to develop a model where we’re growing food and selling it at fair prices, and getting that into the community.”
And keep scrolling to hear more from Ray about the intersections between urban farming, race and inclusion, and food access. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did the Black Farmers Collective and Yes Farm get started?
Ray: Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve had a little bit of a garden, because that’s just how I grew up here in Seattle. Around 2010, I started to think, “how can we connect garden education more closely with community education?”
Our vision was to create a space that would have some economic impact and be a small cooperative-run farm where folks could grow some food, get that food into the food system, and also build community around that. That’s what we’re pushing for.
We’ve been able to build this because people have stepped up to volunteer, to donate, to support us in many ways. It’s really been a community effort, and it’s not just Black farmers — it’s been all sorts of folks coming out and volunteering, and we really appreciate that.
Why are urban farming spaces so important, especially in Seattle’s central area?
Ray: We started this as a space to address gentrification and the pushing of the Black community out of the Central District, a space for the community to have a little foothold. But we were not the original folks around here, so we’re reaching out and trying to engage local Native communities, knowing that this is Duwamish and Coast Salish land.
It’s an opportunity for young people to thrive and to take on some responsibility. It’s also a place where they can create the culture of the space themselves. Some of the traditionally white-led environmental and food organizations (have) good intentions, but they’re not being as welcoming as they could be.
Growing a little bit of your own food can be one of the best things you can do for your health — physical, social, and emotional. You’re outside, you’re getting some exercise, you’re connecting with nature — which we often have less and less of a chance to do in the city. And hopefully the growing of the food then promotes you eating more fresh whole foods and vegetables.
How has the global pandemic and ongoing conversations about racial justice affected what’s happening at Yes Farm?
Ray: We’re part of a larger movement that is trying to create a more localized, more resilient food system, and there’s been community support around that. The protests and Black Lives Matter have galvanized a lot of Black activists.
Folks have woken up and become aware of how fragile our food system is right now. That’s coupled with the really dramatic loss of (personal outdoor spaces) in the central part of Seattle as single-family homes with yards get turned into multi-unit places.
Meanwhile, longtime residents — some of whom moved to Seattle during the Great Migration — are being replaced by younger folks who don’t necessarily have any connection to the land, and so you have less and less growing here.
Part of our mission now isn’t just to do Yes Farm, but to try to secure more space, with the idea that land and land acquisition is a really important piece to farming. So we’ve signed a lease with King County for four acres of land out on the Sammamish River (near Redmond). It’ll be one of the first BIPOC-run farm organizations in the area.