Feature - Issue #15
A group for Black men in Toronto is using sustainable gardening to reconnect participants with nature and start conversations about mental wellness and positive masculinity.
Trigger warning: mentions of suicide
I’m sitting in a log circle in an Indigenous community garden in Toronto, listening to a man confess thoughts of suicide, accompanied by tears. Going around the circle, one by one, we detail our internal struggles navigating work, relationships, mental health challenges, and each other. This is a normal part of these meetings, which are run by The Rootedness Project: Sustainability for Black and Racialized Men.
The project, a collaboration between Toronto organisations the Good Guise Collective and the Black Men’s Therapy Fund, serves Black men seeking mental health support. It works to eliminate stigma around mental health and illness by engaging Black and racialised men and masculine-identified people in sustainable gardening in urban settings. This attempt to “re-root” men disproportionately uprooted from green spaces is a response to the systemic barriers to land ownership and migratory histories that forced us to seek out urban opportunities for work and community in cities.
Spearheaded by horticulturalist and food security advocate Natalie Cox, and Black Men’s Therapy Fund founder, artist and photographer Jah Grey, the programme aims not just to cultivate plant life but also heal relationships to place and land through dialogue on mental wellness and positive masculinity.
Today, our group, consisting of Black men of various ages, is cultivating callaloo, a spinach-like, leafy vegetable that is a staple throughout the Caribbean. Most of the nation’s Afro-Caribbean population lives in Toronto, with Jamaicans making up the largest group. Planting new roots in the city’s soil carries migrational overtones and respect for our cultural heritage. Natalie also believes there’s a deficiency in health when cultural staples are lost to our diets, so the reintroduction of those staples into our food system through community farming is a large part of her mission.
The SKETCH: Weave and Mend garden, beside Artscape Youngplace, is part of an outdoor installation created by young female or female-identifying, trans, two-spirit, gender-fluid, gender-queer and non-binary Indigenous artists to promote inclusive, communal spaces. A safe space to discuss ways to end gender-based violence and the impacts of colonisation on our communities, it now doubles as a safe space for Black men and masculine-identifying men to discuss and come to terms with their internal and external struggles.
As Natalie holds court, her loose braids tied back in preparation for the meditative labour ahead, her presence is maternal in all the best ways, protective and wise. The respect given to her by the men in attendance is like an ancestral memory come to life - the Obeah women of the Caribbean or Sangoma medicine women of South Africa come to mind - and I learn quickly that just being here is healing medicine for us. Natalie removes tiny saplings rooted in soil in tiny pots from a hemp shoulder bag, handing each of us in attendance our own callaloo.
Although gardening has widely been discussed as a calming practice, I didn’t initially know what to expect. Would we be left to our own devices in silence, or would a discussion happen in different groups talking about gardening as therapy? Entering the log circle, we introduce ourselves. Today’s group includes an elementary school teacher, a writer and editor for a community newspaper, a comedian and a musician. Jah, who Natalie refers to lovingly as “Jabari”, arrives and they ask if anyone needs food or water, an authentic demonstration of care right from the beginning. As planting tools and supplies are brought out, a discussion ensues about how to be conscious of systemic barriers while not diminishing ourselves in order to live out loud. The organic nature of this conversation isn’t what I expected: we are allowed to lead its direction rather than being led by a facilitator.
“I think one of the fears sometimes of starting a new programme is about whether we’re all going to be able to talk to each other and get along, but it was so smooth,” Jah tells me later. “It felt like we all knew each other for a very long time, and that connection piece is healing in itself.”
Safety comes in the form of emotional support and sharing of each other’s stories. Working the soil to initiate healthy growth of life; working the soul to initiate healthy growth of individuals. In this urban garden, a symbiosis plays out in real time: caring for the land is caring for oneself and community.
— Byron Armstrong
“We came up with this programme to get men to participate in more dialogue around mental health,” says Jah, between snaps with his camera of the participants at work. “Our mental health and wellbeing are similar to the root system of a plant, and since I knew Natalie’s work aligned with this, I reached out to her to be the main facilitator for the project.”
Jah is a trans-Black man. In this strange time we find ourselves in, where fear of change and the unknown is fueled by misinformation, leading to violence against LGBTQ2S+ communities, the pushback against his very existence must have a considerable impact on his emotional state. Add the everyday rigours of life and the global psychological impacts of the Covid-19 lockdowns - including footage of the murders of Black people at the hands of police and private citizens - and you can see that Jah’s motivation to organise these workshops makes practical sense.
There’s an empathy required to understand the necessity for the workshops that can only come from shared experience. For Black men, all too often the world only values our manual labour, athleticism and entertainment value, rather than our humanity. Jah’s experience during Covid-19 wasn’t easy and, as the pandemic slowly peeled away society’s Band-Aids to reveal the long-festering wounds underneath, gardening on his balcony became a salve that saved him.
“I didn’t have access to the outdoors for a while, and I didn’t have access to my friends or my family either. I could walk my dog but couldn’t engage with other dog walkers or other dogs,” recalls Jah. “A lot of people who were already quietly struggling went downhill and got lost in the cracks.”
As Jah recounts this, members of the group confirm this experience through stories of family and friends who ended their own lives, or their own thoughts of suicide. “I didn’t get into this work because I knew it all, but because I wanted to build a community and go through it together,” Jah explains. “Because there are a lot of times when I’m sitting at my house feeling like I do not know what to do, and I’ve told my partner: ‘When you see my plants dying around me, check in because [it means] I’m not okay.’ So there’s the connection again between nature and mental health.”
Natalie comes with an intimate understanding of Black men and mental health. She is the mother of four children, including three boys who are all adults now. When one of her sons began experiencing mental health difficulties, she struggled to navigate the bureaucracy and systemic racism of the mental health system. It showed her the need for alternative methods of healing. One in five Canadians suffer from mental health issues, one in five also struggle to pay for medication and, according to Statistics Canada, 2.3 million Canadians do not have their mental health care needs adequately met because Canada is the only country with a “universal” healthcare system that does not include pharmaceutical coverage.
“My son is a 25-year-old recent college graduate who no longer has access to insurance under his father’s insurance plan, so his medication isn’t covered,” Natalie says. “I recognise my son’s privilege in that he had access to that up until the age of 25, and we’re also in a position to help him afford those medications. But what of young Black men who never had access to health insurance?”
Rootedness provides an alternative form of therapy for a specific population dealing with barriers to care. With the negative tropes of Black men in society, it should come as little surprise that we in the circle express a feeling of not having an entitlement to our emotions. We want the world to recognise that we are more than just our anger or fears. But in a world that tells you who you are supposed to be - as opposed to accepting you for who you are - the workshops allow us time to examine ourselves.
— Jah Grey
As a new father, I couldn’t help but think about how “laying roots” in a nurturing foundation has suddenly become something with a much weightier meaning than planting callaloo. In the context of being a Black man raising a Black son, the importance of regulating my own mental health and emotional state is emphasised as I place my hands in the soil. The intersections between Black manhood and gardening become clearer as the session goes on. I begin to feel and observe the positive impact found in listening, supporting, corroborating, and most importantly, validating each other’s experiences and the emotions that result from them.
“There’s kind of a gatekeeping within mental health spheres where things like meditation, yoga and therapy are seen as mental wellness tools - if you’re not doing something like yoga or regular therapy, then you’re not healing or doing anything towards your mental wellness,” says Jah. “Alternative approaches meet people where they’re at and offer accessible tools for self-care. Gardening offers a form of connection where we can be in a safe space to examine our emotions as a collective, while also individually doing something that mimics the act of growing and nurturing life.”
The separation between land and nature is colonial and institutional for Black people in Canada. The deck has been stacked against us owning property from the very beginning. After fighting on the side of the British during the American Civil War, Black loyalists were granted freedom and land rights in Canada, and 3,000 of them settled in Nova Scotia between 1783 and 1785. But racial restrictions around who could own land often left Black Canadians out of the equation, and those who were offered colonial land grants were placed at the back of the queue, behind their white counterparts, and received far less land than promised. As a result, the sort of generational wealth or equity that comes from land ownership has disproportionately favoured white families over Black families, which means having access to backyards or farmland is at a premium. For immigrants with roots only one or two generations deep in the country, that may be even more out of reach.
“My husband and I used to laugh because we lived in a complex called ‘The Grassways’ - but there wasn’t a stitch of grass to be found anywhere. It felt almost like the city was poking fun at us,” says Natalie. “Most Black folks are surrounded by a concrete jungle, so even if you decided to put up a little garden for food security or to just beautify your surroundings, you couldn’t.”
The duo’s alternative thinking also extends to how to grow plant life without owning land in a city made of brick and glass towers. This is where Natalie’s expertise shines. “If we don’t own land, we can grow in containers on balconies, or hydroponically,” she states. “Jabari had a water pump and an air stone that we timed to spray lettuce roots every five minutes, and we grew 25 heads of lettuce in tote bags. So, there are different ways that we can grow when we don’t have land, but it’s about getting and sharing that information with our community.”
As the workshop continued, I listened to men being as open about their unsureness of their place in the world as they were about the act of gardening. That willingness to expose the fear and uncertainty that society tells Black men to keep hidden from each other, while engaged in a meditative practice that requires you to both literally and figuratively dig deep, is an idea I will take with me throughout life. The joy and camaraderie found through this rooting of each other in community should be an integral part of any form of therapy or self-care.
— Byron Armstrong