N’Kwanda Jah felt called to work toward environmental sustainability before she understood the technical meaning behind the phrase. She knew the goal was to protect the environment — a mission she calls not just her responsibility, but her humble pleasure.
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state. This essay was funded by the Society of Environmental Journalists.
I can’t say exactly when I realized working to protect the environment would be a big part of my life.
I was born in 1953 as Mary Ann Bryant in Grandin, Florida, a rural community about 30 miles east of Gainesville. I was born poor but never really noticed other than at Christmastime. We grew and raised our own food, vegetables, chickens and pigs. I had my share of fruits from the trees I climbed and the many surrounding grapevines across the more than 40 acres of land my family owned. I enjoyed the beautiful butterflies and mosquito hawks and hung from branches of trees in our yard. All of this contributed to my environmental awareness.
In later years I changed my name to N’Kwanda Jah, a celebration of both my African and American heritage. I gave the meaning of my name “The Rebirth of the Spirit of God.” Through the work I have done over the past 30 years, I have learned that God created everything with life in it. It took me a few years to realize that not only includes the humans and animals but also the water and air and food. It includes what every life needs to survive.
I am the executive director of the Cultural Arts Coalition in Gainesville, Florida. This is a nonprofit community-based organization that myself and two other women incorporated in 1983. The CAC sprung from the 5th Ave Arts Festival, an event that uses the arts to discuss the effects of gentrification on historic Black communities, specifically Gainesville’s Pleasant Street/Seminary Lane neighborhood. This neighborhood was a mostly self-sustaining community at the time of our first festival and at any earlier point, was totally self-sustaining. There were grocery stores, restaurants, doctors, lawyers, schools and churches.
This April we celebrate our 41st festival. In 1990, the Library of Congress added to its collection a permanent exhibit of the 5th Ave Arts Festival and this historic community. Over four decades after it first began, I continue to work toward this neighborhood’s cultural preservation.
By age 30 I had been introduced to the idea of sustainability, but it was hard for me to fully comprehend; I just knew I needed to be involved in these discussions. The concept of sustainability was hard for me because it was presented by people using technical terms I had never heard before. I was always the only Black person in any of these meetings and, although I did not fully understand the terminology, I knew they were talking about protecting the environment that all life depends upon.
I later came to realize that sustainability, as it relates to my immediate community or elsewhere, means to provide for our community within our community. This means with respect to social needs, education, healthcare, food and institutions that allow for a whole life. It means protecting our water through our actions. It means planting trees that provide life with oxygen or food, and that are not contaminated by pesticides and other chemicals. Sustainability, I believe, means taking care of life on the planet.
My first experience in creating and implementing children’s programs came from my early community activism. I have always tried to make sure our children’s program had some aspect of sustainability as a part of its curriculum. I feel I have touched the lives of thousands of young people throughout my career, making sure they understand their place among the rest of life on the planet and in the universe. I want them to care about the life in our rivers, lakes, oceans and springs. I want them to recognize the birds flying above us and that even the insects have their purpose, like the worms that make our soil rich and produce healthy food.
In 1990, I was approached by the city of Gainesville’s recycling program and was asked to help promote recycling in the Black community where there was little to no participation. CAC partnered with the local television station and hired a group of youth between 8 and 21 to put together a music video.
This video ended up winning second place in the state’s American Advertising Awards and was used in more than 20 other states as an educational tool. Participation in the Black community did increase, which extended the lifespan of our local landfill by more than five years. I considered this a spiritual sign that I should continue along these lines of work.
This video project was the beginning of CAC’s Environmental Ambassador program. Teens have been hired each summer for the past 30 years to promote not only recycling but clean air, water and food security. Our Environmental Ambassadors tour water treatment plants, energy plants, farms, lakes, springs and rivers. They conduct community and seashore cleanups, and they have visited homes and businesses who are using clean energy.
They also visit local farms. Some of these farms are operated by third and fourth generation Black farmers. We have visited Nix farm in Rochelle (4th generation), Fisher Farm in Jonesville (4th generation vegetable farmer), and Butler Farm on Wacahoota Road (4th generation cattle farmer right outside Gainesville). I have been taking kids from Gainesville on tours of the Butler farm for more than 30 years. My younger students have fun feeding the animals, sitting on a bull and riding through the fields on the back of his pickup truck while the cows follow behind. The goal of these trips is to learn to appreciate the beautiful outdoors. Some of my ambassadors have gone on to work as park rangers, water treatment operators and environmental firm associates.
Today, I am blessed to work with a group of youth from 16 to 24 who are involved with environmental activism. They are working to stop the creation of another toll road in Florida that would affect animals and take away great portions of habitat. They are attempting to stop Nestle from taking millions of gallons of water from our springs. Several of these youth have already been plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the government for failing to protect our natural resources. We have had Zoom meetings with other youth in Zambia working on environmental issues and concerns.
I look forward to spending the rest of my time above ground trying to help my community understand that it is so very important that we show the Earth some real love — not to do things that are easy for humans but destructive to the rest of life on this planet. I want to talk about the life of our trees and their vitalness to our life. I want humans to understand what is destroyed due to possessions and greed.
I have had parents introduce me to their children and say, “this person is the reason we recycle.” Incidents like this lets me know my work is not in vain. It has been my humble honor to touch the lives of as many young people as possible, who I pray take the messages I have given to them to their children, families and friends.
It is important to me to work with young people because it is their future that is being affected most. I fear there will be consequences to pumping millions of gallons of water from our springs. I fear destroying wildlife habitats will present a danger to its inhabitants, but also to humans. I fear the poisonous pesticides and herbicides that end up in our water will cause illnesses, not just to the life that is in the water, but also humans — causing cancers, infant mortality and other health conditions.
Adults must take responsibility for what we are doing now, especially when it affects the environment of our young people. I want the young people to understand how we got to where we are, how we destroyed the greenspaces that help make the planet healthy, and what they can do to mitigate some of the behaviors of older people like poisoning our water, food and air.
I am proud to be called a Tree Hugger. I want it to be known now and throughout time that I love the trees, the flowers, the animals, the water, the air and everything else the Creator made. It is not just my humble pleasure but my responsibility as a part of life.
I am N’Kwanda Jah, The Rebirth of the Spirit of God. My responsibility is to love everything with life in it. That’s everything God made.
N’Kwanda Jah is a co-founder of the Cultural Arts Coalition, which was established as a nonprofit in 1983. She has created and implemented a community arts festival, cultural, social and academic programs for youth, developed an award winning musical video on recycling and worked with numerous community organizations throughout Alachua County.
Thank you to the Society of Environmental Journalists for contributing support to The Marjorie’s Dispatches from a Sinking State series.
Credits: Photos courtesy N’Kwanda Jah