The land above California’s Russian River is pristine with its redwoods and swaths of old-growth forests, where northern spotted owls breed and Coho salmon swim in the creeks. And yet, when anthropology professor Myles Lennon looks out the offices of Shelterwood on his last day of his year-long sabbatical from Brown University, he also sees signs of trouble. “When I look out the window, I see among the redwoods palm trees and eucalyptus that should never be here.”

Lennon is in Northern California searching for answers to big questions: “How do young Black land stewards in the United States negotiate the ethical and political tensions of doing antiracist, decolonial work in outdoor spaces through property ownership in a settler colony built on racial capitalism? How do you own land when you don’t believe in land ownership? How do you liberate your livelihood from a system of labor you know you can’t ever escape?”

Shelterwood, a nascent collective on 900 acres of forest and prairie, might be the newest and largest land project on the West Coast to explore answers to these queries on the ground. Co-creators Nikola Alexandre and Layel Camargo aspire to develop a community grounded in the ecological and cultural practices of their ancestors. They bought the land in July 2021 from a Christian fellowship that used it as a camp for 75 years and did little to tend the forest or connect to the larger community.

The work Shelterwood Collective has carved out includes quite literally uprooting invasive species. If the hands-on work also helps uproot structural racism, reestablishes healthy redwood along with environmental justice, and heals the land as well as the trauma of its residents, Shelterwood accomplishes its mission.

Only 25 miles south of Shelterwood in Sebastopol lies Earthseed, a Black-owned farm, and Heron Shadow, now a 7.6-acre Indigenous biocultural heritage oasis created on land acquired in 2019 by The Cultural Conservancy, a Native-led organization. Other networks model what environmental justice can look like on the ground, such as Black Urban Growers (BUGS) and the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, small Black-led farms like Soul Fire Farm on the East Coast, or Soul Flower Farm and the Butterfly Movement on the West Coast, as well as the Indigenous women-led Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in the San Francisco Bay Area that facilitates the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples.

In the summer of 2022, Myles Lennon brought five queer Brown University undergraduates to Shelterwood for a 10-week fellowship, intending to document the impact of their immersion. One of these students, Victor Beck, used his time on the land to create signs sharing the Indigenous names for many of the plant and animal species. “As an Indigenous student who cares about responsible land stewardship and building queer communities, I wanted to do something that put theory into practice,” Beck wrote in a reflection on his experience for the university. “The Shelterwood Fellowship gives queer people of color a way to do the hands-on work of restoring land in a place that feels welcoming and relaxing, which we sometimes struggle to find in our daily lives.”

Read the full article about Indigenous, Black, and queer farmers by Michaela Haas at YES! Magazine.