Aileen Suzara peers over a cliff’s edge on the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Hills and fields tumble in every direction below, robed in brilliant shades of lime that earn Kaua‘i its title, the “Garden Island.” Just beneath the overlook sits Alakoko, a fishpond more than six centuries old, dotted with red mangrove trees. From South America to Western Africa, these trees are prized for their ability to stop soil from washing into the sea. But as Suzara would learn from Malama Huleia, the Indigenous-led group working to restore Alakoko, the mangroves in Kaua‘i are unwelcome guests. Along with the sugar industry that planted them, red mangroves wiped out generations of Hawaiian foodways by upsetting the islands’ delicate ecosystem of fish and fowl.
As a nutrition expert and environmental advocate, Suzara knows the ills of corporate food production all too well. That’s why she’s joining more than a dozen farmers, filmmakers, and activists in Kaua‘i to participate in the 2022 Castanea Fellowship in-person immersion. The fellows have come to the island to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Hawaiian traditionalists to hone a sharper vision of what food sovereignty looks like, and to exchange practices that have the power to heal.
Castanea Fellows are among our country’s boldest leaders, transforming the way we eat, fish, and farm. What the Kaua‘i experience offers them is what it takes to nourish all great ideas: play and connection. Castanea immerses participants in local cultures where communities are hard at work rebuilding more than just food and farming methods. Through site visits, fellows engage with groups in a mutual exchange of knowledge and skills, from native wetland restoration to strategic storytelling. The most enduring solidarity, however, is always forged with a laugh over a good meal or splash from a kayak.
It is in many ways the sense of togetherness that Castanea fosters — a feeling of shared purpose across disciplines, cultures, and approaches — that has drawn these leaders to take part in the nationally renowned development program.
During their two-year fellowship, Castanea fellows enjoy a rich brew of virtual and in-person gatherings in addition to the week-long immersion. They take part in trainings to support skills development, intimate writing workshops with renowned authors, and discussions around convincing funders to support racial justice. In the process, they tap into Castanea’s network of experts to grow their impact and vision. They graduate from the fellowship having not only fortified their vision and leadership skills, but also having built strong bonds with a circle of peers and with the knowledge that they now have the power of an entire movement behind them. In addition, all fellows receive a $40,000 stipend to support their specific projects at home.
Born in 2017 out of the former WK Kellogg Foundation Food and Community Fellowship program, the Castanea Fellowship emerged to seed and sustain the scale of change needed to heal our nation’s broken food system. The way America grows and distributes food is the key driver of some of its most entrenched problems — from hunger and lack of access to healthy food to diet-related illnesses, as well as water, air, and soil pollution and the growing threats of climate change. And due to both historic and ongoing racial violence and disinvestment in this country, Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color suffer the worst impacts of this dysfunctional system.
Castanea aims to shift these patterns of harm by uplifting persistent and creative leaders like Suzara. Drawing on a lineage of enterprising women, Suzara started the California Bay Area’s Sariwa Kitchen, a food project that shares delicious, plant-forward, and accessible Filipino foods. Suzara sees ancestral foodways as the key to health and wholeness. The fellowship, she says, has helped her expand her work to reconnect communities to the medicine of our food relationships.
Bringing a fellowship cohort together through the uncertainty of Covid-19 was no easy feat. Suzara’s group had never met in person until last summer. Neither had the previous fellowship cohort that was announced in June 2019, just months before the pandemic shut down all travel. Leaders in the food system at that time, especially leaders of color, found themselves isolated, exceptionally busy, and under immense pressure. But for a fellowship grounded in building power through relationships, the shift to fully virtual programming during the pandemic felt inadequate to many. This feeling is backed by research that shows that novel experiences that place people in new spaces make their brains more resilient and healthy, laying the groundwork for new ways of thinking. The benefit of in-person gatherings is what drove the fellowship to prioritize its Hawai‘i gathering for all of its fellows.
The decision tested some of Castanea’s very core values. Travel to Hawai‘i at a time Indigenous Hawaiians were calling on tourists to stop overcrowding the tiny islands, driving up housing costs, and disrupting the environment was fraught with political and moral tension. Castanea’s planning team, along with Indigenous Hawaiian partners from Kaua‘i, grappled with what it would mean for the fellowship to hold its immersion on the island. As one of its planning committee members asked, “Should we even be coming and doing this immersion? Is it right for us to be going to Kaua‘i?”
Ultimately the answers to these troubling questions were rooted in the ways Castanea operates: The fellowship was not going to the islands merely to consume an experience. Rather, the fellows were invited guests who could offer resources and work to uplift the fight for sovereignty of Indigenous Hawaiian communities. So, it was decided that the almost two dozen fellows, staff, and support team members would make the journey to the middle of the Pacific to learn from the land and its original people and build solidarity.
The immersion offered up many ideas for collaborations and mutual aid. For example, fellow Kelly Carlisle, executive director of the Oakland-based Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, met up with Kaua‘i food leader Josh Mori, founder of Iwikua, an organization that seeks to work with Hawaiian kids to support culturally centered farming, and hatched a plan to bring young people from the islands and the mainland together. Thanks to their partnership, Black and Latine youth from the Oakland urban farm project will now have a chance to travel to Kaua‘i to meet and exchange wisdom with Hawaiian youth.
Learn more about this Earth Island Project at castaneafellowship.org.
The experience also invigorated fellows like Suzara with a deeper sense of empowerment. Suzara says, “I take with me the grounding reminders of resistance and healing from the community stories and the faces we met, the laughter and deep realness with our Castanea circle, and gratitude and loving responsibility to the ‘aina [land/that which feeds] wherever we walk next, in all the languages we know.”
From the depths of the valley below where Suzara and the fellows have gathered come the deep tones of a conch shell. Three long calls in a row. The sound reverberates in the air, passing through the skin like a distant memory.
Mālia Kahaleʻina Chun, a local Indigenous activist, beckons: “They’re calling us down; they’re ready for us.”
As the fellows reach the valley, Mālia sings them into a sense of sacred space and time, giving thanks and offerings, songs, prayers to the land, to the water, to the air. There is a holiness here that touches deeper than words and brings many of the fellows to tears. Here, together, they build and rebuild connections, bonds that normally go unfelt when we are under the pressure to perform, to direct, to produce. This web of being is essential for society’s long-term survival, these moments necessary for leaders to build a more just and wholly nourished world.
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