Duron Chavis is an organizer, social worker, urban gardener and activist, working tirelessly to improve the poorest neighborhoods of his hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
In 2003, Chavis founded Happily Natural Day, a celebration of natural products and African American culture. In 2009, he launched the Richmond Noir Market, a farmers’ market targeting low-income communities in areas of Richmond that the USDA had designated “food deserts”—places with little or no access to fresh foods. And in 2012, he developed a community garden project to help local residents grow their own foods.
Ironically, the event that set him on his activist path was one that nearly took his life. As a teen, Chavis was attending a birthday party in Richmond when gunfire broke out. Three shots struck Chavis. While he waited in triage at the ER, he heard a family’s despair as the birthday girl passed away in the next room.
“It was etched permanently in my mind,” he says softly. “Why did I survive? What’s the purpose of my life? At that point I began to do a lot of questioning and searching.”
A Natural Trajectory
Chavis’s path didn’t change overnight, but as a college student at Virginia State University Chavis says, “I got really interested in holistic health and naturopathic medicine. I started making my own soaps, pomades and skin creams and selling them.”
The idea for Happily Natural Day came about shortly after his graduation, when Chavis convinced the Black History Museum and Cultural Center in Richmond to sponsor a community event addressing wellness in the black community.
“I wanted to frame the event around holistic wellness—mind, body and spirit—by addressing the systemic inferiority complexes in the community as a result of discrimination, Jim Crow laws and slavery, and showing how health disparities such as obesity and lack of fitness could be addressed naturally so that people could learn to heal themselves,” Chavis explains.
Happily Natural Day struck a chord, eventually expanding to a second annual location in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.
“It’s a culturally relevant way to promote health and wellness in communities of color—but it’s relevant to everyone,” says Chavis. “We can all come together under the banner of how to live healthily, connect to the earth, and be environmentally conscious in our lifestyle decisions.”
Access to Healthy Food Choices
The festival’s growth brought up new issues to tackle. “One year, I was working with a farmer doing a workshop on the green movement in urban communities, talking about where food comes from and how eating well can combat diabetes and heart disease,” Chavis relates. “We were assuming people had access to fresh fruits and vegetables in their community—but it wasn’t true.
“I realized these communities had been locked out of the local food system,” he says. “Some didn’t have a grocery store within four miles or more, and of course your diet’s heavily influenced by what’s available.”
Many people in these neighborhoods had additional challenges. Heads of household often worked multiple jobs, leaving little time for cooking. Many families didn’t own cars. And finally, he adds, after so many years of prepared foods, “folks hadn’t learned how to cook and prepare fresh vegetables.”
As a result, Chavis set out to create a Saturday community market with food stands manned by local farmers, held in various neighborhoods, to give people access to real food. “We’re working to reintroduce foods and culinary arts in a meaningful way,” Chavis continues. “We offer collard, mustard and turnip greens, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, and fruits and vegetables that were originally grown in Africa. We’re respecting where people are coming from by offering healthy choices that are culturally relevant.”
Gardens for Everyone
Learning that lack of access to fresh food had a powerful impact on eating right and that farmers’ markets alone wouldn’t end food scarcity, Chavis applied for a grant to turn vacant lots into community gardens. He began by helping establish a single quarter-acre garden. Working with the nonprofit Renew Richmond, where he serves as co-director, he has seen explosive growth in urban farms over the past two years. The organization has now set up five gardens: two community plots, two school gardens at local schools, and a three-quarter-acre plot that supplies provisions for the local food pantry.
Chavis is now expanding his efforts beyond Richmond to create an indoor farm in an abandoned recreation center in the nearby city of Petersburg. “It’s a twenty-five-square-mile city that is virtually all food desert,” says Chavis, “but we’re teaching the community how to grow food and how to be entrepreneurs, and we’ve turned this building into an energy-efficient off-the-grid facility.”
Change and Connection
These various initiatives are part of a broader vision, one that has sustained Chavis through a decade of activism. “Bringing people together in a collective energy is infectious because positivity seeks more positivity,” he points out. “We are all dependent upon each other, and everyone has a role to play. There’s no reason we can’t live in harmonious equilibrium.”
Check out Duron Chavis and Happily Natural Day at happilynaturalday.com.