June Climate Leader: Shantell Bingham

Shantell Bingham is the Program Director for the Charlottesville Food Justice Network at City Schoolyard Garden. A graduate of the University of Virginia with a master’s in public health and a bachelor’s in global public health, Shantell has dedicated her career to building strong relationships with a variety of communities in Charlottesville, emphasizing issues relating to food security, food systems, and social justice. She previously served as Program Director of Madison House’s Bridging the Gap, a volunteer organization that mentors refugee youth, and is co-founder of Growing for Change, an urban garden initiative which designs and builds gardens for public housing residents and citizens in low-income areas.

C3: How did you get involved and passionate about the environment?

SHANTELL: I found my way to the environment through food. I'm originally from Goldsboro, North Carolina, but grew up in Burlington as one of six children in a single-parent household. Early in my childhood, my mother would take us to visit our great grandmother in Goldsboro, who was a tobacco sharecropper. On those visits, we'd pull up to the side of sweet potato fields after a harvest, and my mother would gather crates of sweet potatoes that were left behind. 

From those sweet potatoes, my great grandmother made the best sweet potato pies my taste buds would ever know. When I grew up, my mother told me that process of gathering the leftover harvest crates was called "Gleaning the Fields.” She told me more stories about how proud my great grandparents were as sharecroppers, as farmers… that cultivating the environment was always in our DNA. 

So as the great grand-daughter of agrarian people, the daughter of a mother that took care of the meals she provided me, and the sister to a wild bunch of country siblings, I was always environmentally concerned or involved. After all, the environment was historically my family's livelihood, my belly's source of nourishment, and my childhood playground. 

It wasn't until I attended the University of Virginia and met Joy Johnson, chair of the Public Housing Association of Residents, that the environment became a topic to be passionate about, something to fight for. Joy Johnson is the Kingstonian woman with banana trees in her front yard in Westhaven, who often passes out plants to her neighbors. 

Starting the organization, Growing for Change, which sought to co-design gardens for families in Westhaven, taught me two hard truths about our community: 1) There are a whole lot of families that care about the environment. Forty-six families in Westhaven signed up for the gardening program in the first year and ten families were already growing on their own; 2) With no access water due to the recent removal of the outdoor faucet handles and poor soil quality due to the land upon which the housing project was built, gardening would be a very difficult task. 

These two truths summed up to the harsh reality of environmental injustice. The process of denying people the right or limiting their access to clean air, water, and soil dictates their quality of life. It takes away their ability to cultivate food for themselves and their families, or the opportunity to play and rejoice in nature, cultivating a deeper connection to our environment. And at its worst, environmental injustice creates deeper health disparities, harsher vulnerabilities to climate change, and spins a false narrative of environmental leadership, cutting off significant voices from the conversation. 

What are you hopeful about right now?

SHANTELL: I'm most hopeful about the youth in our city schools. The ones I get to see and work with through City Schoolyard Garden’s, environmental stewardship and education programming. These kids are growing up informed and ready to move! It's incredible. In March, we were able to take a group of CHS youth food justice interns to the Smithsonian's Teen Earth Optimism event. It's powerful to see youth step into leadership early, understand how our food system works, and the environmental impacts of industrial farming. These youth understand that we all have to eat, but not at the detriment to our land and the farm workers cultivating it.

I'm hopeful that we already have many of the solutions needed to fix some of the issues that lie ahead to build a more resilient food system and sustainable energy sector. I'm most hopeful that the youth of our nation get this, and aren't settling for less or taking no for an answer either. 

In your opinion, what is one thing that is holding the state or local community back from greater progress?

SHANTELL: Currently, we're in the goal-setting stage of climate action planning in Albemarle and Charlottesville. It's a phase that brings me great anxiety, as a budding leader dedicated to equity. Because inequity is a thread that permeates every action our community takes, greater progress will only be achieved when there's a goal for equity in our action plan, standing right beside the GHG and Carbon Reduction Goals, so we keep our eye on it at all times. We're only as great as the sum of us all. So if we're serious about achieving greater progress towards climate action planning, then those plans must consider the needs of the most vulnerable out in front first in goal-setting, not as a secondary step. I believe a climate action plan that will work for our most vulnerable will work for everyone.

What is a climate action personally or professionally that you are proud of?

SHANTELL: I have the extreme honor of working with Peter Davis at City Schoolyard Garden-- he runs an urban agriculture innovations class which is pretty collaborative with other teachers at CHS. In May, we found out that Peter, working with a group of other CHS teachers, won a 5K grant for engineering students to build a wind turbine for the garden, which also includes ventilation and irrigation for our greenhouse at CHS. They also got 100 copies of "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" for English and ESL classes to join in the project for fun. Once the construction is underway, we plan to screen the film in the garden as well. This is just one example of City Schoolyard Garden’s green efforts that I'm very proud of.

What is one thing folks can do today to help reduce climate pollution?

SHANTELL: Everyone should try their hand at growing something and maintaining it (especially trees, we need to rebuild our forest!). But if you don't have a green thumb, you can always invest in youth doing it in Charlottesville City Schools. This past year, we grew 15,000 seedlings to support our city's urban agriculture community as well as home growers. But we do much more than grow food. We also maintain green infrastructure in Charlottesville City Schools and public and subsidized housing communities across the city. This takes the form of pollinator gardens, orchards, as well as native grasses that prevent soil erosion. 

This is challenging work! What is your favorite way to recharge and rejuvenate?

SHANTELL: I'm a secret artist, and actually started out majoring in sculpture at UVA. So my favorite way to recharge is through art-making!