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Kendra Danielle. Photos by Gabrielle Lawrence

Good Neighbors

Little Rock’s Urban Wildlife Haven finds fruitfulness in sticking together

At some point during my conversation with Kendra Danielle and her father Ken, I found myself listening to the birds in her yard instead of focusing on the job I flew almost seventeen hundred miles to do. The pair lead the Urban Wildlife Haven (UWH), a Little Rock, Arkansas-based project that “offer[s] nature workshops centering historical and ethnobotanical knowledge [that honor] the diverse wisdom of our ancestors and community members.” She is also part of a community resource network of urban gardeners, beekeepers, and organizers that work together to maintain several projects throughout the city. For the past year, Kendra has been cultivating a flower, herb, and medicinal garden in Little Rock’s Pine & Cedar neighborhood as part of the UWH roster.

“I started the workshops in 2021,” Kendra said. “I used to work at a farm downtown at Heifer International. So I was doing the animal husbandry and the pollinator garden. And when Heifer thought that they were going to close down, I lost my job. And so I really wanted to do something in my own neighborhood because … there's not a lot of gardens here. There’s a lot of vacant spots. So the curriculum developed from there, and then I just started to partner with … the local Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. They wanted me to do … an herb workshop where I could teach simple ways to cook with what you have. Then I started working with [local] gardens; we have a chicken workshop this weekend.”

Kendra’s work responds directly to a history of food insecurity in Arkansas. Historically, access to nutritious food in the state has been extremely limited due to a cocktail of government neglect, racism, and environmental volatility. There’s forensic evidence that earlier generations of Arkansans experienced higher levels of nutritional stress than neighboring states. The issue of nutrition continues as a through line in the state’s history, with the Food Research and Action Center citing Arkansas as having the "fifth highest rate of food hardship" in the country just a little over a decade ago. 

Before the introduction of European settlers and all that followed, the rich agricultural diversity of Arkansas offered the possibility for Native communities to balance out their hunter’s diet with a variety of vegetables and grains grown in seasonal settlements. So the idea of subsistence, “the state of having what you need in order to stay alive, but no more,” was a foundational part of the region’s history. After European settlers arrived, however, agriculture became embedded into the state’s economic system in a new way. With the introduction of slavery and cotton, the Arkansas agricultural system prioritized competing in a capitalist market over producing food. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the shift forced Arkansans, including enslaved people, to rely on high-calorie foods like “pork, corn meal, lard, molasses, and flour.” Later, plantation agriculture was replaced by sharecropping, which repurposed the formalities of the old system of slavery, including malnutrition. Formerly-enslaved sharecroppers began using whatever access to land they had as their resilience and resistance, supplementing their diets with the potatoes, collard greens, turnips, okra, beans, and peas they grew in small garden plots. In this way, Black Arkansans were maintaining a culture of right relationship with the earth in the face of continuing white supremacy. Without much help from the state, they also created new models for self-sufficient grassroots agriculture where neighbors are able to rely on what they have to take care of themselves. 

Like many places in the South, there is a rich history of cultural exchange, migration, and slavery which contributed to the ways Arkansans were able to get creative about the nutritional resources they had during this time. But between frequent flooding followed by long droughts, large landowners dominating the agricultural market, and the racism that didn’t go anywhere after the war, the access and security surrounding nutritious food was still unstable. The long-term effects of a government-led, capital-focused method of land use manifested as a prevalence of scurvy, rickets, anemia, malaria, hookworm, and most famously, pellagra. Before pellagra, which disproportionately affected African Americans and women, was recognized as a nutritional deficiency in 1914, sufferers were often thought to be contagious.

These overlapping crises contributed to harmful stereotypes that shifted the blame of the failing system onto the people who were exploited so that this system could thrive. And now, in the twenty-first century, Arkansas is home to an ironic dichotomy: It is a top supplier of this country’s rice and poultry, the poultry industry is a top private employer in the state, but more than half of Arkansas is classified as a food desert and the people are “overfed but malnourished.”

The national perception of Arkansas has been shaped by everyone else but the people who have continued to adapt to their environment to keep each other alive. Their resilience and commitment is just as historic as the barriers they’ve had to face, but it is often the part of the story that gets left out.

People like Kendra Danielle are helping rewrite that narrative. Kendra says Arkansans like to do what they know and what they see their trusted community members doing. “There are a lot of programs, I feel, that go into communities like ‘You should eat healthier!’ They're trying to completely change their diet,” Kendra told me. “I understand. But you’re gonna take away everything that's ancestral?” Kendra is working to “restore memory of folks in urban communities on how to form reciprocal relationships with nature,” she explained. “So for me it's more like how can we use what we know, and just try to adapt it and cook it in a way that’s a little bit healthier? I keep referring to my mom, but she does these things …instead of using maybe ham hock for greens she’ll use an alternative. Just trying to find ways to make things a little bit more nutritious. But also [keeping] that same ancestral feel of like, we’re gonna have greens for dinner.” 

Kendra describes her own Arkansas childhood as one centered on a relationship with place and environment, shepherded by her mother—a veteran educator in the Little Rock School District—and her father, an “outdoorsy fisherman, hunter, and inventor.” Kendra writes, “It was only in her thirties did she learn that the relationship she naturally formed with nature as a kid was the study of ecology.”

“When I do my educational workshops, I work with a lot of kids. So when I’m  teaching about native plant species, plant species you can eat, teaching about medicinal plant species, I’m really just trying to get them to open their mind that there’s a lot of food options,” Kendra said “There is a lot. And we don’t have to just keep eating the same thing that the store provides, because we are people that are creative. And the more we know, or the more we connect back to what we knew, the more we can cook and make it better for us.”

That’s why Kendra sells eggs from her chicken coop to her neighbors and likes to garden in public, community spaces—to remind her community of their history and empower them to participate as co-creators of their survival. She also wants people to know that there is plenty of fresh produce being grown in Little Rock’s urban gardens. “I think [local gardens are] definitely producing a lot of food. I think the difference is, do people know that that food is for the community? That’s the part I’m not sure about. Like [local nonprofit] Dunbar Garden has a market every week. But it’s like certain people go to that market who know about the market. It’s hard to know … who in the community [is aware] these things are happening.”

The day we spoke, Kendra showed me around several of the spaces UWH is cultivating to engage the community. We stopped at Calm + Confidence downtown, a community space and urban garden that runs STEM mentorship programs, educates the community about urban beekeeping, and partners with local organizations to explore sustainable ways of improving Arkansas neighborhoods. Then we visited three neighborhood gardens, some tucked away in people’s homes or on a residential corner, each with their own long history of community service and goals for expansion. “Notice how none of the gardens we visited today have gates around them,” she said on our drive. “Who gets to go into a community garden? Who is it for? How do they operate? Especially in Little Rock? And so it’s just interesting to see who occupies that space and who feels like they can go into the space. Because there’s a lot of gardens around, surprisingly. But here in my neighborhood if I think of the closest grocery store—I mean what’s that, Family Dollar? Up the street. And then Kroger is … across the bridge in a whole different neighborhood.”

Anika Whitfield, Kendra Danielle, and Dena Patterson

In many ways, Kendra’s Urban Wildlife Haven is a modern day manifestation of the home demonstration clubs researched and written about extensively by Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch, rural historian and Dean of the Graduate School at Arkansas State.

The home demonstration clubs employed women to go into the homes of rural families and teach them skills for “managing income, preserving food, and keeping healthy at a time when people were migrating out of rural communities in droves. The first home demonstration club in Arkansas started in 1912, and the program received federal funding nationwide in 1914.” The programs were segregated until 1966, so Black women were working exclusively for Black families. In her 2019 Q&A with Civil Eats, Dr. Jones-Branch says:

“What I found [in my work] was that there’s way more to this [history] than [Black] women sitting around canning tomatoes. They were doing it in this very racist and sexist context … we’re talking about Black women who labored in the rural South in a number of different capacities. So you have people who were sharecroppers, tenants, but also educated Black women from rural backgrounds who returned to their homes or a similar community [after completing their education] to really foment change and improve conditions. It really challenges this narrative about Black people quitting the South, going away, and never coming back ... What’s really interesting about this kind of activism is the ways that people seek out and, when necessary, create windows of opportunity. In these meetings, in the dark of night on some rural plantation where they know people aren’t going to be bothering them or listening in, they can have different kinds of conversations." 

Though it looks a little different in the modern-day context, Kendra is using the same self-sufficient, neighborly system to create windows of opportunity for food insecure populations in Little Rock. When she first got started, she stumbled upon a Black farmer standing on a street corner in her neighborhood who brought her back to his garden and gave her a bunch of containers to start her seeds. “When I first got this idea, I wanted to buy a plot of land. I called my dad, ‘I want to get some land, let's do it together.’ But that requires money. And that requires a lot of things that I just wasn’t ready for. And so I looked at my backyard and I was like, oh, I have all of this space right here. Why don't I just start where I am?”

To build her planter boxes and chicken coop, she and Ken collected materials they found on the side of the road in piles people had dumped for trash or in vacant lots. When she wanted to start hosting workshops, a neighboring, Black-led grassroots farm lent her their space for free. “Literally, even in some of the workshops, [we] start in a pot. Just grow something. I think there’s this garden in Pine Bluff that had a ‘grow something challenge’. [To introduce the possibility of] see[ing] yourself grow something. And then when you do that, can you share it with somebody else? So here, I wanted to grow vegetables, but it's too shady. It’s a lot of trees that’s blocking the light. I don't get that six to eight hours. But I can grow herbs. I can grow flowers, I can grow medicinal herbs to share knowledge about. I think a lot of people have information … I guess [they also] have this idea that it has to look a certain way. And it really doesn’t.”

For both Kendra and Ken, creating a friendly place for neighbors to gather was as important as growing food. “That was the other piece. Just like trying to create a safe space in the hood,” Kendra said. “I just want a lot, people can come, get some benches, you know we got a table.”

“[Get some] lemonade,” Ken added.

“Make it pretty. Yeah, just a space that people can chill. I do a lot of things for like, Black people, people of color, queer folks. I just want us to have a space that feels safe and secure… where we can just exist. Because where do we get to do that?”

This spirit of caring for your neighbors permeates all of Kendra and Ken’s work. “Like, if I have something to share, then I can share with you,” Kendra said. “I’m literally living next door to you. And that can be a conversation starter.”

“We're all sharing the same world. [We're] responsible to not just the humans around us, but the plants that are here, because we need them,” Kendra said. “So like this garden is trying to create a space for pollinators to thrive and be happy. [I] have some local plants for the monarchs, you know, because this is part of their migration path. And if we don’t have that, then they’re not going to be here, you know. So it’s really trying to get ... people to think outside of the box of what is the community. I did a workshop at the Children’s Library, a summer camp, and one of the classes is about being a community member. And so we talked about what does it mean to have conversations with people who live around you? What does it mean to go outside and see a tree and grow up [alongside it]?”

Anika Whitfield, Doris, Kendra Danielle, and Dena Patterson

Ken has been living in Pine and Cedar for thirty years. “I know my neighbors. I know his grandkids. He knows my one grandchild. I know when he needs to go to the doctor, you know. I know all his ailments and things of that nature. He's been there thirty some years also ... and he buys eggs [from Kendra] too. He’s a widower now. And he’s eighty years old. He has two grandsons that stay with him. They’re young kids that run the streets … so my wife cooks a big meal and we [send it] over ... and also vegetables. She has the garden so she gives them tomatoes and greens.”

Even though Ken was raised in one of the most systemically stressed communities in the state and didn’t feel a lot of neighborly love growing up, he developed his values for being neighborly along the way. You could say, he restored his ancestral memory, or he practiced Sankofa—“went back and got it.” “Well, I lived in Granite Mountain which is a project. Gangbanging, drug-selling, prostitution, the whole nine. That’s where I grew up. It was just bad. So I wanted to better myself from where I grew up [and] treat people the way I want to be treated.” 

Now that Ken’s retired, he spends a lot of time cleaning up areas around the neighborhood. “There’s a patch between Roosevelt and Daisy Bates. There’s a strip of sidewalk that’s covered with grass and if you’re in a wheelchair you can’t ride through there. So I go there with my little wagon, shovel it out, carry the dirt home. I make it like a project and I do it for maybe a week until I get it all done. So whoever’s in a wheelchair can ride all the way down there without having to cross the street.”

Another aspect of the neighborly system Kendra has learned from her fellow grassroots urban farmers is not needing to own everything. In fact, it may be more subsistent to rely on each other. It's anti-capitalist and anti-white supremacist. For instance, having beehives in her yard wasn’t the right move for Kendra: “Well [Ken] doesn’t like bees and I didn't want to have them back here because he helps maintain the yard. Plus, it would have been kind of a lot to have [the bees] here, and chickens, and [the garden] by myself. Bees also need a lot of sun, and as you can see there’s not a lot here.”

So she used what she already had to make it work. We hopped into Kendra’s car and drove a few miles across town to 15th St. and Bishop garden where we met up with other land keepers, facilitators, and organizers to tend to the community beehives. Three hives sit on a plot of land surrounded by fruit trees. Two natural springs run underneath the plot which self-waters the trees, the fruit trees will provide flowers for the bees to pollinate, and the runoff from the springs provide the bees the water they need. It is fully self-sufficient. And notice here, that self-sufficient and neighborly work in tandem with each other. This is a critical part of Arkansas food culture because the point of self-sufficiency or even subsistence is to be a good neighbor, not to do everything alone. Self-sufficiency is the ability to be present in community, to be considerate of the life around you, and to contribute to the world in a way that is healthy and creative. 

After suiting up, I followed the ladies from hive to hive and watched as they treated them like friends on the other side of town. They said things like:

“You're so beautiful!”

“Ok honey bees, we're getting ready to move you over! See, they know me.” 

And “I can’t wait to taste your honey girl!” 

Kendra may not have her own hive in her backyard, but she's got something better: a crew of sisters to help care for a family of bees.

This series was published with support from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.

Gabrielle Lawrence

Gabrielle (they/them) is based on Tongva, Kizh, and Chumash land, also known as Los Angeles. They are most drawn to community-oriented storytelling and qualitative approaches to big, complicated questions. Particularly, stories that revolve around food, art, and environment. They have an MFA in Creative Writing. Previously, they were the Managing Editor for TransLash News and Narrative, a trans storytelling platform. They were a graduate fellow with the Oxford American Magazine, Editor in Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Managing Editor at The Tenth Magazine, an independent Black queer media organization. Their poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best New Poets. Gabrielle also has the pleasure of serving on the LA Chapter Board of the The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. To get in touch, visit www.gabrielle-l.com.