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Duron Chavis
Activist & Urban Gardener
Founder of Happily Natural Day
October 22, 2013

'Natural' is the word we'd use to describe Duron's career evolution. His work unfolded directly from his passion, which is a goal so many of us strive for on a daily basis. What we noticed about Duron's story is that it was his ability to listen and learn that provided a stepping stone to creating his own good food job. That's a lesson we all could use a reminder of, every now and again.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

I started an African-centered festival called Happily Natural Day in 2003. The focus of the festival was African identity, natural living, health and wellness and social change. For years we were having workshops and talks at the festival about health and wellness. Well one year a black farmer named Azibo Turner from Vanguard Ranch in Gordonsville, Virginia said to me; "I love what you all are doing, but how can you talk about health and wellness and not talk about food and where it comes from?" It was a real epiphany in a sense.
Immediately after that I started organizing a pop up farm stand bringing local farmers into food deserts in the city. It was there, while working with Salim Akmed from Salim Farms from Brunswick County, VA where I would just listen, picking Salim's brain, learning from him and his experience. I administrated the market - setting up the marketing and getting us equipped to accept SNAP benefits and ATM cards.  We'd be out at the market every Saturday from 11 to 6. He would talk about when to plant, how to plant, when to harvest and why it was important to grow food especially for people in the city.
I never grew anything in life up to that point. I lived in an apartment and planted sunflowers and that went well. Serendipity occurred and the city of Richmond, VA had just passed an ordinance to turn vacant lots into urban gardens. I applied for a permit, organized volunteers and dove in head first.
I came to realize that food; access to it or lack thereof, is the crux of many issues the African American community faces related to high health disparities and since then I have been working developing gardens and programs to address those issues in my community locally.

How did you get your current good food job?

I created my job. I saw a void and sought out a way to fill it. The work I do with Happily Natural Day is my life's work. When I started the festival in 2003 I would have never guessed I would be starting urban gardens and working on anti-poverty issues or food policy, but such is the evolution of the work. Before the city passed its ordinance I was hesitant because I knew it would take a huge commitment and I wanted to be close to the space. I moved literally 4 blocks from the first garden we started, McDonough Community Garden, and it has been on and popping ever since. I just started a second vacant lot garden for a local church that will serve as an urban agriculture learning lab for a neighboring high school, and currently I am working with the same school for development of a school garden on campus.
So I wasn't waiting for anybody to give me a job in a sense, I had to get myself ready to do the work.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

I have been an activist since college, with my work revolving around raising awareness and consciousness in the black community. I have always wanted to help the people. The essence of that has been building community, establishing synergistic relationships, creating networks, being committed to the goal, following through. So the practicality of urban gardens was very real for me - as a fundamental tool for allowing these very humane interactions to take place. Working with the festival prepped me in the realm of sponsor development, writing proposals and meeting with executives for funding; especially as it relates to cause-related marketing. So when I started the first garden I understood how to approach funders for the financial capital and in-kind resources that were necessary to get  projects off the ground.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?

Time. I am a single father. I also work full-time for the city of Richmond Department of Social Services. So my biggest challenge is time. I have been blessed that the work I do full-time can overlap in many ways with the work I do for a living. However, I haven't honed it down to scientific precision like I need to make it less of an issue. I have never considered calling it quits, though. In fact, it makes me work smarter instead of harder. I didn't get into this out of any faddish 'this is the latest trend' type of energy. The work I do around food is fulfilling and essential to what I have set out to do as an activist and that is to lift the people up. So whatever may come, I will be doing this work in some way shape or form for the rest of my life.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

I see the evolution of the B corporation and impact investing as a major inroad into the local food movement - especially as it relates to sustainability. I know many non-profits have been struggling for funding and these shifts in our ideologies around making a difference in the community; particularly where we get the capital from to make change has tremendous implications for urban farm enterprises.
Simultaneously this opportunity is also a challenge because many impact investors understand tech start ups, but they don't necessarily understand sustainable agriculture. However, as more and more success stories roll in where urban farm enterprises are not reliant on philanthropic contributions to sustain themselves; I am excited about the shift this phenomena will create in the marketplace and the positive change it will make for communities that have traditionally lacked access to healthy food.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

Building community with people who are committed and dedicated to this work. I see that as more important than money. The continued growth of a community of activists, organizers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and just people that sincerely want to see change in the community. I live for the magic that happens when these types of people get together in one room with a mind to solve a problem. The ideas, the plans, the action, the reflection - its a heavenly feeling. I get chills just thinking about it. It is through community that we solve these problems in our society.
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