Addressing Injustice Through Regenerative Agriculture: Erika Allen’s Vision for Change

Erika Allen’s agrarian upbringing fuels her passionate pursuit of change in Chicago’s food deserts. As the co-founder of Urban Growers Collective, Allen strives to provide economic opportunities for BIPOC urban growers and mitigate food insecurity. Her vision for change encompasses eradicating environmental injustice and promoting sustainable, urban agriculture. This article explores Allen’s extensive experience, her upcoming project — the Green ERA Campus, and her advocacy for equality, systemic racism, and food access as basic human rights.

Through her work, Erika Allen has made a considerable impact on the City of Chicago, addressing structural racism and barriers to justice. Her dedication to public service and sustainable community food systems showcases her commitment to addressing injustice. Erika’s vision for change encompasses eradicating environmental injustice, promoting economic opportunities for BIPOC urban growers, and advocating for equality in food access. Her extensive experience and role in organizations like Growing Power-Chicago highlight her commitment to sustainable agriculture. Erika Allen’s vision inspires us to reimagine our food systems and strive for a more just and equitable future.

Please enjoy our interview!

As a Co-Founder and CEO what would you say is your purpose and mission on your journey to empower others through your services?

Erika: Leading by action and by deficit. Good food access starts with the soil, land and consistent access. What can you act on immediately — and what are the barriers to your mission or vision for the services you’re providing? The deficit is a hard one to lean into, but it’s so critical to understand in order for leadership to be effective in any arena. Knowing one’s natural strengths as well as the areas that require a bit more effort and patience to master supports not only individual growth but also creates a strong team/unit/department culture. My style is to support and mediate issues while also directly addressing the challenge at hand, empowering through achieving the goal and also identifying barriers for future application. It can be a bit time-consuming but ultimately it leads to new community food system approaches as well as farmers and growers who are passionate and equipped with the resources they need to learn, grow, and thrive while mitigating the challenges of a changing climate.

What is vital for our readers to know about how you’ve reached this vast point of success?

Erika: Vast? Thank you! I love it when a question has a humbling compliment embedded. I think about the here and now to gauge success. It’s not as comfortable to sit in the current challenges one faces, but it is critical to eliminate stagnation. It’s all a series of attempts at systems that take a long time to activate and establish continuity in the face of limited resources, talent and experience deficits, and structural or policy barriers that sometimes take up so much energy that many leaders give up or literally switch careers. You’ve got to hold true to your vision of what the world could be — your world, whether that be your home, block, city, or larger framework that measures success.

We are not separate from the community. We mirror and we also are the community, and we have made a commitment to learn and practice how to work collectively. The path we’re on is leading with respect toward eldership and building on the vision and energy of youth, as evidenced by the diversity of our team and community of partners, institutions, funders, and collaborators.

We understand that your father, Will Allen, has been a major inspiration in your life. What else inspired you to follow a career in environmental justice and the promotion of regenerative urban agriculture within Chicago?

Erika: Chicago inspired me — the city’s history and the civic and civil rights activists who paved the way for me. People like Dr. Margaret Burroughs, with her interests in the cultural arts and environments that Black culture lives and thrives in. She founded the South Side Arts Center and the DuSable Museum of African American History. She was the first Black woman to serve on the Chicago Park District’s Board of Commissioners — and I was the third. People like Cheryl Johnson’s mother, Hazel Johnson, who created an environmental movement that illuminated the impacts of industry on the health of public housing residents. Environmental racism and its impacts on bodies of color and the low income community began to gain traction with her work. But, ultimately, my work was likely sparked by the work of Harold Washington and the amazing coalition he led. I learned about him and his work during my first year in Chicago as an art student, fresh from the farm, and that knowledge activated my questions and pursuit of understanding what was needed for our communities to thrive. And, of course, my parents’ life work continues to inspire me as I get older and further recognize the values they instilled in me through farming and working in a family restaurant — and also the need for rest.

Any exclusive news you can share with our WE Empower Magazine readers?

Erika: Check out The Green Era Campus is almost open for business, and we are raising funds to build a year-round growing greenhouse, a nature-based green infrastructure with renewable natural gas (methane captured from the composting process). We’re really excited to be able to provide fertility for all scales of growing and production, activating a green future in which everyone can participate in! Solar, wind, and thermal power are all in the works. Food waste and mitigating methane emissions is of concern, as well as localizing food production to minimize carbon miles. We’re emphasizing “Back to the Yard, Farm, and Garden.” Individual “Victory Gardens” are needed, and there’s nothing sweeter than sharing some basil or a cucumber over the fence with your neighbor to get started. Also, I want people to have fertile soil to grow in that is nutritionally dense due to compost!

What keeps you motivated and dedicated to all of your professional endeavors?

Erika: My belief in a thriving economic and abundant future that does not exploit people or the environment, anywhere, and the belief that greed and selfishness are tempered with discipline and consistency in practice. I believe in creativity and exploration followed by structure and accountability. This is an inclusive reality where everyone has a role that is based on talent, not fear or control. Food allows us to address all of these issues — and it’s delicious, especially when grown and prepared locally and seasonally.

What does the rest of the year look like for Urban Grower’s Collective?

Erika: Urban Growers Collective (UGC) cultivates nourishing environments in Chicago’s historically disinvested communities, seeding pathways to freedom while supporting residents. That is our mission, and as a Collective, we are learning to balance structure and accountability with the nuances needed to support our growth as a staff and as community members.

The short answer is that we’ll be harvesting the abundant crops from the season and celebrating the success of both 1st- and 2nd-year Grower and Herbalism Apprentices. I will be focusing on fundraising to complete a few necessary infrastructure and built environment attributes that are also models for replication on emerging farms.

As previously mentioned, we have a diverse team and community of partners, institutions, funders, and collaborators. As such, Being Green has never been easy, and factoring in trauma-informed approaches along with production goals is often a tense balancing act. That being said, as we wrap up our first three years of strategic plan benchmarks, we are stretching into the application of structure and procedure along with the ongoing challenges of work in the literal and figurative field in a changing world of politics and climate change. We have a young team who are digging in and growing by leaps and bounds and bringing financial acumen and entrepreneurial cooperative business approaches to this work.

What advice would you have for aspiring Black entrepreneurs?

Erika: It is important to tell your own story and share not only the workload but also the vision and passion for the work you lead. I think this is true for all effective leaders, those with high-ranking titles as well as those in the springtime of their development. Know your passion and clarify your vision before taking out loans and debt. Really do your homework, listen to all the criticism, and track the successes and failures of enterprises that are adjacent to what you are trying to activate.

How can we keep up to date on all the happenings at Urban Grower’s Collective on social media?

Erika: All the socials; we try to post regularly on Instagram and LinkedIn.




Follow me personally at erika_r_allen on Instagram and Erika Allen on LinkedIn.

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