Duron Chavis has been a pivotal figure in community advocacy in Richmond for over two decades. His journey began in 2003 as a volunteer at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of VA. It was there that his passion for sharing the stories of Black people grew, and with the support of elder activists, he founded Happily Natural Day – a festival designed to promote pride in blackness.
In the 20 years since, Happily Natural Festival has evolved into more than just an annual event; Duron Chavis emphasizes that his most crucial community-building work occurs throughout the year. He and his team have incorporated essential community infrastructure, such as urban farms, and are working towards advancing Food Justice and Land Justice in Black and Brown communities.
In this interview, Duron candidly discusses the issues of white supremacy that persist in the Richmond area and what it truly means to develop a self-sufficient and thriving community in spite of these challenges.
Who are you? What do you do?
I’m Duron Chavis. I’m a community activist and have been active in community work in the City of Richmond since 2003. I have been involved with everything from the Anti-Poverty Task Force to the Food Policy Task Force. I’ve won Style Weekly’s 40 under 40 and been on Style Weekly’s Power List. I’ve been the Richmond Times’ Personality of the Year. Uh, what else?
I’m a founding member of the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons and my organization manages eight urban farms across the region. We have 70 acres in Amelia County that were donated to us as an act of reparative justice. During COVID, we gave out over 400 raised beds to community members. I don’t know. There’s a lot of stuff; you just tell me when you want me to stop.
You started your career in community advocacy while working at the Black History Museum of Virginia. How did that experience motivate you to become more involved?
Well, I started as a volunteer there. I am blessed to have been held by elder activists in the Black community. They served as mentors to me. I also love Black history; I’m in love with Black people. I’ve always felt like it was my goal, or my purpose, to work to improve the conditions of Black people. That job afforded me the opportunity to do that as a tour guide, telling stories about Black people in the city of Richmond. That, in tandem with having older Black folks who have been doing that work since before I was even thought of, helped contribute to a sense of deep accountability for me.
George Washington Carver mural, photo courtesy of Duron Chavis
Who are some of those elder activists?
I’m a member of a community of activists, and cultural workers from all across the country; I consider myself to be a part of the movement for Black liberation right now. There are people that have been instrumental in my maturation as a man and as a leader. One of the earliest folks I consider to be a mentor here in the city is a woman named Janet Fleming. She introduced me to the Marcus Garvey movement when I was in my early 20s.
Marcus Garvey founded The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1910s. When I was working at the Black History Museum, I didn’t know that the organization still existed. But it did, and there was a chapter here in Richmond. Janet Fleming was the chapter president, so she invited me to be a member of that organization. Through that invitation and my decision to join, I was introduced to Black nationalist organizers all down the east coast, from Atlanta, to Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, DC, Baltimore, Philly, Harlem, and even folks from as far away as Detroit and California.
Because of those networks, I was able to find peers that were doing similar work in other regions of the country. It also helped expand our connections when we started doing Happily Natural Day. We were bringing folks from across the East Coast into the city to present their work, whether it was music, workshops, or things like that. So yeah, Janet Fleming was a very important person in my evolution and continues to be to this day. It was because of her that we were able to very quickly connect with Black activists all across the eastern shore board, not just in Richmond. I think that’s important because a lot of Richmond activists think that activism only exists in Richmond.
But there are Black people doing shit all over the globe, and having real relationships with these people, having these people become a part of my extended family, has allowed me to continue doing this work for the last two decades.
Where was your mind at before founding Happily Natural Day?
When Happily Natural Day was birthed in 2003, it was nearing the 50th anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education, which, you know, desegregated public schools. One of the pieces of evidence that was involved in Brown versus Board was from a psychologist by the name of Kenneth Clark, who did this thing called the doll study. He took Black children and presented Black dolls and white dolls to them and asked them what their opinions were of them. The kids had all these negative things to say about the Black dolls, and all these positive things to say about the white dolls.
That study helped the folks who were deciding the case realize that the system of white supremacy was damaging the psyche of Black people. It was creating an inferiority complex where Black people saw white people as being better than them. It’s internalized racism, right? That doll study spoke to me. In 2003, and even to this day, there are issues of colorism, and this hierarchy of human value that says that the lighter your skin is, the more privileges you are afforded in a system of white supremacy.
It iterates itself in a lot of nefarious ways. You know, for Black people, it’s like, what kind of hair texture do you have? How thick are your lips? How wide is your nose? We started this festival addressing that, with the vision of lifting up pride in being Black, you know, affirming our African cultural identity. It was easy for us at that time, because there was a heightened contradiction. Natural hair hadn’t become as popular, you got to remember, this is 20 years ago. Now there’s a natural hair section in Walmart and Walgreens. That didn’t exist back then, there weren’t all these products, or forums, or places like natural hair salons where people could go.
So we would heighten the contradiction and then talk about that, which opened up Pandora’s box and a wide array of other issues that our communities face. That’s where my head was at. Like, let’s talk about being proud of being Black, period. Let’s start there. There’s an important conversation about internalized racism, and what it has done to damage the psyche of Black people living in a society that says everything good comes from white people.
When you had the first festival, was the idea already in your mind to have it reoccur every year?
It was not planned to continue. People in the community asked us if we were gonna do it again, so we just said, why not? And then it evolved from there.
How has Happily Natural Day evolved over the past 20 years?
Well, for one, it’s more than a festival now. You know, we did this annual summer thing, but for the last, 13 to 14 years, we’ve been heavily invested in food system work. We’re really trying to build power for communities through the transformation of the built environment. So, along the way of doing the festival, we met Black farmers who started coming to the festival and selling their products.
We started building relationships with them and asking, “How do we address food systems?” How do we talk about where food comes from? A big part of the festival was also holistic health and wellness right, so the conversation evolved into us actually, starting a pop-up farmers market, and then from there, starting a community garden, and then it evolved into urban farms.
Now our work is centered squarely on Food Justice, Land Justice, and community power-building for Black and brown communities. It used to be just an event and now, we’re an institution. We’re training community members on how to develop urban farms, we’re involved in policy change on a local level, and then we also steward urban food production systems across the region.
Photo courtesy of Duron Chavis
What exactly does Food Justice mean to you?
Food Justice is ensuring that community members don’t need to have food given away to them. It’s essentially communities having control over the means of production, the means of distribution, processing, and aggregation of food in their community. Any acts that create shifts of power towards Black and brown communities as it relates to food is an act of Food Justice.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in your work as a community advocate?
We live in the city of Richmond, right? You know, the monuments just fell down. Racism has been our biggest challenge, like white people blocking Black communities from having power. Whether it’s been through nonprofit organizations who are in control of funding to increase access to healthy food or just the denial that white people seem to predominantly have about there not being any systemic racism.
Those issues, those entities have been enemies to the work. They’ve actively sought to keep Black people in a position where they’re subservient to white folks, whether it’s intentional or not. You know, there’s this idea that Black people can’t make decisions for their own community, that Black people don’t deserve the same amount of funding that white people get for philanthropic endeavors and enterprises. That stuff has been the monstrosity that is the baby, or the progeny of that Confederate monument energy.
It’s not so much that there’s a white nationalist with a Klan hood on. It’s regular white people who just never had to confront the fact that there’s a power differential between white people and Black people in this country and especially in this city. They have been an enemy to our work, they have not been supportive at all. Every moment of our action has been an antithesis to these ideas of white supremacy and building power. I name it what it is. White supremacy has been and continues to be our enemy in this work.
Was your work impacted or changed at all, in response to the protests against the monuments and their eventual removal?
Not really. It’s like, so what? The monuments coming down hasn’t changed the power differential between Black people and white people in this city. It’s done nothing, it’s cosmetic. It feels good to see that the monuments came down, but in terms of wealth inequity, land ownership inequity, and community power, none of that has changed.
Sankofa Community Orchard, photo courtesy of Duron Chavis
Yeah. So what do you have planned for this year’s Happily Natural Day?
It’s our 20-year anniversary. We’re working on getting sponsors and stuff like that. We’re just doing what we always do. The only difference is that it’s the 20-year anniversary, right?
What’s really different this year is that we were donated 70 acres of land in Amelia, and we’re knee-deep in the development of Sankofa Community Orchard. We’ve put less emphasis on the event, and more emphasis on the things that happen in between the event. That’s the narrative that we’ve been pushing forward. It’s bigger than a festival. The festival is great, it’s an opportunity for folks to come together and connect, but this movement is not defined by events, you know what I mean? It’s about longitudinal resiliency in terms of the work that transforms our community.
Photo courtesy of Duron Chavis
Going off of that, could you tell me about your volunteer program Dirt Therapy?
Yeah, Dirt Therapy is the way that we introduce folks to that work. In all of our spaces, we welcome volunteers, but we’re more so using these workday opportunities as a chance for people to get their hands in the dirt and recognize how valuable and how healing it is to get outside and actually transform your community in a tangible way.
Dirt therapy is a chance for people to get connected to the land, practice forms of mindfulness through gardening and farming, and build relationships with other folks that are actively in pursuit of community power for Black and brown communities. We do Dirt Therapy at Sankofa every Saturday, but as the season evolves, there’ll be other opportunities at our other spaces as well. Folks can just show up.
Does Dirt Therapy feed into the Urban Farm Fellowship that you guys do?
Well, the Urban Farm Fellowship is a 12-week intensive that we use to teach people how to develop urban farms in their community. It’s also a way for us to build relationships with folks that aspire to do this work and provide them with resources that we have access to, whether it be equipment, land, or funding.
The fellowship is different from Dirt Therapy in the sense of, you could just come to Dirt Therapy once and connect and then keep on with your day. But the fellowship spans 12 weeks and we meet twice a week. It’s a process, we have to actually select individuals to participate in it. When people apply, they help us by explaining what it is that they’re trying to do for the community and then we’ll build a cohort based on folks’ desire to implement and be involved in this work.
When would you say that Happily Natural Day started to become more than a festival?
Well, when we started doing the pop-up farmers market back in 2008, is when the shift first occurred. Then it took a deeper root when we started our first Community Garden in 2012. So yeah, when we first started breaking ground on community spaces and started developing community infrastructures, it became more than just an event. Even when it was just an event we were still pushing these ideas of community efficacy and agency, right?
When we actually started the process of developing community infrastructure, i.e. urban farms in the city, we were like, “This festival is important; it’s great. We have a great time and we have these guest speakers, musicians, vendors, the whole thing.” But the more important work was actually standing up these systems in communities.
Follow Duron Chavis @duronchavis
Follow Happily Natural Festival @happilynaturalfestival
Find more information on Central Virginia Agrarian Commons HERE