In 2016, when science teacher Kamal Bell realized his African-American students were unable to connect fully with the learning environment, he came up with a way to boost their confidence while also providing some of their basic needs at home. Bell invented the term “at-possibility” to describe his students who would have been otherwise referred to ask “at-risk”. “At-risk” students are young minds who are deemed highly likely to drop out of school before graduation for a wide range of reasons and would probably require some level of intervention. In this case, they were “at-possibility” due to social pressures, status symbols, and racial prejudice.
Once a young black man himself, Bell, who teaches at the Durham Public Schools, decided to put his students on a course of self-development, at no cost whatsoever to the young fellow. Gardening has a way of making a person feel in control of their personal growth and environment, as though they had enhanced abilities. Out there in the fields, tending to crops and watching their hard work sprout into edible plants for their families, the boys had a real chance of sorting out their feelings and emotions and growing into confident young men.
“I want them to be able to see where hard work and dedication leads,” Bell said . “[Working in agriculture] gives them agency and control over where their lives can go. Young black men are forced to go into sports or to become entertainers. Here they’re being exposed to things they didn’t even know existed. STEM can use as a platform to go and find their own destiny.”
Bell’s school had a free garden where he could start up the program for his students, but when he pitched his idea to the principal, he was turned down. Determined to bring the project to reality, Bell applied for a farm loan with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was able to purchase abandoned farmland in Efland.
Shaping young minds through fulfilling work
When Bell finally secured the 12-acre stretch of overgrown land, he named it the Sankofa Farms. Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “go back and get it”. Bell immediately began to drive some of his interested students out there after school. He can work with up to six young men at a time, visiting the site four times a month when school is in session and three to five times a week during the summer holidays.
The first lesson the kids learned was patience. They started working on the farm in 2016 but they didn’t get to plant anything until 2018. They had to carve out viable fields of red clay soil from the partly arid and overgrown land. It took a lot of hard work, but the children were determined and were finally able to plant their first batch of vegetables in 2018.
From squash to kale, cowpeas, squash, peppers, radishes, navy beans, watermelon, and more, Bell and his student now grow a bubbling garden filled with a variety of crops and even some livestock. Some of Bell’s students live in neighborhoods where it’s tough to get fresh fruits and vegetables, and when their crops mature, they get to share the harvest and take them home. He hopes to expand the garden so they can supply foodstuff to people who live nearby and possibly give some away to charity.
Vegetable gardening is just one part of the Sankofa Farms. The main objective is honey production and beekeeping, and four out of Bell’s five boys are now certified beekeepers.
Together with their mentor, the boys manage over 40 beehives (and counting), produce liters of honey, and lease the bees out to local farm owners.
Naturally, the boys were terrified of being around so many buzzing bees in one place, but Bell got them through their fears eventually. They all geared up in protective clothing one morning and watched one of the boys, 14-year-old Mikal Ali as he split a hive into two parts. Watching Mikal succeed at the task boosted their confidence and the boys gradually began to get used to the bees.
One of the oldest kids and the first to join the program, 16-year-old Kamoni King, says the program was a breath of fresh air from the choices often available to African-American kids.
“I wanted to try something different,” King said . The young man would be a senior next year and plans to head off to college to study genetics. About the public schools, he said, “I don’t see much hope. But out here, they light up.”
Bell plans to expand the farm soon and hopefully build a school on the property in the future.
“You can teach everything through agriculture,” he said.
- Meghan Deep. Teenagers Gain Confidence Raising Bees and Growing Crops at North Carolina Farm. Southern Living. https://www.southernliving.com/news/sankofa-farms-nc-kamal-bell Retrieved 06-08-2020
- Martha Quillin. Young African American men raise food, bees and self-confidence at Sankofa Farms. News Observer. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/state/north-carolina/article232687797.html Retrieved 06-08-2020