The 2022 Juneteenth Festival took on more meaning than ever before. The festival was a time to celebrate freedom, history, culture, families, and friends. It was also a time of healing and hope.
As a way to contribute to the East Buffalo community, Jaime Swygert did her part via the Buffalo Juneteenth Agricultural Pavilion, which she initially got up and running back in 2019.
Swygert’s determination to contribute something wholesome to the event began in 2016, when she began to attend festival meetings. She wanted to do something positive for the community, and she knew that she had the wherewithal to contribute something that would be considered life changing.
“At the time, I worked for the United States Department of Agriculture in Natural Resources Conservation Services. I was appointed as New York State’s Black Emphasis Program Manager for NRCS and began to develop relationships with farmers across the state and attended fairs and events on behalf of the USDA. The Special Emphasis Programs are an integral part of the overall equal opportunity program in NRCS. These programs are coordinated through the national Special Emphasis Program managers, who are assigned to the Outreach and Advocacy Division and serve as the principal staff advisors to the director of the Outreach and Advocacy Division on legislation, policies, employment, and program issues impacting African Americans; American Indians/Alaska Natives; Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders; persons with disabilities; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals; Hispanics; Veterans; and women.”
It was the relationship with farmers that led her to thinking about the significance of an Agricultural Pavilion. If you’ve ever been to a state fair, then you understand the importance that organizers place on agriculture and farming. After all, if we can’t grow the food that we eat, then we’re stuck outsourcing from other states, and other countries. People need to be able to rely upon their farming communities, whether they are in the region, or right in their own backyards. The ultimate goal for many communities is to become as sustainable as possible. As we become more reliant on ourselves for sourcing wholesome goods, our communities become healthier and more knowledgeable in the process. Swygert took this sentiment to heart.
“I began to learn about what we called food deserts at the time and how less than 2% of the farmers in the US identified as black,” said Swygert. “I also learned about exciting career paths and options in the agricultural industry and I started to realize that urban youth were not being exposed to these options.”
With all of this knowledge at her disposal, Swygert decided that it was time to make a difference.
“I went to the Juneteenth board and asked if I could start an Agricultural Pavilion at the festival,” said Swygert. “They welcomed the idea with enthusiasm and offered full support! I am a member of a group called the Buffalo Food Equity Network (BFEN) which is a collective group of individuals and organizations working in Buffalo’s food space. The group is convened by Food for the Spirit, a nonprofit organization that uses the arts and creative facilitation to support racial healing, ecological justice and equitable food systems, headed by Rebekah Williams. I went to the BFEN network and asked if anyone would be interested in being part of my vision. The request was met with a resounding yes by the membership.”
The first Juneteenth festival was held in Buffalo in 1976 and it has now grown into one of the largest celebrations of Juneteenth in the country to commemorate the end of slavery.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I am in awe of people like Swygert who not only map out their grassroots goals, they are also able to achieve them with thunderous support from the community. As for Swygert’s goals, she wanted to create a place where disadvantaged people, with fewer resources, could come together to affect sweeping changes.
“My vision was to create a space where black and brown people could convene and gather community resources, historical education, access career information, learn about food equity, justice and policy,” said Swygert. “As I continued my research, I discovered agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry from farming, to agribusiness, food service, and STEM. I wanted to spark interest in learning about black inventors who made contributions to agriculture and the history of black folks in the industry.”
While community support is important to establish the dream, these types of projects often times remain just a dream without financial support.
“Citibank has a Black Heritage Network in their Buffalo site and a Green Team,” Swygert explained. “When I started working for Citigroup and talking to the Network members there, they were really excited and wanted to get onboard. Citi came on and offered volunteers and financial support from the very beginning. Cicatelli Associates Inc, has a project called REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health), they also came on-board as sponsors.”
With sponsors in hand, the dream came to life in 2019, in the form of a pavilion that would be centered around hands-on projects that would create positive experiences. Before long, the word was out about the pavilion, and Swygert was finding that the support for the concept was growing.
“Thanks to the support of the partners we were able to do over 400 Garden-in-a-Bag totes, distribute hundreds of plant seedlings to festival-goers, and have master gardeners on hand for questions,” said Swygert. “Representatives from the USDA and Fish & Wildlife Services were there. UB’s Food Lab students made presentations and there were healthy eating food demonstrations. It was a successful, collaborative event. Then, for the next two years, the Juneteenth Festival was virtual due to the pandemic, but we were still able to distribute seedlings to the community and continued to support collaborative projects as a group. Fast forward to 2022, we were ecstatic to hear the festival would return to an in-person platform.
This year we had…”
Shoebox Gardens – Children and families were able to customize gardens with soil, rock paintings and pots. Volunteers from Citi and the community helped children (and some grown-ups) with creating box gardens. The gardeners were provided with watering cans, shovels, rakes, soil and planters to take home and continue the experience.
WNY Food Story Project – Set up a video booth to invite community members to share stories about food. This team is committed to celebrating ancestral legacies and healing our communities from our collective histories of trauma, all through telling our unique stories about food. Storytellers were interviewed and stories were collected in a manner to honor the shared principles of Self-Determination, Community Resilience and Shared Leadership.
Buffalo Freedom Gardens – an initiative designed to inspire resilience and independence for Buffalo residents through gardening was on hand with a full demonstration set-up of the equipment and tools they deliver to teach families about growing food. The demonstration included a raised bed, soil and a standing raised bed.
Community First Consulting – Distributed an Emergency Food Storage Guide and had a visual example demonstrating what families should have on hand to prepare for emergencies. Consultants answered questions about what non-perishable foods and supplies to have in your home in case of an emergency. The guide helps with understanding what to keep and how to store it for each family member including adults, children, babies and pets.
UB’s Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab – Installed an exhibit called “Sustenance, Resistance, and Revolution – Black Women and Food Justice”. The exhibit honors Black women leaders who have inspired and enacted change in East Buffalo’s food system. The women featured in the exhibit included national leaders as well as local leaders all nominated by members of the Buffalo Food Equity Network. Research was conducted by the UB Food Lab.
African Heritage Food Co-Op – Distributed free, fresh fruits as healthy snacks to Pavilion attendees. The co-op is working to provide healthy food options, Black food store ownership in Black communities. Co-Op staff was on hand to share about the efforts to give ownership and control to community residents in the food space.
Urban Fruits and Veggies/Buffalo Go Green – Grew plant seedlings for distribution in the Pavilion. Provided healthy recipe cards with recipes from Buffalo Bills players and conducted an on-site healthy food cooking demonstration. This demonstration and food tasting included information about how to select, and source ingredients, food prep and nutrition tips.
Now, that’s an impressive result, coming off a pandemic that pretty much shut the world down for a couple of years. The herculean effort by Swygert (and her team of supporters) is a testimonial to her fortitude, and is inspiration to anyone who ever thought that they also might have something to contribute to their own community. The lesson here is to identify a worthy need, come up with a plan, put a support structure in place, and get the project done. For those who have the knowledge, the desire, and the stamina, anything is possible, especially in a city like Buffalo, where everyone wants to see people succeed in their endeavors.
“It was really an amazing event! Everyone worked so hard in collaboration and festival goer’s seemed to really enjoy themselves,” said Swygert. “I am speechless about the way my vision became reality.
I tell everyone that God gave me the vision and then sent all the right folks to bring each piece to life. It was surreal. We will continue working throughout the year.”
Coming up next: Food for the Spirit and Buffalo Food Equity Network members have events throughout the year at different locations. Look for a pop-up pavilion in August. Updates will be listed on this Facebook group page.
The Agriculture Pavilion is located in Shelter 5 at MLK Park on the corner of Parade and Fillmore.
Financial Support was provided by: CitiBuffalo, Bills Foundation, Buffalo Sabres Foundation, Pegula Sports and Entertainment
Lead image: Billy Buffalo (official mascot of the Buffalo Bills) entertains the kids