Apr 14, 2021
Rising stars in sustainable agriculture awarded scholarships
Three students – Erniko Brown, Cyheim McRae and Kristen Dunning – recently earned Cynthia Hayes Memorial Scholarships in the amount of $3,000 to help further their work in sustainable agriculture and with communities of color.
In partnership with Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) and Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON), the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) recently presented scholarship awards to the three students, according to a news release.
The scholarship’s namesake, Cynthia Hayes, was a founder of the first network for African American organic farmers in the U.S. and dedicated her life to serving these communities, according to the news release. Spending time on her grandmother’s farm in Kentucky as a young person, she learned about her family’s history of over 80 years of tobacco farming. This laid the foundation for the work she would spend her life doing. In addition to SAAFON, Cynthia was a founding member of several other non-profit organizations and programs that worked to build power among Black growers. Her impact and leadership was honored with several prestigious awards, including the 2013 James Beard Award and the 2013 Southern Foodways Alliance John Egerton Award. Cynthia was an inspirational force in the development of NSAC’s equity initiatives, and her legacy lives on in our ongoing efforts and across the broader movement.
NSAC, SAAFON, and MANRRS honor her vision with this scholarship empowering younger generations to continue this work, according to the release. The scholarship program, now in its fourth year, aims to support Black and Indigenous students within MANRRS who are interested in doing work within sustainable agriculture and are committed to working on issues that impact Black farmers.
“We’re immensely pleased to welcome these three outstanding Black students as this year’s recipients of the Cynthia Hayes Memorial Scholarship,” Jahi Chappell, Executive Director of SAAFON, said in the news release. “‘Ma’ Cynthia was the recipient of many awards throughout her life, and like the students receiving this scholarship in her name, her focus was always on how to use those resources and recognition to turn around and recognize and support Black brilliance in sustainable farming. Ma Cynthia was a friend to and student of our elders and ancestors, but also of the next generation of young Black agrarians. She knew that we needed the ideas and energy of people like this years’ recipients, to preserve the legacies of those who’ve come before us, and to create the new stories of afroecology and Black agrarianism that we need for a better, liberatory agrarian future. We can’t wait to see what these three do next.”
“Cynthia Hayes’ wisdom and contributions toward building a more just, sustainable food system continue to reverberate in our work,” said Sarah Hackney, Coalition Director at NSAC. “It is a privilege to recognize these young leaders who embody her passion for sustainable agriculture and her commitment to Black farmers.”
The Cynthia Hayes Memorial scholarships were presented virtually at the MANNRS annual national conference on Thursday, April 8.
Biographies and statements from each of this year’s winners are included below:
Erniko Brown – Columbia College
Erniko Brown is currently completing a Master’s in Organizational Leadership from Columbia College, where she also completed her Bachelors in Human Services with a minor in Community and Organizational Leadership. She also received certificates in Faith-Based Non-Profit Leadership from Wake Forest University, NC and Project Management from the Project Management Institute and is currently pursuing her Master Gardener Certification from Clemson University. She is the founder and Executive Director of Organized Uplifting Resources and Strategies, (O.U.R.S), where their mission is to be culturally responsive and relatable with resources that create self-sustainability for communities of color. She has devoted her life’s work to advocating for Black communities and has been working in the climate, environmental, social, & racial justice spaces for most of her career. Erniko is a native of McCormick, South Carolina, where she currently serves as the Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner. She grew up on family land that’s been in her family for 8 generations, where she was raised by her grandmother, who saw the effects of injustice early on and taught her how to work the land and care for the environment. Ms. Brown is also a proud member of Zeta Phi Beta Incorporated.
“I have learned that being in agriculture means everything to me. Through agriculture, I was able to connect with my roots and build on to a skill that was taught to me by my grandma. Black folks and families didn’t have much back in the day, we had love and land. I was taught to care for the land because the land was taking care of me and so many others in our community. It taught me to take pride in myself and the skills that I had learned because those skills were passed down through the generations. I am happy to know about and be a part of my history. Now, I have solid skills to pass down to other generations.”
Cyheim McRae – University of Mount Olive
Cyheim O. McRae is a native of Bennettsville, South Carolina. He attends Shiloh Baptist Church where he participates and serves in many capacities. He is a Volunteer firefighter, works part time at a funeral home, and serves as National Member Relations Coordinator for MANRRS. Cyheim is an undergraduate student studying Agricultural Education at the University of Mount Olive and in the fall of 2021 he will be transferring to North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. He is the 2021 National Membership Relations Officer with SASES (Students of Agronomy, Soil and Environmental Science). He hopes to one day be a hydroponic and aquaponic farmer and hopes to inspire other minorities to get involved in farming. In his free time he enjoys playing golf and joyriding. One of his favorite quotes is, “what God has for me, it is for me and no one can take that away.”
“Black farmers play a significant role in our local communities and in our world. There has been a shortage of black farmers in the past few decades that has me worried. I believe the main reason I am worried is because I don’t know how the new generations would care about farming. I believe we are at the point where we not only have to advocate and tell our fellow black and brown people about farming, but beg them to get into it. No one will ever know how grateful I am to be able to learn from a Black Farmer. Mr. Charles Lucas (Mentor & Owner of Lucas farms) has taught me a lot, we have even become family. Mr. Lucas is the only Black Farmer in Montgomery County, North Carolina. I have had the opportunity to learn of his struggles that he faced while farming. We need more like him in the world today who will share their stories and help others aspiring to do just what he did. He told me “whatever I have, you are welcomed to it. You are my son now”. In the fall, I will transfer to another agricultural institution in North Carolina. This university is around 45 minutes from the farm. Mr. Lucas and I discussed that it would be the perfect time for me to utilize a part of the farm to do my projects pertaining to hydroponics and aquaponics, since I would be much closer to the farm.”
Kristen Dunning – University of Georgia
Kristen Dunning is a senior at The University of Georgia studying agricultural communication with a minor in horticulture. Her passions include community agriculture, gardening, soil health, herbalism, and agricultural education. She brings her love for plants to life in her herbal skincare brand, Gently. Gently creates herbal soap and skincare formulations for people with sensitive skin and common skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and severe acne. Kristen is also a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Upon her graduation this May, she will pursue her master’s degree in Crop and Soil Sciences with an emphasis in Sustainable Agriculture at The University of Georgia. Her thesis project will analyze the ways in which US cover cropping systems can aid Black farmers in the fight against food insecurity and environmental justice. Her ultimate goal is to become a professor and teach courses about the importance of understanding the historical racial injustices of the agricultural industry.
“The agricultural industry is a great love of mine and I am deeply passionate about its social sustainability. The Cynthia Hayes Memorial Scholarship has allowed me to further pursue this passion beyond undergraduate matriculation. As an individual who is pursuing graduate studies on her own, after finding the announcement for this scholarship I did not hesitate to apply. This was the first time that I had come across a scholarship that was so specific to my interests and it felt like such a blessing. I am eternally grateful for this opportunity.”
NSAC is a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities.
Above, three students – Erniko Brown, Cyheim McRae and Kristen Dunning – recently earned Cynthia Hayes Memorial Scholarships. They were honored in a virtual conference with Kelsey Watson of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Jahi Chappell, the Executive Director of SAAFON. Photo: NSAC