Blue Heron Quarterly

[Courtney Streett holding a frog on left, with Herman Jackson, both members of the Nanticoke Indian Association, camera work}

Building Native Roots Farm Foundation: Interview with Courtney Streett '09

“Life is a funny thing and what we learn at Wellesley can resurface. And you never know when your life is going to take a turn. We have to be open-minded and go with the flow, as extremely difficult as that is. See where life takes you because it is a beautiful, wild journey.” Courtney Streett ’09
 
Rachel Carethers ’24 interviews Courtney Streett ’09, co-founder and President/Executive Director of Native Roots Farm Foundation (NRFF) on her experiences at Wellesley and how they informed her current work at NRFF, her relationship to nature, and her “beautiful, wild journey” from Wellesley. [Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity]
 
What did you study at Wellesley College? 
I double majored in Environmental Studies and Africana Studies. I always loved plants and working in the yard and growing fruits and vegetables and flowers and learning about gardening and plants from my older family members. And of course, there’s a farm that’s been in my family for a very long time that sparked NRFF. That’s on my dad’s side of the family. On my mom’s side of the family, my grandparents immigrated to the US from the Caribbean. They immigrated to Brooklyn and they had backyards off of their brownstones. And, they had mini farms in Brooklyn. They were growing tomatoes, callaloo, peppers, scotch bonnets, you name it. Flowers as well. Both sides of my family really tie me to the land and to horticulture. When I got to Wellesley, not gonna lie, I did not do so hot in ES 101, but it was something I really felt strongly about and a subject that I was passionate about, so I was like ‘I’m sticking with this.’ First semester is not the rest of my life, and so I stuck with it and here I am today! And the Africana [Studies] side...Wellesley was the first time I was ever able to have the opportunity to study my own culture and the African diaspora and I just jumped at the opportunity. I loved both of those majors and I spent a lot of time focusing on the intersection of them. That ultimately culminated in environmental justice.
 
Where on campus did you feel a sense of belonging?
I would say the greenhouses. My mom’s family was from the Caribbean, and my dad’s family does not do winter. I only operate when it’s above 70°F. So, to have the literal warmth of the greenhouse in a snowy New England winter or spring was just super comforting. And, to have the warmth of the people at the greenhouse including Tony Antonucci and Professor Kristina Jones; they're really just an incredible team and so welcoming. I really loved just being able to be in the greenhouse and just be in nature. Tony would come over and tell me about the swiss cheese plant or tell me about the various plants as he's making his rounds. It’s one of my favorite spots on campus. 
 
How did working in the Botanic Gardens affect your experience at Wellesley and your experiences after you graduated?
My junior year, I did research with Kristina Jones, investigating whether plants are producing more flowers and seeds and are happier with non-organic or organic fertilizer. The evidence was clear; organic was the way to go. The fertilizer that we used in the experiment I use today still on my own land! The community in the Botanic Gardens and the greenhouses really made a huge difference and had an impact on me. Everybody there is incredibly kind, thoughtful, generous, encouraging and enthusiastic about what they're doing. When NRFF has land that we’re working on, and when anybody comes ready to get their hands dirty, I hope that I can be that encouraging and have those kind words and be the role model that they were for me. 

 

[Courtney Streett holding a calendula plant in left photo and on a tractor as a child with her father on a farm]
What prompted your decision to transition from a full-time journalist/producer to co-founding the Native Roots Farm Foundation?
After Wellesley, I went to journalism school – totally a 180. I was like “I’m going to study environmental journalism,” but it was a recession. And, especially in journalism, jobs were few and far between. So after journalism school, I climbed the corporate ladder and eventually I was at 60 Minutes, which is like ‘I’ve made it. Finally.’ I’m working my dream job with people I absolutely adore. Then, in 2018, I was leaving the [Nanticoke Indian] Powwow with John, my other half, and I said ‘let’s check and see what's growing in the field; is it corn or is it soybeans at the family farm?’ Driving past, we saw a “for sale” sign and my heart sank. We can’t lose this farm, I thought. It has an agricultural history; this is a century farm, owned by the family for more than 100 years. It has a cultural history, for people of color to own a hundred acres of land at the turn of the 20th century; that’s incredibly rare, and on the land that their ancestors tended. I was having nightmares about this farm being sold. What can I do? I can’t afford to buy a hundred acres ten minutes from the beach. It was a multimillion dollar property. I mean…I wish I could, but I can’t! And, ultimately, it was a realization that I cannot do this on my own. But, in forming a community, we could be so much stronger together. 
 
So forward to 2020, I’m at CBS; I’m at 60 Minutes. And, after just a year and a half, while still at CBS, I had created NRFF with a really extraordinary group of people leading the organization behind the scenes. I’m the voice of it, but we are a team of people who are working towards bringing this all to life. I was working my dream job and NRFF took shape and over the course of 2020 my dream changed. And, ultimately NRFF became the dream. It hurt. It hurt so much. I miss my old paycheck. I miss my health insurance and 401k. But, I am so glad and so much happier doing what I’m doing now because my heart is all in this, and we have so many great people supporting this, who believe in this, and we know we’re doing the right thing. 
 
How did you find your community?
It was through calls that we started building our first NRFF community. It was people who had some non-profit experience, some who didn’t. Just creating a really diverse board of directors that brought a lot of different things to the table. It can’t be all like-minded people because we’re not going to get anything done. We have to have different perspectives to push us all to grow and to expand our horizons and just to make us be better. So we had somebody who had a financial background and somebody who has been in nonprofits their entire career. Somebody who is leading programming at urban farms. I mean, I was a journalist. It really ran the gamut. 
 
How has your personal experience shaped how you think about land use and agriculture?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to recognize and appreciate our natural world—my relationship and people’s relationship with it. 
 
In many Indigenous cultures, people have a relationship with every aspect of the natural world. This is a tree, this is water, this is a rock. We have a relationship with it even though it may be a rock, or an inanimate object. For indigenous communities, it is considered animate. It’s important to recognize that relationship and take care of that relationship. You respect the natural world and in turn, it respects you, it nurtures you. This is something through NRFF that I’ve learned, through reading, through interaction with our chiefs in Delaware. I didn’t realize it as a child or as a young adult. It is only in the past few years that I truly recognized my relationship with the natural world, and my entire life has been appreciating this and celebrating plants. 
 
I maintained natural practices throughout my life, but not as much as I wanted to professionally. I could not have envisioned NRFF happening but, it really is all of my worlds coming together. It’s horticulture and botany and studying the environment at Wellesley. But, it’s also Africana Studies and recognizing culture and where stories come from and how colonialism has f***ed everything up, for lack of a better term. But also journalism. As I am sharing NRFF with you or in the community, introducing it to people, it’s storytelling. And telling the story of a culture of people, the Nanticoke and Lenape people of Delaware. And it's also the agricultural component and recognizing and celebrating our native plants. 
 
Life is a funny thing and what we learn at Wellesley can resurface. And you never know when your life is going to take a turn. We have to be open-minded and go with the flow, as extremely difficult as that is. See where life takes you because it is a beautiful, wild journey. 
 
Where is the farm now in terms of realizing its vision/plan (from website)?  
Our next major plan is obtaining land [and continuing to build] a community. 
 
Is there anything you would like to add?
Just be you and do what you love. You never know where life is going to take you.
 
Rapid Fire Questions
What was your favorite course at Wellesley?
I can’t pick a favorite. Botany. Geology. Any class with Professor Filomina Steady or Professor Pashington Obeng. Botanical art—loved it. Took it one Wintersession; it was so much fun. Also took a geoscience course my last semester and might have been a geos major had I taken it sooner.
What is something you wished you learned/were taught as an undergraduate/graduate student?
Accounting. Basic life skills like accounting, cooking. 
Do you have any memorable animal/plant experiences/encounters on campus?
Calendula. That was the plant that we used to do the research on fertilizers in the greenhouse. 
For an animal: chipmunks! I had never seen a chipmunk before coming to Wellesley.
Do you have a favorite native plant on the farm? Did you plant it or was it already there?
Depends on the season, or the month, and what’s in bloom. Right now, because I’m close to it, redbuds are like my jam. I love redbuds and they’re edible! Redbud was the first edible wild plant that I learned about and that I recognized. [Non-natives, but still favorites] like my uncle’s scotch bonnet hot sauce and calendulas. Redbuds still have a soft spot for me. In the late summer, it’s probably pawpaw or maypop or sunflowers. Wintertime: witch hazel. The leaves are beautiful and they’re blooming in December. 
 
Photos - Top left: Courtney Streett '09 holding a frog; Top middle: Courtney & Herman Jackson, both members of the Nanticoke Indian Association; Top right: Courtney presenting a story with Business Insider; Middle photo left: Courtney in the Wellesley College Greenhouse conducting her research on calendula plants; Middle photo right: Courtney as a child on a tractor with her father.
 
To learn more about Native Roots Farm Foundation check out their website and follow them on Instagram