Illustration by Hawnuh Lee.
Pandora Thomas is an activist, educator, designer, and caregiver, but those descriptors hardly do justice to the career she’s forged. Throughout our conversation she alluded to more academic achievements, professional accomplishments, and justice initiatives than I could fit into this interview—brushing past them with the ease of someone who’s led a richly altruistic life. Even through the challenging nature of her work, she exudes equanimity, and she’s clearly not stopping anytime soon. I’m honored to be an observer and supporter of the meaningful change Pandora is creating in this world.
Can you start by telling me broadly about your work?
I call my work caring for my two mothers—my Earth mother and my birth mother. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 10 years ago, so we live together with our two cats in Berkeley, and I am her carepartner. She cares for me just as much.
The work I do for the Earth Mother is reconnecting humans to the earth, and especially deepening our relationship with the nonhuman world. I do that as a facilitator and as a designer—I design curricula, programming, and experiences rooted in the priorities and needs of each community that I have the gift to be of service to.
Has being a caretaker always come naturally to you?
Yes, and I credit my ancestors. Both sides of my family were farmers dating all the way back to my lineage on the African continent. My mother’s family specifically was part of the sharecropping legacy in the South, which led to a destructive relationship with the land, but that didn’t stop my mother from teaching me about nature after they migrated north. I grew up loving and honoring all living things, and knowing that they were all connected. As I got older and started to identify more as an African American, I wanted to learn more about those roots and legacies, especially because I wasn’t taught that at school.
I turn to the concept of Sankofa, meaning going back and fetching our stories in order to move forward. I had to really go into my histories and learn about the journey my people took and other peoples took, and look at how that plays into connecting us back to something that gives us purpose in life—the earth and all other beings.
Image from Pandora Thomas
It sounds like you grew up with a deep awareness of your personal relationship to the earth, I’m wondering when you became interested specifically in how that connects to farming and growing your own food.
I didn’t necessarily grow up learning about where food came from, but I did grow up with an appreciation for plants and the land. It was the more politicized version that came later when I was in college and became an activist. My mother moved north when she was three and we didn’t have access to a lot of land, so she grew what she could in our tiny backyard and had lots of indoor plants, and my father would collect wild plants when we were out fishing in Pennsylvania.
I turn to the concept of Sankofa, meaning going back and fetching our stories in order to move forward.
When I was older, I began to teach myself about my ancestors as sharecroppers in the South, and how they had to grow food as part of their sharecropping relationships, but didn’t necessarily get to eat that food. And then going further back to the African continent—I learned about some of the legacy foods that we still eat globally, and that can actually heal us within the African American community and can help us recover a relationship with the land.
Can you tell me more about that transition of becoming an activist?
I grew up in Farrel, Pennsylvania, which is a steel town of about 6,000 people. My dad worked at the steel mill, and when it shut down, I started to see the impact of industry on my community. We lost a lot of resources, my dad lost his job, and simultaneously there were other patterns of dysfunction like higher rates of incarceration and youth unemployment rising that many small towns experience. So I think I started to become an activist at that point when I was around 13 years old.
I realized how much curriculum—what you learn—so infuses your perception of what you think you can do and who you ultimately become.
In school, even though activism was something I wanted to pursue, I was never taught that it was something Black women did—become leaders in agricultural sciences or environmental education—those were still spaces predominantly occupied by white folks, folks that didn’t look like me. Even though that tradition is what our communities have been doing forever.
That’s why Sankofa is so powerful. In college, I had to go back and fetch my family’s stories to weave together what it looks like for me to show up on this earth and be an activist. I was in the Black organizations, the earth organizations, the women’s organizations… But they were all separate doing their different things, and I felt like it lived together in me. So I started asking myself, ‘How can I weave these things together?’ And that’s what led me to go to school to be a teacher.
I started out working as an elementary school teacher in Berkeley, CA, and I really brought all of my passion into building a curriculum for the youth I was working with. I realized how much curriculum—what you learn—so infuses your perception of what you think you can do and who you ultimately become.
That’s also when my interest in design started trickling in. I was like, ‘I’m going to help my little kindergarteners know that they are the designers of their destiny.’ Even at five years old, they have ideas and concepts and desires. I wanted to give them what I didn’t get—that power of observing their environment and being aware of their own impact.
I eventually went to grad school to explore that more, and I started to grow this idea of ‘What does it look like to not just witness and be the receptor of the world we’re in, but also to have agency to learn how the world works? And through that education, what is our role in the design of our destiny and design of our community?’
Image from Pandora Thomas
Then I discovered permaculture. And because permaculture is a design system rooted in the idea that we are from and part of the earth, I got really excited about it. The only challenge was that even though permaculture design started with an awareness of practices of Indigenous peoples from all over the world, it had mostly been white folks of means who were spreading it.
I learned early on that farming is a destructive practice—we are forcing the earth to create bounty however we determine. Permaculture talks about a permanent agriculture where we can right that relationship by understanding the type of environment that nourishes crops to grow, and not taking more than we need. The three central ethics of permaculture are ‘earth care, people care, and fair share.’ So for example, if I’m growing corn, I want to grow it so that there is bounty for corn to just survive as corn, corn to be eaten by animals, and corn to be eaten by humans. That corn is functioning within the larger cycle of an ecosystem.
Permaculture, as a design system, helped me relearn what I knew about farming. And I wanted to apply its principles to social issues. What does it look like if those ethics are applied to how we care for people? Because that’s really where so much of this dysfunction is happening—how we are treating the people who are caring for the land and taking from the land.
Can you share an example of how you how you’ve applied that?
Going back to what I said about my own education growing up, things weren’t fitting together. I had high rates of incarceration in my family, but I don’t remember learning about any program for people coming home from prison, who are also learning about caring for the earth. There was no curriculum that connected those issues. So those are the kinds of programs I felt called to start and help design.
Permaculture talks about a permanent agriculture where we can right that relationship by understanding the type of environment that nourishes crops to grow, and not taking more than we need.
One program I worked on was the Environmental Service Learning Initiative. We were granted $2 million to bring environmental service learning to eight San Francisco schools. We hired a team of environmental educators, who reflected the diversity of cultures in those schools, to work with teachers and students on implementing curricula around climate change, ecological literacy, and permaculture design.
Another example is Pathways to Resilience, where we worked with formerly incarcerated men and women using permaculture as a framework to help them identify patterns that may have gotten them into that situation. And then we would look at how those patterns can mirror destructive tendencies we have towards the earth. Permaculture design makes sense to them because all of them had a connection to the earth. There’s this misunderstanding that some types of people care about the environment and some don’t. No, we talked to them about it in culturally relevant ways, and we really saw that no matter who you are, everyone cares about the environment, because the environment is everything.
What are some of the projects you’re working on now?
I am co-owner of the Urban Permaculture Institute. We help facilitate community driven planning processes where communities set the priorities, identify their needs, and learn permaculture strategies rooted in their own culture to move forward. Right now we’re working in Marin City and East Palo Alto, and we’re launching a California statewide project.
I’m also a fellow at the Movement Strategy Center, where there is a whole framework around community driven resiliency planning similar to what I’m doing with UPI. Through my fellowship I am launching Earth Seed Farm, which will be an environmental education center and farm, owned and run by Black folks, hopefully in Sonoma County. It will allow our communities to learn what we call Afro-Indigenous principles of living, which include permaculture but also the Afro-Indigenous roots of where they came from.
Image from Pandora Thomas
Wow, that is so exciting! What stage of the process are you at with Earth Seed Farm?
There are four phases, and this year we’re in phase one. We are working with Sonoma County to secure a site, and we are in initial fundraising to get clear about what we need to secure the land, infrastructure, and operations programming. It’s a five year rollout, we launch officially in 2025.
We’ve raised over $100,000 as of now. It’s exciting because there is nothing like this out there. There are Black owned farms and plenty of amazing things Black people are doing out here, but there’s no land based center where people can go and learn these things from Black folks. We are planning to make it a community land trust, so there won’t be one owner—it will be a legacy.
How can we support you in this incredible work?
Well, you can donate to Earthseed Farm through the Black Permaculture Network. And I would also just encourage folks to learn about permaculture, and ask themselves how they are deepening their connection to the nonhuman world. This is a time to think about how we are treating each other as well as how we are treating the nonhuman world. I think we can do both. You can say Black Lives Matter and at the same time ask what it looks like to start centering the earth—how can we all be nurtured on this planet together.
Let’s sit with that one for a moment.
Thank you so much for sharing your immense wisdom with us, Pandora. The importance of the work you do and the generosity of the energy you bring truly cannot be overstated.