ABOVE PHOTO: Erika “DivaErykah” Johnson (photo courtesy of Erika Johnson)
By Amy V. Simmons
A major lesson the COVID-19 pandemic taught us was how to adapt our lives in a way that allows us to continue working while minimizing disruption.
The disruption required creative adaptation for those whose work relies heavily on one-to-one interactions.
Although social media and Zoom have provided some continuity, the lockdowns have given many people the opportunity to rethink their missions and goals.
Erika Johnson, a Germantown resident responsible for organizing in-person events, summits and workshops for women and teenage girls for more than 15 years, was one of them.
Johnson, 45, was no stranger to career transitions. She worked as a healthcare professional, in the hospitality industry and as a makeup artist for over 20 years before founding her own skincare and cosmetics line. Having achieved this success, she was able to offer etiquette classes and other programs for girls as part of her Stiletto Network Leadership Academy. One of his goals with the classes was to fill the educational void created by the widespread disruption of school home economics curricula, which regularly taught things like table manners and proper sitting. Through the Stilletto Network Leadership Academy, Johnson has partnered with like-minded organizations to offer etiquette classes and other workshops. The work was necessary, she said. “That’s what we were trying to provide,” Johnson said. “There was this space in the community with other organizations that were doing the same thing, and [we hoped] That could be [they would] come and also serve as volunteers or instructors.
Then the pandemic hit.
In those early days of lockdown, when everyone was confined to their homes, uncertain when ‘normal’ life would resume, re-examining one’s goals became particularly important, she said.
“Everybody started to get into their niche, and mine was plants,” she said. “I found a few social media groups where there was a lot of activity, not just for those in the planter community, but also for those in the black community that involved finding out who they were, who the farms were, where the shops and stores were, where they had businesses or sold things, locally and across the United States.
Realizing they all had something in common, Johnson began networking with Facebook sites like Black Planters, Black Girls Who Container Garden, and Black Plant Mamas, among others. As the networking organizations swapped tips, photos, jokes and memes, they decided they wanted to do more, she said. As an extension of the Stilletto Network Leadership Academy, Black and Planted was created. With a focus on plant styling and floral arrangements, Black and Planted also offers educational community events and workshops, event hosting, vending machines, branded apparel and lifestyle products. .
The name “Black and Planted” signifies being rooted like plants within the black community, being rooted within oneself and sharing knowledge and resources with each other, Johnson said.
One of Black and Planted’s guidelines is also to help schools, churches and businesses plan and plant their own flower, vegetable and fruit gardens – a true community effort.
National networking has also drawn attention to those doing similar work in their own towns and cities, and how they should get to know and support each other, Johnson said.
“There’s a huge community there and we’re just trying to make sure everyone knows that,” she said.
Among his main inspirations for growing plants and flowers were Johnson’s late father, Nathaniel Johnson, and his paternal grandparents, Louise and Oscar Nathaniel Johnson, who had a back garden. Although her grandmother passed away, her grandfather recently celebrated his 100th birthday.
Johnson said he was aware of his work and proud of it. “I learned from them in the backyard how to pick a tomato straight off the vine, walk into the house, put a few pinches of salt on it, and eat it fresh like that,” Johnson said. “So it’s something that’s definitely ancestral to me.”
With the rise of urban gardening during the pandemic, many have become aware of their disconnection from our food sources, their dependence on food providers, and their vulnerability to food shortages.
A huge need exists in our communities for these resources, and residents need to be connected to those meeting those needs, Johnson said.
“When these organizations come to our neighborhoods and give us free produce and food, it’s a wonderful resource for our communities, and our communities need it,” she said. “It’s an absolute necessity.”
Gardening is a learning process and an integral part of community life for those who want to learn it or teach others how to do it, Johnson said.
“I always say that at least one person in the family, your group of family or friends should be able to grow, and then you can feed everyone,” she said. “If I have a seen cucumber and can turn it into 15 cucumbers, I can feed people – that’s the point. That’s the village side. … and that’s why it’s so important to us now in its transition from knowing where the farmers markets are, to knowing where the organizations are that give out free food during the week or [who have] food banks that can deposit food for our children, our elderly or those who need it.
Black and Planted also serves as a community bulletin board for people to find these resources – via email, social media or other means – to bring those offering help and those in need together.
“There are many organizations working for this,” Johnson said. “We just want to connect people to that, and like I said, it takes [just] a person wants to educate and wants to teach, and once he helps someone else, it can inspire someone else.
Many people don’t realize that gardening is a year-round activity, even beyond spring and summer, Johnson said.
“From January to March, when we’re not doing anything in the garden, that’s where we educate,” Johnson said. “That’s where we draw our resources. This is where we make our plans. It’s hot outside right now, but a lot of us are [getting] our autumn gardens ready.
The Jabali Jungle Pop Experience
Last year, Johnson, along with colleague Candy, came up with the Jabali Jungle PopUp Experience as the name for his first Black and Planted community event. Jabali means “rock” in Swahili, a nod to Africa and something she felt was important to include, especially in light of what we’ve been through during the pandemic.
“When I think of rock, I think of our community,” Johnson said. “I think about resilience. I think of strength, and at that moment, [how] we were trying to get through the pandemic and through everything we’ve been through.
This year’s event, which is free, brings together all the unique aspects of the African American community that make it a village, she said. It takes place on August 27 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Wyck Historic House, Garden and Farm, located at 6026 Germantown Ave. in Germantown. It will feature even more in-person interactions than last year’s hybrid event.
There will be garden side talks, floral design demonstrations, a free Social Impact Cafe PHL workshop and produce table, a chair yoga class, a container gardening class, the Omari Youth Zone, the MJ’s Bloom bar with “Soil Sips,” where attendees can make mini bouquets and mocktails, live art, and more.
There will also be expert presentations from two local urban farms and gardens – Pleasant Playground Community Garden and Dirtbaby Farm. Raising community awareness and creating similar initiatives throughout the region is one of Johnson’s goals.
Additionally, there will be a community seed exchange sponsored by Germantown residents for Economic Alternatives Together (GREAT).
“If you have a packet of seeds that you want to bring, or if you have a few seeds at home that you want to bring, you can bring them to the table and you can trade them,” Johnson explained. “You can get more seeds. [For instance], say if I had carrot seeds or something, but I needed collard greens. I’ll bring my carrot seeds and then I can [exchange] them for those collard greens.
Several pop-up plant and plant accessory shops, some from out of state, will participate, Johnson said. Additionally, Black & Planted will be offering early fall vegetables, and attendees will also have the opportunity to plant their own seeds in a cup to take home and grow.
The It Takes A Village Foundation will be on hand to distribute free school supplies.
There is still time to participate in the Jabali Jungle Pop Experience. The flower and balloon donations are especially needed for the free bouquets they plan to give out in honor of Johnson’s grandmother, Louise, and her friend Monica Joy Davis, she said.
Those who sell plants or have city farms with a similar goal are also encouraged to get involved, she said.
“We want to work with you,” she said. “You want to connect and collaborate with you. Please contact me at [email protected].”
The rain date for the event is Saturday, September 24 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information about Black and Planted, visit: www.blackandplanted.com/.