Turning Blight to BLISS in Baltimore City

Northeast Baltimore City is not a place known for greenspace and easy access to nature. Over the last two years, though, that has started to change. In 2019, after working as a Free Forest School leader and starting a nature immersion program for students at her daughter’s school, pediatric nurse Atiya Wells decided to kick things up a notch by founding Backyard Basecamp (BYBC), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire Black, Indigenous, and all People of Color (BIPOC) across Baltimore City to find nature where they are. Shortly thereafter, Atiya spearheaded the effort to purchase 3 acres of land in Baltimore City and transform it into what is now known as BLISS Meadows, the very first project of BYBC. This month, BLISS Meadows launched its Capital Campaign, with a goal of raising $110,000 by the end of February. 

Dr. Rose Brusaferro, EE Programs Specialist for Backyard Basecamp, told us everything we need to know about BLISS Meadows and the campaign. 

1. What is BLISS Meadows?

We describe BLISS in several different ways. It’s a 10-acre land reclamation project. It’s a community managed greenspace. And ultimately it’s an environmental justice community hub in northeast Baltimore City. We like that last description because the five pillars we focus on are all meant to advocate for climate justice and equitable access to nature, both of which are racial justice issues. We infuse these five pillars into every program we offer: animal husbandry, conservation, community greenspace, environmental education, and food access. So when you hear, “Baltimore Living in Sustainable Simplicity” you should think about it from the angle of just sustainability. This is a place that was created for People of Color in Baltimore to safely enjoy and learn about nature in a context that is culturally relevant and responsive. 

2. What are you raising money for?

We’re raising funds to renovate the half-acre farmhouse that we bought in 2019. It’s a house that was abandoned for at least 50 years, so there’s a ton of work to be done. Foundational projects like electric, plumbing and roofing, as well as safety projects like painting and ADA accessibility will all be possible with the money we raise this month. The house will become office space for the Backyard Basecamp team, it will have a demonstration kitchen for cooking workshops, a hydroponics lab in the basement, and a loft to house presenters who need overnight accommodations.

3. What makes this project unique?

Baltimore City, and probably the entire state of Maryland, doesn’t have any Black-owned nature centers. BLISS is the first place where this is happening. Additionally, our neighborhoods in the northeast don’t have the same distribution of city-maintained greenspaces. We get the short end of the stick. So we hope that BLISS Meadows will catalyze the flow of more outdoor recreation resources toward our side of town. 

4. How will this project support the local community and increase their access to nature?

It’s important to say here that we consult the community through surveys, canvassing, and word of mouth in order to develop programs that are relevant to what they value. One thing we began doing during the pandemic and continue to do now, is distribute free 10 lb. produce boxes door-to-door in Frankford. This will continue as the farm produces new crops. We offer a whole suite of public education programs and workshops for people ages 3 years and up. Anyone can visit our ponds, garden beds, and trails at their own leisure. We have community garden beds available to our neighborhood growers, as well as supporting families with seed kits so they can grow at home. We offer venue space for community members too, one of those partnerships being the Maryland Master Naturalist program out of the University of Maryland. 

5. Why now? What is special about this time?

We’ve been building this space for two years. It’s a beautiful lesson in patience and persistence. I think an appropriate answer to this question is, “Because we have the social capital now.” The public support of this project has been incredible from the very beginning, and with all the racial injustice we’ve been witnessing during the pandemic, people are looking for a way to fight back. BLISS Meadows shatters colonial ideas of who belongs in nature. It serves as a tangible, actionable way to understand and dismantle privilege. We’ve always known that Black people are being disproportionately killed by systemic racism, so now feels like an urgent time to provide a safe place where we can repair our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being within a community space created specifically for us.

The BLISS Meadows Capital Campaign runs through February 28, 2021. To donate, visit the BLISS Meadows GoFundMe page.