A Firestarter’s Beginnings
Angie Provost's movement is one that hits close to home for me. Really close: Angie and I are cousins, twice removed on my mother’s side. Like me, Angie was born in Louisiana. But her path took her to Texas sooner than mine did. She moved from Lafayette to Houston with her family when she was 3. As young, single twenty-somethings, we always told Angie that she would grow old in Louisiana. We knew she was destined to marry a Louisiana man.
While she grew up in a big city, it never felt like a fit for her. Angie always considered the Bayou State to be home. "We belong to the land here," she says.
She spent summers there on her grandfather's farm. And she returned to Louisiana when she became engaged to her now-husband, June Provost. June's family has a long history of sugar cane farming, just as hers did. But her grandparents were forced out of farming around the civil rights movement era of the mid-20th century.
"When I met June, I found it so fascinating that his family was still upholding that legacy," Angie says. "I became really involved in studying what he was doing."
The more she learned, the more she felt drawn toward becoming an entrepreneur and being connected to the land, just as June was. She even created her own farm.
Finding Her Fire
But even as Angie and June worked to uphold their families' legacy in agriculture, others were working just as hard to tear it down.
"We really started experiencing some harsh reprisals and harassment," Angie says. They also had to fight back against institutions. They filed a lawsuit alleging unfair treatment by their bank and another suit against a prominent local mill for breach of contract.
All of this took a heavy toll on them. June and Angie's home was foreclosed on in September 2018. Angie knew that they were hardly first farmers of color to go through an ordeal like this. Such treatment had driven her grandparents and many others from their land.
"You love Louisiana, you love the small town, you love the people in it," she says. "But there's very little opportunity and equitable relief if you are a person of color trying to advance your portfolio or your livelihood."
Amid everything going on, the Provosts were approached with an opportunity that they knew could do good but that was still pretty daunting to consider. A writer who had found out about them through Farm Aid, Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project asked them to tell their story for an article in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper with a strong international readership.
"We were afraid to speak up and say what was going on with us," Angie says. They felt victimized, violated and vulnerable, and that was hard to talk about. But they trusted the writer, Debbie Weingarten, and decided to move forward.
The extensive story in The Guardian in October 2018 details the Provosts' long nightmare: Vandalized equipment. Surveillance. Dead cats left on a tractor. This will all sound familiar to fans of the TV show "Queen Sugar," which is about a sugarcane farming family. (It's based on a novel by Natalie Baszile, who has become a friend of the Provost family.) But the mistreatment of the Provosts has actually been worse than what was portrayed on the show, Angie says.
After the article appeared, they were nervous. "We didn't know what the response would be," Angie says. But while there have been ups and downs, the article has led to many blessings for them.
"There are people out there that there are progressive voices,"' Angie says. "There are those who support change and know that change is for the better for everyone."
After the article, she and June became more active with groups such as National Family Farm Coalition, National Black Growers Council and Farm Aid. And they created Provost Farm LLC, with the two of them as co-owners.
"The mission of that business is to preserve and advocate for the legacy of African-American sugarcane farmers and black farmers in general," Angie says. "We want people to be aware that, as African Americans, we own less than 1% of rural land in the U.S. It is steadily declining; it's been declining since Reconstruction."
Angie draws on deep knowledge of history to put their movement into a larger context. They want to raise awareness of the links that black rural land ownership has to other issues, including criminal justice reform, food equity, voter suppression and redlining.
As they've grown their moment, they've had more opportunities to share their story. The Provosts were even featured in The 1619 Project, a major initiative by The New York Times to explore the history and consequences of slavery.
“Participating in The 1619 Project was an honor,” Angie says. “June and I believe our voice to be echoes of our ancestors — as if they spoke through us. Their triumphs and defeats, but most
of all their strength. I think what (journalist) Nikole Hannah-Jones has accomplished with The New York Times is equivalent to the tales my grandmother told me as a young adult about our family history: the tales that pull you in, paint a picture and change your life.”
Besides fighting for their own livelihood, Angie and June are using their visibility to bring together other black and indigenous farmers in Louisiana and strengthen their sense of community. They're heartened by the other farmers who are speaking up, too — "the sugarcane farmers of the past who want platforms but have lost them."
Spreading Her Spark
Angie knows that she and June are taking on a lot, but that's because they know we're at a critical juncture. "We're in a time where we could either go backward or we could move forward," Angie says.
One way the Provosts are moving forward is by training with the Propeller accelerator program. This a New Orleans-based nonprofit supports entrepreneurs who are taking on social and environmental disparities. Propeller found out about the Provosts from The Guardian article and reached out to them to participate. Their lead mentor is Richard McCarthy, creator of Crescent City Farmers Market and former director of Slow Food USA.
Angie and June see something that others have ignored: a need to tell the story of black farmers in Louisiana in the form of a museum. Propeller is helping Angie and June with plans for a nonprofit that would include a museum or memorial to black farmers. The biggest challenge is securing funding. Angie also envisions an educational center where schoolchildren and others could come and learn more about farming. That’s the kind of field trip that I wish I could have taken as a young child. My father’s family is from the area Angie and June call home, yet I have never walked the fields that June so often mentions.
"We need to start educating more about rural life and the benefits of maintaining that rural life," she says. That connection with our rural history is vital.
"If you strip someone of their legacy and their history, if you don't educate a community on how that township or area was developed, you're leaving an entire group of people in an insecure position," Angie says. "And that community becomes vulnerable to oppressive tactics."
She knows that there are people who will say "I didn't own slaves" or "I wasn't a slave" and question why we still need to talk about all of this.
"I believe that that not talking about your past is a form of insecurity," Angie says. For our future, we must learn from the past and make a better way.
Another way to build a better future is changing laws and policies that hamper farmers of color, Angie says. For example, right now there are too many roadblocks to accessing USDA programs.
"I think these are our right to be a part of," as families who have owned farms for generations, she says. After all, it was people like their ancestors who "taught Europeans how to farm these tropical crops," she points out.
She'd also like to see more actions by groups like the Urban League and NAACP. "Within our own organizations, we're missing that rural link," she says.
You can help Angie work for change. "Especially if you live in a rural community, you can you can write to your USDA county committeeman or to your city council person," she says. "Ask them what are they doing about farm equity and land loss prevention for people of color." If you can donate money, Angie recommends Farm Aid, which "does a lot for helping the
working-class farmer," as well as the National Black Growers Council. You can find a list of other organizations to get involved in at www.provostfarmllc.com.
If you are an African American Millennial or Gen Zer who has rural roots but is living in a big city right now, you could have a vital role to play in Angie's movement. "If your parents own land, if your grandparents own land, make sure that it stays within the family — that you uphold that property," she says. Remember, too, that farming can be a lucrative business. "The reason why it's so difficult for us is because there are so few of us out there." More African Americans becoming active in agriculture equals more strength in numbers.
Although the retaliation and harassment continue, Angie and June are committed to their work because they know they're making a difference.
"I don't want to give the impression that Louisiana is the really despicable state that's not worth living in," she says. It's just that "A lot of us have moved away and the resources aren't here. Let's bring that back. Let's educate people. Let's reform. Because it's a beautiful place. It's a magical place."
The resolve she shows is in her DNA. "That comes from my grandmother's side of the family," Angie says. "They are some pretty feisty women. We come from a very strong stock of African and Native American heritage. We have a pretty long history, and one of the things that my grandmother, my great-aunt, my great-grandmother have always instilled in us is pride for our legacy and history."
She knows the stories of the women before her, the difficulties they faced and how they overcame them. She was taught not to be ashamed of facing difficulties but rather to "always move forward and make a way," Angie says. "Those are the things that they instilled in us: a really strong value of family and knowing your past to inform your future."
Ignite Your Own Fire
What can you take away from Angie's story to catalyze your own movement?
Know where you come from
Angie and I both find inspiration in our family history. If you don't know the stories of the people who came before you, now is a great time to ask parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to share their recollections with you. Interview them about how they grew up and the changes they’ve seen. Don’t forget to record those conversations: You’ll be forever grateful for that oral history. Whatever you learn from them will shed light on who you are and your unique gifts as a #Firestarter.
Understand your movement's past
Along the same lines, educate yourself about the history of your movement. Part of what sustains Angie is knowing that she's part of something bigger. And, no matter what your movement is, so are you. What have others accomplished before you? How can you build on what they've done and honor their legacy?
There's strength in your story
Telling her story in the media has changed Angie's life and advanced her movement. This can feel like a big step, but Angie urges you not to shy away from it if the opportunity arises. "Everyone who tells their story should live in their truth," she says. "Give a real representation to whatever you are trying to change, whatever you are trying to maintain."
Before you get in front of the mic there are a couple of things Angie wants you to consider: Just make sure the media outlet or any other source you work with is trustworthy and makes you feel comfortable. You also need a community of support around you during what can feel like a vulnerable time.
If you're having trouble mustering the courage to do an interview or share your story in another way (like writing a blog post), remember that you'll be helping others by doing so.
"When you are a truth teller, when you are a peace speaker, you will find that there are so many people out there that have been waiting to hear your voice," Angie says. "Every single one of us has something to tell. That's why we're here on Earth as human beings. We're here to share our experience and empathize with one another."
Feeling Fired Up?
Now that you’ve read Angie’s story, I hope you’re feeling inspired to be the #Firestarter you’ve always known you could be. That’s why I can’t wait to get my new book into your hands.
In “Find Your Fire,” you’ll meet other unforgettable women who are spreading their spark from the campaign trail to the boardroom to the podcast studio. They’re survivors, fighters and innovators who have faced down seemingly insurmountable challenges without dimming their light. And they’ll open up to you about everything they’ve learned along the way.
To build on their stories, my book also takes you through the Firestarter Formula, my proven tool for building your own movement.
I’m ready to launch a powerful movement with “Find Your Fire.” And I couldn’t be happier that it starts with you.