Kamal Bell wakes up at 6AM every morning, drives to pick up a bunch of kids from all around Durham, hops them on a van and brings them to the St. Mark AME Zion Church’s facilities. After a community breakfast, Kamal starts with lessons on farming. Then, in early afternoon, they all move on to Kamal’s farm in Cedar Grove, where he teaches the kids how to raise chickens and plant crops. At the end of the day, Kamal drives each one of them back home.
All the kids are African-American, and for the second consecutive year Kamal Bell’s Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy is offering them nine weeks of free summer camp.
The kids all live in neighborhoods that USDA defines food deserts (no fresh groceries within a mile, and no access to easy transportation to get there). In these areas, kids like them are even at risk of being food insecure (another USDA definition): in the morning, some of them go to school hungry.
I met Kamal and his kids one afternoon in Cedar Grove. It was 80 degrees. The farm is one part cleared—but still full of weeds—and another one totally raw, all bumps and mounds. Dead trunks and branches are everywhere. Working there under the Carolina summer heat is quite a challenge. You walk through all sort of weeds and you know that snakes, ticks, spiders could be everywhere. The kids were first assigned to feed the birds in the coops. Then they started helping Kamal shovel up dirt from the mound. Kamal wants to flatten it and clear the area around. He was driving a John Deere small tractor, plowing up and down the mound. Trash would pop up from under the earth. After a few up and downs, Kamal stopped the tractor and they all started shoveling dirt and throwing dead wood and trash in a pile. While working, a little snake slipped out of dirt cracks. The kids picked it up, and were instructed to put it in a plastic bottle and put it aside inside a shack. Someone forgot to cap the bottle and at the end of the day we found the bottle toppled, the snake disappeared.
Managing the predictable goofiness of middle school kids is integral part of Kamal’s daily tasks.
Kamal thinks time is running out for most African-American kids. Last year he rushed to start the first summer camp, “as some of my sankofites [as he calls them] began to find them in troubling situations.” If they don’t get immediate help, Kamal says, tomorrow some of them may be in jail.
He picks his campers out of gut feeling and performance paper. “If someone refers a kid I need to go meet him,” he says. I need to get a feel of who they are. Because this is a developing program, and the wrong kid could destroy it. I need to trust them, also because when they feel trusted, that gives them something to strive for. These are the first responsibilities they ever had in their lives.”
Sankofa is a word from Ghana that means, “Go back and get it.” In Kamal’s intention the Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy will teach the kids what it means to provide food for themselves and for others. This is what their ancestors did—for free—for thousands of years. The program will help them reconnect with the land, while developing a sense of ownership for the product of their work.
Kamal is a middle school teacher in Durham, NC. He teaches Agricultural Biotechnology. Some of his sankofites attend his school. He knows that when kids “act out” at school, there is always something else going on in their lives. “They might have parents in jail. They might have witnessed a shooting that involves members of their family. But first, they often go to school hungry”.
Kamal was luckier than his kids. He grew up in a middle class, African-American family that sent him to a private middle school. But it wasn’t a free lunch. His parents worked overtime and third-shifts to afford their lifestyle. And in the private, catholic middle school he had anger issues. He would have been pushed out if it weren’t for Mr.White, a counselor at Kamal’s church, who started seeing him for therapy sessions. Mr. White singled out an identity issue, and helped Kamal dig out his roots: “My father had loads of books about black culture. My counselor helped me reconnect with my ancestry. He went through black history with me. I started the journey to understand who I was and to find my higher purpose. I realized that I had a potential, and my behavior could have disrupted my potential.”
After this experience, Kamal seldom missed honor rolls for the rest of middle school. His father’s library has been, ever since, a source of inspiration for Kamal’s quest to make a sense of his life.
Kamal is extremely passionate about his Academy. “I want this program to be something where we can heal from a lot of the experiences that we have had and learn about our history as African people,” he says.
In his opinion the public schools these kids attend don’t have the structure to “pinpoint the real issues” of African-Americans. For this reason Kamal is only enrolling black kids in his Academy. If he made it open to other races, “their specific issues would be pushed aside.”
Last summer he had five kids. He noticed that after the nine weeks of the academy, “it took a roughly equivalent time in school for them to revert to their bad behavior. Seeing how the kids reacted, I said to myself we have to do it all year.”
This year the camp has been extended to Saturdays and Kamal also plans to launch the Saturday workshop all year long. His highest goal is to create an after school program running all school year (for which he is in search of a grant.) “Because—when they are off school—that’s the time when they get in trouble, their parents and guardians tell me.”
Kamal has a master’s degree in Agricultural Education at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Up until college he had been following a well-known trajectory for many US African-American students. In high school he had found it easier to try to use sports as an outlet to get to college. He played basketball, football, and eventually it was track that made it. But in the first year at A&T NC State he realized he couldn’t achieve good grades if he trained professionally. So he quit college sports.
Initially his undergraduate major was Animal Industry (he was on a path to possibly become a veterinarian.) But he was finding the course too easy for him, so in the spare time he started attending the Black Studies section at the library. There he read Elijah Muhammad’s “Message to the Blackman in America.” The book was talking about agriculture and its ancestral relationship to African-Americans. “In class one day I thought: how can I use my studies to help black people? Being a veterinarian wouldn’t help much. So I set out to be a farmer.”
He changed his major, and graduated with honor.
But a little bump almost got in the way of his plans. He had met his future wife, Amber, and they soon were expecting a child. Confronted with the new responsibility, he got very close to joining the Army. He even had the contract ready to sign. But he didn’t want to stay away from his family. Instead, he went back to school. His goal was to help his people through agriculture. He joined the Master’s program in Agricultural Education and completed it. He planned to start a farm.
He submitted a project to the USDA for a farm ownership loan. He was denied. He thought the denial was very unfair and was irate. But by then he had learned that “you can’t tie any emotion with business. It doesn’t work that way.” So he appealed. And after an unnerving process he eventually got the loan he needed.
With the money he bought twelve acres of land and started the Sankofa Farms.
Not everything went smoothly at the beginning. He didn’t have much money to clear the land, and a couple of homemade attempts failed. Still today, after two years, the land is partially uncleared. But Kamal has already started raising chickens, ducks, quails and guinea fowls. He has also become a licensed dehydrator (he is already selling healthy, fruit and vegetable snacks), and this coming fall he plans to start growing collard, kale, and sell his own kale chips.
In the meantime he had gotten a day job as a teacher of Agricultural Biotechnology at Lowes Grove Middle School in Durham, NC. He had to make his class hands on, and asked other teachers if it was possible to bring chickens to the schoolyard. They accepted it. He soon noticed that the kids who were at higher risk didn’t have a clue what a chicken even was. “Do you want to touch it?” he asked them, finding them wary. Once they started working in the garden, Kamal saw that their behavior was changing. As the year went on, the kids started following through on their assignments. So he had another idea.
With the STEM coordinator at school Kamal came up with a plan for a STEM Summer camp, and they talked with the principal about a possible partnership between the school and Kamal’s farm. The principal said no. “I said, cool, it’s fine” said Kamal, shrugging. Once more, he had learned to accept “no”s. So he went to ask his church, the St. Mark AME Zion. They loved the idea. They only made sure that everything was legal (no selling goods, for example). He then secured the support from the NC Farm Bureau, and that of the USDA Free Breakfast program for providing food.
The Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy was born.
Kamal knows that the kids are too young to really start appreciate farming. “But until then they are following my leadership” says Kamal. He leads them by being the first to work hard and the first to sweat under the sun. While he is working, he keeps on shouting instructions, from up the tractor or from feet away.
“I have to be a father to these kids. A lot of black men aren’t there for their children. I have to take on this responsibility. One grandma said to her kid: you need to find a role model. He answered I already have one. It’s Mr. Bell”.
For Kamal, this was one of the proudest accomplishments of his life.
This summer the camp started with six kids. A seventh kid had enrolled but ended up in a local juvenile penitentiary. Kamal is waiting for him to come out and join the rest of the sankofites.
According to Kamal, the kids start understanding that the though guys in the neighborhood “couldn’t do what they are doing for more than three hours.” “They are savvy, they put things together,” Kamal goes on. “They are innovative because they need to be, in order to survive in a tough neighborhood. They are so smart that before the end of the summer they will have easily learned everything quickly.”
On the entrepreneurial side of Kamal’s ventures, he is thinking about innovative forms of production, and when he mulls over future developments for the farm he is also naturally thinking about his kids: “Showing the kids that we are able to innovate, that’s when the light bulb will switch in them.”
Right now he is envisioning an automated feeding system for the animals, a system he wants to design from scratch. “I talked with tech people in the Triangle and I have already received a grant from NC Farm Bureau AG in the classroom to start the program.” Additional funding will hopefully come from other grants for STEM programs. “That’s why I wanted the Academy to be a STEM program, so that I could integrate technology.”
With the automated system operating, the kids would have less animal care to deal with, and more time to learn about distribution. “Once the students are ready, we will integrate them into Durham Roots Farmers Market. The will gain experience in selling, keeping data, and build relationships in the community.”
This year the Academy also received an NC State PAX grant, that helped Kamal start the Project Sankofa. “It’s our first STEM project. We are monitoring the breeds of chicken and their egg-laying performance. We are doing this so when we start to bring fresh goods to our communities we will have an idea of what breed can meet the demand, given the environmental conditions.”
With Kamal Bell, social leadership and entrepreneurship overlap. When he chose Agricultural Education he wasn’t thinking about money. “Why do you want to become a farmer?” his advisor once asked him in college. “They don’t make any money!”
But Kamal has different priorities in life. He has a wife and two little kids. His teaching position gives him and his family enough to live a good life. What drives him is to help save his kids, showing them his leadership, his love, his example.
Last summer he didn’t have a proper means of transportation to start the program. He used his old car to drive the kids about 100 miles every day, across Durham County and to his farm in Cedar Grove. After nine weeks, the old car had traveled 3000 miles before it died.
This year Kamal completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, and with the money raised he bought a van.
“I don’t think about money. I think about my mission to help my kids. If you disappoint them, they are lost.”