Critics Page In Conversation
Jordan Weber with Christine Kuan
Malcolm X, Harvard, and Environmental Justice
Christine Kuan: Tell us about your Creative Capital project 4MX Greenhouse.
Jordan Weber: In 2015/2016, JoAnna LeFlore-Ejike, now-head of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, and I started a conversation about extracting earth from the site of Malcolm X’s birth home. It’s seventeen acres of prairie and wetland; nature and life found a way around this neighborhood that once had a healthy Black community. We came up with the idea of a decompression space that acts as a greenhouse for seedlings to be transferred to the Shabazz Gardens, but also a space for spiritual reflection within a green zone. North Omaha is extremely contaminated from lead smelting; one of the largest residential brown zones in the US. Now the EPA has been dismantled because of the Trump presidency, so it’s tricky to get your land remediated. So regenerating the soil while providing a safe decompression space where one of the greatest Black leaders in America first put his foot to the earth seemed like the ideal spot for the project.
Kuan: How does the environment intersect with your artistic practice?
Weber: The land activations in my practice allow the viewer to have a direct line of sight, smell, and feel to the landscape around them first and foremost. The work seeks to help place individuals dealing with toxic stress and trauma in the present moment within their own communities, while participating in healing programs and plant care. Everything on an architectural scale is built towards accessing the positive effects and the benefits of green space within gray cities.
Kuan: How does food justice factor into your work with environmental justice?
Weber: Everything has its foundation in food-justice because we see the severe health effects industrial farming and its external costs have on almost all of our Black/Brown communities, especially in the Midwest. You have to mitigate and heal the land in order to have viable food sources to heal the body. Growing healthy food together also acts as a bridge for cultural collaboration in diverse communities. The project with the Walker Art Center and Youth Farm of North Minneapolis, Prototype for poetry vs rhetoric (deep roots) is an attempt to mitigate stormwater and pollutants coming from two large factories in North Minneapolis, while growing forty different species of native fruits, herbs, and vegetables. I’m also building similar community-led environmental justice projects in north St. Louis at Peace Park. This region of the US is 97% monocropped; we have less than 1% of Indigenous land left. We are countering state-sanctioned violence on land and body to reestablish biodiversity for healthier Black/Brown/Indigenous ecosystems.
Kuan: You are currently doing a residency at Harvard. Can you talk a bit about what you are working on there?
Weber: A lot of lecturing about environmental apartheid and the effects on the Black, Brown, and Indigenous body and its relation to racial justice. An acre of wetland will sequester a ton of carbon from the environment. Our communities are surrounded and redlined by interstates, so if you can plant hectares of hyperaccumulator species to sequester carbon and toxins, you can have a measurable effect on things like asthma. At the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I’m researching the most efficient ways to scale this approach up for direct and immediate action.
Kuan: From the Paris Cliamte Accords to increasing investments in green energy, what’s the way forward as humans consume more energy?
Weber: A friend is doing work around the Congo and what extraction means with rare earth materials and lithium batteries. We can’t rely on just the Paris Accords—it lacks impact and immediate action. My mindset is very militant, self-determined, at a community level, to do the things that our ancestors have been doing for hundreds of years while incorporating green tech. If our Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities can come together and demand reparations in land that we are of and from, we know we can create sustainable systems that are not only sustainable but also reparative!
Kuan: Our mission is to fund artists’ wildest ideas and freedom of expression. In terms of your work on environmental justice, do you feel you are free to do the work that you want to do?
Weber: We have to have these powerful allies. On the front lines of environmental apartheid and police brutality, we need these powerful allies to help fund our fight to just do the work solely and not have energy-draining side hustles. This is crucial for self-care/mental health to carry out the work.