Undergraduate Research

Vera Grace Menafee '24

OUR Featured Researcher: Vera Grace Menafee '24
Vera Grace Menafee
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Vera Grace Menafee (they/she) is an Oberlin College Research Fellow (OCRF) majoring in Africana Studies, Education Studies Concentration. They are conducting mentored research under Professor Jay Fiskio. Their project is titled “Grasping at the Roots: A Study of Sustainable Food Justice and Racial Healing Through Black Agrarian Histories". 

Please describe your project: 

By combining analysis of foundational texts on Black agrarianism with the geographic and historical context of Black agricultural roots in Cleveland, Ohio, I explore how by returning to the land to tend and raise crops — a task once demanded of African people enslaved across the United States — Black communities can feed those most impacted by food apartheid, while simultaneously reclaiming our right to land. Grounded in Black geographies theory, my analysis also places emphasis on the spatial imagination of Black people in the United States and how we have come to understand our position in both the environmental world and an oppressive social reality in which Black bodies are systematically dehumanized. Ultimately, I am seeking to (1) redefine Black people’s relationship to land and the Earth, (2) shift the narrative of our connection to land away from being defined only by trauma, and (3) begin to develop an adaptable pedagogy for building food sovereignty in Black urban communities.

 A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

My research project seeks to honor the knowledge of elders and scholars in the field of Black agrarianism, while also applying their wisdom towards the contemporary issues of environmental racism and food apartheid in predominantly-Black areas, in order to build community-based resistance. I ask the central questions: How can Black people mend our relationship to nature in order to position ourselves as rightful caretakers of the land and how have Black communities done so in the past to develop liberation praxis?
Why is your research important?

Food is a language we can all understand. However,  as Fannie Lou Hamer, the fearless civil rights leader and founder of the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Mississippi, once said, “Down where we are, food is used as a political weapon” and unfortunately, still is today. Most Americans have no knowledge of the cultural roots and history of West African agricultural wisdom and practices, which built the foundation of the current United States food system.  But I am hopeful that my research can illuminate the histories I never learned about growing up and can inspire young Black people to plant their own gardens and reconnect with the Earth. 

What does the process of doing your research look like?

During OCRF over the summer, you could usually find me in the Mary Church Terrell library with a stack of books in front of me and way too many tabs open on my laptop. While my research process has been mostly self-guided, as I was seeking out relevant texts and sources to build my thesis, some of my strongest sources have come from recommendations from other people who would graciously share their expertise with me, such as my research mentor, Jay Fiskio, as well as Ms. Eboni Johnson, who is one of the research librarians at the college and is also one of the most knowledgeable people I know. During the summer, I was also able to visit a community urban garden in Cleveland, Vel’s Purple Oasis, which I interned with this past spring, and I would drive into Cleveland almost every week to help with gardening.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

My plan for future research contributions, upon IRB approval, is to interview community organizers and leaders from Black-led urban farms throughout the Midwest. While I wasn’t able to begin this part of my project this past summer, I was still able to build a really strong foundational understanding of my field and will continue to build upon this once I begin to interview community members doing such important wor

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I presented at the final symposium for OCRF and also completed a 15-page final research paper from my findings over the summer. I will also be presenting my research at the Eighth Annual Deep South HBCU Climate Conference in New Orleans, LA, where I have been accepted to present a poster about my research, as well as speak on a student panel during the conference.

How did you get involved in research?

I created this project to respond to serious issues I saw in my own community and try to work towards building genuine solutions. I’ve always loved digging deeper into an idea, but never thought I would be able to pursue formal research as an undergraduate and my mentor was who recommended the OCRF program to me this past spring. I think one of the most important parts of the research to me is how close I end up becoming with an idea, especially when I get to focus on something so important to me. 

What is your favorite aspect of the research process? What is your favorite part about engaging in this work?

My favorite part of the research process has been all the people I’ve been able to meet and connect to! Since beginning my project this summer, when I talk about my research with other people in my community, especially Black elders, I hear stories and memories of growing up on farms or one’s experience coming back to gardening after having watched their mothers or grandmothers plot flowers and food in their childhood backyards. These memories stay with the people I talk to and I feel so honored when they choose to share them with me. 

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

One of my mentor’s most valuable pieces of advice to me was to always take time and care when working with community members and to move at the pace of trust. As college students, it can be really easy to stay self-focused with research, but my mentor reminded me that building genuine relationships and connections takes time and should take time. This helped me realize that I want to always follow the pace of the communities I work with and will always prioritize their needs in order to sustain a truly reciprocal relationship that can last beyond my research. 

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development? 

Coming into college I never imagined I’d be able to pursue something so personal and valuable to me after my first year, but now I can truly see myself pursuing a career in research, especially projects that are community-based like the one I’ve created. My project has also helped me realize just how committed I am to connecting both environmental and racial justice around the world and how central these two frameworks will be in my future career path.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

 I would encourage younger students, especially students of color, to remember that no project is too small! Anything can be worth understanding more about if it is something that is important to you. I would also want to remind students interested in research that you don’t have to rush your process and it’s okay to take your time.