When we launched the Gaia Herbs Roots Initiative (Gaia Roots) in 2018, which prioritizes underrepresented populations in our social impact work, we did so with the acknowledgement that it was a living thing—that it would change and expand over the years. And it’s doing just that. Building on a shared vision of a more equitable and inclusive herbal and farming industry, we’re excited to announce the Gaia Herbs Equity Partnership Program: a new multiyear partnership program for and with BIPOC and excluded herbal entrepreneurs, from farmers to herbalists and everyone in between, currently being co-developed with Clarenda “Cee” Stanley, Founder and CEO of Green Heffa Farms.
As you can tell from the name, partnership is at the core of this program. The Gaia Herbs Equity Partnership Program is being designed to create a circular learning system, a space to share our knowledge and access with herbal entrepreneurs and for these partners to share their knowledge and experience with us. Our first official partner is Cee Stanley of Green Heffa Farms, an emerging natural health brand in Liberty, North Carolina. On their nearly 15-acre farm, the Green Heffa team cultivates select medicinal plants and herbs grown with an "ecological consciousness" that are then blended and sold in custom teas.
How Did the Seed Get Planted for Our New Program?
In 2019, Gaia selected Farmer Cee and Green Heffa Farms to receive a Gaia Roots Small Grant. As we walked through the grant process with Cee, she deeply inspired us. She regularly reached out to share her thoughts and ideas, laying the groundwork for what would ultimately become this new program. In our conversations, we began to develop the opportunity to further Gaia's involvement with grant winners.
We seized the chance to work with these farmers and herbalists more long term and on a one-on-one basis, which we typically don't have the capacity to do. The chance to share with them our institutional knowledge of a vertically integrated herbal products business and help them become the strongest herbal operations they can be, while they, in turn, help Gaia become the strongest business we can be.
And, we saw that this type of program could be one potential answer to the BIG, difficult question we constantly ask ourselves as a purpose-driven Certified B Corporation® actively working to build a more inclusive and sustainable economy:
"How do we address systemic racism in the herbal and natural products space?"
We realized that creating authentic, sustainable partnerships was one way that Gaia Herbs could begin to address this question.
The key word here being partnership. Early on, Cee expressed her hesitancy to grow her operation in ways that indebted her to traditional funding sources, transactions that she felt required her to work for someone else's bottom line rather than in partnership with them. For example, taking on debt and equity investors would require she give up a portion of her company or guarantee a return. These types of relationships, as she so eloquently puts it, would “take away the grace that Green Heffa needs in order to learn to grow well, even on an unlevel planting field.”
So we partnered with Cee and began co-creating this unique program. We're aiming to create a replicable, yet flexible, model to best benefit our current and future partners and to help Gaia Herbs be a better partner as well.
“I want to partner with people who truly get it and with businesses that truly get it,” she explains. “I don’t need charity. This program isn’t charity. I want us to end up with something where we have synergy and it’s symbiotic.”
Gaia Herbs Director of Sustainability and Social Impact Alison Czeczuga echoes Cee’s sentiment about the new program. “This isn’t philanthropy. This is really about equity,” she shares.
“The herbal space and natural products space in the US isn’t really representative of the roots of herbal medicine or of the people of this world. As an organization, Gaia has a lot to learn, not just about our own internal biases but also about operating in a traditional capitalistic structure. What legacy do we want to leave behind as a company? Moving towards a stakeholder model and truly doing that is a long-term journey requiring a multi-pronged approach. And Cee is a part of it.”
The Growth Process
Currently, Alison and her team are working with Cee to develop the program’s educational curriculum that:
1) Will provide Cee and future participants who operate small farms with access to the knowledge and tools needed to position them as potential suppliers and vendors for companies like Gaia—and to better position their businesses for sustainability. This may include information on product testing, compliance, soil health, or becoming a Certified B Corp, as examples; and
2) Can be implemented internally across Gaia’s departments, to help us fulfill our purpose through building more diverse supply chains and improving employee engagement, for instance, ultimately strengthening all the different aspects that make a company healthy.
As it’s a new type of program, not just for Gaia but for corporations in general, lots of planning is going into its development. The end goal? To ensure the program improves business for participants and equates to true momentum forward for us as a business in living our values around diversity and inclusion.
“Too often we have this complex system of inequity that’s been created, and yet we try to apply blanket solutions to it and to entire groups of people,” says Cee. “That’s ineffective. But if we can create at least a foundational model, we are hoping that it can help Gaia Herbs and other companies go forth authentically.”
“Through this partnership,” Alison adds, “we can impact the greater supply chain in the South and the Southeast in terms of Black women and farmers of color growing medicinal herbs—impacting the economy and the environment. There is so much opportunity for Gaia to support building this system in a more equitable way. It is a journey, but we are committed.”
We expect to have a fully blossomed program, with Cee formally entering into the partnership later in 2021, so stay tuned for more details.
Celebrating Black History
Though the program is not finalized, we wanted to announce it now, on the heels of Black History Month. The calendar may have turned to March, but the celebration doesn't have to end and shouldn't end. Every month, all year long, is the right time to honor not only the contributions Black people have made but will continue to make to our country.
In the beautiful words of Farmer Cee:
“Black History is continuously in the making. It has never ceased being created as Black people persistently knock down barriers and achieve firsts in a system designed to keep us behind and beneath. It is happening right now as we chart a new era and make tomorrow’s history.
My ancestors were botanists, medics, agriculturalists, spiritualists, teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs that were enslaved. Whose contributions, vast intelligence, and resilience were erased in large parts from a single exclusive narrative. In honor of them, I take my role as a future ancestor very seriously. I am tomorrow’s Black History.”
Learn more about current Gaia Roots programs and the Small Grants program. We will begin accepting applications for 2021 Small Grants this summer. For more about Cee Stanley and Green Heffa Farms, visit instagram.com/greenheffafarm.