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Tammy Gray-Steele

CEO of National Women in Agriculture Association and the Sustainable Science Academy

Highlights: During our conversation over the phone, Tammy discusses her involvement with the Eastside community, the restorative opportunities agriculture brings to the area, and some of the positive aspects of gentrification. Tammy is the founder of the National Women in Agriculture Association which has 30+ chapters worldwide. She was raised on a farm in rural Oklahoma, going on to earn her MBA and attend NYU law school. Her goal is to aid the next generation (especially people of color) in learning skills and receiving opportunities in agriculture. Tammy runs the Sustainable Science Academy in the Eastside of Oklahoma City and works with children ages 6 weeks to 18- years-old.

JULY 30, 2020

Anna: Can you tell me about the different parts of your organization?

Tammy: One part of it is an agricultural outreach center, which is the headquarters for the National Women in Agriculture non-profit organization. When you first walk in the doors, that's the business office part of it, the outreach office. We help people start their farm operations, from backyard gardens, all the way to farm production. Anybody that wants to get involved in agriculture, if you want to stop by and make an appointment, we'll go out there and show you exactly how to understand the soil, how to plant, the depth of a seed, how to water, when to plant it.

On the other side, we have an agriculture childcare center and in the back of it, in the playground, they have their own garden. They grow their own food where they can literally walk out and eat it from the ground. We have an after-school program and summer camp. I'm opening a virtual learning center while the public schools are going virtual [due to COVID-19]. We're trying to open the doors to make sure they are being taught by their Oklahoma City public schools through their computers to make sure the children of this community are being taken care of. 

Anna: Can you tell me more about NWIAA and why you chose to have a focus on women specifically? 

Tammy: The women are not recognized as being the leaders that are doing something in the country. We are slighted. I know firsthand that there are other nonprofit groups like mine that men have, and they don't do even 1/4 of the work that we do. And they still receive the same resources, if not more resources, to keep their organizations going. It's unfair. It's very discriminatory. 

Anna: What makes the Eastside community unique?

Tammy: The uniqueness is that it is a severe food desert and we have one grocery store that is not up to par to serve our community and our people are okay with it. They are okay with putting a grocery store on Lincoln which is not in the heart of our community. That's what I see is wrong. No one in leadership is really buying into it. It alarms me that I have to step up and grow food to make sure our people have good food. And how I do that is with the children and provide them with a safe haven and jobs. We start giving jobs at 15 1/2 and they come to us with a work permit and they have a job with us. If you get them at an early age...we start them at 6 weeks. They're growing food and helping the community.


You have to have the heart to do it. You can't be a scammer. One of my ladies in Canada told me, "Tammy, it's okay to be a hustler, a hustle will last. A scam will not." That’s where, to me, our community has lost. We've had too many scammers that say they're doing something, but they're really not. When you're doing it, you're doing it in a way where you're taking everything from yourself, from your home and you're bringing it to our children and laying it at their foot. 90% in our community—we have too many individuals, from the individual churches, individual career people—they're really not focusing in and helping the community as a whole with the next generation, because it's too late for the older people.

I don't live in the community, but I bring all of my resources and educational background into the community and I work it and I make sure, tangibly, they can see it. Tangibly they can get paid. All I can say is, if I were White...would it be different? Would I get more help? If I were White, would I get more resources? If I were White, would they really understand what I'm saying and not be too harsh. Would it not be too soft? That's on every level. I've worked on the federal level down to the city and smaller county levels and it's still the same personalities, the same red tape. I've been blessed that I have a family that highly supports me. Coming from the rural farm area, that's all I did was take from our farms and bring it to the urban area to make it bigger. 

Anna: To you, does protesting have value?

Tammy: It's a voice, I just don't do that. My voice is over here doing what I do. They're crying out; I think that everybody plays a role. That's their only way of getting a message out. I tell them, “I keep the children.” I have an agriculture childcare center. A safe haven with alarms, cameras. A learning institution to give them a jump start in life, an introduction to a sustainable career. Agriculture is sustainable. They don't have to worry about if they're going to have a job. Everybody has to eat, drink water, wear clothes, breathe air. That's all a sustainable lifestyle. I'm put on this earth to make sure children and people have a genuine opportunity to go to college and become agricultural leaders. That can be from a farmer up to the president. I'm trying to make sure the next generation sees that. Especially children of color. No one really gives a true chance, and really pours in resources (when I say resources, I mean money) into our children. Or their time. I have adults that come and try to take from their resources that I put here but I will not allow it. From putting their names on things, they will say they did something when children actually did it. 


When I came [to the Eastside] and I went to church in this community, that's how I knew it was such a broken community. When I tried to bring this same program to the church, they rejected it. They said, "No we don't want to do that." The only reason they were rejecting it, mind you, is because they were looking at me as an individual that was going to get something out of it. As you can see, I'm giving way more than what I give. So, that's where I saw the need. When I saw the church was broken, and there was an opportunity to help where I was bringing the resources, and they said no. And that's how I knew there was a problem. 

Anna: Do you think it's willful ignorance on part of leadership?

Tammy: I don't know what to say because if I was a leader and I was concerned about the Eastside community, I would know every business in my district. I would know what's going, what they're providing. I've literally had leadership (I'm talking about high leadership), I'm talking about the head of the head saying, "I didn't know this place was here. I've never heard of it." And I'm thinking, really? It's not that I'm hidden because if you drive by here all you see is pink and vegetable gardens everywhere all over the grounds. It's totally different from when the YWCA had it, who got a million dollars a year to sit over here. To offer services the community were not even utilizing, and that's why they offered me to buy it because they saw that I really took a genuine interest and put something tangible here. While they owned the property, I was developing their property that I didn't even own. As a result of that, their leadership said, "you really care about this community, do you want to buy this place?" And luckily my family has resources, they have properties and made things happen for me. Not money but they have properties and things that made things happen for me. 

Anna: Can you tell me more about the idea of using unused urban real estate for farming?

Tammy: Our Michigan chapter does that project. You have to have a team to do the work.

Anna: Do you think there are people willing to do the work if the opportunity is available? 

Tammy: If it was structured right and organized, oh yes. That's the goal—to create green jobs. That's one of the main things that I know, that's what motivates people more than anything. That they're able to eat and live a decent life. They'll be ok. And people will act different. The community will look different. This conversation would not be, "I'm so important and dear to you" if it was really taken care of and done the way it's supposed to be done. My goal is to make sure that the next generation does not become the same type people. That's all I'm about. I tell people all the time, "if you're not coming over here to help me and the kids, keep moving, because I'm not going to let you take from me. I am an educated woman. Anything that people think that they could scam or play games with, I've already been through it with all the stuff that's happened in this community, and I've seen it like I said, from the White House to the farm house. I've seen it. And I've seen older people who stand in the way and stop progress from children by using them to get their own two-week paychecks.

Anna: Do you think agriculture could be one of the keys to restoring the community so that it's more self-sufficient and the community members have more autonomy over their decisions? 

Tammy: Most definitely. I am working very hard and luckily, I do have a relationship with leadership. They're looking at me real hard to where whatever I'm growing, any grocery store that's coming in here, they will be buying from the community that's growing the food. So, they have a buy-in. 

Anna: What's your opinion on the effects of gentrification in the community? 

Tammy: It's going to do nothing but help. Let me tell you about this. Some of my best business partners are Caucasian. If they help, that's who I want in my community. I just think it helps. Because if they were going to do something, they would've done something. It's not that hard to help my community. I do know people of other races that I hire to do things with me and for me or work with them as a partner because they genuinely get stuff done with me. And that's the reason I believe in gentrification. And I'll tell anybody that. There's people that talk and there's people that provide action. I've noticed that in this community particularly, and that was one of the reasons I was going to lease my space out and move it to Atlanta. Because this is the headquarters. I tell them if you can do it Oklahoma, guys, you can do it anywhere because [Atlanta] has minority backing and leadership really helps them in other areas. 

If you own something with the land, it would be hard for them to take it away. But if you're not doing nothing with it, then let them come in and do whatever they're going to do with it to make it better. If they're going to come in and create jobs. It's too hard for me to really say, "no don't let it happen," or "don't do this." I'm one of those people, if you're doing something, you're doing something, and they shouldn't be able to take it away if you're doing something productive for the community as a whole.

Anna: In the Eastside, have you seen erasure of culture with gentrification coming in? 

Tammy: It looks better. I'm gonna be honest with you. I'm probably one of the few that would say that, but the ones who are arguing, I bet they haven't given $1000 over here to help. 

Anna: To you, do actions have much higher value than any words or language used by others? 

Tammy: So, what, you don't want people to come in here and make it look better? Or do you want to keep the same torn up, ugly environment, you know? When they start hollerin' and cryin' about Caucasian people comin in and buyin' up stuff. Well, what are you doing with it? Other than dirtyin' it up, throwin' things on the lawn. You don't help volunteer or maintain anything, so yah. 

Anna: How have you seen COVID affect the community? 

Tammy: It's crazy over here anyway, but yah. When I go into the stores, the mask protection isn't enforced. Just like the corner stores, it's not like what I see on my side of town, in the suburbs. I see our children just walkin' everywhere, and I'm like "why are we open?" I see kids out wanderin' everywhere. I see people walking around without any masks. It's just crazy. I see people just walkin' around like it ain't nothin', no masks, no nothin'. I'm like "wow." In my community, you can't go in a store [without a mask]. It's highly enforced. When I was in Dallas, we couldn't go into any store without a mask. I felt safer. When I'm here, I'm just like ugh. I hate to be like that, but if you don't have on a mask, I don't want to be around you. It's bad. It's leadership. That's the reason you young people need to run for office as well. We need younger leadership. 

Anna: Do any of the young people that you work with show interest in being involved, running for congress, or protesting?

Tammy: They may go to the protests, but honey, I'm trying to make sure they get through high school and try to get to college and the military. I have taken some of them to Washington D.C. They've seen politicians and they see them come over here and take a picture with them and they see them no more. They don't hear from them anymore. Hopefully one day I will find someone that will take that interest, but the thing I'm finding that's unfortunate is that the older the children are, after 13 years old, if they don't have certain structure and values and they're not AP students, it's almost impossible to bring them into this type of environment. That's the reason they have alternative schools and things like that. Because it's so broken down that I can't help them unless I try to get an alternative site for children or go to the site and partner and do projects on those sites with agriculture.

Anna: Can you tell me about the virtual learning center you’re providing at your facility to respond to school closures due to COVID?

Tammy: The two main things I'm working on is the virtual learning, cause you know they're saying, "hey they can do home school." I work in this community. I've seen parents, what they pour into their children. That's because they're either working or they live a whole different lifestyle that they didn't want to give up because they had kids. That's the easiest way to explain how our kids go without. 

It's totally virtual. I want to offer four hours a day. We'll give them some agriculture training and they'll learn how to grow food, and they can take food home if they want. Our community, some of the leadership act like it's so difficult. It's not that hard. I have leadership that goes "I didn't know this was here!" or leadership that goes "well what do you do?" Really? It amazes me that we have people like that, that’s over us. It floors me that people play such head games. I don't know what it is. I think they just talk and aren't really thinking about what they're really saying. Because if I was in leadership, and you were in my community and you were a national organization and you were doing all this stuff, and you were a woman, and a woman of color that chose to come here and do this for us, I would be all over it. I don't get it. 


You're leadership. You're supposed to lead the people to do better. If you really care. After the charter is done, I just plan to run for congress. That will be my next step in life because I don't plan to do this forever cause I'm getting older and someone else needs to take it over that has the energy. God chose me to help under-served children and I want to do it forever. I don't want to worry about their parent's income, I just want to get the money from the government to help take care of them. I don't care about all that other stuff. No matter what, the way the government is set up, usually the parent is in a catch-22. They make too much money, or they don't make enough. So, they're not able to get government subsidies. It's always a catch. And I'm like, I don't have time for that. I just want to be able to have scholarships for them to come here. 

Anna: Thank you so much for your time and talking to me today.

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