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Reclaiming the Land Part 1: A conversation with Brandi Mack

Along with her daughters, Brandi stewards land in Sonora, California, where she is building space for Black women and women of color to ground themselves in nature.

By: Amanda E. Machado + Save to a List

On March, 2021, I spoke with Brandi Mack, the National Director and CEO of The Butterfly Movement, an organization that hosts camps, circles, trainings, workshops, and retreats designed to help women and girls activate a deeper connection with themselves and with the earth. In 2020, along with her daughters, Brandi bought land in Sonora, California where they are building a space to host workshops and circles for Black women and women of color to experience the land and ground themselves in nature. Below is a transcription of our conversation.


AM: What is your origin story for how you landed in this project?

BM: Like many people that came out west —African Americans in particular — most of us came from the South, and then settled in different parts of California. My family originally settled in Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Oroville, and then Berkeley [where I was born]. So I had the opportunity of not only living in the city but, in the Summer, coming to the country to my grandparent’s house.

I remember at my grandparent’s house in the country, thinking: “This is slavery. You have to pick your own food and stuff?” And: “Oh my god we have to eat a burger he made from the cows here? Did you see how thick it is? We can’t just eat at Mcdonalds?”

There was that disconnect, right? I was the kid that protested everything. I didn’t want to eat those eggs that came from chicken coop because “What’s wrong with them? They’re brown! We need to get regular eggs!”

I wasn’t realizing that my grandparents were “artisanal” before all this “artisanal” stuff came out.

And, at the same time, my grandparent’s house was always my solace. So as I got older, I returned to the things that I used to think were crazy as a way to navigate my world.

When I speed up now to my life and work in permaculture and designing and agriculture, I think my grandfather is probably laughing like hell.

AM: I so resonate with that. My grandmother was from Mexico, and an herbalist. And she used to sell her herbs in these mostly Latino swap meets. Now when I see these trendy herbalist shops in Berkeley selling the same medicine she used to make for three times the price, it’s just so wild to me.

BM: Absolutely. A lot of times when people ask me “How did you get into permaculture?” I joke “My ancestors built the pyramids. It's in my lineage.” Because sometimes, it’s asked in this way, like “How did this Black girl decide to do this?” And, we’re bigger than that. To limit ourselves only to the construct the United States has given us limits our capacity to do the work we’re supposed to do on the planet right now.

AM: Through doing this work, I keep coming up on this idea that it has to be an either/or: either I live in a city, or I have to double-down on living in a rural area. I’ve lived in Oakland now for almost four years and struggled with that decision myself: do I stay here, do I move to a smaller town, what’s the best way to connect to land in this moment? But I’m beginning to realize that it shouldn’t have to be about one or the other. Nature is everywhere, and ideally you find a way to be connected with land in all places.

BM: We have to think about why urban epicenters were created in the first place. Once slavery ended, we had to figure out how to monetize [labor] again. All these years we had it for free, so now we had to switch to other assets, like mass incarceration [to do labor for us]. So much of it moved people from land*, which, when we look at health research**, really wasn’t a great transition. 

All those things are connected, and we have to add all that when we think about cities.

This is not by haphazard. This is a clear, intentional design of this country from its inception, so how do we unlearn these behaviors? How do we recognize that we are all mycelium, we’re all connected? When you recognize that we are all feeding each other, then you can ask yourself what’s your part in this ecosystem? And how can we repair it for all of us?

I think that's the essential part when we think of housing and land and sustainability and urban and rural: why is it like this now? How did it come to this disconnect? What I love about working with the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network is that we’re really thinking about how we connect the two — urban and rural — to really create regenerative systems.

I think it’s essential not to “other’ rural or urban as it pertains to the climate. it’s causing us to have a separation, and in the end, we’re all going to be devastated by that — as we’re finding out.

AM: What questions do you think we should be asking when we think about buying land? What are we often missing when we have those conversations?

BM: I think the biggest thing we’re missing is relationships. There’s this very false idea of “move to rural land and be free!” after just one camping trip. Like, “This felt so good! I want to live rurally now!” But there are already people who live in rural places, and the question is: can you build a relationship with them? Can you add to this ecosystem as well? Instead of just being this person plopping down into the community here?

A big part of my success has come from having a community here. I didn’t just move to the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden there’s all these magical melanated women here. We built relationships. I know folks in the foothills, and we’ve celebrated Earth Day together. This hasn’t been a siloed journey. I’ve connected with a community that is connected here. Again, this is a mycelium network.

So when you think about the shift to rural living and how intimidating it is, part of it is first asking, do you have a relationship here? That’s moving out of the transactional way we usually think about things. And that’s tricky because that takes time.

AM: Yeah! We don’t like that! I’m so grateful you said that. As I’m seeing many people I know buying property and land, it’s all going so fast. It feels like a very classic capitalistic way of doing things to find the right “window of opportunity” versus figuring out what relationships you need in order to make something possible. So I’m really grateful you’re mentioning that part of the process.

It reminds me a lot of the similar idea in ethical travel to “only go where you're invited.” I think it can apply to land buying also. Don’t just plop yourself down somewhere, as you said, but ask: where do you feel invited to be there?

BM: Right, where do you have a relationship? Is it our goal to continue the colonial design? One of the biggest things we are doing is making sure we connect with the Me-wuk people here. We know that we’re on territory that isn’t ours. And we have worked to ensure they know that this space that we have, whatever part of it they need for ceremony, it’s available.

AM: You mentioned to me that the writer Joy A. Degruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and your grandparents inspired much of your work. Who else do you look to for inspiration in this kind of work?

BM: You know, after telling those stories about my grandparents, in the end, my family didn’t own their land. Because of the traumas and systematic designs of mass incarceration and the crack epidemic, there was nothing to pass down. So what pushes me is the secession.

I spent years traveling to intentional communities, really grappling with this question: how do I do this as a single Black woman, with three daughters? How do I live sustainably? In a space that is conducive to the environment and allows us to thrive? My whole goal has been secession.

And then, as we began to envision this place with the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network, and working with other single mothers figuring out how we’re going to do this, in the end, I ended up just cooperatively purchasing land with my daughter.

[After she graduated from Berkeley], she told me “Mom you have organized for their world. You have taken care of the community. How are you going to take care of yourself moving forward? What are you going to do?

It still blows my mind. I didn’t see this. I really thought I would meet some other like-minded people, and my kids would come WITH ME to do this.

AM: Turns out, your kids became the people.

BM: They became the people. And they’re so clear. I think it’s just so important that we think of creating intergenerational transitions. Too often we go to land, and everyone’s 32 or 29, no one has children, and we’re kind of living in this really siloed ecosystem. As I was thinking this way, the universe heard my real desire which was to make this generative, make it beyond me, make it beyond what I’m thinking, and beyond my own generation.

All my grandmothers have transitioned. So much of the work we do definitely stands on the shoulders of my ancestors, and the things they had or didn’t have.

AM: What is the dream for the place that you want to manifest in the next few years? Where do you see it? What are your hopes for the future?

BM: We’re just in phase one of this design process, which is building deeper all the spaces in the land, incorporating different communities, meeting key stakeholders that we want to support in doing that.

The intention is to build out the systems we have here so we can hold capacity for more women and groups. We are also looking to purchase the lot next door to expand our food foot print and add more dwellings that will allow folks to have more residencies here, and the space to work on their craft, in a space that is generated here with us. The extension of the lot would give us about three acres to re-imagine, re-activate- re-frame ourselves as it pertains to nature and personal development.

It’s now in zone zero, as we say in the permaculture space. We’re waking up every day inside of it. I’m thinking of all the different organisms that we’ll connect with here, and excited for all the people who have been on this journey with us.

My intention for this space is to open it up so more people can see themselves in rural areas. People always ask “How are you doing out there? Is there anyone else like you?” But again, that’s part of the bigger system too: to get you to live in fear. We have to get out of the fear.


To learn more about Brandi's work, stay updated on future events, and/or donate to the movement, you can visit www.thebutterflymovement.com. 

*In 1900, nine out of every 10 Black Americans lived in the South, and three out of every four lived on farms. By 1970, less than half of all Black Americans lived in the South, and only one in four lived in the region’s rural areas.

**According to a study published in the American Economic Review, 65-year-old Black women who migrated away from the South experienced a 43% increase in mortality rates. For Black men of the same age, mortality rates increased by 50%.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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