Reclaiming the Land Part 3: A conversation with the founders of Shelterwood Collective

By: Amanda E. Machado + Save to a List

Shelterwood Collective is a Black, Indigenous, and Queer-led organization set to buy 900 acres in Northern California for land restoration and community healing.


The founders of Shelterwood believe our relationship to land defines our future. But current models of land stewardship, they argue, rely on systems and structures that act as if society were separate from nature, and ultimately lead to more harm than good.

In response, Shelterwood strives to become a Black, Indigenous, and Queer-led “forest-farm and educational center coupling community healing with ecosystem restoration.” Through their example, Shelterwood aims to model “how ecosystem health can only be achieved by actively and simultaneously healing people and land from centuries of extractive violence.”

Shelterwood roots its work in the belief that it takes a village to take care of land and of each other. Their long-term vision is to ultimately create 100,000 stewardship collectives, led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color land protectors. They received their first round of funding in August, and now are working to buy 900 acres of land in Northern California in the next few months.

Because Shelterwood is committed to a non-hierarchical governance structure with shared power among the founders, they asked that I interview all three founders for this piece. I spoke with Nikola Alexandre, Layel Camargo and Sovereign Xaviar Oshumare separately from December 2020 - June 2021. To honor their commitment to collectivism, rather than separating each interview, I’ve included excerpts from all three below.

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AM: What are the origin stories for Shelterwood? How did you all arrive at this work?

Sovereign Xavier Oshumare: Years ago, while working in the Bay Area, I remember a white colleague coming to work, bragging about their experience at Burning Man. As I listened to their story, I just kept asking “Where is that for Black folks?” A friend responded: “You know, you can build that.”

So I took her advice, and made an event called Xrysalis, a retreat for 50 queer people of color to come into nature, relax and communicate outside of whiteness and white supremacy. This was my opportunity to see if I could create a container for this kind of experience. The result was amazing; it was beautiful to watch people cultivate a deeper level of intimacy and curiosity about who they were in community with, by spending time together in nature.

Once you know something, you can’t unknow it. So after experiencing that space, I kept reflecting on more questions: how can queer people of color exist in a society that is always trying to dictate how we show up? And neutralize our power when we show up? How could we instead create a space to heal from that? That evolved into the idea of Shelterwood.

Layel Camargo: I came into this work from a climate, environmental perspective. I came in wanting to be champion for closed circular economies, but then realized that being in relationship to land was central in order to close that loop of waste.

If you look at the scale at which white supremacy has dominated the global management of land — from extraction to agriculture to housing —it's going to require at least 50-60% of people of color at a global scale to reclaim their right to manage land and right to steward and live among natural ecosystems. In order for us to empower people of color to reach the scale we need to survive as a human species, and shift the economy that is currently causing climate change, that’s going to require diverse examples. At the end of the day, at Shelterwood, we’re trying to be an example for that large scale shift.

Nikola Alexandre: When the U.S. was first conceptualized, it was as a place where resources would be extracted. The land itself, the Indigenous folks, the Black folks that were brought here to extract nutrients from the land — all of it was resource-oriented.

When I began doing land stewardship work professionally, I kept coming across all these jobs where folks use technocratic tools to find out what is happening on the land, and that makes you decide how you should treat it. Essentially, it treats the land as if it was some sort of machine. There’s lots of reasons why we got to this point — one of the main ones, of course, is that under colonization, you have to abstract the environment, and make it seem like it’s separate to people. Then it’s much easier to dominate and extract resources from it.

If land is seen as a relative, as a member of your community, then it’s harder to justify extraction, land rape, and land destruction. There were intentional reasons why that occurred and why it persists today — even if it's not as explicitly said in those spaces today.

A lot of folks are trying to address land restoration, without trying to address why folks are hurting. So what we’re trying to do is to offer that healing, so that when we heal each other and heal as a community, in doing so, we also heal our relationships to land.

AM: In my last essay about the unique relationship people of color have to land, I mentioned Bell Hooks’ book Belonging: A Culture of Place, where she speaks to how slavery disconnected Black folks from land, and created a crisis of identity. Even Harriet Tubman, towards the end of her life, ultimately realized that the way to be revolutionary was to connect deeply with a sense of home. How are you thinking about that in this work?

NA: For me personally, it is definitely an exercise in finding home, of what it means to be a stolen person on stolen land, and creating home in these particular times.

In indirect terms, we’re thinking about questions like: what does it mean to build Shelterwood with Indigenous groups that may or may not be on their historical land? How do we work through supporting Black reparations and Indigenous land back movements at the same time? How do we think through the nurturing of land shifts? How do we ensure that those acres go to who has the historical right to take care of them, and those that are in search of home?

AM: Within that, I’m curious how you think about issues of private property and issues of Indigeneity as you grapple with being a landowner? I think that’s where I and my friends have gotten stuck. Even on a smaller scale, when I consider buying a house right now, I’m asking “Is that the right thing to do when that doesn’t align with any of my politics?”

What ideas have come up for you — on an individual level, and also on a wide-scale level — while building Shelterwood?

NA: At Shelterwood, the very minimum we’ll do is allow neighboring tribes to have access — in perpetuity — to our land. That’s the easiest side of the spectrum. The more complicated but far more important question we are grappling with now is how we set up governance for Shelterwood so that Indigenous groups get to have a strong say of how it will be run, who will get to access it. We’ve already decided that our board of directors will be all Black, Indigenous, and people of color, but then, do we go further with that and make it 50% Indigenous? Are there ways we can align our work with other LandBack efforts and initiatives? How can we build deeper relationships with local Indigenous groups, as non-local yet displaced peoples? We’re still thinking of how to structure that. We want to do it in a way that allows folks to think about “ownership” and allyship of land in support of decolonization, re-indigenization and reparations.

We don’t say we’re actually acquiring land. We say we’re paving a ransom on land; we’re trying to decenter the idea that the land can be commodified or owned.

AM: How is Shelterwood thinking about land collectives in a unique way, compared to other similar POC projects or initiatives?

LC: A lot of POCs (people of color) come into land work from an agricultural perspective — to make and grow our own food, as we are the first hit by food deserts and food swamps. Reclaiming how we get food is a big entrance for many POC communities into this work.

At Shelterwood, we’re going to have 2-3 acres to grow our own food, but we also want to have acres focused just on forest management. That’s particularly important for us here in California where wildfires are our biggest climate change threat at the moment. In order to be able to survive, we’re going to need large-scale forest management not only at the hands of our fire departments, but also in Indigenous communities and small organizing communities. We want to be a part of that.

And as a queer-led organization, I also don’t think we’ve even begun to realize how much we have to offer in land stewardship because of our resilient nature as queer people. I’ve thought about this a lot going into Pride month: we’re already used to being ostracized by society, and having to think of alternatives. We are used to being put in the worst of circumstances and showing up and seeing the bigger picture, with the importance of rebuilding community. And that’s what wildfire management is going to require of people. I think it's that level of resiliency that makes us such amazing candidates as land stewards on a long scale.

I think the same could be said about folks with disabilities or neurodivergent perspectives self-organizing to manage land — every single category that capitalism has said isn’t worthy of being economically viable. When we self-organize, I just think about how much we can offer and be creative in our solutions to climate change.

AM: What is your advice for individuals, especially white folks, about how they should be grappling with land decisions in their own life?

NA: One of the most powerful things white folks can do is really understand their relationship to land, where it comes from, and how it informs their engagement with land activities.

One concrete example: two movies came out relatively close to each other in the last year. One was Kiss the Earth, and the other was Gather. Kiss the Earth got a lot of attention, and was primarily focused on white folks, and Indigenous ideas re-appropriated by white folks in the goal of combating climate change.

What I’d really love is for folks to understand the colonial nature of that, and understand how Indigenous ideas keep getting co-opted. I’d ask folks to be very skeptical of any land organization led exclusively by white folks, and instead support BIPOC-led organizations, give them money, use social media networks to lift them up. When the media amplifies the work of only white folks in this space, consider who is not at the table and elevate those who have been doing amazing work for decades, but have been undervalued.

Folks can also start investigating and connecting with land trusts in their area, and start to generally think about these collective forms of government and oversight for land. Those examples can hopefully encourage others to abandon the ways we’ve made traditional life milestones out of the commodification of land: buying a house, letting it appreciate in value, selling it for more.

But honestly, the first most important thing white folks can do is just stop causing harm.

AM: As you all continue developing Shelterwood, what is a question about your work that you are still sitting with?

SXO: I’ve reflected recently about what it looks like to take the essence of what we created, and access that in a city. What would Shelterwood look like being in a city? The essence of what we’re building needs to be available to some extent in any neighborhood, and parcel of land. We need to hold that people are going to live in cities, and you need to make something for them too.

I’ve always been a believer of spectrum, expansion, and circle. So I’m thinking about: how do I get someone to see a house and apartment to be just as sacred as a tree? Because in the end, it’s just a reconfiguration from the structure itself to its materials, to what it provides for people and animals.

We want to cultivate the mindfulness to connect with land in these deep impactful ways. To get folks to listen: “Don’t forget about us, we’re still land too, it just looks different.”

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Shelterwood is actively fundraising to purchase and restore their community forest and retreat center in Northern California. To learn more about Shelterwood Collective and donate/contribute, you can visit their website: https://www.shelterwoodcollect...

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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