The strength of TigerMountain Foundation
The first few steps
Darren Chapman grew up in Phoenix and Los Angeles during the 1970s, going to school in both cities for half of the year. Darren was caught between two cities. But for Chapman, it was not much of an issue. Getting a nice long ride on to and between school and back was always enjoyable. “I would sit and look out those windows and go, ‘Wow, man. Look at all of that — just land. Birds swooping’,” he said. “For me, it was the coolest thing in the world.”
For most of Darren Chapman’s life, now 55, he felt that there were only two options for him in life. He could either make A name for himself in the rough neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Or he could create and help build up the community. Even though he was almost sure that he would never be fully accepted into it anyways.
Chapman History then…and now
The stories of Chapmans ancestors and the way they had lived did not seem too foreign and different from his word now. His great-grandfather had been enslaved and forced to “sire” children who would also be enslaved. After emancipation, the family sharecropped in Texas. Where he later fathered his 25th and final child — Chapman’s grandmother.
Grandmother Jane’s wisdom
Darren’s grandmother, Jane Watson, eventually got married to his grandfather. In which was a catcher for the Austin Black Bears. A team in the Negro Baseball League. Watson caught his eye while he was “barnstorming” through Texas. They eventually moved to California, to a part of South LA now called Fruit Town. A nod to its agricultural roots.
There, Jane tended to a huge garden bursting with fruits and vegetables. Kumquats, peaches, plums, turnips, collards, and carrots. Her garden would inspire Chapman’s path later in life. He founded a co-op gardening initiative in LA before moving it to and expanding it in Phoenix in 2005. But Chapman’s work and the work of others like him today shows that even environmental and conservation work can be fraught for someone who’s Black.
An Arizona State University Doctoral student worked with Black colleagues across the country to start #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter and call out the conservation and science fields for doing little to support diversity and fight racism within their own institutions.
A man who started a community gardening initiative held space for conversations about enduring racism while his young workers stretched in a circle in the early morning hours before taking a shovel to dirt.
Harsh words of the pandemic
Protests against racism and police brutality continue throughout the country and the COVID-19 pandemic increasingly spreads. Disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities. Chapman is one of many in the Black community feeling the electricity of this moment. The anger of seeing entrenched racism continues to show itself in horrific ways.
On Memorial Day, social media raged against a white woman’s racist attempt to seek the arrest of a Black birder in New York’s Central Park. While a few hours later in Minneapolis, a white police officer pinned a Black man under his knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Leading to this man’s horrifying death.
The two Memorial Day incidents, both captured on video, got to the crux of how deeply ingrained racism impacts Black people throughout the country. One captured the horrors of police brutality, the other illustrated the myriad ways in which racism emerges in daily life, potentially leading to deadly consequences.
Our communities response
In response, industries, environmental groups, and political leaders have put out statements to proclaim their solidarity with the Black struggle. For many in the Black community, while the conversation is seen as necessary, the action is late.
As a kid living in Los Angeles, Darren’s grandmother’s garden helped feed and care for his neighborhood. “You didn’t know that you came from a low-income family,” Chapman said. “You ate energy if you can possibly imagine it. I don’t ever remember being hungry.” Says Chapman.
The family would go to the outskirts of the city to hunt, then make cottontail stew with the vegetables they grew in the garden. His grandparents traded fruits and greens with their neighbors. “I always remembered this really cool way of the community coming together around agriculture,” Chapman recalled. “The land was abundant and very kind.”
But even though this community was starting to form around agriculture, the gang violence continued to keep growing. And Chapman grew right along with it falling into it as a means of survival.
“You’re seeing people die that are your age, you’re being told in grade school that your life expectancy as a young Black man is 25 years of age,” Chapman said. “So, you know that you are in something that’s not good, growing up around the gangs, growing up around the violence. I needed to be able to defend myself. I didn’t want to be a guy who hurt anyone, but I did want to be a guy that you didn’t mess with.”
The birth of “Tiger”
The nickname his grandmother gave him at birth, “Tiger,” would be earned and known throughout the streets. When in Phoenix, Chapman saw an open and positive opportunity. The lifestyle he grew up with was not a sustainable way of life, but his fellow gang members were closer than brothers to him.
“In that world, I am somebody and I have placement, regardless of what the endgame is,” he said.
“I don’t have to try to acclimate and fake and be something that I’m not. I can just be a kid from the hood who was accepted by other kids from the hood,” he said. “But I wanted to try to better myself and be part of a fabric of conformity that, maybe, would allow me to not kill or be killed.”
Darren eventually got into Arizona State University and started teaching in Scottsdale during his senior year of college. But Darren, even though he thought he was doing everything right, continuously got pulled by multiple police officers for what seemed to be no reason except for race.
“Instead of looking like somebody going to school full-time, I looked like somebody who spent their time robbing fast-food places,” Chapman said.
Caught in a perpetual “ebb and flow,” as Darren Chapman put it, he floundered between contorting himself to fit into a predominantly white world that seemed to treat him differently no matter what he did, and dangerous life on the streets that would likely leave him dead at a young age.
After all of the gang-related violence, addiction, jail, and multiple detention centers, he came to a realization of the false promise of hard work leading to a “white picket fence, or the American Dream as I thought it was” for someone who looked like him, Chapman said.
Brutal society and the police
In Scottsdale, where he taught at a school for a semester while at ASU, he was pulled over often and discriminated against by coworkers.
“Why on earth would I keep trying to be part of this society? This is the American dream? To somehow be OK with folks that do not really necessarily like you for who you are? I didn’t want to conform to that world,” Chapman said.
After an incident with a police officer during his senior year at ASU, Chapman returned to LA. There, he felt the constant pull of what he calls the “abyss” — the dark world of gang violence and depression where, despite its dangers, at least he had a place. He thought it was his only other option.
“I was thinking the way to go is back into the depths of my despair, ugliness, darkness,” Chapman said. “Because at least there, I was going to die fairly. Here, in this other world, I would not even see it coming. I was like a deer in the headlights.” At age 25, Darren sat in a maximum-security cell. But Darren recognized after expecting not to make it out.
“I’m thinking that I’m wasting my life, I might as well be dead because this isn’t living,” Chapman said. “I saw my grandparents hunt jackrabbits in the middle of Los Angeles. It worked for them. So, I realized that there were ways to do things that may be vastly different than the traditional white picket fence way of doing things.”
Chapman’s grandmother would often tell him, “Son, you can’t change the world.” But there was always a hidden option: He could build another one. His nickname, Tiger, would later come to represent something other than only toughness, scrap, and bite.
Others like us
It would come to represent “Tenacity, Integrity, Greatness, Empowerment, and Resilience.” The seeds of the TigerMountain Foundation, a non-profit Chapman founded to help people in south Phoenix, had been planted. The foundation works closely with formerly incarcerated people and those with substance abuse issues in its overall mission to grow and sell fresh produce through community gardens.
When Earyn McGee saw the viral video of a white woman threatening to call police on Christian Cooper, a Black man, while he was birding in New York’s Central Park, she felt a familiar mix of outrage and sadness. A 25-year-old Ph.D. student studying wildlife conservation and management at the University of Arizona, she has experienced the ways racism plays out in the mostly white spaces of science and conservation.
“Christian Cooper could have been literally anyone of us,” McGee said. “As grad students, as people who do research out in the field, a lot of times we are out there in jeans and a T-shirt. It’s not like we have official clothing.”
For support, she reached out to her #BlackAFinSTEM colleagues, a group of Black scientists, students, and educators at universities around the country who have built a community on social media. She helped co-found #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter to boost the visibility of Black nature enthusiasts and highlight the value of racial diversity in conservation.
The Kick-off point
The kickoff of the social media push coincided with mass protests against police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer pinned him by the neck for nearly nine minutes, despite his cries of “I can’t breathe.”
“A lot of us had the same shared experience, especially with Christian Cooper, we wanted to show that police brutality and racism in America does touch into the natural world and does touch scientists,” McGee said.
So far through her academic career, McGee made it her goal of helping improve access for students and children of color, increasing diversity in conservation. As a graduate student mentor to the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, she takes undergraduate students out into the field with her on research trips. She is responsive to social media through her #BlackAFinSTEM community.
Our step into the garden
In their own ways, McGee, Elcock, and Winzer are working to break down these narratives. McGee through her dissertation on Black women in the sciences. Her social media presence and work with the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program; Elcock makes entertaining TikToks. These TikTok’s help provides fun facts about the world’s lesser-known creatures; Winzer founded an Adopt-A-Butterfly program that raises funds for the City Kids Wilderness Project. A program that teaches underserved kids outdoor leadership skills.
On a morning not too long ago, before the summer heat became too overwhelming, a group of people, mostly young Black men, put shovel to dirt and gingerly placed saplings into the ground on newly shaped berms. Designed to funnel rainwater to the plants’ roots.
Building our world from the ground up
Those final touches were the culmination of a greening project in south Phoenix that transformed a barren strip of land into a desert-adapted landscape, one that will improve air quality in one of the most polluted sections of the city and reduce temperatures in a neighborhood that can be up to 13 degrees hotter than one with more trees and vegetation just two miles away.
The Lindo Park-Roesley Park neighborhood in south Phoenix was founded back in 2018 by researchers from the Nature Conservancy, Arizona State University, Maricopa County Department of Public Health, and other groups as one of 31 “hot spots” in the Phoenix metro area. Where community members have experienced exceptional difficulty with heat. In the neighborhood, a coalition of community garden organizations, including Darren Chapman’s TigerMountain Foundation. Turned a once-vacant lot into a flourishing community garden. Chapman and his coalition of young farmers implemented the final greening touches.
The dark reality of life
“I remember this all used to be dirt,” said 16-year-old Daniel Herron, who is part of TigerMountain’s workforce development program, which employs young people to help grow, harvest, and market the fresh produce from the organization’s various community gardens. “We transformed it with a lot of time and hard work and effort to get it to look like this. I feel accomplished.”
“This is like a second home to us,” said Michael Petit, Herron’s 10-year-old brother.
This place, a 19-acre urban farm called Spaces of Opportunity, is one of Darren Chapman’s new worlds. It is a way for him to build and extend his vision of a more equal, sustainable, and accepting world.
Showing my Purpose
“What Darren wanted to do was bring a lot of people in from the community, from different ethnicities, primarily Black, African American over here, but we have people of all color, all races helping us out,” Herron said. “Basically, we wanted to put out the message that no matter what you look like, it shouldn’t determine the way you should be treated.”
The brothers have worked for Chapman for a few months, but they plan to stick around if possible. Petit already describes himself as Executive Director in Development.
For Chapman, who spent much of his life thinking there were only two options. Only two kinds of worlds — gangs or an unattainable white picket fences. TigerMountain has allowed him to realize he can forge new paths. He can help others do so too.
“What I see often is folks who are embracing themselves. Embracing others,” Chapman said of the impact he sees on his TigerMountain participants and the surrounding community. “Understanding that they deserve better happiness. Here’s a way that you can have quality of life. Hopefully, we can extend that as our world gets a little bit bigger.”
Giving back to the community
Still, the minefields of the world today infringe upon Chapman’s dream. Just a few years ago, he was pulled over by police in Scottsdale after attending a board meeting there.
“He was beside my car, he had his hand on his gun and I had my hands up in the air,” Chapman said. “I was ready to get the heck out of Scottsdale. But we are going to create our own world where we can be OK. So, I have come to realize this: that is how we make our lives matter. We do not ask people anymore; we work from a sense of placement and empowerment. And then we’ve got something cooking.”
Erin Stone covers the environment for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Send her story tips and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @Erstone7.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
TigerMountain Foundation and who we are
At TigerMountain, a person’s performance, merit, and personal familiarity with the problems at hand are the only things that matter for leadership positions. Our CEO and approximately half of the participants are also African American. Additionally, the community we serve is largely made up of marginalized persons of varied ethnic compositions.
Challenged Communities need help, especially with areas where there is increased incarceration and poor health choices. The TigerMountain Foundation reverses that problem through our community gardens and landscaping initiatives. These initiatives teach practical life skills to kids, adults, and seniors. Helping to keep them out of jail, and improving their lives. While also improving their community. We are a Non-Profit Community Garden located in Phoenix, AZ. See more of the TigerMountain Foundation at work in the Video Library.
Our mission is simple here at TMF: To empower communities to better themselves from within. Overall, we do this through community garden volunteer work through Co-Op gardens in Phoenix, AZ, and landscaping initiatives. South Phoenix has many challenged communities where we work. There are high rates of incarceration, poor health choices, and also a low ranking education system. So how do we combat these challenges? Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). That just means we don’t give a handout, we give the community a hand up. For questions or concerns about volunteering, call 602-687-7725, or send us a message here. Learn more about our organization at www.tigermountainfoundation.org.See Details