Woods & Wilds: The Podcast Episode 7

Join Dogwood Alliance and SlaytheMic as we collaborate to bring tales of connections to nature and music to you.

This week our hosts Kimala Luna from Dogwood Alliance and Elizabeth Lashay from SlayTheMic speak with Erniko Brown. Erniko is the founder of the nonprofit Organized Uplifting Resources (OURS) and is the newest staff member of Dogwood Alliance. Erniko talks with us about her Grandmother, learning and teaching patience within her community, and ways we can stay resiliently loving with our community and with ourselves.

Be sure to check out Erniko’s organization here. You can also read more about Erniko’s work in the full transcript of the interview below.

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Check out the full transcript of our interview with Erniko!

Full Transcript:

Elizabeth Lashay:
I’m Elisabeth Lashay with SlayTheMic and I am here with my wonderful co-host…

Kimala Luna:
Kimala Luna, from Dogwood Alliance, and we are so excited to have Erniko Brown. Erniko has devoted her life’s work to advocating for black communities. She tirelessly navigates beyond the hard conversations and drives support toward action. Her commitment is being a liaison between policy and politics to reconstruct a path of power building and power-sharing in black communities.
Erniko is from rural McCormick, South Carolina. She grew up on land that’s been in her family for eight generations. She was raised by her grandmother who emphasized the importance of education. She is completing a Master’s in Organizational Leadership from Columbia College, South Carolina. She completed her Bachelor’s in Human Services with a minor in community and organizational leadership and has received a certificate in faith-based nonprofit leadership from Wake Forest University, North Carolina.
Her love for people, nature, forests and advocacy keeps her organizing in the political spectrum. She currently resides in Greenwood, where she currently grows her nonprofit, Organized Uplifting Resources and Strategy, OURS, and builds power in frontline communities through connecting with community members and organizations. Oh my gosh, Erniko, welcome.

Erniko Brown:
Thank you all for having me.

Elizabeth Lashay:
Oh my goodness. Yes. Well, I have so many questions but I’m just like where do I start? Because that is such a powerful bio, and just who you are. But whenever I of the roots, the roots of who you are, and you, in your bio, mentioned growing up on land and your grandmother teaching you the essence of education. So let’s just go back to whenever you were five or six years old and what are those feelings that stuck with you to who you are today?

Erniko Brown:
Five or six, it was freedom. It was love, all love. My grandmother and grandfather predominantly raised us. My mom worked third shift, a single parent. But we had the nuclear family with my grandmother and my grandfather. So, it was always every morning breakfast, people looking out for us, having what we need. Couldn’t get in trouble at school because the principal was our cousin. Getting home, going out working in the garden, tending to the cows, and stuff. And it was freedom, it was home, it was love, it was beautiful.

Kimala Luna:
What a beautiful gift to have your grandmother be there for your early childhood. And I guess I just want to hear more about what you love about your grandmother.

Erniko Brown:
Oh, man. What did I not love about her? She had a 10th grade education, so she emphasized the importance of us getting an education. And I can remember a time, I think I was 21, young, wild, free, getting ready to move to California to serve as the Southeastern Regional Director for FEMA. And I called her and I was like, “Grandma, I’m getting ready to go.” And she was like, “Where are you going, child?” And I was like, “I’m getting ready to go. I’m going to do this job.” And she was just like, “What do you keep running from? Why do you feel like you got to keep running? You need to sit down somewhere, get an education. That way nobody can take it from you. Do the things that you need to do. Get a job so you don’t have to depend on nobody.”
And it was just like, listening to her, she would always say, “You do the right thing, the right thing will follow you. You do the wrong thing and the wrong thing will follow you.” And I owe everything that I am, everything that I’m leaning into, to her. I wouldn’t be the person that I am, where I am, doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for her.
So I thank God every day for that woman and her tireless work on this earth and her instilling values in us that she didn’t have and doing the things for us that she wasn’t able to do for herself. So, just an amazing woman, a beautiful, loving… I mean, anything, if I could embody love or put a face to love it would definitely be hers.

Elizabeth Lashay:
Oh, it’s just a little dusty in here or something. Thank you for sharing that. So I heard that you had animals. So you were growing up on this farm and, I want to talk about the comparison of what it takes to be in nature and grow up around all sorts of different animals on a farm, and who you are. So I know that was a really difficult way of framing it, but whenever you’re trying to cultivate something, I always think of cultivating my own dreams and trying to turn things into reality but taking that patience. And so I was wondering what are the similarities that you see from farm life and nature to what you are currently working on.

Erniko Brown:
Oh, cool. So, first off, it wasn’t exactly a farm. It was, like my cousins had cows over here. We had two acres of garden over here, a couple of pigs, one or two chickens. Everybody had the kingdom, and we lived out in a very rural area, so any given day you see squirrels, turtles, deer, armadillo, every now and then a bobcat, maybe one or two eagles. But yeah, you saw the entire spectrum because this is a naturalistic habitat.
Realistically, we live about five minutes from the lake and this lake goes around the backside of the house, so we have about five state parks within 20 miles. And also, let’s see, if you get out into the water and you probably go maybe five miles you’re over in Georgia. So that’s how close I am to the South Carolina-Georgia line.
But the comparison to everything that has gone on, first off, let’s be clear, out in the country, very little to no reception and it was like, “Heck, no. I’m young. I’m ready to get out of here. Ready to live.” So needless to say, when I was 17, 18 I moved away. At that time I didn’t see the value in what was there. But those rural roots were always rooted in me, and so it took me growing of age and seeing and having to come back home.
About five years ago my grandmother called me back home and told me that she needed me to take care of her because she wasn’t doing well. Getting back into that life as an adult and coming from the city back home, it was hearing the silence, the peace, being able to hear yourself think, being able to talk to family members and be out there and be in the midst of that. Because I come from a singing family, so our Sundays would be singing on the front porch, singing something grandmother wanted to hear. Having Sunday dinners every Sunday at her house.
Being back home and being rooted in those traditions and being taught patience at a mature age was what I essentially learned, when I learned the value of what home was and what home is. As opposed to going out into the world and being a part of the world, it’s more important to be representative and make it personal by being at home. So I’m learning that I need to take care of home because home is the place that took care of me.

Kimala Luna:
That’s beautiful. I’m so inspired by your grandmother and this concept of being a good example and planting these beautiful seeds for the next generation. And it reminds me of this Greek proverb that goes something like, “A society grows great when you plant trees that you’ll never enjoy the shade of.” And so, what are some of the trees that you’re planting that you may never enjoy the shade of?

Erniko Brown:
I think that in this space I am learning to be in long-term relationships and I’m learning to instill values. Because I have a seven-year-old nephew, and with COVID and everything nobody knows the day nor the hour. So I’m learning how to instill values in him, teach him patience, because he is definitely one of this new generation and instant gratification. Still trying to teach him the importance of the yes ma’ams and the no ma’ams and the yes sirs and the no sirs.
Out here in the community, trying to give off the importance of voting and how it can make a difference, and allows so many like myself, just trying to tell the younger generation about the things that are shaping the future. And the conversations that are being had are actually about them, and then need to make their voices known and heard.
So those are the things that I’m doing. Outside of that, more specifically, planting trees where they’re being uprooted, honestly. So a lot of these places, I’m out here getting seeds and throwing seeds. They’re out here cutting trees down. Who knows, 20 years, we don’t know. And that’s the timeframe that it takes to grow a very mature tree in order to help the land, honestly. So I’m here doing stuff I ain’t got no business, but I got business doing.

Elizabeth Lashay:
So you are literally planting, from the proverb in terms of being literal, and that’s amazing. That is amazing. Thank you. I also heard that you would sing songs you said.

Erniko Brown:
I said, I come from a singing family. I’m good on the background. The only person that ever really heard me sing or that I would actually sing a song for was my grandmother. So I haven’t sung in over a year.

Elizabeth Lashay:
Yeah. Are there any songs that really drive you and help you get through maybe a difficult time?

Erniko Brown:
Yeah. Actually, so this stems from my grandmother raising us and we grew up in church. So we were always on the choir, always singing and every Sunday morning we would listen to, with her, it was this old radio station and it was Gus Wilson Gospel out of Abbeville, South Carolina. So it was like quartet music almost. And so it would be that stuff, but even riding with her, anything, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs, the Canton Spirituals, any of the soul-stirring music, I would say, definitely a part of it. Things that will get me through times. She and I had a song, well it was a song we grew up listening to with her, by the Canton Spirituals, it’s called I’m In Your Care. And then there’s one called Memories. Yeah, that was one.
And there’s another one by Paul Porter featuring the Canton Spirituals, but those are songs I literally played those the last couple of days of her life, and those were literally the songs that I played as I prepared her for the… What do you call those little people? Coroners, to come and get her. So yeah, she instilled those songs. Those were her favorite songs and did everything I needed to do to send her off the best way I knew how.

Kimala Luna:
That’s beautiful. I guess I want to know about teaching the next generation patience, how you approach that? Because it is very similar to, it’s not how things grow, that we plant something and we go out the next day and get angry at it for not being a full-grown thing. So how do you approach that and teach the next generation patience for your nephew?

Erniko Brown:
With Jase, I guess I’m very, very old school when it’s… We’ve built a rapport over the years.

Elizabeth Lashay:
That’s a nice way of saying it.

Erniko Brown:
That’s right, that’s right. If I couldn’t do it, how can you? So for me, with him it’s definitely teaching those things, and in those moments where he is wrong redirecting him. That would be a good thing. And in the midst of redirecting him letting him know why it’s not okay.
As far as this entire new generation, just being open, honest, sincere and flow of comment, and letting them know how to move, letting them know what’s coming down the pipeline. The things that I know being in a position to disseminate that information to them so that they know. So that they’re able to make an informed decision about life, how to move, how to navigate it really, and just really keeping my hands intertwining with what they have going on.
So, and I’m here mentoring, kids I have been a tutor since I was 17, 18. They still call and stuff like that and I let them know the things that are going on. And I do my best to keep them abreast of what’s going on in the environment.

Elizabeth Lashay:
We’re seeing a lot of changes happening and whenever we talk about empowering others and empowering ourselves, it takes time and it takes lots of patience. If you had a magic wand or a magic rake or a magic something, shovel, to cultivate more, what would you want to change right now?

Erniko Brown:
Honestly, this whole COVID ordeal, the pandemic, the racism, the hate, and really incorporate healing because all of us need some type of healing in some type of aspect. Because we’re all dealing with various issues that are stemming from what’s going on with the economy, what’s going on with jobs, what’s going on with the current administration. It’s just a lot. We all need to hear something nice. We all need to feel something beautiful and we all need to heal in some aspects. So, that would definitely be it.

Kimala Luna:
Speaking of needing to hear something nice, beautiful, something healing, can you talk to me about your relationship to nature and how you feel when you go in the woods? Because I have this sense that you have a pretty deep connection there and I’d love to hear about it.

Erniko Brown:
Well, I come from the woods. I can’t help but to connect with them. I love, love, love. I am a country girl at heart. I love going to the lakes. I love being barefoot out in the dirt. I love playing outside with my nephew, and just being out there listening to the trees, being able to smell fresh air, breathe fresh air. Being able to just see the beauty that God has placed before us, and to know that these trees that are out here hold so many memories from me coming up. Yeah, we were talking about me being five, these same trees standing here as I am 33, and being able to share memories with them.

Erniko Brown:
Now that my grandmother is gone I can look at this tree and I can remember a time that we were out in the yard planting in the garden, planting all these different flowers, having a flower bed, having a garden, having rose bushes, having a table where we scaled fish that we caught. And just going back to these things and to these moments when I feel like I don’t have a direction, and being able to stand in those moments and be in a place where I feel most of my freedom. So being able to connect with those places and those memories gets me through a lot, it really does.

Elizabeth Lashay:
How would you suggest someone to access nature? Because there’s stigma and there’s thoughts and we’re always going in this busy direction, constantly busy, and we forget to take time and moments and go out into nature. What are some of your guiding principles and to tell people to get out there?

Erniko Brown:
So if you can’t get far away just get on your porch. Find a botanical garden. There are different places up in North Carolina. I’ve been to Brevard before, and I like waterfalls, just to smell the water, to smell nature, to smell how trees and water just mix and smell together is like a whole different thing and it gets you to thinking, it gives you freedom. Pine trees are just amazing. Cedarwood is beautiful and just being out.
If you can’t get far away from the noises, cut your phone off. Go sit on the porch. Go sit on your deck. Go sit out in the yard. And just take time, and if you don’t have time take time to make time for you, because you are important, your thoughts are important. Everything that you possess, if you’re not okay then your day isn’t going to be okay. So it’s of the utmost importance for you to take that time for you yourself. So make time to take time to go out and be a part of nature, because we’re so caught up in devices that it’s like we’ve got to be connected with something that’s tangible. And nature is tangible, honestly. Go out there and take your shoes off. Feel the different textures, hear the different things. You don’t always have to hear a vibration or a ring tone. Just hear something and hear the beauty of the freedom without it being attached to another person. Disconnect with the world to connect to yourself.

Kimala Luna:
Oh my gosh. Yeah, Liz and I… You can’t see it because we are just going to record audio here, but Liz and I are both snapping and applauding. All your words are hitting us so hard, they’re so beautiful. And you just started working at Dogwood Alliance so you protect southern forests now, and what do you want people to know about why it’s important to protect southern forests now more than ever?

Erniko Brown:
Why is it? Why isn’t it? This is the way that we breathe. That’s a whole married relationship right there. What we give off the trees take in and what the trees take in and give off is what we need. That’s a whole inhale-exhale dynamic. You need them.

The best way I can put it is we breathe easier when the world is green. That’s the best way I can give it to you.

Because we as humans are caught up in instant gratification, we’re caught up in greed, we’re caught up in building this powerful infrastructure while we’re tearing down naturalistic habitats for animals. And we’re offsetting the ecosystem, and with us offsetting the ecosystem we’re offsetting our livelihoods. And it’s just like we’re tearing up a place that can’t reproduce itself fast enough to keep up with what we’re doing. And nature’s going to be alright, because that’s nature. But are we?

Elizabeth Lashay:
And to touch on nature and just human life, can we talk about the intersections of racial identity and nature, and how it relates to the resiliency of just staying strong?

Erniko Brown:
So a lot of times, often times… You heard that I came from family land. So with that family land it’s important. These things that we have a lot of times we don’t feel like we have wealth, but nature is wealth. The health of nature is true wealth. And so to be in these places and be in these spaces, and being bought off by places like Enviva, where we are currently at a battleground, it’s really taking our power. And the forest deprivation that is going on, we’re really killing ourselves for a dollar.
And within the racial spectrum here in Greenwood, I am 7 miles from the Enviva Wood Pellet Plant. And so essentially I am affected by this. I also live in a low income impoverished neighborhood. And so they come in and they strategically place places like that plant in low income impoverished neighborhoods because these people who are in these neighborhoods are really figuring out how to get through the day. How to put food on the table, clothes on their kids backs, and how to get through what they’re going through. So they’re currently attempting an expansion.
With that, you have COVID going on, you have respiratory issues, all these different things that they’re combating, and they’re just trying to get through one issue, never mind the six or seven other things that they have going on. And the people who are for these organizations are part of the system, which is the good old boys system. And being in that space, they never have to breathe this air. They never have to worry about the air particles. They never have to worry about the injustices that are going on on this side of town. And their family either has wealth or comes from wealth, and so they don’t have to worry about what its like to rob Peter to pay Paul. They’ve never had these issues because they’re wealthy and well connected.
But these people who really have issues who are in these spaces, they have to worry. And when you don’t have people who are part of the conversation, who are working on your behalf, and who are throwing out ten dollar words… I think I was in the midst of a panel discussion and they said, I think it was economically challenged, but they were talking about Hilton Head, and they were talking about this community that was right over the road. And it’s like, “How can you talk about this community when this is just right across the road? This is our community.” So we verbally offset things. When we speak about them we don’t talk about our community because what we do is we build where it’s beneficial and not where it’s broken. Well, we should be building where it’s broken and not beneficial for one person.
And so it’s like there’s this continuing battle for people to understand this fight because people feel like the system doesn’t care about them, and it doesn’t because it’s not designed for them. And with that they have the rich are continuing to get rich while the poor continues to become poor. And you don’t have people who are actually concerned with the communities, but they’re concerned with their agendas for the communities.

Kimala Luna:
And for those folks who are just tuning in and who maybe have never heard about Enviva before, just talk about what Enviva is, what they do on a basic level for people who maybe have never heard about it before.

Erniko Brown:
Enviva is a wood pellet plant, essentially, and here they say that they’re cutting down trees that are no longer useful in nature, when in reality here in South Carolina they’re literally cutting down about 43 acres a day on a 75 mile radius. So that touches a great deal of South Carolina. And I’m in Greenwood, so that reaches from here down to Columbia and from here all the way up to Greenville, past Greenville and then honestly, reaches just the tip of Georgia, by McCormick.
So people who think they aren’t affected by this, that’s a really big cut. So yeah, in a place where you see trees being cut, nine out of ten it’s Enviva. So if you feel like you’re losing beautiful landscape, nine out of ten, this wood pellet plant that is cutting down trees at an alarming rate is the reason why.

Elizabeth Lashay:
This really impacts me and hurts my chest just even having this discussion because it’s just really anxiety-provoking. We’re at a disconnect. I keep seeing that, we are just disconnected as this world, as this country, as our neighbors, as a community, and I’m just trying to think on how do we get connected? Just like you were saying that this is a problem that they’re not listening to the people that this is impacting, or right across the road there is something else going on that some individuals can choose to ignore. So how do we bring it to where we can no longer ignore and just go ahead and address the situations?

Erniko Brown:
Well, you definitely need people organizing around the issues. And it’s honestly, at this point, it’s not enough to organize. We need good sound leadership and that’s one thing that we lack. And we’re always looking to these giants for direction. A lot of us fear standing in the gap and building again where we’re broken and where it’s not just beneficial for one person.
It’s not enough to just organize. You need people who are willing to stand up, people who are willing to stand in that gap. And I feel like a lot of us don’t do that because we don’t have the cash to fund our own organizations. We don’t have the capacity to walk away from positions that we hold in places, and we don’t have those connections that we need to be grounded in the work that we really want to do in a just manner. I guess we’re caught in a catch-22 and it’s like we feel the brunt of everything that has gone on. So the things that I can do within my capacity, raising awareness, amplifying the message, and I’m doing individual calls to action. We need people power and we don’t need a general purpose for being there. We need the people we need to be our ongoing connections. We need to be amplifying the message, not only in our communities but in our schools. We need to be talking to the students about things like the importance of having a business and creating a business account, over having a $220 pair of shoes.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I rock them. I do. But I also own my house, I own my cars, I own by land. And we need to talk about what equity is. We need to teach these things rather than having them learn them when they get out in the world. We need to be able to teach them these things now, because these are the bricks of the foundations that we’re creating for them to stand on.
So they only know information that we provide. And if we begin to instill those things at home and in our kids and in the community, and not being afraid of what somebody’s going to say, fashioning information and instilling information in a manner that is just and understandable to our children. And teaching them the right things and the wrong things and learning to have patience with them, I think that will bring about a change.  Instilling old school education, as my grandmother used to call it, because that’s definitely what I have. And just loving on the values, the principles and the morals that we used to have, because everything really is coming full circle back to the things that they used to do. So just partaking in those practices of previously lived with where we didn’t have much but we had each other. Right now we need each other. So, that’s about it.

Kimala Luna:
Yes. I feel like we’re touching on this beautiful theme of power respects power, and one way that power comes through is through ancestral wisdom. And I just really appreciate all the different ways that your grandmother has been with us today. And I also understand that when people cross over that conversation doesn’t end. So what are the conversations that you’re having with your grandmother right now that inform your work?

Erniko Brown:
Oh. Getting the education. In the midst of me you reeled off a lot of stuff that I’m doing. It was important, she always said that I needed to get an education because nobody can take it from me. She would also tell me to get an education because it just wasn’t for me, it was for me to utilize to help somebody. And she would also tell me to get an education because she only had a 10th grade education, so it wasn’t just for me, it was for us. And so she always instilled that value of togetherness, the value of loving unconditionally, and that value of making sure that you know that you’re loved. And for me, I get up every day motivated because I’ve got to help somebody like she helped me. I’ve got to pray for somebody like she prayed for me.
I had a near fatal car accident about 11 years ago, and when I woke up after them basically putting my head back together, I woke up to my grandmother saying, “Lord, save my baby.” Prior to the accident I had always been joined at her hip but it was a more gratifying relationship that we ended up having. And just like she was like, “Lord, save my baby,” and she was praying over my bed, when my grandmother passed I was preparing her and praying over her bed. And so you give what’s been given to you. There’s always an energy on a passing that never transcends time but transcends hearts. So those things that she taught me in that relationship, I’m always trying to give it to people and you love people. She always told me to tell people you love them because you never know the last time they heard that, and you give love because you never know the last time that they were given it.
So, it was always about loving all people, it was always about building people up where they fell short. And it was always about giving to people. In this world that we’re living in now people are so rapped up into what they can have for themselves and not what they’re creating longterm for their people. And with, particularly the black race, I think that we’re getting back to where we’re loving on each other with intention. Once you have that intention you have a power that nobody can come against. So it’s all love, it’s black love, it’s beautiful, it’s intentional, and we’re going to get it right eventually. So, we’re here.

Elizabeth Lashay:
That’s absolutely beautiful and I just want to say thank you for standing in the gaps, but not only standing in the gaps but creating space and nurturing yourself to stand anywhere that your presence needs to be. So, I think it’s just extremely important that you continue to do this work. But also know that you have so many people that are behind you as well. What’s next? What is next for you in terms of where do you see yourself? I don’t want to do too long-term, but in one year, where do you see yourself?

Erniko Brown:
One year I will have walked across that stage with that Master’s Degree. One year, hopefully, we are in another house, a bigger house. I need a basement. Just put that out there. I need a basement. Continuing to grow my organization by being in a space where I’m able to work in full-time, servicing the community. Because there is a component that I’m building specifically within my organization that I really think is beneficial to the black community. So, stay tuned.

Kimala Luna:
I love that. So we are definitely reaching the end of our time and I know we’re so… This was amazing. And thank you so much for being on the show with us. And is there anything else that you want to tell anybody tuning for Woods and Wilds?

Erniko Brown:
Whatever work that you’re in, whatever space you’re in, be intentional about doing the right thing. Because if you’re intentional then that means that you intend to want something beautiful to come into fruition. Just love on what you’ve got going on, nurture those things and be prepared for something beautiful to come in the future.

Elizabeth Lashay:
Yes. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Erniko Brown:
Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ladies, for having me.

Kimala Luna:
Yes. For your organization or how people can tune into what you’re up to, what are some good places they can check out?

Erniko Brown:
Okay. So my website is ourstrategies.org. The email is [email protected] Shameless plug. If you care to donate to our causes there is a place on the page where you can donate. You can subscribe to our monthly subscription. And yeah, feel free, connect. And if you have projects that you want some help on, if you have some messages you want to amplify, feel free to reach out.

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