- Medical Doctor trained in family medicine, boarded in holistic, integrative medicine, living in Pembroke Township, Illinois
- Transgenerational Knowledge: During The Great Migration, many Black families migrated from the Southern-American towns to cities in the North; bringing with them practices of cultural wellness and self-sufficiency
- Food is Medicine: When food is grown in an ecological and sustainable way, it has the ability to provide healing phytonutrients to the body that prevent disease and enrich the soil. Greens in particular have incredibly powerful nutrients.
- It takes a village: Establishing a local food system will take a community effort, but will have an astounding impact on the physical, social and economic wellbeing of a network of communities it serves.
Layla is a co-founder of The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living (BOCSRL), a non-for profit organization dedicated to facilitating communities and being resilient to the impacts of resource depletion, climate change, and increased global population density. The eco-campus is based in Pembroke, Illinois, a historically Black township rich in culture and farming traditions. The center seeks to provide community members with skills to thrive in a low carbon, resource constrained world. This includes to grow food and insight to its importance. Layla is working with the center towards their goal of establishing a local food system that will span from the Pembroke/Kankakee area upwards through the south east suburbs on into the South and West sides of Chicago. This system will provide food security & “plant medicine” to multiple networked urban, suburban and rural communities. If accomplished, it will be ecologically and economically sustainable.
The center has completed seven seasons of farming; however Layla began to learn the power of natural foods and healthy eating a very young age. Growing up in Ohio, the elders in her family taught her to grow food and passed down knowledge of its medicinal value that they brought with them from the rural American South. She has since continued to incorporate this knowledge into her medical treatments and agricultural practices.
Through the NIFA,USDA Beginning Farmer Rancher Grant that BOCSRL was awarded from 2012-2015, research to develop a culturally specific curriculum for future African American farmers revealed that over 60 years ago, a well-established local food-system was thriving in Pembroke and throughout the Chicagoland area. Following the Great Migration, African-American families migrated North into an urban-industrial environment. Though many stayed, some families missed the connection to the land and left cities to establish Black homesteads along the southeast-suburbs of Chicago. These homesteads were the foundation of the local food network, where family farms up to 5 acres in size were common. Whatever was not eaten or sold by the family became a part of a larger food security network. During this time, food did not have to travel thousands of miles before it reached a table. The produce was local, sustainable, and filled with nutrients. The people were empowered, and unified through their shared interests. According to Layla, BOCSRL’s mission is tide to re-establishing this system.
“Food is Medicine…at least it certainly can be”
Her concept of plant medicine is where food itself is healing. Although she grows a number of plants and vegetables on the eco-campus, Layla is specifically interested in advancing the use of greens (leaf vegetables). Though European Kale has been more of a recently recognized trend, along with turnips, collards, and mustard greens, it has been integral to Black culture for decades. It is a staple in Southern-Black cooking, and can be traced throughout the Pan-African Diaspora.
In addition to cultural significance, greens are one of the simplest vegetables to grow. Their regenerative properties allow them to be harvested several times in one season, leaving the farmers a great return on their investment. The phytonutrients inside of them however are what she considers to be their most important benefit. Bitter greens (such as turnips and mustards) are very good for the liver and gall bladder, but greens in general tend to have a very healthy cleansing effect on the body.
In traditional Southern-Black cooking, greens were often prepared with pork. More recently turkey has been adopted as a substitute, but research has shown that this not is the best way to capture its nutrients. Layla recommends steaming and juicing greens to receive the maximum amount of phytonutrient energy. She believes this will help with prevention and intervention of disease, such as cardiovascular disease, including atherosclerosis, which causes strokes and heart attacks in which there are particularly high rates in the Black community.
In Pembroke, many plants with medicinal properties grow wild. One of Layla’s favorite plants to work with is Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum). It has adaptogenic properties and is good for arthritic pain. “Polk salad” (Phytolacca Americana), another good cleansing green is an old Southern favorite that also grows wild in Pembroke. It has to be cooked several times to be safe for consumption, but when prepared well it has a taste similar to asparagus.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiac) is a powerful herb that has wonderful benefits for women’s reproductive health. This is one of the many herbs that Layla is interested in cultivating, as women’s health and empowerment is particularly important to her. She says that Motherwort “is a friend to a mother from the time she becomes a mother to the time she loses her reproductive capabilities”. It helps with releasing the placenta at the time of labor, tightening the uterus, and is great for hormone regulation before and after pregnancy. She is interested in growing Motherwort and educating women on its rich properties.
It takes a Village
To address the serious issue of resource depletion on our planet, Layla believes it will take innovative grass root efforts to bring people together around food security and reducing our carbon-footprint. Changing the paradigm to addressing issues around food safety is essential. She is passionate about continuing initiatives in Pembroke Township because of the rich history of the land and people. Though it has been a very difficult process, she remains committed to helping economics in the form of agriculture become a hallmark of the community again.