Currently Spotlight: Mia Madison, Executive Director of Memphis Tilth

How Mia Madison, the Executive Director of environmental organization — Memphis Tilth — came into her role as an environmental justice leader.

Mia Madison has had an interest in the environment since she was a little girl. 

The self-proclaimed curious knowledge-seeker grew up with dogs and could regularly be found outside, tending to animals or admiring the trees. She also grew up with a spiritual connection to the land and recognized its healing properties early on in her life. 

Thanks to her grandparents, who regularly shared produce from their own garden with their community, she also learned about the power of community and collective liberation through a relationship with the land, soil, and food — an affinity that would stick with her throughout her entire life.

Madison almost pursued a career in criminal justice, until she learned about Jane Goodall, the famous British primatologist — this is, ironically, also one of the early leaders who piqued my own interest in the environment — and decided to consider roles oriented around the environment, instead.

This decision sparked a nearly three-decades-long journey that would ultimately lead the Executive Director of environmental organization Memphis Tilth, to where she is today.

Memphis Tilth is a non-profit working to cultivate collective action for an economically sustainable, socially equitable, and environmentally sound local food system in Memphis Tennessee. They currently deliver locally grown crops to 15 access points across the city.

It wasn’t until Madison transferred to the University of Memphis in the early 2000s to study geography, however, that she learned about the connection between environmental racism and marginalized communities. 

It was in urban planning and anthropology classes that Madison began to seriously flex her advocacy muscle. Although, she says that it’s her lived experiences — growing up in the South, witnessing and following white flight, creating poverty maps for the city of Memphis — that really informed a lot of her interest in community organizing.

“I started seeing — because this used to be a vibrant community that my grandparents raised their children in — record stores, grocery stores, shopping plazas, all close. But where did they go? They follow the people with the money. So firstly, the white people in these communities, and then the Black people in these communities.”

She began to see the real effects of environmental racism in her own community, and how things like white flight and a lack of “amenities” in BIPOC and/or low-income communities could lead to the neglect and downfall of a previously vibrant community.

“As my parents started to follow a better life, they took all of that income with them out of the community. So now I’m trying to figure out how we can redirect those funds back into these communities.”

Gentrification, pollution caused by environmental racism, and the poor perceptions surrounding poor and/or Black communities are among some of the reasons Madison was able to identify, through her years of research and applied practice, for continued divestment in cities like Memphis.

In the late 2000s, for example, while working for the city of Memphis as a geospatial planner, Madison began to draw the connections between structural inequality and quality of life in disenfranchised neighborhoods and how these aforementioned factors contribute to things like water quality  or the number of children in a household or community.

According to her, having a deep connection to and with the land reminds us of our inextricably linked relationship to the environment and is a gateway to liberation for all.

“Being able to grow your own food and have access to freshwater is freedom,” she says.

“Working with the soil reminds us of rebirth and reminds us that we are the environment.”

Her departing advice? Find an environmental issue that you’re passionate about, support its movement and stay involved. 

Through her activism, advocacy, and commitment to being a steward of the land and to her community, Madison reminds us all that having your basic needs met is environmental justice.

So whether you’re aiming to address homelessness in your community or get involved in local food systems as a way of addressing food sovereignty, may you always remember that your own liberation is inextricably tied, and bound up with, that of your neighbor.

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