When Melanie Lino, co-owner of Lit (a Bethlehem coffee roastery and bakeshop beloved by locals) looked to the Lehigh Valley for a space where Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) could connect with nature and each other, she realized that her community was lacking an important resource. So, she decided to create it herself.
“I was searching for something in our area where Black and Brown people can connect to Earth and reclaim space, and I couldn’t find it,” Lino said. “So, I had this idea, reached out to my beautiful friends and…” Afros in Nature was born.
Along with co-founders Nia Watson, Amanda Jimenez and Louis Rivera, Lino built an organization through which black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are able to thrive. Afros in Nature creates opportunities for socializing with others, tending to mental health and connecting with the natural world through outdoor activities like hiking, communal gardening, paddle boarding and sustainable food cultivation, along with COVID-safe virtual events.
The organization has a deeper mission, too: providing resources to educate and empower those suffering from systemic racism and oppression. It is more than a group with shared interests; it is a space where BIPOC can safely discuss the challenges they face in today’s world and learn to utilize their natural environment in a way that benefits their mental health and quality of life.
“Our idea of just meeting up once or twice a month to go on hikes and take in the healing benefits of nature has blossomed into something greater,” Lino said.
With plans to open a nonprofit cafe in Center City Allentown that will offer inclusive pricing and provide jobs for inner city youths, Afros in Nature hopes to reach a wide number of underserved Lehigh Valley community members — a mission that holds a special place in Lino’s heart.
“About a year ago, [Lit] was presented with the opportunity to open up a second location in Center City Allentown, on 7th St. I was an inner city kid, and this building is a few houses down from my childhood home, so obviously I was emotional about it,” Lino said.
However, she and her business partners became increasingly worried about starting a for-profit business during COVID and feared that it would promote gentrification of underserved communities, thus displacing or causing problems for those living there. Then, Lino had a lightbulb moment.
“While checking the space out again, I had an idea about opening up a nonprofit cafe instead. I suggested it to the developer, reached out to the team to see if there was interest, and everyone mentioned that this is a must,” Lino said. “We are creating this space for the community. It will prioritize providing employment to inner city teens and young adults, programs for early learners to connect with nature and a green growing space that will allow members of the community to learn how to produce their own food.
Lino added that the location has a communal space with enough room to prepare meals for the homeless and double as an area to gather, educate and empower BIPOC voices. Menu pricing will be on a sliding scale, meaning that those with a lower income can still enjoy fresh, high-quality food, and those looking for a way to give back will be able to help out their community while enjoying a delicious meal.
“Everyone has the right to enjoy a farm-to-table experience, and the income one makes shouldn’t determine the quality of life one deserves. Basically, we are all collectively taking the skills we have (and love to do) and putting them back into the communities that need uplifting the most,” Lino said.
Afros in Nature aims to continue growing its community and impact across the nation and, its members hope, even across the world. Those who wish to support its mission are welcome to donate and volunteer.
“Our proudest moments, I’d say, are when people in the community donate their time, efforts, knowledge and expertise to help empower the lives of others,” Lino said. “It’s rewarding to see other people recognize that the human experience is greater than just our own personal journey. When we reach our end, what will always matter is what is left behind for others to find inspiration and also grow.”