Imani Black Is Creating A Global Network Of Badass Minority Women

This young woman honors her community’s generational contributions to the aquaculture industry while breaking gender and race barriers.
Isabella Carapella/HuffPost

In October 2020, Imani Black founded Minorities in Aquaculture (MIA), a 501C organization designed to open doors for women who want to work in aquaculture, but meet challenges because of race and gender. Her work shines a light on the rich contributions of people like her family, who have a 200-year history working the waters of the Chesapeake, that’s mostly omitted from historical record because of their race and lack of access to literacy.

“Currently, women — especially women of color — are the minority in the aquaculture field. In my search for the history of women of color in commercial fishing, the stories were in the packing houses, in the shucking houses, in the processing part of fisheries, in important, but lower positions. I want to honor them by moving us out of the background to the forefront. It isn’t about creating new space for women of color in commercial fishing; it’s bringing us back home, and adding on to that space with representation, connection, and telling our stories,” Black told HuffPost. For HuffPost’s Voices In Food series, Black talked to Carrie Honaker about her graduate work investigating historical minority engagement in Chesapeake fisheries, starting the first nonprofit supporting minority women pursuing aquaculture and growing MIA into a “global network of badass women working the water together.”

In January 2020 I was really frustrated with my aquaculture career, and watching ”Chef’s Table” on Netflix to get my mind off it. The episode with chef Mashama Bailey came on and I literally started talking to the TV.

Here was a Black woman on a boat. Never seen that before. Then she was holding oysters; definitely never seen that before. And then Black men owning an oyster farm? I had to reach out.

Earnest McIntosh Sr. and his son Earnest Jr. run the farm Mashama visited on the episode. It’s at the tip of Harris Neck Peninsula near land owned by their ancestors before the government appropriated it in the 1940s. Earnest Sr., in his very wise way, said to me, “We’re the only speck of pepper in a sea of salt at every conference we go to,” and I thanked him for confirming everything I was thinking.

Then Ahmaud Arbery happened.

Then George Floyd happened.

The conversation of diversity and inclusion as a person of color catalyzed me.

There wasn’t a lot of support in the aquaculture community about what was going on. There were no statements about standing for people of color, and what did come out was more about making the industry more diverse. There was a push about putting these conversations in our conferences, in our forums, in our meetings, in our leadership positions. But those conferences cost over $300 to attend — are the people attending the ones we’re trying to target? And none of the people that are going to be leading these conversations look like who needs to be in this industry. So, I took the leap and started Googling how to start a nonprofit. That was the birth of Minorities In Aquaculture.

I really dove into the stories of people of color working the water. I have a great relationship with Vincent O. Leggett, the CEO of Blacks of the Chesapeake, who’s been studying and publishing the history of minorities, especially African Americans, on the Chesapeake for about 40 years. Historian Dr. Clara Small wrote a book about Kermit Travers, one of the last Black skipjack captains on the Chesapeake today. This summer I did an environmental justice walk around Chestertown, Maryland, with an organization on the Eastern Shore. I’ve lived there for almost 17 years and had no idea living on the water was considered for poor people. Even walking around Chestertown, there are historic bricks all around that were put in place so people of color, especially Black people, would know where not to walk. The bricks are beautiful, but when you learn short brick on one side of the doorway signifies that’s a slave owner’s house, it changes how you look at them. I’ve been walking around these places my entire childhood and had no idea. It’s been really important to me to put our history and contributions in commercial fishing at the forefront of Minorities In Aquaculture.

What started as a mission for me personally has grown to over 32 members all over the world, all women of color. From the beginning, we’ve had such great support from so many people who recognized we need this. MIA sparked the conversation of diversity and inclusion in aquaculture. Oyster South [another nonprofit] dedicated a portion of their annual fundraiser to sponsoring internships for MIA members to work on farms, and I’m so grateful for the support. But also, I’m so grateful to know those people who told me I was the only woman of color from Maryland to Texas involved in aquaculture were wrong.

We are on the foundation of mitigating the social and financial barriers women of color face getting into aquaculture, whether that’s gear, paid internships, certifications or workshops. One of my goals is to offer hands-on workshops where members get certified in carpentry, welding, pump management and all the aspects of this field that women of color, and women in general, don’t get to experience and don’t get taught. I want my members to be fully equipped, and most importantly, I want people to look at their resume and recognize MIA members know what they’re doing. I want employers to know they have the skills to come into this role and knock it out of the park. I want to empower women all over the globe by giving them the networking, support and education to be successful in whatever type of aquaculture they pursue.

I’ve got a member from Uganda at the University of Idaho studying finfish. She told me there are no women back home working in this field—she wants to be the first woman aquaculture farmer in Uganda. I told her I’m on board with whatever we got to do to get her there. But making dreams like that come true takes money. I write a lot of grants, and I’m grateful for partners who help us provide internships and donations. The more members we have, the more specific we can get about what help looks like. On our website we have two ways to support MIA: the partnership program and the ally program. The partnership program is for anybody within the industry that can provide field experiences, internships or educational webinars about what’s going on in the aquaculture space. The ally program is for corporate sponsors that can provide financial support, or goods/services to help with gear and tools for our farmers. I’m really trying to manifest a partnership with Xtra Tuf to provide boots. I want us to be brand ambassadors for gear we wear and use in the field, and who better to model than a working farmer?

There are some amazing, badass women in aquaculture that are really setting the stage right now, and I’m always so grateful to be included in that conversation. My goal is to highlight women of color, but women in general are still the minority in the field. I want to partner with as many women, and especially women of color, who own farms, are hatchery managers, and assistant hatchery managers because we are all the minority in these spaces. The conversation is changing because the question is becoming, “Where are the women?” We aren’t there yet with minority women in aquaculture, but MIA is helping build the platform to tell their stories, honor their contributions and increase their presence.

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