Kunal Palawat’s Journey: Relationship to Land, Environmental Justice, and BEETs

The BEETs (Band of Environmentally Educated and Employable Teens)  program at CommunityGrows is led by Kunal Palawat, who describes themselves as a Desi gardener, critical environmental justice researcher, and cook. They bring multiple years of experiential education, community organizing, and scientific research experience to CommunityGrows. More than that though, they bring and share their passion for the land that is contagious and inspiring. And it all started with a love for food and soil. 

Kunal recalls cherished memories of their childhood, of watching their parents and grandparents cook, of being particularly enchanted by the pop, sizzle, and smell of mustard seeds hitting hot oil, and most of all, wondering where these foods, these plants, were coming from. Kunal’s parents, having grown up in a part of India where fresh produce, herbs, and trees are easily accessible and often found in homes, nurtured and shared this love that Kunal has for food and plants. They started gardening in the Jersey suburbs and Kunal shares, “It was magical”. Kunal was also able to take some classes, and in learning how to garden, Kunal found a love of soil. 

Kunal shares that they have never related with anything more than the ground. They feel that the complexities of soil reflect and hold the conflicting and contrasting feelings and exceptions and desires that they felt growing up. Kunal says that “It felt like the earth is also complicated, conflicting, and holds multitudes the same way that I do”. This was part of the reason why Kunal went to study Environmental Science. Another big reason was recognizing that there are so many different relationships that animals, humans, and nonhumans have with the ground. Generations of pollution by the military, fossil fuel extractions, and mining have left the soil in some parts of the world contaminated, forcing synthetic chemicals into the bodies of those that now live/work on those lands. There are people with land-based trauma stemming from being kidnapped, displaced, and forced to work on plantations. There are those that haven’t had access to food and natural spaces. No one relationship to the ground, to the soil, to its microbes and minerals, is the same. Kunal went to school to study this and learn more about what really goes on on the ground and how impactful it is and can be to the beings that live on it. With their infectious passion and dedication to uplifting the communities that have been most affected by these interactions with the land, Kunal has been able to share this knowledge and frame it in ways that the BEETs can relate to, in ways that also teach them how to navigate the world around them. 

BEETs spend much time in Koshland to gain job skills through hands-on learning experiences. In the process of acquiring those skills, they also learn to integrate themselves into the land and cultivate a relationship with the environment. For example, Kunal encourages students to talk to the plants and introduce themselves, as they would with someone they’re meeting for the first time. Initially, the idea seemed odd to the students, but with practice, they became comfortable and engaged in lengthier conversations with the plants. This practice teaches students to listen and communicate with the plants. One day, a student had a special moment with the pink cosmos in the garden. The student asked the flowers, “What is your name? Is it Tommy or Timmy?” The cosmos bobbed in the wind. The student said, “If you like the name Timmy, blow in the wind again.” Immediately, the wind picked up and the cosmos were blowing in the wind, while other flowers in the same bed remained still. This showed the student that they had a special relationship with Timmy the plant.

Kunal admits that incorporating environmental justice education into the program has been challenging because of the weighty material. The difficulties lie in the requirement for the students to listen, learn, and sit with what is happening in the world. Although it’s not easy content to engage with, Kunal learned that case studies, covering environmental justice issues happening close to home in the Bay Area, are more interesting to the students. Earlier this year, students selected a food or health issue and learned how to research a topic, power map – where they lay out all stakeholders involved in the issue -, and create direct action plans. Also, inviting community speakers such as Gopal Dayaneni and Dr. Amber McZeal, has allowed students to meet organizers leading the work in their neighborhoods. This enables the students to ask questions and have real-life conversations on topics such as queer ecology, decoloniality, and community organizing. 

Most importantly, in BEETs, students develop a deeper relationship with their community, Land, and the garden, helping them gain a better understanding of environmental justice and liberation. Kunal’s main goal is for students to learn to adopt a reciprocal relationship with Land, not only during BEETs but also in their work, school, and all aspects of their lives.

You can support our Kunal and the BEETs program by donating once or every month.