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Jamil Burns

Jamil Burns harvests greens at the Castlemont High School garden. (Photo by Maya Burns)

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Environmental science graduate passionate about farming and social justice

Jun 11, 2020

Jamil Burns ’14 recalls the empowerment he felt “digging trenches on untouched ground” during the creation of the Ted and Chris Robb Garden.

The Bay Area native had entered University of the Pacific as an English major, but switched to environmental science and developed a passion for working the earth.

“Being involved in the creation of the Robb Garden on campus was one of the most incredible feelings I have had in my life,” Burns said. “It opened my eyes to the opportunities out there.”

Burns, 27, has seized many of those opportunities. He has worked on or led urban farming operations in Stockton, Livermore and Oakland.

His Oakland project called Raised Roots recently received acclaim for Burns’ efforts to organize other urban farming concerns to feed East Bay protesters after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

“What I saw was the need to support one another as we go through these protests and increased awareness of social justice concerns,” Burns said. “We have to collaborate and rely on one another.”

Hundreds gathered in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza recently. Raised Roots, Black Earth Farms and other Bay Area urban farming companies fed those making a stand.

Jamil Burns feeding protesters.

Raised Roots founder Jamil Burns helps feed protesters in Oakland. (Photo by Erin McCluskey)

Burns attended high school in San Mateo and the thought of attending Pacific never occurred to him. However, he joined a friend who was visiting campus for Tiger Week and Pacific became his college of choice.

“I kicked around, changing my major like many people do, until I took a class called Environment and Society. It had a big impact on me,” Burns said.

“Jamil always was very passionate about the environment and very passionate about social issues,” said Lydia K. Fox, associate professor of geological and environmental sciences. “He was an interesting student and very bright.

“I have followed him on Facebook over the years. He did such great things recently in Oakland. That did not surprise me one bit.”

After graduation, without any real training as a farmer, he went to work on a quarter-acre plot of land outside Stockton and his desire to work “from seed to plate” was consuming.

“Some of my fellow graduates went into the public policy aspects of environmental science,” he said. “I just could not see myself heading in that direction. I had become more of a dirt-under-the-fingernails sort of person. I wanted to work the land.”

Burns has done just that, in many different ways—the plot near Stockton, a community garden at Castlemont High School in Oakland, an olive grove near Livermore and his current Raised Roots effort.

The program’s Facebook page describes Raised Roots, “An urban farming company based in Oakland, California. We are committed to providing superior produce, gardens and farm education.”

Burns’ intention when selecting a company name, he admits, was innocuous. At the time he was doing raised bed gardening and growing produce from the roots.

“But this woman in her 60s or 70s came up to me and said, ‘Raised Roots, huh. I like that. That describes me. Raised Roots,’” Burns recalled. “So, I guess maybe the name had more meaning than I intended.”

As someone trying to educate others about healthy food, Burns has favorites of what he likes to eat and grow.

“I went Vegan in December of last year. I love mushrooms and beans are a favorite,” he said. “And fruit. I can eat all types of fruit all day.

“As far as what I like to grow, it changes from year to year. Garlic, onions. The past few years, I have a buddy in Lodi who grows all types of peppers and I have worked with him. Anybody and their mama can grow tomatoes. But give me a good, juicy red pepper. I also love to grow winter squash, okra, watermelon, collard greens. There are a lot of options.”

Burns wants to continue the meals and support for demonstrators.

“I will put this as diplomatically as possible. It is not infrequently that race has become a factor in what I do,” he said. “I do get ‘looked at’ by some people in my work environment. There also are times when the police are hyperaware of my presence. This is a time to come together. Whether it is creating the meals or bringing organizations together, I want to make a difference.”

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