Nestled in the middle of the Sonoma County Forest — in what is unceded Southern Pomo and Kashia territory — is where the Shelterwood Collective calls home.
This community-driven land stewardship 900-acre project, co-created by Layel Camargo and Nikola Alexandre, seeks to heal interconnected ecosystems and mitigate climate change.
“What we are doing here is decolonial work on stolen land, and creating new pathways forward for future generations,” Camargo said.
In 2017 Camargo and Alexandre met at a radical farming workshop and shared dreams of creating a climate project centering on BIPOC communities. Then in 2020, coinciding with the uprisings for Black lives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police, Camargo and Alexandre received funding to make their climate project a dream come true. Their collective is on the site of a former church camp, which was at risk of being sold to a logging company.
“As far as we know, it’s one of the queer and BIPOC-led land projects in the U.S. where we can exist outside, or at least a little bit more removed from the systems of oppression we all grew up under,” Alexandre said. “White supremacy isn’t as present in our lives as it is if we were outside of this space.”
It will be three to four years until Shelterwood is fully open. But in 2023, Shelterwood’s team is in the process of fundraising for operations and is open to volunteers.
As of now, Shelterwood has two renovated staff residences, a near completion on three additional cabins, and two tiny houses. The goal is to renovate the deteriorating former church camp buildings into a multifunctional retreat and community center. The buildings are currently on septic systems and are connected to the PG&E electrical grid. Alexandre mentioned they have plans to transition them off of the grid and are working to build a renewable energy system.
“The paint just went up in one of the cabins that will be available to people who do not traditionally have access to the outdoors,” Alexandre said. “It’s a bright yellow cabin intentionally colored that way to make it inviting to our communities that do not often see themselves outside or in these spaces.”
Shelterwood is committed to social equity, cultural change, indigenous sovereignty, democratic peer governance, and antiracism. As they center natural relationships over natural resources, they hold themselves and others accountable.
“Many people in the conservation movement are usually managing or dictating how to use the environment, separating people from nature. However, what we are doing here is looking at the rest of nature as part of our family,” Alexandre highlighted.
During Shelterwood’s early years of creation, a diverse board grounded their growth in frameworks of Just Transition, Queer and Indigenous land stewardship, Afro-Indigenous food systems, cultural strategy, narrative change, and environmental anthropology. The collective’s members put into practice these by living communally, having horizontal decision-making, and mutual accountability.
“In order for us to survive climate change, we really need to get back to a strong relationship with Earth, looking at nature not as something we have to control or use to fight climate change, but looking to work together to help restore habitat, clean waters, bring clean air back; help mitigate it,” Camargo said.
The collective seeks to nurture the next generation of BIPOC and Queer land stewards through fellowships, stewardship residencies, and volunteer workshops.
One of Shelterwood’s main programs is forest restoration. With State support from CalFire, they are returning good fire to the land, removing invasive species, and controlling erosion.
“There are a lot of threats to our environment and to BIPOC and queer individuals. So Shelterwood is a place of care for each other and land in very intimate ways that cross traditional boundaries,” Alexandre said.
In December 2021, Camargo and Alexandre invited 150 people such as local residents, climate and social justice organizers, and artists to a community vision workshop. One of the four days of the workshop was fully dedicated to BIPOC people.
“Within 10 minutes of the event, there were six people crying because they never felt safer outdoors,” Alexandre pointed out.
For Camargo, that specific workshop was a pivotal moment in the process of building Shelterwood, because they felt and learned how excited communities are for something like Shelterwood.
“The fact that [Shelterwood] existed was enough to bring them to tears. This is why we are doing all the work. It’s all for these community members,” Camargo said.
Shelterwood contributes to new climate solution narratives through art, content production and cultural organizing as well. The collective will host underrepresented artists who create content focused on climate activism with interconnections to the land. Shelterwood will also focus on hosting BIPOC-disabled organizers and activists and developing educational resources on eco-ableism.
“When we say everybody is welcome we refer to everybody, including undocumented communities in Sonoma County and the Bay Area that do not have the privilege, opportunity, and access to safe outdoor spaces,” Camargo pointed out.
Camargo and Alexandre say Shelterwood is a generational project that will take the rest of their lives to work on, and that the work will likely continue beyond them.
“The next generation will come and keep making this a healthier, safer, more resilient, more liberated space,” Camargo said.
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