Gardening

St. Vincent de Paul's Queen Bee Empowers Women and Helps the Homeless


Chanika Forté is creating quite a buzz as the urban farm manager at St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP). She’s helping the homeless and socially disadvantaged with gardening and growing food, and empowering women and people of color through her beekeeping program, BaeHive.

Forté originally studied massage therapy, but decided to go back for an associate degree in mind-body transformational psychology with hopes of becoming a life coach. The school offered an urban farming program, which she took alongside her degree curriculum.

“I loved it so much that I finished my volunteer hours in one week,” she says.

Seeing her commitment to the farm, SVdP – which did not have the funds to employ her – asked Forté to stay on through AmeriCorps. Founded in 1993, AmeriCorps is a federal agency that provides “people power and funding to communities across the country,” according to its website. Forté participated in its Public Alliances apprenticeship program, which pays a small stipend for work at a nonprofit organization.

In October 2017, SVdP hired her as its urban farm program manager. In that capacity, Forté tutored children about plants, trees, and bees. In 2019, she was promoted to urban farm manager and community involvement coordinator. In that role, she manages two urban farms, coordinates farm volunteers, and oversees agricultural education.

click to enlarge Through BaeHive, Chanika Forté hopes to bring diversity to the beekeeping industry and form a sisterhood among women. - CHANIKA FORTÉ
Through BaeHive, Chanika Forté hopes to bring diversity to the beekeeping industry and form a sisterhood among women.
Chanika Forté

Forté says she uses the one-acre farm to connect the homeless to healthy foods.

“We are so disconnected from food,” she says. “I wanted them to have access to healthy food they could see growing in their space. There's a lot of work that goes into growing food without pesticides.”

Forté understands the struggle. She was once a young single mother living in the projects, where she recalls poor food quality and the crushing inadequacy she felt as a mother who couldn’t feed her children. Through SVdP, she can return to the same projects and educate people about growing food and starting their own garden.

“Food is sustainability,” she says. “You can sustain yourself if you can grow your own food. A packet of seeds costs $1.50. If I bought green peppers, you bought tomatoes, and someone else grew nothing but onions, we could help feed each other.”

In 2019, Forté designed a mobile education program called ABC Mobile. ABC stands for Agriculture, Beekeeping, and Composting. She planned to convert a bus into an educational unit with three stations for the three subjects, then drive to the kids and teach them. Then the pandemic happened. Having to put ABC on hold, Forté had to come up with a new plan.

“I thought, one thing we could do is the beekeeping program since everything happens outdoors,” she says.
Forté had another reason for focusing on beekeeping. As a member of the Arizona Backyard Beekeepers group, she noticed the absence of women and people of color in the industry.

“And because I'm so very much about women empowerment, I thought, ‘Why don't I get women of color together and teach them beekeeping?’”

They could start a hive in their backyard, create additional income, and take care of the environment, she says.

“I also wanted to create a safe place for these women who wouldn't otherwise meet each other, to come together,” she says.

Thus began BaeHive. Her first class, in October 2020, had 13 students, ages 7 to 65. It ran for eight weeks – three weeks of curriculum and five of hands-on experience.

The program has since evolved, says Forté. Currently, she has two upcoming courses planned for 2022, one in February, one in April. Each course lasts six weeks. Twelve students, working in pairs, manage six hives.

Forté has also designed a beekeeping journal, available on Amazon. Aside from hive inspection sheets, it includes motivational quotes and focuses on wellness for women.

“The health of the hive depends on the queen bee,” she says. “And a beehive is 95 percent females.”

Aside from forming a sisterhood in her program, Forté guides the women to look inward, focus on their feelings, and set goals for their next inspection.

“It's all about healthy happy humans and healthy hive,” says Forté.

The beekeeping training program costs $500 and includes your own bee suit, gloves, and program manual. Forté offers a payment plan of $150 for the deposit, plus four $88 payments before the program starts.

You can find class dates and registration information on the BaeHive website. BaeHive honey is available at Grassrootz Bookstore.