Q&A with Safi Martin on gardening, social justice and life as an introvert

INTROVERTS: Safi Martin, right, who operates Hood Huggers International with her husband, DeWayne Barton, left, says that while both are introverts, their varying skill sets complement each other in other in ways that help them effectively run their growing enterprise. Photo by Jay Hill

As a child, Safi Martin dreamed of becoming a country singer after hearing Patsy Cline. But reality soon dashed the fantasy. “I’m a nervous [person],” says Martin, chief operations officer of Hood Huggers International. “I don’t like being in front of crap.”

Martin grew up in rural North Carolina, just 30 minutes outside Winston-Salem. Her mother took Martin and her siblings on daytrips to WNC, and that’s where Martin discovered her love of the mountains. She later attended Western Carolina University and went on to become a public school teacher before transitioning to work with young people on the autism spectrum.

After settling in Asheville in 1995, she moved into behavioral health, working with teenagers with severe emotional disturbances in a residential treatment facility. While there, Martin began to combine her passion for gardening with her profession of healing — a notion that later helped inspire the idea for the Peace Gardens, a central part of Hood Huggers International. When DeWayne Barton, her husband and the company’s CEO, built enough financial support to launch a youth program in the community, Martin moved into her current full-time role as COO.

Xpress spoke with Martin about her behind-the-scenes work with the organization and Blue Note Junction — a new project the couple are developing that will teach people in historically marginalized communities how to launch and develop their own businesses.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

What do your day-to-day duties look like?

I work really closely with our garden manager to make sure the garden things are happening. We have a social media and communications person, too; DeWayne and I both work really closely with her, strategizing how we run the business together.

I do a lot of the operational things behind the scenes. I’m human resources, and I handle payroll. I also make sure that we’re meeting all the deadlines. I work with our accountant, I work with our attorneys — all the things that happen behind the scenes that people don’t necessarily think about when they think about a fun and cool and exciting business. I try to take care of those things.

What do you like best about this role?

I get bored if I do the same thing too much, so my role is incredibly diverse. I might be in the garden one day. I might be talking with the accountant and strategizing about business the next. Talking to schools who want to do tours and creating relationships with other organizations that serve young people is also part of my role. Sometimes I get overwhelmed, but I never get bored.

What is one task you perform that might surprise readers?

One of the things we do every year is this big plant sale. It would probably surprise folks to know that I physically seed, transplant and pot probably 85%-90% of the plants. That’s my therapy.

Is that why you love gardens and gardening?

My family struggled with paying the bills, but we never struggled with food security because we grew our own food. I want to give everybody else that opportunity as well. In an urban setting, it’s even more important that we can lift people to grow their own food. There’s not a cash register at the end of the row, you know? It creates a sense of empowerment, and I think growing our own food is healthier as well.

What would you say are the different approaches to operating the business between you and DeWayne, especially since you seem more of an introvert while he’s an extrovert?

Believe it or not, we’re both more introverts than extroverts. The biggest difference between us is more about how our minds work. He’s a visionary with big picture ideas and the ability to see how things do and can fit together or manifest. He also has the talent to convey that vision to others in a way that inspires and motivates. I’m the detail person. I take that vision and dig into the nitty-gritty details of how to make it happen. I’m the one who builds the systems behind the scenes, develops the spreadsheets, writes the grants, etc.

Tell me more about your latest initiative: Blue Note Junction.

We have been working on this project for the past 11 years. Our community, and particularly the historically marginalized African American neighborhoods, are in need of investment because there’s been so much disinvestment over time. We think  the way to build community — and especially to build individuals and wealth and health — is to teach people how to grow their own business.

We want to help people avoid the pitfalls, teach them tricks and tips of the trade and help lift people to run their own businesses. Lifting people and giving them the power to make their own decisions to learn from their mistakes — it grows parts of you that you didn’t know you had. It’s just really a beautiful process.

A friend of ours invited us over to sit in their hot tub. Afterward, DeWayne and I were talking, and he was like, “I’ve never done that before. That was such an incredibly relaxing experience.” Doesn’t it make sense for the people who walk through life with the most stress — stress that they don’t create for themselves [but are subjected to through] poverty, racism, whatever the case may be — doesn’t it make sense for those people to have more access to stress-reducing activities rather than less?

Speaking of relaxing, how do you unwind?

The thing that I do the most is right outside my back door. I love to plant flowers and work in the gardens. I get a lot of joy from that. DeWayne and I both enjoy riding bikes, particularly now that the Wilma Dykeman Riverway is operational. We can ride our bikes from Smoky Park Supper Club all the way around along the river to Hominy Creek Greenway and back into West Asheville. We love art and live music. Whenever I get a chance, I sneak out into the beautiful forests around us and look at wildflowers and waterfalls.

To learn more about Blue Note Junction, visit avl.mx/bli


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