Meet Kai Wingo
Education from the Mother Kulture
From Cleveland, OH, Kai Wingo supports sustainable food systems both locally and globally. A lecturer, mycologist, and entrepreneur, Kai’s passion is educating the community on the understated value of mushroom cultivation. As a single mother, Kai feels it is important that women especially learn to embrace using fungi as allies. In 2010 she established the neighborhood organization, Kultured Mushrooms, and in 2013, the Buckeye Mushroom Farm, to provide innovative agricultural support via a network of local cultivators. Kai offers lecture and workshop topics like mushroom growing, nutrition, gardening, and emergency preparedness. She also offers fresh, gourmet mushrooms through Kai’s Cultured Mushrooms in local marketplaces.
Interview with Kai Wingo:
Female & Fungi: How were you introduced to mycology?
Kai Wingo: I was introduced to mushrooms serendipitously. The universe is very interesting in that way. I am from Ohio which is the Buckeye State. I heard a story that buckeyes in your pocket keep money in your pocket and I thought, this could be a really great spiritual quest, searching for a buckeye tree. I remember as a child there were buckeyes everywhere but when I started my quest, no one could tell me where all those trees went! I would get leads, look in this area, or that, but they were never there. At some point folks started to tell me to visit the mushroom man at the farmers market. His name is Tom Wiandt, a very lively, wonderful person filled with information. I didn’t even know about mushrooms at the time and his line at the market was going around the corner. I was just trying to take it all in. I asked him about buckeye and he said, “We have plenty of buckeye at our farm, I can bring some to you next week”.
The next week at the market he inquired more about my quest. I told him how I realized people didn’t even know that the buckeyes were gone from the neighborhood until I asked them about it. He told me to come visit his mushroom farm for a tour and to see the buckeye trees. I was so excited, I invited my whole family; my parents, step mom, brother, all there together at the mushroom farm. And Tom, just a wealth of information telling us all of these things about mushrooms, how we grow them, what they can do for the environment and so much more. A lot of it went over my head because I was not well versed in mycology at the time. I found myself asking, “Why am I here? How did I get here? I was looking for buckeyes and now I am here at this mushroom farm!”.
FF: What took you from being a mushroom bystander to a passionately active member of the mycological community?
KW: During the tour of the mushroom farm, my father, who is known as a comedian, raised his hand and asked, “What about the psychedelics?” It was very funny at the time, the whole tour laughed. Tom answered very plainly, “psychoactive fungi are considered to be schedule 1 substances, don’t get caught with them but studies have shown them to have extremely beneficial properties.” After the tour at the farm, a co-worker incidentally invited me to a mushroom lecture. I went, not knowing specifically what about mushrooms they were going to talk about. It turned out the lecture was on sacred, entheogenic, fungi. So, you see, these serendipitous things kept happening around mushrooms. The lecturer presented the topic in such an interesting way, connecting our ancestors using mushrooms and religion. It made me realize that although I was born in Cleveland, I grew up in New York and Atlanta and in different places where I had access to an abundance of information; Cleveland just doesn’t have that same access to information. The lecture on sacred fungi encouraged me to help increase that access in my area and eventually I invited the speaker back to Cleveland with an additional series of workshops and lectures.
In the mean time, I studied mycology in depth. I watched youtube and DVD’s, read all the books, and really learned from everything that I could get my hands on. The more I learned, the more I learned I didn’t know, and I learned just how deep the rabbit hole really goes. I went back to Tom and he told me that if I was interested in growing mushrooms I should get Paul Stamets’ book on cultivation. A year later I went back to Tom again and I showed him a picture of me with Stamets. He laughed and said, “ I told you to get a book and you went and got the man!”. I had gone to the Telluride Mushroom Festival for the first time and he happened to be speaking that year and it was amazing! I had also joined the Ohio Mycological Society which connected me with other knowledgeable mycologists and mycophiles.
At this point, I was still working for the Cleveland School District. I was working specifically for a department called Safe and Drug Free Schools. It was a program for at risk youth and to teach teachers how to plan activities for these youth. It ran on grants and we were all nervous about our job security. Eventually it was shut down and they cut the whole office. My work associates were encouraged to apply for different departments in the school district, but I chose not to. I knew that mushrooms were a part of me so I started my business, Kai’s Cultured Mushrooms.
FF: What other experiences have you had working with that population of youth?
KW: I used to be an African Dance instructor. The co-worker I mentioned was a capoeira instructor and we worked together in Cleveland with youth after school to help provide them with other outlets besides gangs, drugs, violence, etc.
FF: How do you see Kai’s Cultured Mushrooms incorporating those sorts of outlets and education? How do you see it growing in the future?
KW: Well, 2009 was when I started bringing speakers for workshops and lectures to the area. Things like mushroom cultivation, gardening and emergency preparedness. We have offered courses in survival 101, a blackout workshop on how to adapt to life without electricity, exploring the tools you will need if you don’t have power, heat or pumping water. We began encouraging people to start growing their own food so they are not so dependent on the system.
In 2010 is when I applied for a neighborhood grant for the Buckeye Mushroom Farm. The buckeye, it’s so funny. I had to choose a neighborhood for the grant initially. I wanted to choose a neighborhood that wasn’t too far from me. I live near my grandmother in the suburbs to help her with her health and I wanted the business to be close by. The Buckeye neighborhood happened to be the perfect spot! A buckeye farm to go with my buckeye story. I applied for a grant for a hoop house and I applied to work on the previously abandoned lot so people could come see a variety of mushroom species growing: Shiitake, Garden Giants or King Stropharia and Oysters; pine trees inoculated with Amanita muscaria and some glow in the dark mushrooms too. The idea is that people will come to the farm to learn and to pick their own mushrooms. It is a center for the community to come and purchase mushrooms and also to learn from hands on workshops.
It wasn’t until 2012 though that I started growing an abundance of mushrooms for other people. Tom kept telling me there was a waiting list of farmers markets in Cleveland who wanted mushrooms. I had listened and heard him saying this for a few years, and in 2013 I was finally selling fresh mushrooms at the market.
So, now I see these things as two different entities: growing mushrooms for market versus hosting lectures and educational workshops. The Buckeye Mushroom Farm, home of Kai’s Cultured Mushrooms, focuses on growing gourmet mushrooms for the community, while Kultured Mushrooms focuses on growing community around mushrooms and funding grassroots efforts.
That being said, I really want to see more women, and more black women, people that look like me, in the mycological community. We can all benefit from mushrooms, and reconnecting with nature, identifying trees and understanding the relationship with mushrooms and plants. As a single mother, in a city where female heads of household are on the rise and almost half the city’s children live in poverty linking them to chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity, I feel that it is crucial for women especially to learn to embrace using fungi as allies. Doing so will help transform our city from a polluted food desert into a thriving, nurturing environment; doing so will empower people through an interconnection with nature.
FF: And as a woman taking on leadership roles in the field, what has been your experience?
KW: People come to my workshops and they don’t realize right away that I am the one presenting and organizing. There is a challenge for people taking women seriously. I will overcome that by showing them rather than telling them. If you have any hang-ups about me being a woman, you better get over it! Life is a challenge, everyone has a challenge, I just choose to use that challenge as an advantage instead. There are not very many black women growing mushrooms, not many black people in general, at least in Cleveland, growing mushrooms. There are some, but it just tells me that the field is right open for us and this is a good time for us to engage ourselves in this work.
FF: It is widely known that mushrooms have played an integral part within innumerable cultures around the world. However, like you note, there is an obvious lack of diversity in the field of mycology as a science. What are some of the reasons you see that have caused this lack of diversity?
KW: I believe the field of mycology lacks diversity because of racism. Racism is a system of oppressing people according to the color of their skin. Black life is criminalized. We are disproportionately incarcerated sometimes for crimes that may not hurt anyone but the person committing the act . We as a people have been driven to give up our knowledge along with our culture and hand it over to the experts and professionals. We no longer cure ourselves with herbal remedies or birth our own babies. Poverty is prevalent among black people. Those in poverty have little access to information. For instance, the industries making millions of dollars from growing mushrooms kept growing techniques secret for many years. Thankfully the internet is starting to change things and we have access to everything from growing mushrooms to building 3-d printers and even children in Africa have smart phones.
FF: Many populations of people in both urban and rural areas have been- and still are- targeted with acts of environmental racism. I have been inspired time and again by the resilience of these survivors. Can you explain the advantages of mycoremediation in an urban setting such as Cleveland? What is your role as a mycoremediator in your community?
KW: As far as mycoremediation, I want to see it. It should be a way of life. The city wants to see Cleveland become “a green city by the blue lake.” After the infamous lake fire, well, this is the way to do it. My work as a mycoremediator in the community began by holding mushroom workshops and installing Garden Giant mushroom beds that remediate soil at the local gardens like Salaam Community Garden and the Possibilitarian.
Soon I was introduced to Mansfield Frasier, the owner of the only urban vineyard in our region, and Jean Loria, the founder and lead organizer of the worlds first biocellar project, a greenhouse that is built using the basement of an abandoned building in a neighborhood of Cleveland. They were interested in growing crops, revitalizing local neighborhoods and creating wealth in the inner city. Even in the dead of winter the temperature in the biocellar would be at least in the mid-50s, making it the perfect place to grow a variety of produce-strawberries, chicken. And of course gourmet mushrooms; that’s where I come in. We will be growing mushrooms and teaching workshops there hopefully this year
FF: You are definitely helping to pave the way for many community members in your region to take part in environmental science and activism efforts. What makes you the strong leader that you are?
KW: I knew there would be a lot of challenges on this path, and distractions too. I chose to look at the signs of why I am on this path and I consciously decided to stay with it. My grandfather always used to say, “what is too difficult for everybody else is just right for you”. I have an open mind and willingness to explore and learn new things. That is what makes me a strong leader. You can’t just learn a single piece of information and say, “Alright, I know now!”, you have to continue the exploration. I have a thirst for that deep rooted knowledge and I want to share it. Knowledge is power; we can empower ourselves through knowledge but we have to help others do the same! Too many people are afraid that something is going to be taken from them, and that is truly what happens around you when people don’t have, so we have to share, we have to give. Being a mother also helps me to be a strong leader, because I have no other choice. As a single mother I am constantly making a way for us to survive. There is absolutely no question about it, I have to do be strong, I have to lead the way.
FF: You have already mentioned some of the influential people in your life, who have been some of your other mentors on this path?
KW: Tom and his wife Wendy were very inspirirng. Before becoming mushroom farmers, Wendy was a chemist and Tom was an engineer. She already had knowledge of working in labs and clean rooms and he already had his engineering background that helped him to construct things on the farm. They have a good partnership working together; understanding partnerships and balancing skills is an immensely important thing to learn. Then there is my mom. She was always encouraging me to use mushrooms. She was an avid kombucha maker- it creeped me out for the longest time, with all those slimy babies it kept producing! But still, she kept encouraging me. Also, there is Kilindi Iyi, the lecturer I told you about, and he introduced me to D-town Farm which is a seven-acre farm in the city of Deroit and home of the Black Community Food Security Network. Kilindi grew mushrooms at D-town Farm. All that they are doing there, encouraging people in the community to empower themselves through education and growing their own food, has influenced me immensely. It lines up directly with my goals and passions.
FF: D-town Farms is a beautiful place. I know that they put a lot of energy into their internship and mentorship programs. How do you see mentorship continuing to play a role in the mycological community?
KW: I see it as an integral part because I think we have to build a true mushroom community here; we have to have community support. This new adventure can be intimidating. It takes discipline but it can be fun also. Mentorship is a part we need to have so people can see hands on work and gain skills with experienced community members. As well, I encourage other single mothers, you can start your own business. You can provide food for your family just by growing it yourself. There are options!
FF: Thank you for that encouragement, I think many people will benefit from it. What encouragement and advice have you received from fungi?
KW: The whole story I told you… the mushrooms are pulling me into them. Every piece of information I gather I will be able to use in my life. I remember I had some sort of rash and I didn’t know what it was. I went to the doctor and I went to the chinese herbalist, and the things they gave me did not help. Once I started doing mushroom research and learned that we are very closely related to fungi, more than any other kingdom, I learned how to heal myself. I learned discipline. I began to cultivate in my home and my family learned discipline. We became more conscious. I realized how we were lacking water once I saw mushrooms needed all of that water. Beginning to use a humidifier for the mushrooms actually helped our health too. And the buckeye story! Each time I learned something, or gained a new skill, it was beneficial to me all the way around. “This is something you need to do!”, I thought, “This is so for you!”. I just feel a deep connection. I feel like they talk to me. And on mushroom forays they talk to my daughter more than to me. She is 6 years old and she told me, “Don’t worry mommy, I’m just a little bit closer to them than you”.
FF: That is an abundance of wealthy advice. After all that you have learned thus far, if you could be any mushroom, which one would you be and why?
KW: I think i would be chaga! That is an awesome mushrooms, a wonderful find. It doesn’t come very often around here so we have to relish it when we see it and when we harvest it. It’s like winning the lottery!
We want to thank Kai for being a truly awesome interviewee and inspiration to us all!
To learn more about her projects visit her facebook page here.
To contact Kai email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org