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Solonje Burnett, The Cannabis Activist Calling For The Industry To Put People Over Profit

Solonje Burnett, The Cannabis Activist Calling For The Industry To Put People Over Profit

Solonje Burnett, cannabis activists and co-founder of Humble Bloom, believes the industry should adopt a “people over profit” mentality that prioritizes everyone’s individual and collective needs. Burnett’s passion for this topic is birthed from the collective cultures of the African Diaspora and her upbringing in Newton, Massachusetts. 

“My parents are from the Caribbean, specifically my mom is from Grenada and my father is from Dominica. Our family extends to other islands including the Bahamas, Barbados, and Jamaica,” shared Burnett with me. “We were one of only a handful of Black Families in a predominantly Jewish and relatively affluent neighborhood. My childhood was shaped by being in the in-between.”

“In school, I felt separated from many of the other Black Kids because they lived and were bused in from neighborhoods like Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury through a voluntary school desegregation program called METCO. There was tension in being not ‘black enough’ but also not being white or economically advantaged. As many immigrant stories go, my mother worked a couple jobs while my aunties helped with childcare. My mom’s mantra at home was that I had to be 10 times better than my white girlfriends in order to compete or be recognized as equal. In addition to putting education first, I was involved in all things from state traveling choir, to classical voice and piano lessons, sports like regional soccer and basketball, girl scouts, and many other things my mom could think of to keep me busy and actively discovering what I loved and/or excelled in.”

Immediately, upon meeting Burnett, you know that she has worked hard to become versed in the art of freedom. She describes herself as “an intermixture of pain, passion, and purpose with a view of the world that begins outside of [herself], hoping to create or curate communities where we are respected, admired, and valued for our differences while understanding that at the core we’re all human.” Her purpose is to show us that working through the divisions of our histories is a therapeutic art form that has the ability to create community. 

Marijuana is the tool that she uses to create this reality. 

“Cannabis is an opportunity to have deep conversations on a variety of subjects and therefore make lasting connections between diverse populations,” says Burnett. “There are paths to connect through cannabis for everyone. We just have to provide multiple access points so that it resonates individually, and we recognize how we all need her and each other.”

To learn more about Burnett, her relationship with cannabis, and the work that she is doing keep reading.

Lyneisha: When was the first time you got high?

Burnett: The first time I got high was in college. I’m a first generation Caribbean-American and grew up in a Christine household in Newton, Massachusetts. Being raised Catholic, the stigmatization around cannabis was present along with a laundry list of other things ‘thou shall not’ engage in to be a good girl and succeed. I was captain of all three of the varsity sports I played. When I went on to Wellesley College, fear of failing a drug test while on their soccer team put further distance between me and the plant. It wasn’t until I was injured my Junior year that I smoked with my old roommate and friends to ease the anxiety and alleviate physical pain. I felt like I was doing something naughty and I liked it. To that point, I was pretty much the model child and was excited to break free of expectations and do what so many around me did all the time. I didn’t become a habitual practice, only when I was around others who offered.

Lyneisha: How does your family feel about your work in the cannabis industry? If they have been adverse to it, then how have you worked to change their mind?

Burnett: They are proud that I’m in this industry using my voice and being an agent for change in our current cultural conversation. It’s a huge risk, especially for a woman of color, to enter this industry when there is still so much stigma, misinformation, and financial instability. I’m lucky to have a family including the friends who’ve become that in NYC who support my vision.

Lyneisha: What have you learned about people and their relationship with the plant through your work in the industry?

Burnett: I’ve learned that our individual relationships to the plant are as unique as each person who utilizes it and therefore the industry must reflect and acknowledge the multifaceted opportunity we have with federal legalization. For some people, their relationship is traumatic due to criminalization, racist over-policing, structural inequity, mass incarceration, loss of housing and so many other ways in which this plant has been used as a weapon for community destruction. For others, cannabis is for healing the body, mind, and spirit. It helps with anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, seizures, crohn’s, nausea, nightmares… the list goes on. And of course many still need education to destigmatize her as we come out of prohibition.

Lyneisha: Why is it important that the cannabis industry practice the “people over profit” principle?

Burnett: This phrase is key in the cannabis industry and beyond but as a people advocate, it has become my mantra for years – people over profit leading to true prosperity. If the emphasis was on care of community over selfish acquisition of things, power, fame and privilege, we’d be in much better shape. It’s of the utmost importance in cannabis specifically because of the need for equity, access to medicine, community reinvestment and reparations for those disproportionately affected by the War on People of Color. This plant has been interwoven throughout our history and utilized for 10,000 years. We should be able to grow it for personal uses in our homes, legacy operators given clear pathways to the legal market, ownership with job training and access to the capital necessary to flourish. Innovative processing and packaging, clean products without toxins, and sustainability should be baked into production. We have the opportunity to do better and creatively solve major problems. The cannabis industry touches all things and all of us in ways so many haven’t imagined.

Lyneisha: How has Humble Bloom worked to create community among different groups of people?

Burnett: Humble Bloom creates immersive purpose-driven experiences rooted in education and advocacy that connect people to brands, thought leaders, themselves, and each other. The experiences range in scope from brand launches, retreats, field trips, private dinners, affinity group sessions, pop-ups and more that cross pollinate cannabis, wellness, art, entertainment and activism. We have curatorial residencies at the William Vale in Williamsburg and the Assemblage NoMad in Manhattan. These spaces have made it possible for us to provide education in environments that are conducive for listening, learning, sharing, and ultimately allyship.

We make sure that our events are accessible to all by providing complimentary tickets through our equity fund as well as generally low cost admission. We partner with diverse brands and media to ensure our message doesn’t stay within our immediate community. Additionally, we go outside of the cannabis echo chamber and collaborate with companies aligned with our values who can further amplify and normalize our work. Representation matters for diverse groups to feel included. We make sure our experts look like the population we aim to serve.

Lyneisha: How has your relationship with cannabis evolved since you started working in the industry?

Burnett: Since entering the industry about two years ago my relationship has gone from smoking publicly in protest and conversations to normalize or elevate to realizing the power of the plant to make positive societal change on a broad scale. From the environment, to social justice, hiring and ownership, reparations, wellness, sustainability, conscious consumption and more – cannabis has provided me with a platform as a change maker.

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Lyneisha: Do you think cannabis has the power to transform the lives of African-Americans? If so, then how?

Burnett: Yes. It’s part of our ancestry. The history of cannabis and race is intertwined. Recorded usage of the plant dates back thousands of years in Northern Africa and later in the West. It was used to pacify slaves from the Caribbean to the Americas. Musicians like Louis Armstrong used it as a tool for creativity and others like Bob Marley for political revolution. We cannot let years of prohibition, propaganda and strategic dehumanization through institutional racism deter us from the current economic opportunities. We must be aware of what is going on locally and federally, advocate for what best serves our communities, and understand how it can be used for wellness, therapy and progress. This plant may be a catalyst to societal change, generational wealth, and psychological safety.

Lyneisha: A few activists that I’ve talked with believe that cannabis is a form of reparations for African-Americans. What do you think?

Burnett: I completely agree. It is time to right the wrongs of slavery, the three-fifths compromise, disenfranchisement, segregation, redlining, mass incarceration, over policing, inadequate housing, surveillance, and economic and environmental warefare. I joined the choir that demands reparations for all past and continued harm. The government and corporations have made a profit off all the unpaid labor, torture both physically and mentally, and general abuse. It’s time for them to pay up.

Lyneisha: How has cannabis changed your understanding of community? Explain to me why you’re so passionate about getting more people to experience cannabis in different settings.

Burnett: It hasn’t changed my understanding of community. As a humanist, I truly believe we are a collective. There is no such thing as someone else’s child or someone else’s issue. They are our issues to collectively work to solve using the richness of our diverse and intersectional individual experiences. Cannabis allows me to touch on a rich array of topics and find ways to effectively disseminate information. We are passionate about taking people out of their every day experience into curated environments that hold them. When you bring people into settings that are conducive to connection, knowledge sharing, vulnerability, and trust coupled with purpose driven intentional programming, they leave inspired and equipped to be advocates and consumers of the plant.

Lyneisha: How can we better use cannabis to change social constructs?

Burnett: If we are able to use cannabis to help equalize how we interact with and serve each other as humans, I believe it will aid in the dismantling of certain social constructs including how our government works, class, wellness, health, beauty, medicine, gender and hopefully race.

To learn more about Solonje, you can follow her on Instagram and check out Humble Bloom.