At The New Century School, heritage is important, which Black History Month offers plenty of opportunities to celebrate. As a school that champions diversity in all ways, appreciation of heritage is cooked right in.
And you know what else is cooking? The Land of Kush, that’s what—the vegan soul food (#VeganSoul) restaurant owned and operated by long-time TNCS parents Naijha Wright-Brown and Gregory Brown.
Naijha and Greg are not just school parents; they’re huge supporters, having held several biannual fundraisers as well as hosted special school events. Their most recent fundraiser netted $550 for TNCS Parent Council initiatives, in fact. Until the pandemic, the annual Pancakes & Pajamas was a TNCS student winter favorite! (Can we bring that back?)
So, in honor of Black History Month and, frankly, because this post is long overdue, we celebrate these amazing TNCS parents and The Land of Kush!
Journey to The Land of Kush
In the first few moments of talking with Naijha, you’ll find yourself thinking, “I want what she’s taking!” She bubbles with vibrancy, passion, and all-around good energy. Her prescription, it turns out, is simple: humility, community, and veganism . . . all of which are interconnected.
Naijha relocated from New Jersey to Baltimore in 2005 for her job at the time as a supervisor with Verizon Wireless. On getting herself set up here, she explains, which involved all of those practical things like finding a doctor, she learned she had high cholesterol. As if destined, a new supervisor joined Naijha’s group, who just so happened to espouse veganism, which, because it renounces consuming animal products, is inherently low cholesterol. Gregory Brown started explaining his vegan practice to Naijha, the foods he ate and why, and then shared with her that he dreamed of opening his own restaurant.
Naijha kicked into gear. “I’ve never worked in food service and didn’t know anything about food service,” she explained. “I came from working on Wall Street and in entertainment promotion. But, I told him I could probably help promote and do some outreach to educate people. Because I wanted to learn all about this, too!”
Here they are, 11 years later, with a nationally award-winning restaurant many times over and a major driving force in the vegan community. They co-created “Vegan SoulFest“—“one of the biggest vegan festivals in Baltimore entertaining over 16,000 people right smack in the inner city,” as Naijha puts it, as well as Vegan Restaurant Week, which is coming up next month, March 4th through March 27th!Along with Golden West Cafe in Hampden, they are also Bridging the Gap recipients, which, according to the Greater Baltimore Committee’s website “. . . is dedicated to evolving the business culture of Greater Baltimore by developing and fostering relationships between majority, minority, and women-owned businesses. In addition to promoting a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all organizations, the Bridging the Gap initiative provides targeted support and programming to help minority and women-owned businesses in Greater Baltimore succeed and grow.”
Other awards for Land of Kush and for Naijha’s work include:
- Trip Advisor 2021 Best of the Best” Awards Vegan Restaurant in USA (#3)
- Baltimore Magazine’s Best of Baltimore 2020 Vegetarian Restaurant Reader’s Poll
- PETA’s 2018 Best Vegan Seafood Dish
- Mayor’s Recognition Award for Vegan SoulFest 2018
- Greater Baltimore Committee 2017 ”Bridging the Gap” Award
- Yelp’s 2015 Top 100 Businesses in North America
- Several Baltimore Sun and City Paper Best of Baltimore Vegetarian Restaurant Awards
Baltimore Business Journal’s 2021 “Enterprising Women of Excellence” and profile (in which she discusses overcoming racism, sexism, and classicism and doing it all for her daughter)
Naijha was also featured earlier this month on FARM’S website: “Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) is a national nonprofit organization advocating for animal rights and veganism since 1976.” This profile also provides more of her background (such as growing up in New York City) and how it all came together for Naijha and Greg. Or there’s this one from VegOut: Baltimore’s Land of Kush Is Serving up Vegan Soul Food with a Side of Community. Or this one: They just keep coming.
One theme runs through it all, and that’s bringing people together and doing some good in the world. Says Naijha:
I love seeing how people can work together and especially learn how to eat to live. We can improve our health, contribute to a healthy environment, reduce animal cruelty, and even do something about global hunger. That’s why veganism is very important—all the food that we’re feeding animals, we could be distributing to people who are hungry around the world.
(Let’s not forget the collard greens, baked mac ‘n cheese, and vegan crabcakes, either.)
She says she and Greg are “yin and yang,” and that’s what makes this work. “We make a great team, and we understand each other. That’s how we were able to build The Land of Kush to be what it is today,” she said.
If you’re wondering where the name comes from, that, too is a good story. The Kingdom of Kush was a cosmopolitan ancient African civilization located in modern-day Sudan with ties to Egypt. “That’s the number question we get asked,” said Naijha. (Although many assume a different association.) “Greg studies the African diaspora and wanted to introduce the community to this knowledge. We get the opportunity to do so through that question. A historian wrote an article about the kingdom of Kush for Smithsonian Magazine and sent a copy to us. I got to interview the writer on my digital talk show. It was amazing. Everything comes full circle.”
LOK and TNCS!
The second thing is the environment of The New Century School. I was concerned about the diversity issue (people define diversity in a lot of different ways) because our daughter would be the only Afro-Latina in her kindergarten class. But she was welcomed, and that’s what you look for in a school. And the parental involvement, that was on the top of the list when we selected TNCS. That just took the cake. The parents are involved. They’re concerned about what’s happening in the school and what’s happening with the children, and we were able to meet and attend play dates and activities. Being accepted at the school is very, very important to us, and TNCS has done it.
Naijha recounts an episode when her daughter first started at TNCS: “Everybody had to dress according to their culture, but no one knew what Afro-Latina was, and I said, ‘well, it’s up to us to teach them’, which teaching the entire community has benefited from, several years on.
“I have to say one more thing about The New Century School,” she said. “I was very impressed with the way they responded initially to the pandemic. They didn’t miss a beat—we were out one week and back in session the next week. And even though it was really challenging, we didn’t experience what a lot of schools and parents and children are experiencing right now, so I really appreciate them for that.”
Safe to say, the feeling is mutual!
State of the ‘Rant
Despite all the awards and accolades, being in the restaurant business is never easy, and that’s especially true in the 2020s so far. The Browns liquidated their 401Ks to open Land of Kush and have kept it thriving on sheer conviction and determination (oh, and excellent cooking!). “This is a tough business. As secretary of the Board of the Restaurant Association in Maryland, I hear about all the struggles restaurants are going through, whether small, medium, or large. We are blessed to be here this long and surviving through the pandemic. And we’re here for the community,” said Naijha.
In fact, they will soon open their new Vegan Soul Bistro on Madison and Chester, on the east side of Baltimore near Johns Hopkins, a larger space (so, you know, even more yummy food to go around).
Even as Naijha and Greg look forward to that exciting development, “We remain humble. We appreciate all the love and support.”
Don’t forget to show that love and support to the amazing Black-owned/TNCS–parent owned Land of Kush during Vegan Restaurant Week . . . or now. Who knows, you might just be standing in line with likes of Stevie Wonder. (Not even kidding.)