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The Queen of Urban Growing: Karen Washington

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 November Issue Newsletter

By Mindy Harris, Director of Public Relations and Newsletter Editor

 Karen Washington has lived in New York City all her life, and has been a resident of the Bronx for over 22 years. Since 1985, Karen has been a community activist, striving to make the Bronx a better place to live. As a community gardener, Karen has worked with neighborhoods to turn empty lots into community gardens, as an advocate, she has stood up and spoken out for garden protection and has helped people all over the city grow more food and build healthier neighborhoods.  

Karen attended NYC public schools, graduated from Hunter College with honors in physical therapy with BS degree magna cum laude, and received her Master’s degree from NYU in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics in 1981. She is the mother of two children: Kendra, a principal at a NYC public school; and Bryant, an inspector for the department of health and a singer, and has two grandchildren, Julian and Justice. Part of what makes Karen remarkable is that she has been able to hold down a ‘day job’ as a physical therapist for over 20 years, while growing food for her community, fighting New York’s City Hall, and educating the community around her. 

In 1988, Karen started the Garden of Happiness, in the Corona neighborhood of the Bronx.  As with any city project, a number of institutions and governmental entities have been involved with the Garden, and throughout the various projects Karen has undertaken in the city.  Ten years later, the Garden of Happiness teamed up with 4 other community gardens, and together they were able to launch a weekly farmers market, providing a wide array of produce.  The gardens comprise La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition – one of many coalitions in the city. 

In 1998, community gardens in New York faced a very tough political challenge.  Mayor Rudy Giuliani had put a significant number of Community Garden properties up for auction.  Gardeners across a number of the boroughs had a rude awakening when they learned that their plots might go to private developers who would likely tear down their hard work.  They banded together with other community garden coalitions, and engaged in both diplomatic negotiations with the City of New York, and in non-violent civil disobedience methods of organizing. The latter included protests on the steps of New York City Hall, gardeners chaining themselves to trees, and strong media outreach.  The gardeners were successful at getting an injunction issued by then State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who prevented the auctioning of the properties.  Many of the gardens were ultimately purchased by the Trust for Public Land and organizations like New York Restoration Project.  Having fought a hard battle in the late 90’s, La Verde Familia coalition was able to continue gardening, and continues to offer a farmer’s market every Tuesday, to this day.

Washington’s development as a farmer took a major leap, when in 2006 she was accepted into a farmer-training program at UC Santa Cruz.  Living in a tent on farmland for a week expanded Karen’s knowledge of organic farming, and fueled her desire to someday turn her community gardening into a larger farming endeavor.  As a result of her inspiration at her farmer training program in California, Karen came back to the city with a vision for establishing farmer training for urban farmers in New York, who do not have the ability or resources to travel long distances for this type of education.  And so in 2010 two different major educational initiatives were launched: The Farm School: the New York School City School of Urban Agriculture, and the Black Urban Growers Conference.  

The NYC Farm School is a decentralized program; offering students practical hands-on farming training at urban farms and garden outdoor classrooms.  It offers instruction in sustainable agriculture, entrepreneurship and food systems management. “Our goal for the school is to build and share knowledge within our communities and improve local access to healthy food throughout the city,” said Jacquie Berger, Executive Director of Just Food (one of the school’s founding partners). “By bringing urban farming skills to a much broader population, Farm School NYC will magnify the impact of urban agriculture on community health in New York City and beyond.”  In 2013, the Farm School will successfully graduate its inaugural incoming class. The Black Urban Growers Conference has now seen two iterations: one in 2010 and one in 2011 – in Brooklyn and in the Bronx.  Will Allen of Growing Power was its first keynote speaker.  The two conferences have drawn 800 people in combined years.

At the core of Karen’s belief system is the notion that people need to be connected directly to their food.  While many food system thinkers and policymakers use the term “Food Dessert” to describe the problem of access in urban locales, Karen rejects the term.  She feels that the term is often applied to neighborhoods by outsiders, who don’t understand the nature of the communities they are trying to serve.  She also feels that the term is inaccurate because in most urban settings there are lots of local restaurants, bodegas, corner stores and other entities where food can be found. The challenge, she acknowledges is not necessarily access to food generally, but access to healthy food.  And so part of the work of urban gardening is in educating the populace as to how to use and cook healthy food, and integrate it into family meals.  But for Washington, there is a greater injustice going on in the food system; namely, that the system does not reflect participation by people of color.  And so for Karen, working towards Food Justice is all about pulling in underrepresented folks into the agricultural community – urban and rural alike.


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