Interview with Aziz Dehkan, Executive Director of the NYC Community Garden Coalition

by Alexina Cather, MPH

By Alexina Cather

Aziz Dehkan is the Executive Director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC). Dehkan earned a degree in Biological Science from Rutgers University and went on to build a passive-solar house and start one of the first organic farms in New Jersey. Over a decade later Dehkan he entered the environmental business, specializing in hazardous waste material disposal.

Dedicated to community activism, he became a member of his local planning board, and served as a Board Member of two nonprofit agencies committed to helping women recover from domestic abuse and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Dehkan has worked with the Humane Society of the United States, where he lead a regional major gifts program and also for the NYC Coalition for the Homeless, STRIVE, The Fortune Society, and Mother Jones magazine in senior development roles. Dehkan is currently president of the Eighty20 Group, a fundraising consultancy in addition to his work as the Executive Director of NYCCGC.

New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): What motivated you to get involved with community gardens? Was there a specific trigger or moment? How did you become involved with the NYCCGC?

Aziz Dehkan (AD): I had met Karen Washington when I was working for Mother Jones magazine. I put together a panel about food – and when I met her I was just so amazed by what she did and the work that she was doing. She brought up the notion of food apartheid, which I had actually never heard of. We’ve always called them food deserts. But when I heard of food apartheid, it really resonated with me. I thought that’s exactly the way it should be said. So when the position for the Executive Director opened up at the Community Garden Coalition, I called Karen and I said, “You know I’d love to be a part of this movement,” and that’s how I ended up being part of the Coalition.

That was my specific moment. But before that I had a farm in 1978—an organic farm in New Jersey. It was one of its first of its type, so I’ve always been involved in food and growing and when I moved out of NJ back into NYC where I was born, it just felt right. I thought I could use what I had learned decades earlier as a farmer and try to apply that to what was happening in community gardens.

FPC: You have a long history working with both environmental sustainability and community service. What are the most valuable lessons your previous positions have taught you, and how does it guide your current work with NYCCGC?

AD: I think its funny over the years, as I’ve gotten to be older, I’ve become more patient, and I realized the way we can move forward on all these issues is trying to build consensus. That doesn’t always mean that you have to give up what you believe in, but it means that you have to convince everybody that your positions are the way to go. That’s the balancing act that I’ve learned over the years.

For community service you always had to find partners, you always had to find people who are willing to break down that door with you—but you have to be prepared, because once you break that door down you have something to give.

I think that’s what I’ve learned over the years—to break down the door and be ready for negotiate—to have positions that people will understand and hopefully accept. But I think there’s an important piece of that involves consensus building and not just for on the other side of the issue, but within your own group as well and to make sure you have a particular viewpoint—a particular way of approaching an idea that works.

FPC: More broadly speaking, what about food policy and advocacy excites you?

AD: I’ve been doing this for along time, half my life, I think maybe more of community organizing and advocacy. We often talk about the critical moments in somebody’s life—where they can become self-sufficient. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s housing and food and they’re interchangeable in terms of which is more important—but I think these days access to food is a real crucial issue. We often talk about the ability to have a sustainable living wage and I think that’s extremely important but more to the point is once you get to that point, how do you intend to live a healthy lifestyle?

How do we maintain the ability to eat well and not have to go to your local grocery store, which nowadays is all too often a drugstore? How do you go from buying food from Walgreens or CVS to having access to food that’s both nutritious and reasonably priced? I think those are real important pieces of food policy. How do we get access to food to people who are in communities where you have to go many, many, many blocks away to find some fresh produce? Those are critical issues that we need to continue to address.

FPC: What is the greatest issue in New York City food policy right now? How do you think it should be addressed?

AD: I think we need accessibility. I’m not sure the city has a coherent food policy and what I see are pockets of it. Going back to what Karen Washington said—we still have a system that is some kind of food apartheid. Farmers’ markets and community gardens are critical in this piece. When you go to community gardens they are growing vegetables and leafy greens. It’s amazing to see what they can do in those spaces, and what’s unbelievably beautiful to see is the mixing of different ethnicities and the mixing of ethnic food. The way people are growing—that’s food policy. I think food policy is really not coming from the city, not from the government; it’s coming from we the people—from community gardeners, from people in the food policy world. I think that’s where we really are at—truly grassroots efforts building within the community—finding your own food sources and making ways to be able to provide good sources of nutritious healthy food.

FPC: Do you think grassroots and local organizations are enough to fix this/these problem(s), or do you see them as “Band-Aid” solutions?

AD: I’d like to say that’s true. I think we drive grassroots organizations in so many ways in our NYC Garden Coalition. We drive these issues. We are constantly pushing against what policy is out there to make it better. We are constantly trying to find innovative ways to bring food sources to people. Look at every social movement that’s ever come about it has –it hasn’t come from top down—it’s always come from grassroots. It has always come from people having an idea and building on it and I think what happens is government stays so far behind in its ability to move that the movement forward. The ideas that are percolating take decades before they actually get into a government policy—to get into a law or some sort of ability for the government to make a change. So, I really believe from all the years of my work that the only way anything gets done is from the bottom up—grassroots organizations.

Take the NYC Community Garden Coalition—our partners in housing, our partners in land acquisition—those are all ways that I think we can fix problems. Is it enough? Never. There’s always another problem coming up, there’s always another issue that you have to deal with. But it starts at the very very local level, and I don’t see them as Band-Aid solutions, I see them as hyper-local solutions where people decide on their own the way our community can best be served. And that is probably the smartest, most efficient way to create policy—on a very hyper-local level.

FPC: What advice do you have for New Yorkers who want to make a difference – what practices and habits should they engage in?

AD: To band together, stay together as groups, stay together as larger entities within coalitions, within partnerships. As an individual it is hard to influence. It is much easier to work together and I think that’s the advice I would give is—stay united, find common ground, and keep pushing forward. Because I think that’s the only way you can gain any kind of influence in the city or at the state or national level—it’s by group—and together we can make a difference.

FPC: What are the greatest challenges facing NYCCGC right now—what are you currently fighting, and what projects are you working on?

AD: The greatest challenges for the Coalition is really preserving community gardens. Our mission is to preserve, promote, and create more community gardens and we haven’t been able to do the latter. It is very hard in NYC these days to create gardens; the city has no forward policy creating community gardens. Their policy is to take land and build on it, and often times what happens is community gardens create a much better neighborhood. It seems to be that once a community garden comes in, property values go up.

Vicky Bean from Housing Preservation Department (HPD) wrote that in a paper from a few years ago, when she was at NYU—that property values near community gardens are considerably higher, yet Vicky Bean through HPD, continues to take land away, community gardens away. They build them under the guise of affordable housing, and the Coalition is completely for affordable housing, most of our membership would be eligible for affordable housing, if it were truly affordable. And there’s enough land, there’s enough buildings in the city to not take community gardens away. That’s what we face—the dual issue of fighting the city for preserving community gardens, and pushing the city to create more open space. The dichotomy, the wedge, they’re trying to put in that you can only have affordable housing, or you can have community gardens in open space, which is a false premise and we fight that—and that’s our biggest challenge right now.

FPC: In regards to both the general food movement in NYC and NYCCGC’s work, do you feel hopeful about the future? Why or why not?

AD: I’m a very glass half-full person. I believe that we can get things done even in the direst times. And we’re not in the direst times—we are not in a Giuliani period where multiple gardens are getting bulldozed, but we do face that issue obviously. I am very hopeful.

Back to what I said earlier—the notion that our movement is ahead of policy, formalized policy from the government. I believe that to be true, and I believe that this movement is gaining strength every day. We were under the gun. We thought we were going to loose multiple gardens under HPD, and because of community activism, because of organizing, because of working with our partners, we only lost, I don’t want to say only, we lost nine gardens. Nine gardens is nine too many, but it could have been far, far worse.

So I am hopeful, I think that people in power are beginning to recognize the value of community gardens. The Coalition is doing a project downtown on the Lower East Side, that’s Storm Water Management using Community Gardens as a way to mitigate storm water run off going into the sewers, and that’s an unusual project for us. But it’s important that we do something like that because then we can show a very definitive use of what a community garden can do. And if we’re able to show multiple ways that Community Gardens are assets to the city it creates a more resilient, sustainable city. That’s increasing this movement. We are moving in a very positive direction. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to move forward, but I believe we’re moving forward, and I’m very hopeful.

FPC: As the Executive Director, what is your ultimate goal for NYCCGC? What is one thing you want to see accomplished before you leave your current role?

AD: That’s the hardest question because it is so personal. I think I can only be a good Executive Director through the strength of my board and through the strength of our partners and our members.

As the Executive Director, my ultimate goal is for the NYC Community Garden Coalition to have a real, strong, reliable part of the community garden movement. If we create more visibility for the organization, we can be at the table when issues are being brought up instead of being brought to the table afterwards. As a fait accompli my ultimate goal for the city is to give the Coalition a permanent place at the table on these issues and I want to make sure that everybody knows it is a permanent place at the table alongside our partners.

Again, we can’t do this alone despite how many members we have. We have hundreds and hundreds of members within the coalition. We need partners outside the coalition; we need other organizations to be joining us. My ultimate goal is to have a place at the table—to have a strident voice for food policy, for community gardens, and to have that alongside our partners, shoulder to shoulder.

The one thing I want to see become accomplished before I leave is to have that recognition—that the coalition is strong is important and brings issues to the table that other people don’t want to always talk about. Referring back to Karen Washington, to be able to say the words that this is wrong, this is food apartheid. Call it whatever you like but it’s apartheid. That’s a strong word that people don’t really like being used, but you have to be tough.


Grew up in: New York City

Background and Education: I went to public school and I went to boarding school. I was a little out of line so they sent me off to boarding school! You know what the crazy part was—they put me into a boarding school and everybody in that school was there for the same reason! My senior year my class shut down the school, and they asked me and another person to negotiate with the headmaster to reopen under whatever terms we were asking. That was my first community activism as a kid, and when I look back, I realize how much power we actually had and didn’t use it as effectively, but it was a great experience. From there I went to Rutgers Agriculture School and I have a degree in horticulture and a minor in urban planning.

One word you would use to describe our food system: Unjust

Food policy hero: Karen Washington

Your breakfast this morning: Oatmeal and a banana

Favorite food: Anything Persian

Social media must follow/Food policy website you read: My twitter feed/Just Food


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