Interview with Karen Washington, Community Activist

by Alexina Cather, MPH

By Alexina Cather, MPH

Karen Washington is a community activist and urban gardener who has worked to turn empty lots in the Bronx into community gardens. Karen is a board member of the New York Botanical Gardens, Just Food, and the New York City Community Garden Coalition, which she was also president of. She is also a co-founder of the organization Black Urban Growers (BUGS) and co-owner of Rise & Root Farm.

In 2012, Karen was voted one of the most influential African Americans in the country by Ebony magazine, and in 2014 she was awarded the James Beard Leadership award, the same year she started Rise & Root Farm.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Karen about food policy in New York City among a number of other food system topics.

NYC Food Policy Center (FPC): What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate? Can you talk about the impact of community gardens in NYC?

Karen Washington (KW): Well, to tell you the truth it was looking at the food system and the whole exchange, who was being talked about but who wasn’t at the table for solutions. You would hear people talking about low-income neighborhoods and people of color but when you looked at policy and who was making policy you didn’t see any people of color. When I looked at the state and city policy boards they were talking about issues that affect low-income neighborhoods and people of color but when you looked on their boards there were no people of color. So I started saying, “How is that possible?” “How do you talk about people from a distance?” And you don’t have people who are affected on your board or even have the power to change policy? So looking at that and also looking at living in a low-income neighborhood and looking at the food that was being addressed in my neighborhood and some of the remedies in terms of soup kitchens and food pantries and it was never about ownership or business so I just started questioning it. Questioning the food system, who is missing, who needs to be included.

So I started saying, “How is that possible?” “How do you talk about people from a distance?” And you don’t have people who are affected on your board or even have the power to change policy? So looking at that and also looking at living in a low-income neighborhood and looking at the food that was being addressed in my neighborhood and some of the remedies in terms of soup kitchens and food pantries and it was never about ownership or business so I just started questioning it. Questioning the food system, who is missing, who needs to be included.

FPC: Can you talk about the impact of community gardens in NYC?

KW: Let me tell you something, the impact of community gardens movement has been at the forefront of this urban agriculture bust that you see happening right now. When I first started back in the early 1980s it was a movement that was basically complacent. We had these vacant lots and we thought that we were doing the city a good thing by taking over these vacant lots because back in the late 70s many cities were going through a fiscal crisis and didn’t have money to take on these 1,500 vacant lots that New York City had. So it was to their advantage that community representatives went in and started community gardens. So you felt that you were doing the city a good favor by doing that. However, when Giuliani and his administration came into office and started auctioning off those community gardens it changed the tone and the dynamics of the community garden movement because it went from complacency to action. So now you see more community gardens proactively fighting for their gardens before that they would have never had the pride to do that. Everyone, at first, was wondering why Giuliani would do that when we were doing the city a favor.

But in retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened because of the fact that it has pushed policy, it has challenged the city. We have been back and forth with the city saving gardens. We have been back and forth with the city bidding leases. We have been back and forth with the city to drop the politics, one time they wanted us to pay liability insurance. We have fought with the city for longer leases. So it continues to shift the policy agenda and so now you have this urban ag movement, which would have never happened unless it was through community gardens. And, so, we have really been at the forefront of this urban ag movement, but we have to make sure that we are not in the distant last when it comes to urban agriculture because I see the narrative and I see it starting to shift, whereby a lot of young yuppies with money coming into cities and doing these businesses, these agriculture businesses, these rooftops and greenhouses and hydroponics and aquaponics and I am not saying that they’re not part of urban agriculture, but the emphasis should not be on that. To disregard this movement of people who have been here when nobody wanted to come into my neighborhoods, nobody wanted to work in

So it continues to shift the policy agenda and so now you have this urban ag movement, which would have never happened unless it was through community gardens. And, so, we have really been at the forefront of this urban ag movement, but we have to make sure that we are not in the distant last when it comes to urban agriculture because I see the narrative and I see it starting to shift, whereby a lot of young yuppies with money coming into cities and doing these businesses, these agriculture businesses, these rooftops and greenhouses and hydroponics and aquaponics and I am not saying that they’re not part of urban agriculture, but the emphasis should not be on that. To disregard this movement of people who have been here when nobody wanted to come into my neighborhoods, nobody wanted to work in soil, now that dynamic is starting to change so we still have to make sure that policy continues to be for everyone and not just for people who have money.

However, when Giuliani and his administration came into office and started auctioning off those community gardens it changed the tone and the dynamics of the community garden movement because it went from complacency to action. So now you see more community gardens proactively fighting for their gardens before that they would have never had the pride to do that. Everyone, at first, was wondering why Giuliani would do that when we were doing the city a favor. But in retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened because of the fact that it has pushed policy, it has challenged the city. We have been back and forth with the city saving gardens. We have been back and forth with the city bidding leases. We have been back and forth with the city to drop the politics, one time they wanted us to pay liability insurance. We have fought with the city for longer leases. So it continues to shift the policy agenda and so now you have this urban ag movement, which would have never happened unless it was through community gardens. And, so, we have really been at the forefront of this urban ag movement, but we have to make sure that we are not in the distant last when it comes to urban agriculture because I see the narrative and I see it starting to shift, whereby a lot of young yuppies with money coming into cities and doing these businesses, these agriculture businesses, these rooftops and greenhouses and hydroponics and aquaponics and I am not saying that they’re not part of urban agriculture, but the emphasis should not be on that. To disregard this movement of people who have been here when nobody wanted to come into my neighborhoods, nobody wanted to work in soil, now that dynamic is starting to change so we still have to make sure that policy continues to be for everyone and not for just people who have money.

FPC: You’ve said that one of your greatest food victories was/is getting NY to recognize the importance of community gardens. What do you think finally pushed policy makers to see the importance?

KW: I think the fact that the movement, I think what the city tried to do was go after one garden at a time but it is different when you have a multitude of people. That’s what I am saying, you empty their strengths and so when you have an outcry of people and what I think what we did strategically is not just to focus on community gardens, but the intersection of community gardens and its relationship to housing, to education. The fact that there are so many school gardens now is out the community garden work. The fact that we have Farm School NYC is out of the community garden work. The fact that we are talking about the issues of food and land issues comes out of the community garden movement. And of course, land preservation, which is at the heart, not only in cities but throughout the country, even in rural areas, land is a big issue. We continue to make sure that that is the focal point in terms of preservation of land.

FPC: You started the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference. Can you speak briefly about its successes and your goals for the conference in the future?

KW: Yeah, well the reason why we started it, Lori and I took this challenge is that when I went away to a farming program in Santa Cruz, California in 2008, we went around farms and farmers and I said, “Where are all the people that look like me?”

So each of us was asked to do a workshop on a discussion, on a title, and mine was “Where are All the Black Farmers?” That was my title. I showed a film called “The Homecoming” by Charlotte Gilbert that talks about the fall of the black farmers and then I went to the census bureau because I wanted to get statistics about how many black farmers there were in New York State. At first, I emailed and I didn’t get any response. I got them on the phone and I told them I was doing a workshop on black farmers and asked if they could tell me the census of black farmers vs. white farmers. He told me in New York State there are 55,000 farmers and when he came to black farmers he told me there were 112. I dropped the phone. I almost went to tears and I said, whoa, look at this little, dirty secret.

Then I started looking at the census across the country and some states have no black farmers. And so I said, I have to say this loud and clear because if we don’t promote farming as a black community then little by little, by 20 years from now, I would have to take my grandchildren to take them to a museum to point to them what a black farmer looked like.

And so what we did was start to open a dialogue because in the food system when we would go to workshops and conferences you could count on our fingers how many people looked like us. We felt it was necessary to start having a dialogue that was concentrated and emphasized black agriculture so that young, black kids could see black farmers, so they can see black intellectuals. They can see black scientists and teachers, they can see people other than what the media portrays us as entertainment and basketball players.

And I say that because when I went to the powers that be and I said that I had an idea that I wanted to put on a conference for black farmers I was told that black people don’t want to farm they want to play sports. So right then and there I knew that I had something, that I to dispel that myth. The biggest thing that has ever happened to me in my life is  young people coming up to me and thanking me for starting a dialogue, thanking me for showing them black people that farm. Thanking me for showing them that we have a rich history of agriculture and it’s not just about slavery. And so to put on a conference where you see black people in power with intelligence, it’s mind-boggling for the young kids to see that because in traditional settings they don’t see it.

FPC: You are often called the Queen of Urban Agriculture. What role do you see urban agriculture playing in fixing our food system?

KW: You sometimes hear people say that we are going to grow food in cities and that we will feed everybody and we won’t need real farmers, and you know what let’s not even go in that direction. What urban agriculture has done has really started a dialogue around the food system, having people in cities starting to understand the food system. We have a problem here and that is the value of food. In cities, what this urban agriculture movement has done it has started the dialogue around food. Food, number one and then food systems. It has created a dialogue that not only as to concentrate on food, but the intersection that food has when it comes to health and the environment and education and employment. Looking at food not only from the person who is growing the food but looking at the farm workers and restaurant workers. We are having the dialogue around food and social justice. We are having that dialogue about having more schools to have school gardens. We are having that dialogue where we see more farmers’ markets. We are starting to have that dialogue that the consumer now has a part in the conversation because

We have a problem here and that is the value of food. In cities, what this urban agriculture movement has done it has started the dialogue around food. Food, number one and then food systems. It has created a dialogue that not only as to concentrate on food, but the intersection that food has when it comes to health and the environment and education and employment. Looking at food not only from the person who is growing the food but looking at the farm workers and restaurant workers. We are having the dialogue around food and social justice. We are having that dialogue about having more schools to have school gardens. We are having that dialogue where we see more farmers’ markets. We are starting to have that dialogue that the consumer now has a part in the conversation because

We are having the dialogue around food and social justice. We are having that dialogue about having more schools to have school gardens. We are having that dialogue where we see more farmers’ markets. We are starting to have that dialogue that the consumer now has a part in the conversation because for too long the consumer has been on the outside. We are bringing in food and we expect that by bringing in food everyone is going to eat or that everyone can afford it. And so now when you bring the consumer into the dialogue and they understand the value of food, that’s important.

FPC: How can New Yorkers get involved in urban agriculture projects like community gardens and Rise and Root Farm?

KW: You know what we are out there and I tell people every time I speak that you can go to GrowNYC or you can go to green thumb and you put in your zip code and you can find the closest community garden in your area. You can just google community gardens and it will come up. And I tell people to walk around your neighborhood, Brooklyn the most, Bronx is second, Manhattan is third, Queens is fourth, and Staten Island has a couple. It is out there.

FPC: What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for New York City? And the greatest opportunities?

KW: I try to expand my vision when I look at the food system and not just concentrate on growing food because I like to grow food, but to look also at the effect that food has on people. So this is my new market that I have been seeing the last couple of months because I have been going to a lot of conferences land talking to people and people asking me about the farm bill and money. But when I look at my neighborhood and I drive around and see long lines soup kitchens and food pantries. And so I am saying to myself, we have a problem of hunger and poverty in this nation. So how do we address that? How do we address in terms of food policy the issue of hunger and poverty in a nation that has so much wealth? Over 40 million people, 14 percent of the population is below poverty. And so how do we address that? From a human being from the outside looking in when I travel around I see the remedy that people continue to feed into is they put more money at SNAP, more money to get food into food pantries and soup kitchens. and that is all fine and good, but, I remember that those things were supposed to be for emergency purposes only, in times of need and not a way of people’s life. What I am starting to see in my neighborhood is that you can go every day of the week to a food pantry. Number one, it devalues the value of food and it doesn’t fix the problem of hunger and poverty. What I would like to see in terms of policy is additional job training programs so that when a person comes to get

From a human being from the outside looking in when I travel around I see the remedy that people continue to feed into is they put more money at SNAP, more money to get food into food pantries and soup kitchens. and that is all fine and good, but, I remember that those things were supposed to be for emergency purposes only, in times of need and not a way of people’s life. What I am starting to see in my neighborhood is that you can go every day of the week to a food pantry. Number one, it devalues the value of food and it doesn’t fix the problem of hunger and poverty. What I would like to see in terms of policy is additional job training programs so that when a person comes to get food they also receive job training so they don’t have to keep on that line.

I went to a conference one time and told a woman who worked at a food pantry that I loved her work, but that my job was to put you all out of business. I said because for you to be working at a food pantry for 20 years you should be upset. I mean how do you stand on line and continue to feed into that enabling system where no one is talking about giving a person a job. What they are doing is establishing a way of life and feeding into the victimization of people. So what I am trying to say is to stop this madness and focus on job creation because if a person had a job they wouldn’t have to be on that line. But no ones talks about that because there is money being made on the back of poor people and sick people. I was a physical therapist for 37 years and I saw that hospitals are a money making business.

So what I am trying to say is let’s stop this madness and focus on job creation because if a person had a job they wouldn’t have to be on that line. But no ones talks about that because there is money being made on the back of poor people and sick people. I was a physical therapist for 37 and a half years and I saw that hospitals are a money making business. Pharmaceuticals are a money making business. Could you imagine if everyone was healthy? They would be out of business! Hospitals would be empty and pharmaceuticals would try to come up with a new drug to get you hooked.

Back in the day, people would say the food system is broken and needs to be fixed. I no longer believe that. I believe the food system intends to be this way because in a country with so much wealth you mean to tell me that we can’t fix hunger and poverty. There has to be a class system. There has to be people who are poor and sick so that we can continue to drive an economy. If everyone could eat healthy and everyone had a job there would be no soup kitchens and food pantries unless there was a disaster or an emergency, which is what they are supposed to be for!  They would be out of business and nonprofits would be out of business.

My eyes are open and as long as people are poor and sick people are going to make money off of that because no one is tackling the issue of poverty and hunger. Come into my neighborhood. If you want policy change then set up job creation and entrepreneurship! I see an underground economy of people selling food out of the trunks of cars and out of shopping carts. I see an underground economy that wants to feed themselves. They want to have their own businesses but there is red tape or they are undocumented, but they are trying their best to feed themselves and this is what I want to see! Policy change, put in communities job creation, job fairs, entrepreneurship. How can low-income people own things?  How can they take what they do in their home in their kitchen and bring it to the forefront and put their name on it and own a business!

FPC: What is the one food policy change at the federal level that would have the greatest impact on health?

KW: Make it easy for people to be entrepreneurs. Where is the federal government when it comes to job creation and entrepreneurship? Let them come into low-income neighborhoods and make sure that when a person runs a soup kitchen or food pantry that within that program is a job training component so when a person comes to a soup kitchen they can get a job. Job training so they know the ins and outs. For instance, how do you run a soup kitchen? What are the ins and outs?

Perfect example, I was speaking at Massachusetts, they had the urban ag conference because I was telling people of nonprofits, if you’re in business for 10 years and your vision and your mission was to help low-income neighborhoods you should have no jobs. The biggest challenge that we all have people giving up power. Power is a drug. So how do we share power and give up power?

The federal government has to do is mandate that if we are going to give money to nonprofits and emergency food organizations there has to be some sort of job training entrepreneurship component. So that it isn’t a revolving door, you’re not getting at, you’re not hitting the solution, you’re just continuing the problem. So the federal government has to say that the policy is now that if we are going to give dollars, some of those dollars have to come into what are you are doing to extend the time to solve poverty. What are you doing to job training? What are you doing in terms of entrepreneurship. The federal government should give money to organizations that are combatting hunger and poverty that way rather than by continuing to feed people and handing out free stuff. It doesn’t make sense. It perpetuates an enabling system year after year. I see people on line year after year. When do people wake up? But no, they don’t want to wake up because this is their jobs, this is their feel good moment. We have to address that these systems in place continue to perpetuate hunger and poverty. We need to start building into these systems some sort of job creation and entrepreneurship. Because if we don’t I don’t want to see more soup kitchens and food pantries! Unless people go on hardship like it was meant for. If we don’t do that we have a whole new generation that comes to expect this and wonder why I would go to a grocery store. Because I can go and stand

The federal government should give money to organizations that are combatting hunger and poverty that way rather than by continuing to feed people and handing out free stuff. It doesn’t make sense. It perpetuates an enabling system year after year. I see people on line year after year. When do people wake up? But no, they don’t want to wake up because this is their jobs, this is their feel good moment. We have to address that these systems in place continue to perpetuate hunger and poverty. We need to start building into these systems some sort of job creation and entrepreneurship. Because if we don’t I don’t want to see 20 years from now that there are still soup kitchens and food pantries! Unless people go on hardship and that’s what it was meant for. If we don’t do that we have a whole new generation that this is what is expected.

I know people in their heart of hearts they want to do a good thing. It’s hard when someone is hungry to deny them food and I understand that and I understand where their heart is. But what I want them to do is stop a second and get angry and say I have been on this job too long and I see the same faces over and over again and now I am seeing their children’s faces. It has to get to somebody! This is not working!

FPC: What can grassroots communities do to change food policy?

KW: Well what we are trying to do is to get people to speak out. People have to demand a better food system and that is hard when you are on the receiving end. Let me tell you what is so ironic. Every year around this time I get so many students, everybody, graduate students and journalists wanting to write their thesis on low-income neighborhoods and how they get their food, and I’m saying why don’t you all go into the affluent neighborhoods and ask them what are they doing to solve hunger and poverty. I want to hear from them! Those are the ones who have power, voices. What are the affluent neighborhoods doing? Why is it that people come into low-income neighborhoods and ask what are we doing? I haven’t heard anyone go into affluent neighborhoods and ask them  questions about what you feel about hunger and poverty and what you can do as an affluent community to raise the voices and consciousness of a system of hunger and poverty. I don’t hear nobody go into affluent neighborhoods and charging them to raise their voices against hunger and poverty. It always comes down to what are people in communities doing? What are people in affluent communities doing that have power, that have money? What are they doing to push the envelope? I don’t see them marching in the streets or banging on the doors of Congress demanding a change so that poor people can get out of poverty. What is their responsibility? I don’t see it. So I tell them to go to the affluent neighborhoods and ask them the same questions–what are they doing about hunger and poverty? How do they feel about people that can’t get organic food? What are they going to do to make sure that low-income people get the same food that they have? No one is asking them those questions. People will money and power influence. Turn the tables. What are you doing? What are the privileged doing to see that everyone has the same food that they are eating?

FPC: What was your greatest personal moment as an urban farmer?

KW: When I was at the grow together and it was a group of young kids. I think it was the New York City Growers and they surrounded me and said how much they loved the BUGS conference. I was in tears. When I make a difference in youth, that’s my defining moment. That’s where it gets me. When you come to me and say thank you. I just got an email from a middle school asking me to be their keynote in the Bronx.

I just got an email from a middle school asking me to be their keynote in the Bronx. They said the school has been following me and I am their Bronx daughter, I am their hero and they asked if I could be the keynote for middle school kids going into high school because they have been following you and they are so proud. They said that we can’t pay you but we can pay you with hugs and food. That’s why I do the things that I do. Because I want people to see that as a Black and Brown person, as a woman, you can achieve, you can do. Don’t let people stop you based on your color or your ethnicity. You have power. You can do what you can do. And if I am that example of what it is, then you know what? I am proud.

Fact Sheet

Food policy websites you read: I get the NYC Food Policy through my email box. I like Color lines.

Current location:Bronx/Chester

Hometown: Bronx, NY

Favorite food: I would have to say my favorite plate to eat if this was the last day on Earth this is what I would eat: fried chicken, smothered cabbage, and sweet potatoes.

Favorite Website: I don’t think I have a favorite website. I think the most important thing is to talk to people. Websites are good to get information, the website I use the most is Facebook because I am always posting things to get people motivated and moving and to give out information.

 

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1 comment

Alexandra Sullivan June 2, 2016 - 11:25 AM

Awesome read! Great to hear about the incredible work this woman is doing! Thank you Karen for all your contributions!

Reply

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