Karen Washington was not a gardener when she moved into her Bronx home in the mid-1980s. A single mother with two children, she worked as a physical therapist before finding her passion and focus as an urban and rural farmer and community organizer. Like many working parents, Karen said her family was sustained on convenience and fast foods and she noticed it was affecting her children’s weight and health. When she moved into her new home, she made the decision to turn the back yard into a garden instead of sowing grass. Her first crops were tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and collards. From first bite, Karen was hooked on the taste of fresh produce, launching her 30+ year journey as food activist and farmer.
Across the street from her new home was an empty lot where a man was trying to create a community garden. Karen offered to help, which opened her eyes to the truth behind these efforts. It was not about growing food, but first and foremost about surviving. These lots were/are a haven for drugs and prostitution, and the result of urban blight and the depression of lower socio-economic communities. In reclaiming these empty spaces, she and others discovered they actually were reclaiming the land and their communities.
Karen then realized that to get descent produce and groceries, she had to leave her community to shop in the more affluent neighborhoods. The gardens then also became about empowering people to grow and eat healthy food. The community responded by getting involved, which lead to them seeing their home as a place of beauty and hope rather than crime and squalor. Thirty years later, that first garden, The Garden of Happiness, is still growing.
From here, Karen began questioning the food system and how to address the challenges and social justice issues it encompasses. For example, Karen explained that there remains a stigma for the black community to get involved in farming. For many, it holds the trauma of “slave labor.” However, once Karen put her hands in the soil, she found a connection with the land that was healing; spiritual. The earth is here for all. It’s the hunger and poverty humanity creates that hold us back.
This is why, Karen said, it’s important for people interested in food and social justice to come together. The solutions are not found in solitude but in working together. She also encourages young people to talk with their elders so traditional agricultural practices (those that existed before industrial and commercial farming) remain alive through application and discussion. Otherwise, they are liable to be co-opted by and lost to modern farming practices found detrimental to the earth.
When asked what people can do to get involved, Karen said to “dream big” and share your dream with everyone. “Shout it out to the world and ask for help!” Don’t allow fear to hold you back, because the resource you need may be held by the person sitting next to you at a meeting. It was such a conversation that led Karen and her friends to fulfilling their dream of Rise & Root Farm and she hopes the same will occur for others at her workshop. Karen’s goal is that people share their questions, challenges and ideas and walk away understanding they’re not alone; that resources are readily available to help them achieve their vision. “This,” she said, “is not a journey you’re doing alone.”
Her full day workshop takes place on Friday, March 9, 2017 and is called “Food for All: Growing Our Community as We Grow Our Food” with Karen Washington.
The workshop description: The current food system seems to have been designed for disconnection, marginalization, and fragmentation. Not only are we separated from the land, but also from each other, from our food traditions, and from making decisions that affect our communities.
Join Karen for this lively and interactive conversation about food and social justice, inclusion, diversity, activism, land reform, waste management, ending hunger and poverty, and building community. Plan to become connected across social boundaries and expect to leave with passion, inspiration, and action. Bring your stories and Karen will bring hers. Sharing is where it starts. More information is at Workshop
Karen is also offering a class under the Gardening track called “Urban Gardening” on Saturday and Sunday from 4-5pm. The class description: Hear stories from her inner city Bronx farm and from around the country as growers are changing the narrative of food, land, and farmer from one of “impossible and demeaning” to respectful, honorable, and important.
To learn more about Karen’s class and others in the Gardening track, visit Class Descriptions. Learn more about Karen’s work on Facebook, Twitter and at Organic Growers School. Image from Karen’s Facebook page. Garden of Happiness image from article at New York Botanical Garden
Jennie Ashlock lives in Sylva and works at Southwestern Community College. Her background is in education and religion. In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering with the Jackson Farmers Market, gardening and exploring western North Carolina’s rich cultural and natural heritage.