Meet Karen Washington, Urban Farming Leader

by FoodPrint

Published: 3/14/19, Last updated: 4/24/19

Karen Washington has been a champion of the urban farm for decades. Since starting her own garden in 1985, Washington has dedicated her time to founding and supporting community gardens across New York City and promoting the urban farm movement, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Working to bolster black leadership in farming and farming education, she co-founded Black Urban Growers and is a member of the community garden coalition in the Bronx, La Familia Verde. In 2014, Washington received the James Beard Leadership award and was dubbed “Urban Farming’s Grande Dame” by the New York Times. Today, she and a group of other food and farm activists run the cooperatively owned Rise & Root Farm in Orange County, New York.

What Drew You to Farming and Why Is It Important?

Farming, I believe, has always been a part of me. It’s in my DNA. My ancestors were farmers; we were an agrarian people. Even as a little girl growing up in the projects I always had a yearning to farm.

My interest in growing food began in my backyard in 1985. With no prior experience, I felt the urge to grow food. Then in 1988 I started a community garden (the Bronx’s Garden of Happiness) as a way of beautifying my neighborhood, growing food and working in community. While growing food in NYC, I started to notice the type of food that was in my community, versus more affluent neighborhoods. The quality of food was poor, and each block was home to a fast food restaurant. In order to buy fresh produce and meat, I had to travel outside my community. I realized then the importance of growing your own food and having land to do so. The power you have in deciding what to grow and why you grow it is part of what we now know as food sovereignty.

How Can We Bring More Diversity and Access to the Food Movement?

It starts with providing resources and access to land. Right now, the majority of farmers are white male. In NY State alone there are 50,000 white farmers compared to only 126 black farmers. The people in power, who control our food system, are mostly white and male. People with power must realize that power must be shared. The food movement has to acknowledge the systems in place that prevent people from obtaining land and/or keeping the land that they own.

My farm partner, Lorrie Clevenger, and I started Black Farmers and Urban Growers (BUGS) organization in 2009 in response to the lack of black leadership and voices in the food movement. We put on our first conference in Brooklyn in 2010, and consumers, farmers and youth came from all over the country to attend. What we realized was that an important voice in the food movement was missing, and that voice was people of color. We were able to shed light on our concerns and issues, which are often ignored or relegated as insignificant.

We continue to bring to attention the need for a more diverse voice in the food system. We are asking businesses and non-profit organizations to look at their staff and board of directors, asking if it truly represents the people they serve. If not, be cognizant for the need to change. We must hold true that healthy food is a right for all and not a privilege for some.

What Was the Inspiration for Starting Rise and Root Farm?

We run the gamut of farmers who have been discriminated against: we are all women farmers, some of us LGBTQ farmers, and farmers of color. Many of us have been urban farmers for years, and wanted to find a way to grow food on a larger scale. We all had experience working around food and social justice issues and felt compelled to honor our ancestors and other trailblazers who made it possible for us to now be farming. Rise & Root farm comes from our collective strength and vision as women who dare to dream the impossible, challenging the status quo by breaking down barriers. Not only do we want to grow food and feed people, but provide a nurturing place for folks to be themselves.

Where Do You Envision the Food Movement in the Next Ten Years?

If power is not shared or shifted and only a few people control our food system, then people who can no longer afford food or water will revolt. However, I see hope on the horizon, as many young people want to farm and/or be part of the food movement. I have seen a social conscience being felt around food equity. Yet, it will only succeed if we are lead down a path of inclusion, diversity and globalization.

The complexion of our people is changing as the population becomes more brown and global. So if in ten years you asked me, “What will that power structure look like? Is it Power Shared or Power Held?” I hope, for our sake, it’s the former! Power Shared!

This interview was originally published in 2015. We’ve updated the content to keep it up-to-date. 

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