As a group of students, educators, and food-justice activists gathered in the Open Space Institute’s New York City office for a Community Garden Training Program, Karen Washington, co-founder of Black Urban Growers (BUGs), invigorated the group with a few opening words.
“Food justice is life-changing and active work; you have to actively participate in it to help bring about change,” she says. “For OSI to not only sponsor us as a Citizen Action Group, but to lend us space to do our work helps emphasize the fact that access to land is critical across a broad spectrum of users.”
For BUGs, engaging others in conversations about food production, distribution, and access; as well as how those issues intersect with race and socio-economic status, is paramount. The organization is dedicated to increasing diversity in agriculture and community gardens through educational workshops, advocacy, and networking events.
“Never has the importance of connecting humans to the land and increasing access to the outdoors been more apparent, and community gardens and small parks are a great way to engage people in local conservation,” says Jessica Watson, director for OSI’s Citizen Action Program. “Through Citizen Action and our commitment to grassroots activism, OSI is supporting the groups who know the issues, the work, and the communities, but need guidance on how to operate on a larger financial or administrative scale.”
The Farmers and Urban Gardeners conference, which is focused on discussing the needs and concerns of black farmers, is one of the most popular BUGs offerings. This annual conference, which is open to anyone who is interested in agriculture, has welcomed an average of 500 participants each year and has expanded to celebrate the history and contributions of diverse farmers since 2010.
“Black farmers account for way less than one percent of New York farmers. I knew that we had to address the reasons for such a staggering deficit while also supporting the work of existing black farmers,” Washington says. “Our ultimate goal is to encourage young men and women to think about the social issues that surround agriculture and to have the diversity of our communities be reflected in the people who grow our food.”
OSI’s longest-running program, Citizen Action, offers members nonprofit status, administrative training, legal tools, financial stability, fundraising ability, and mentorship. Through Citizen Action, OSI is able to support the work of new and diverse organizations that are passionate about conservation, ecology, and food justice. The groups address issues that are central to OSI’s mission, while improving their local communities.
Now in its fourth decade, Citizen Action has mentored, trained, and launched more than 150 grassroots startups in New York City, the Hudson Valley, and beyond. Today, the program supports 22 active groups that organize community-based programs. Participants range from community gardens and local land trusts, to environmental educators and promoters of nature-based arts and activities.