Karen Washington (far left) works with her daughter and grandchildren in the greenhouse planting seeds.

The Charismatic Gardener Whose Giving Is Inspiring Future Community Activists

NationSwell AllStar Karen Washington demonstrates that the best way to spark action is to lead by example.

When Karen Washington, a black urban farmer in the Bronx, learned that she was the recipient of the $10,000 AllStar prize, she was dumbfounded. Her mouth hung open in shock. Oversized check in hand from NationSwell and NBCUniversal, Washington stood onstage in silence, a rare moment of speechlessness from a charismatic storyteller.

Now that a month’s passed, NationSwell caught up with Washington to discuss that emotional moment and her future plans. Washington has already doled out some of the funds in New York City’s poorest borough and hopes her giving will inspire more donors to step forward to help her match the prize and start a community foundation that will back other local activists.

Looking back to the NationSwell Summit in early November, Washington thought she had no chance of winning. “Here I am 61 years of age, and I’m with a younger generation who knew all about social media, and this competition was all about social media,” she says. Her strategy to get online votes? “The only thing I can do is tell my story,” she says, and mobilize folks with some good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth organizing.

After her name was announced, Washington was “just so overwhelmed with emotion,” she says, her voice cracking into a restrained sob. “I guess I never knew how much I was really loved. I never knew how far-reaching it was, the impact that I had on so many people across the world that took the time to vote for me. And that’s when it hit me, right then and there.”

Inspired by that outpouring of love, Washington is sending that affection back to her neighborhood. Already, she’s given money to a community garden to help build a retaining wall, funded an apprenticeship program at a farm and group for young men of color, paid the funeral expenses for a farm school student who died suddenly and contributed to a legal defense fund for black farmers threatened by foreclosure.

Her aim is not to fund big projects that other nonprofits are already working on. Instead, Washington wants to help community activists who can’t get grants elsewhere. She’s looking for the locals who don’t make the headlines — the ones whose operation is too small to have a full-time grant-writer.

Washington is keeping diligent notes about each dollar to track how her impact magnifies. She isn’t asking for anything back, but the money does come with one condition: As soon as the person has a few extra bucks, she asks that he or she pass along the surplus to another activist in need.

As soon her name was announced, Washington thought to herself, “You know what? I won for a reason.” But then she corrected herself. “No, we,” she said. Her family, her gardening friends and fellow farmers, her community. “We won for a reason.”

WATCH: See the Seeds of Change Grown by One Bronx Woman 

Homepage photo courtesy of Karen Washington.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]