See the Seeds of Change Grown by One Bronx Woman

“The first plant that changed my life was a tomato,” says Karen Washington, a black urban farmer in the Bronx. “It was the one fruit that I used to hate.” But after watching one that she’d grown shift in hue from green to yellow to red and taking a bite of it, she was instantly hooked. “When I tasted that tomato, when it was red and it was ripe, and I picked it off the vine, [it]…changed my world because I never tasted anything so good, so sweet. I wanted to grow everything.”

For a quarter century, all manner of trees and flowers, fruits and vegetables, have thrived across abandoned lots in the Bronx because of Washington. Deemed “the queen of urban farming,” she’s an African-American woman who’s dedicated her life to greening New York City’s poorest borough. Since 1985, Washington has assisted dozens of neighborhoods build their own community gardens, taught workshops on farming and promoted racial diversity in agriculture.

Your food “is not from a grocery store, it’s not from a supermarket. It’s grown in the ground,” she says. “You have to understand where your food comes from. It gives you power.”

A lifelong New Yorker, Washington grew up in a public housing project on the Lower East Side. She moved up to the Bronx in 1985 and bought herself a newly built home, which she viewed as, “an opportunity, as a single parent with two children, to live the American dream.” While some gentrification occurred, other parts of the low-income neighborhood looked “like a warzone,” dotted with abandoned buildings. Some of Washington’s windows looked onto an empty lot filled with garbage and rusting cars.

One day, she noticed a man walking by with a shovel and a pick — an unusual sight in Gotham’s concrete jungle. “What are you doing here?” Washington asked. He told her he was thinking about creating a community garden. “I said, ‘Can I help?’”

“I had no idea about gardening. I didn’t have a green thumb,” she recalls. Despite that, a city program that leased undeveloped lots for $1 gave Washington and her neighbors lumber, dirt and seeds, “and we gave them power — muscle power — and hopes and dreams to turn something that was devastating and ugly into something that was beautiful.” Within days, the first seeds of the Garden of Happiness and Washington’s lifelong activism were beginning to sprout.

Ever since, Washington has helped others in the Bronx locate empty neighborhood spaces that are prime real estate for something to blossom and led volunteers through the process of opening a community garden — earning her respect throughout the Big Apple and beyond. She holds positions on almost every board imaginable, including the New York Community Gardening Coalition, Just Food and the New York Botanical Garden. “Can you imagine, a little girl from the projects on the board of the New York Botanical Garden?” she asks in disbelief, her smiling face framed by her dreadlocks.

And then there was the time she met First Lady Michelle Obama. Washington describes feeling, “the elation of the spirits of my ancestors. I just felt them clapping and cheering, because here I was, a black woman, standing in the presence of the First Lady.”
Blooming with daffodils, tulips and hyacinth, the original purpose of Washington’s first community garden — the Garden of Happiness — and others like it was “beautification,” Washington says, “about taking away the garbage” from a disadvantaged minority community. Only later did she start to think about greenery beyond being decoration or as a food source. “When I first started initially in the food movement, I was focused on growing food. It wasn’t until I was in that community garden that I started hearing social issues like low employment, poor health, people who couldn’t afford rents,” Washington says. She learned she had to “feed people’s body and mind.”
To promote equity and fairness, she’s recently been focusing on boosting the number of African Americans in agriculture through BUGs — or Black Urban Growers. The most recent agricultural census figures show 55,346 farmers in the Empire State are white and only 113 are black.
It’s always been a dream of Washington’s to purchase land upstate for a farm, but every time she counted all the zeros in the real estate listings, it seemed impossible. Drawing on her connections, Washington met a businessman interested in launching a farming co-operative in Chester, N.Y. They started growing veggies on three acres of black dirt in January. Located just an hour from the city, Washington hopes the rural-urban relationship will help African-Americans have a better understanding of how food systems work and have a chance to participate.
“Farming’s in our DNA, but [we] never have that conversation, always being pushed to the side as the consumer or the person with their hand out, never the type with their hand in the conversation,” Washington says. “There’s no agriculture without culture, so having people understand that slavery was part of our life, it doesn’t define who we are. … [We’re] trying to have people understand that. Don’t be afraid to put your hands in the soil, don’t be afraid to garden or farm because that’s who you are.”

This Veteran Refuses To Leave His Unemployed and Debt-Ridden Comrades Behind

When Eli Williamson returned from two deployments to the Middle East, his hometown of Chicago felt at times like a foreign battleground, the memory of desert roads more familiar than Windy City central thoroughfares. As he relearned the city, Williamson noticed a strange similarity between veterans like himself and the young people growing up in tough parts of Chicago. Too many had witnessed violence, and they had little support to cope with the trauma.
Applying the timeworn principle of leaving no soldier, sailor, airman or marine behind, Williamson co-founded Leave No Veteran Behind (LNVB), a national nonprofit focused on securing education and employment for our warriors. Williamson formed the organization based on “just real stupid” and “crazy” idealism: “You know what?” he says. “I can make a difference.” Since work began in 2008, with a measly operating budget of $4,674 to help pay off student loans, LNVB has eliminated around $150,000 of school debt and provided 750 transitional jobs, Williamson says.
“Coming out of the military, every individual is going to have his or her challenges,” says Williamson, who served as a psychological operations specialist and an Arabic linguist in Iraq in 2004 and in Afghanistan in 2007. “We’ve seen veterans with substance abuse issues, homelessness issues.” Additionally, at least one in five veterans suffer from PTSD, and almost 50,000 are homeless and 573,000 are unemployed.
Williamson started the group with his childhood friend Roy Sartin. They first met in high school, when they joined choir and band together. “I think we’ve been arguing like old women every since,” Williamson says. Both joined the U.S. Army Reserves while at Iowa’s Luther College and were mobilized to active duty during their senior year after the Twin Towers fell. Williamson finished his education at the Special Warfare Training Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, while Sartin put his learning on hold.
Upon return, both struggled with crippling interest rates on their student loans. Sartin received a call from the loan company saying that he needed to make a $20,000 payment. “Although I had the funds, it was just enough to get myself back together. So, for me, the transition wasn’t as tough, but I was one of the lucky ones.” Williamson got a bill for $2,200 only 22 days before the balance was due. Desperate, he took to the streets playing music to cover the costs.
After talking with other vets, the two realized that many didn’t qualify for the military’s debt repayment programs. That’s when they started going out to financial sources for “retroactive scholarships” for our country’s defenders. And they sought employment opportunities for former military members to help cover the rest.
Jobs and debt relief for our nation’s warriors are the main focus of LNVB, but the group oversees several initiatives, including S.T.E.A.M. Corps, which pairs vets with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math experience with at-risk youth. More than 200 students have graduated from S.T.E.A.M., but Williamson, director of veteran affairs at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, points to a more intangible benefit of his non-profit’s work: the ability for veterans “to articulate a larger vision of themselves … is our advocacy mission,” he says.
“Veterans can paint a vision for where our country needs to be, and the only reason we can do that is because you realize that you are part of something larger than yourself,” Williamson adds. “That’s a fundamental value that veterans can share, as they leave military, with the communities that they come back to.” For those who’ve just returned home from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, in other words, service is just beginning.

This Man’s Bold Idea: Pay Criminals to Stay Out of Trouble

To some, it’s one of the most dangerous spots in America. Others know it as “a city that pays criminals to behave.” To DeVone Boggan, Richmond, Calif., on the east side of the San Francisco Bay Area, is where a group of people are trying to build safer neighborhoods after three decades of living in what’s essentially a war zone.
Boggan is the director of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS). It’s a bureaucratic title that belies his public-private agency’s innovative work on gun violence prevention and youth outreach. Founded in 2007, when Richmond’s murder rate was nine times the national average, ONS has since helped the rate plummet to its lowest levels in four decades: 11 deaths per 100,000. (Nearby in Oakland, the 2013 rate was 23 per 100,000; in Detroit, 47.) Even more impressive is the fact that the decline in violence is happening faster in Richmond than anywhere else in the country.
How did Boggan do it? His agency contacts a select group of young men that are most likely to be involved in shootings — the ones who’ve brushed off help and stubbornly refused to change. With directed help, ONS gives the boys a profitable alternative to crime, starting with a monthly paycheck up to $1,000 for staying out of trouble.
“I found myself in a room with a myriad of law enforcement agencies and what I continued to hear was that they believed that 28 people were responsible for 70 percent of the gunfire in our city in the year 2009, and I said these 28 people are all were gonna focus on,” Boggan explains. “Before we could hit the ground running, we lost three of those young men to gun violence, so we invited the 25 living to City hall and 21 of them dared to show up. That tells you they’re hungry for something real.”
If you want to “reduce firearm-related homicides,” Boggan says, you can’t simply flood the streets with police, install surveillance cameras or scare people into being good. “You’ve got to understand the nature of [violence] and you’ve got to understand the drivers of it,” he explains. Being a young man in poor circumstances is a situation that Boggan recognizes well. Growing up in Michigan, he was busted for selling drugs.
“The context that has led me to where I’ve landed professionally has a lot to do with having access to positive adult healthy men. My parents divorced when I was nine years old. That meant my father was out of a home,” Boggan says. “It was during that period that my first mentor showed up at a time when I really needed some adult guidance. Having access to adult male figures is vital. In Richmond, it’s vital to survive.”
Almost always seen in a fedora, Boggan picked a team of Neighborhood Change Agents who could make inroads with potential murders. Boggan’s joked before, “It’s the only agency where you’re required to have a criminal background check to be an employee,” but he says that a more important qualification is hiring “people who cared about these young men.”
“Our job is to be on the streets talking to folks, interaction, building relationships,” says Joe McCoy, a Neighborhood Change Agent. “The car is our office; the street corner is our conference room.”
The reach of ONS expanded in 2009 with the creation of the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. It identified at-risk individuals, ages 13 to 25, and incentivizes them to turn their lives around by paying stipends ranging from $300 to $1,000. Though the reduction in murders speaks to the efficacy of the program, it’s not without controversy.
“I think the biggest question that comes up is, Why would we spend these kinds of resources on people who should be in jail?” Boggan says. “Our philosophy and approach is were not going to arrest our way out of gun violence. The way were going to get ourselves removed from gun violence is developing and shaping these young men in a different way. We see these young men as vital and viable partners and we have to understand the power that these young men bring to the table,” he adds. “Gun violence isn’t being reduced because of the police alone. The primary reason is because these young men are making better decisions.”

The Man That’s Bringing Voting Out of the 18th Century

Did you vote in the last national election?
If you’re like most Americans, the answer is no.
Even with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the 2014 midterm elections saw the lowest voter turnout since World War II, only 36.3 percent — a national embarrassment. For some citizens, the shirking of democratic duty may have resulted from a lack of interest. But others may have missed registration deadlines, got stuck at work or been turned away at the polls for insufficient identification. Our electoral system, after all, doesn’t make it easy.
“There’s a tradition in the U.S. about why we vote on a Tuesday. We vote on a Tuesday because in the 1700s that was super convenient. Sunday was for church, Monday you’d go down to the capitol, Tuesday morning you’d vote for whomever you wanted to vote for and you’d be back home for market day on Wednesday,” says Seth Flaxman, co- founder and executive director of the nonprofit Democracy Works. The problem? “It’s still fitting the way we live to the 1700s, and that’s so complicated to stay engaged in.”
Flaxman’s project is updating American democracy for the smartphone era. Nonpartisan, the group’s central principle is that voting should fit the way we live today. That’s why Democracy Works debuted TurboVote, an online voter registration and notification tool, as its signature app in 2010. All it requires users to submit is a name, the locale where they want to cast a ballot and a way to stay in touch. Reminders, unique to each jurisdiction, warn users when Election Day is close, so a voter can update his or her registration or apply for an absentee ballot.
Before the 2012 presidential election, TurboVote helped 200,000 people register. The app’s reminders helped ensure 75 percent of users that were first-time registrants voted. (Eighty percent of users who re-registered to vote actually cast a ballot.)
“It doesn’t make any sense that we can rent a movie or connect with friends or go shopping — do all these things that are arguably much less important than voting — a lot easier than we can actually interact with our democracy,” Flaxman says. “The only way democracy actually works is because people vote. So the easiest way we can get more people to vote in the U.S. is to modernize voting for the way we live.”
While a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, living on campus in Cambridge, Mass., Flaxman didn’t vote in several elections in his home state. “ I remember being angry when I realized how many elections I’d missed,” he says. Walking down the street one November, he noticed a sandwich board announcing that it was Election Day. “This is it?” he recalls thinking, noticing that the polls had already been closed an hour. “This is how I’m supposed to know how to vote?” So he reached out to fellow classmate Kathryn Peters and asked her if they could build a system to track election deadlines.  “
That’s crazy that doesn’t already exist,” she said at the time.
Flaxman doesn’t see apathy or disengagement as reasons why voter turnout is low. “Consistently around 60 percent of voters say they didn’t vote for a collection of around a dozen different process issues,” Flaxman says. “If we can solve the process side of the equation first, that’s the easier way to increase participation, and it’s the way we can have a bigger impact immediately.”
This is particularly true for young voters, who spend a significant amount of their life online and find punching out chads in a paper ballot archaic.
Millennials, too, are “a generation that grew up seeing our politics not working,” Flaxman adds. For him, as for almost everyone, this failure was personal. Back in grad school, he couldn’t find a single national or statewide candidate who fully supported same-sex marriage that he could back. “At the time, my boyfriend — now husband — and I were driving up to Maine to help in the Prop. 1 vote, in favor of marriage equality. It lost and it opened up my eyes to there’s not always this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Flaxman says. “My hope is that if we can make voting easier, it will actually wake up people in government to who they need to serve. For me, a democracy that works is ultimately issue number one. The more of us who vote, the more responsive and representative our government’s actually going to be.”

Nourishing an American City’s Comeback, One Bowl of Soup at a Time

A lot has changed in the seven years Amy Kaherl has lived in Detroit. “In 2008, it was a lot more lawless. Blight was at, probably, its all-time high. Streetlights were getting shot off, not turned on,” says Kaherl, who grew up outside the city in suburban Sterling Heights. A few years back, the city “was so quiet. And I think that that quietness in this urban center can be very scary.”
Most of us are familiar with the broad strokes of Detroit’s decline — car companies lost sales to competitors overseas, suburbs siphoned tax dollars from the urban core, riots erupted, residents fled en masse, homicide rates spiked and, in 2013, the city became the largest American municipality to file for bankruptcy. But few know that the Motor City’s rebirth began over spoonfuls of soup — specifically, over one pot of potato leek on a frigid Super Bowl Sunday in February 2010.
That evening Kaherl, a young, idealistic deejay sporting large glasses, co-founded Detroit SOUP, a monthly gathering where residents share a bowl of soup at the same time they’re funding local initiatives. Kaherl, who serves as the initiative’s director, explains, “For $5, you get soup, salad, bread and a roll, and you hear four pitches that are trying to make the city better.” Each presenter gets four minutes to share an idea and then fields four questions from the audience. “Then the diners get a chance to eat, share, connect and vote,” she continues. “Whoever has the most votes at the end of the night wins the money that was gathered at the door.”
Some SOUP events focus on the entire city, while others are centered on specific neighborhoods. In the past five years, more than 800 ideas have been presented. The pot for a citywide night averages roughly $1,000; winners at the smaller gathering usually net around $700.
SOUP’s “microgrants” run the gamut of civic projects, including art, urban agriculture, social entrepreneurship, education and tech. One college student designed winter coats that could double as sleeping bags and founded the Empowerment Project by hiring 20 formerly homeless women to sew them. Another group, Rebel Nell, employed women living in shelters to make jewelry from chipped graffiti paint. Funds have also supported poetry and writers’ groups, bike mechanic training classes, a local travel guide, a documentary film, free Shakespeare performances and benches for bus stops.
Another project, D.A.N.C.E., Inc., offers affordable, high-quality dance training to the city’s underserved youth. “A lot of our children are counted out, they’re just checked off. ‘You’re not going to amount to anything: You’re from Detroit,’” says Jonathan Clark, whose daughter is enrolling in her third season of classes. “But here at D.A.N.C.E., Inc., they give these kids an option, something to strive for, something positive. Programs like this shine a huge light on our city, bring a sense of hope, a sense of” — he pauses — “pride.” D.A.N.C.E., Inc., received over $2,000 from SOUP last year.
SOUP is essentially crowdfunding, sure, but it doesn’t have the disconnect that comes with backing a Kickstarter project online. SOUP’s communal dinner rivals the actual funding in gauging the project’s success. “I love watching people be passionate,” Kaherl says. “I love hearing people’s stories. I love how humanizing it becomes. Ultimately, she adds, it’s “about making human connections with each other.”
Even as a little girl, Kaherl had no interest in making “a ton of money,” and instead, had plans to “change the world.” She left Detroit for college, attending a conservative school in Grand Rapids, and later, enrolling in a theological seminary. There, she wavered. “In the middle of it, I stopped going to church,” she recalls. She questioned if she should be out there doing something, championing for social justice, not studying in a dorm. “I don’t think you could have faith without understanding the time and place that we live in.”
Kaherl graduated in 2008, the same year her mother lost a prolonged battle with cancer, and went home to Michigan, living with her dad in the suburbs. When a high school friend who deejayed invited her into the city for dance parties, “I kind of fell in love with the people here. I mean, it’s easy to do. Detroit just felt like home,” she says. “It felt inviting. It felt warm.” Kaherl started DJ’ing too, honing her ability “to bring people into a room.” From there, emceeing SOUP dinners was natural next step.
Like Kaherl, the theologian turned track-spinner, the city of Detroit has long specialized in second acts. Devastated by fire in 1805, its citizens quickly rebuilt downtown and established a thriving commercial hub. The disaster inspired the city’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.” Detroit’s comeback this time around won’t be as easy as reheating cold soup, but it will require the concerted effort of SOUP’s diners and donors. “When you live in poverty for so long, you can accept that it’s a great reality when it can be better,” Kaherl says. “We have a chance to make a healthier, different Detroit, and the time is now.”

Fighting Prejudice in America: One Woman’s Battle to Change the Rhetoric Surrounding Race

Can a person, by their very existence in this country, be illegal? Or is an action to cross a border without proper documentation the law-breaking act? On the flip side, does using the terms “illegal immigrants” or “anchor babies” mean a person’s entire viewpoint is clouded by racism? Broadly speaking, are we all responsible for an unequal system that justifies racial profiling, even if we don’t overtly employ the practice ourselves?
Race is a fraught topic in American politics. There are no easy answers to its age-old questions, and the discussion is all too easily derailed by accusations of ignorance or racism. Rinku Sen, president and executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Race Forward, is attempting to change the dialogue about race in the United States. Bringing her immigrant background and a journalist’s reliance on facts to the conversation, her seminars and stories in Colorlines, Race Forward’s daily news publication, teach people to see the structural inequalities — in education, law enforcement, housing and employment — that are an everyday reality for minority populations in America.
“People have a really narrow definition of what racism is. In most Americans’ minds, racism is always individual, it’s intentional and it’s overt. The thing is, that racism takes on an astonishing number of forms. Many of them are unconscious, and they’re systemic and they’re hidden,” she says. “The question that we start with isn’t, ‘Who’s a racist?’ The question that we start with is, ‘What’s causing racial inequity?’”
Sen’s family arrived in the States from India in 1972, when she was only five years old. They settled in Ellenville, a small community in upstate New York. “There were no other Indian immigrants. It was a really white existence,” she recalls. “In order to survive and make it through, I had to suppress most notions of myself as a person of color.”
That self-effacement of her ethnicity lasted until her sophomore year at Brown University, when a racial incident the first week of school in 1984 sparked her interest in activism. “My friends wanted me to go to the rally [the day after the incident], and I said no. They said, ‘Rinku, you’re not a girl anymore; you’re a woman now. And you’re not a minority; you’re a person of color,’” Sen says. “The next day I went to the rally, and for the first time since we had immigrated, I felt like I was with people that I belonged with.”
Sen translated that energy — and her newfound pride in her culture — into three decades of work focused on race. For half that time, she worked as a community organizer before beginning to feel that her work focused on the wrong areas. “Even though I was proud of many of the things that we had won locally, I felt like we had really lost influence on big issue areas: policing, education, housing,” she says.
She became more involved in Race Forward, where she was already working as communications director, because so many issues seemed to link back to structural inequalities based on race. After attending journalism school to hone her ability to “change the way the public thinks about something,” Sen instituted her theories of social progressive action — focusing on equity, rather than diversity.
“Diversity only speaks to variety and the kinds of people that are in the room. It doesn’t actually speak to power and what people are able to do once they are in the room,” she says. “We are in a strategy where we really have to reboot how the movement talks about and thinks about racism.”