On the Resilience That Grows Out of Destruction and Decay
This interview is part of Strange Futures, a column hosted by Willa Köerner of The Strange Foundation, which features artists and organizers who are actively creating transformation in this moment. In this conversation, Willa talked to organizer and educator Sawdayah Brownlee, Board President of the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, to hear how their 35+ community gardens are run, what Sawdayah has learned from years of farming and teaching, and how she’s keeping her faith that a greener, more resilient future is possible.
What has been on your mind lately? Is there anything that's been percolating to the forefront of your thoughts?
I've been thinking about the larger context of what got us here, especially in terms of short-sighted relationships and systems. I've been thinking about how important it is to pace myself, and for all of us to pace ourselves in the work that we do. It's troubling and frustrating when I see things being produced out of hysteria and fear and anxiety. And, oftentimes those things that are produced are only going to meet an immediate need, instead of a longer-term goal.
I think when we pace ourselves and we take our time—when we ask questions, when we sit with discomfort, when we sit with not knowing, when we get comfortable waiting—that becomes a really integral part of building relationships, and doing community work.
So, I've just been allowing myself to feel all of the feels: to feel uncomfortable, to feel like I need to be doing more, and then to remind myself that I'm doing exactly what I need to do right now, which is waiting and listening and reflecting, you know? Being patient allows us to build up more resources to create a more complete vision and more complete response to what’s happening.
This whole pandemic has been a really big lesson in patience, and how even if it feels like time is stuck in a never-ending loop, it does somehow still move forward.
I don't mind being in a loop so much. I don't, because the world works in very cyclical ways. We're constantly revisiting the past in both the best ways and the worst ways. We can find parts of ourselves in projects past, and I think that's really wonderful. We grow and change and metamorphosize, but we still have aspects of those former selves and those former phases within us, you know? We carry the past with us. It's in our genome.
So, it's not always comfortable, the cyclical nature of things, but I think that it can really be to our benefit if we allow ourselves to use the past to help us to change form into the future.
That's a really good point. I tend to want things to move in a linear way, with steady forward progress. But that doesn’t ever seem to happen.
It doesn't. We try to make it happen in a linear way. I'm definitely guilty of that too, like, “Why can't we just do the thing,” you know? But it's okay if we're not getting the thing done. I know that if it’s not happening, then there's something that I'm missing, there's something else that needs to be heard or seen.
That’s a really healthy way to look at things. I’m curious, can you describe your overall philosophy of what wellness looks like? Not just on a personal level, but also on a community level?
When I think about wellness, I think about balance. When a person is well, or when an entity is well, there's not a homeostasis; there's a rhythm. There's a flow. There is an engagement happening between yourself and other people or other beings, other entities. For me, wellness is motion.
I used to say that wellness is balance, but sometimes finding equilibrium is something you're constantly working at. It's not just a point that you reach, and then say, “I'm balanced and everything's great, namaste.” [Laughs] That's not how it goes.
When we think about a scale, like an old-school scale, you're constantly having to balance out the weight on either end, so balance is motion. Equilibrium is motion. I think as long as we are continuing to engage with ourselves—listening, observing, and taking note—then we are moving in a state of wellness. And intention is the other part of the equation. It's the intention of understanding and of serving and shifting when it's necessary.
How have you seen that play out on a community level? You’re the Board President of the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, which manages public gardens in communities across NYC. It must be challenging to approach the idea of equilibrium when balancing the input and desires of many people, and many competing interests.
In my time with the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, I've seen a lot of conflict. And when it comes up you're like, “Oh my god, again? Why can't people just work it out?!” But it's never that easy, because we all have different identities, and we have different entry points into what it means to share space.
But with conflict within a community, my job as a facilitator is to help our community examine the situation, and examine ourselves. “How are we showing up to the space? What are the longer-standing systemic issues that existed that we hadn't considered that need to be addressed?” And for me, that examination process is an act of wellness. It's an investigation, but it’s also preventative care.
Sometimes we don't know that there are care practices or rituals that need to be in place until something goes wrong—just like with our physical bodies. Like, “How did this happen when we thought we were doing so well?” And it's in those moments where, if we take our time and sit with what's going on, then I think we can really get to a point where we're not just addressing this one conflict, but we're also addressing these larger systemic issues that can support us in preventing future conflicts.
Now that we’ve segued into talking about the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust (BQLT), can you say a little bit about what it is?
The Brooklyn Queens Land Trust has been in existence for sixteen years. We have the deeds for thirty-five properties across Brooklyn and Queens that we steward, and will continue to steward in perpetuity, as community gardens. As a land trust, we have the ability to purchase more property if we so choose, for the sole purpose of building community gardens.
The gardens are available for anyone in the community to use. They are usually free of charge. You don't have to pay to come and sit down in the community garden. Many of these gardens are 30+ years old, and are community institutions at this point. They've provided so much support to their community—support in the form of physical green space, and support in the form of food for community members. The land trust is integral in making sure the gardens can continue doing what they do.
I'm curious how it works structurally. How are all these gardens looked after and organized?
All of the gardens look totally different. They are not uniform at all, which is amazing. I think that's absolutely critical to the gardens maintaining their culture.
In terms of how it all got started, sixteen years ago, a group of gardeners created the land trust with the help of Trust for Public Land, a national organization under the umbrella of the Open Space Institute. The gardeners created the constitution and the bylaws themselves, based on how they wanted things to operate. They worked with volunteer lawyers to get it all filed. The gardeners did this themselves, and no one paid them to do it. And now, still, the majority of our board of directors has to be made up of garden members.
So it's very much a self-determined space. It’s a really good example of what collaborative ownership and collaborative leadership can look like. The gardens themselves are 100% managed by community members who use the space. The only thing that BQLT requires from the gardens is that decision making happens democratically. There are no dictators. [Laughs]
While every garden is managed by community members, the land trust supports them with capital improvements, and with larger infrastructural things—such as the water supply, or trees that need to be pruned, or sidewalk issues. We also pay for the insurance.
How did you end up as the board president of this whole operation?
I sometimes ask myself that same question, “How did I get here?” [Laughs] Back in 2015, I was working as a teaching artist at MoCADA, the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts. MoCADA had a partnership with BQLT. MoCADA's responsibility was to bring students over to help clean the gardens up, so I brought over my third grade class, and got involved with BQLT that way.
I also had a supervisor at the time who I would often talk about future goals with. As a young, Black Gullah-Geechee person, being able to live off of the land is a huge goal of mine, as is making sure that folks who want to have access to land for farming, and for living, are able to do that.
And so, my advisor and I would have these conversations, and one day he suggested that I run for a seat on the board of the BQLT. After that, he nominated me. [Laughs] So that's how that worked out.
During your time with BQLT, what have been some of the biggest challenges to taking care of all the community gardens?
It’s a struggle to deal with fines, and the city bureaucracy. All the BQLT gardens are on privately owned land, which means we're absolutely responsible for any sort of infractions that happen within our spaces. As an example of what this can look like, we got a violation notice just a few days after quarantine went into effect that said something like, “paper on the sidewalk.”
BQLT got fined because there was a piece of paper on the sidewalk?
Yeah. We're of course responsible for the sidewalks that are on the border of the gardens. We always plow the snow, we make sure that there's no ice there. Those are absolutely our responsibilities. But this particular violation literally said there was a piece of paper. That was probably the most ridiculous violation I'd ever seen.
How much is the fine for a violation like that?
Violations like that are for less than a hundred dollars. The fines we get for rats in the gardens are much, much higher.
You get fined if a rat is in a community garden? How would you even prevent that from happening?
So, the NYC Department of Health has these meter-maid type inspectors. I think there's this idea that if you own land, if you own property, you must have a lot of money, and so you’re an easy target for fines. It's certainly a privilege to have the deed to some land, absolutely, but you're not necessarily rich because you have it, right?
Anyway, these meter maids tend to walk around the gardens and look for infractions to charge us for. Often, this means they’re looking for rat burrows.
What do rat burrows look like?
Imagine a very small tunnel of raised soil right above the ground. They're not huge. And it’s pretty ridiculous. In my experience, rats don't live in gardens; they pass through gardens. They're passing through for trash. They're passing through while looking for food left out by restaurants, or they're trying to get to a safe space because there's construction on the block. That’s never taken into consideration—that construction projects have to pay taxes and environmental costs, but from my understanding, uprooting rats is not something that's included in those taxes. And because of that, you have small organizations like BQLT footing the bill for something that we absolutely did not bring about.
It seems wild that a garden in the middle of NYC would be faulted for having rats in it. It's the city, of course there are going to be rats, and pieces of paper on the sidewalk. It’s maddening that you get fined for these things.
Right. The rats are not coming for our carrots. They’re looking for pizza. We've never heard a gardener say wow, these rats, they just keep chewing on my collard greens. [Laughs]
So what about successes? I feel like there's a lot of interest in supporting green spaces in the city right now. How have you seen that playing out?
In my time on the board, I’ve seen the gardens bring a ton more programming into their spaces. They’re doing so much more than just growing food. They’re spaces for barbecues and birthday parties, but also for things like concerts and art shows, artist talks, curated dinner parties, and trunk and jewelry shows. Anything that you could think of, I've probably seen at one of our community gardens.
Pre-COVID, we used to do this jazz series where we worked with Jazz in the City to bring bands into the gardens. It was amazing. One of our biggest turnouts was at a Queens garden in Cambria Heights. People saw the band playing, and they went home and they brought their chairs, and soon the entire garden was filled. People danced. People did the electric slide.
But this year? This year started off slow. When COVID hit and the gardens needed to limit access, people were sad. People were disappointed. But then gardeners do what they always do: they found ways to be in service, and continue to create a space of respite. Many gardens decided to grow food to give away to community members. Gardens decided to allow folks to come and sit inside. The gardens did an amazing job at making sure people physically distanced, that they wore masks, that they sanitized gates and tools being used. And when folks weren't able to come in for whatever reason, some gardens would have music playing on the inside, and people would stand around and commune, just on the sidewalk.
Community gardeners are resilient people, and gardens are resilient spaces. They are not wild in the sense of a woods; they're tamed. But they still allow for so much variance.
What other lessons can be learned from working in community gardens, or just with the land in general?
Patience is a big one, and compromise. Any time you're doing any sort of earth work, you're dealing with frequent change—from the climate, to policy, to people—so you have to develop a sense of hardiness, a sense that you can dig your heels in and not let the challenges blow you away. But you also need to develop a softness that allows you to shift when you need to, you know?
The softness and the grit have to go hand-in-hand. Duality is very much a lesson in dealing with any kind of tough time, and you get a chance to practice that in a garden.
Related to that, on a personal level, what keeps you going these days? It’s been a long year, and the struggles of our species and planet loom large. How are you staying soft and optimistic, and not sinking into despair?
The things that do it for me are soil, the change of the seasons, and intergenerational relationships. Again, all cyclical things.
I can't stay down for too long when I find myself surrounded by those things and those people, because I know the way compost works, you know? I’ve farmed on and off for years now, and when you’re working with compost, you learn that life isn’t about instant gratification.
I have an uncle who’s a rice grower working on reviving heirloom varieties that Gullah-Geechee people used to grow many, many decades ago. It's a long game. And so those of us who are working in this field are going to have to take comfort in parts of the process, because there's really no way to expedite it, right?
As an aside, I love working with children. They absolutely revitalize me. They remind me so much of working with seeds. When I used to work with high schoolers, we would study propagation at the beginning of the season. After I'd talked to them about the science of it all, we would plant things together. And while we were doing it, we would reflect and meditate on all of the things that a seed had to go through to end up in our hand. We’d think about all of the things that its parent plants went through to get it here, and then all of the things that that one little seed in the palm of our hand is carrying.
Agriculture is destructive. We are literally bending the earth to our will, and it's bending with us. But seeing children and seeing seeds grow, and seeing the seasons change and shift, and allowing myself to really sit in what's happening around me keeps me going—even through the inherent destruction that’s a part of it.
I definitely have days where it’s hard to sit with the destruction of what's happening, and I can’t avoid getting upset. When I have those days, it's really important to just say, “It's okay to be upset. It's okay to be sad about the shifts that are happening, or about the end of a way of life for us.”
We're going to grieve. But it's also a very beautiful thing when destruction and decay break things down, because it’s all part of this larger composting cycle. We're literally turning the destroyed parts in the bin, and it's breaking down. And so we just need to keep stirring the pot, and keeping things in motion.
The Brooklyn Queens Land Trust is currently raising funds to support their work. Consider making a donation yourself, or sharing with a friend who cares about the power of public green space and food access for all.
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