Lessons from East New York

I feel like I will take so many lessons and inspirations from my time at East New York Farms! Such warmth and integrity seemed to stretch through staff, gardeners, interns. A key lesson feels like it is about the importance of relationships, probably something we all know, but so often forget or get distracted from. It feels like it is an organisation which is making itself and it’s community more resilient through nurturing relationships. A good example of this is the intern alumni who are now on staff at ENYFs! in both instances as a result of an ongoing relationship with staff, who watched their journeys after being interns and asked them to apply. This seems to be a result of a lived politic of care and ongoing connection once the youth leave. I was lucky enough to be at ENYFs! 20th anniversary celebrations which really showed all the informal relationships which ENYFs! has bred which make the community stronger. Past staff and past interns were there interwoven into the fabric of the day. It seems clear that so many of these folks feel ownership over ENYFs! Speaking with David Vigil, the Project Director, he said one of the nicest things is when he hears someone say “I met someone from East New York Farms!”, he feels there are over 100 or so folks who would feel that the were from ENYFs!, and that sense of ownership breads resilience.

DSC_1052
Wheelbarrows

These relationships do not develop through chance: youth getting paired with staff or community gardeners on stalls, youth working to support gardeners, the market itself as a community meeting place, monthly meetings in which the same space is given to the sociable as to the meeting itself, these things all mould together to create the relationships (often intergenerational) which in part make the system much stronger.

dsc_1041.jpg
The East New York Farmers market

As well as these relationships, the strength of ENYFs! comes from all it’s component parts. Johanna Willins is the gardener who was at the very first market they had. Since then she has only missed one market day, in 20yrs. This consistency is another factor David feels in their solidity in the local community. They’ve never cancelled a market day in the 12years he’s been there. People know they’ll be there whatever. The same goes for their monthly meetings which are open to all. ENYFs! is not the shiny sexy savior that comes in and solves all fast with high tech solutions, they understand that they are there to support the efforts of the local community in helping itself, and that consistency, solidity and integrity are vital in that work, work without ego. This is a model which recognises the agency of the local community, serving to lift up the efforts of individuals in the community who already know how to eat healthy, how to grow food, how to mentor youth.

Another vital part of the ENYFs! picture is the staff. A wonderful group of human beings who are hugely welcoming to one and all. A key way in which ENYFs seem to be avoiding this NGO/non-profit cliche of the saviour and the saved, is through the staff. David explains to me that there’s a strength in diversity of the staff which means most people can walk into the ENYFs! office and see someone who mirrors them. As David explained, there’s a range of languages spoken, a diversity of ages, alumni from the youth intern program who now hold staff positions, racial diversity, and about half of staff live in East New York. This is really refreshing to me, as I witness at times in London, a difference between who is ‘helping’ and who is ‘being helped’ in the community growing worlds, a difference some folks I know are questioning and attempting to take action to make more question.

DSC_0983
UCC Youth Farm

I think there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from the youth intern programs here. The importance of the mentoring role, and supporting community gardeners to take this on too. This is done in a well bounded way. There’s a system of penalties should youth be stepping out of line. This is approached leniently but the ultimate punishment of asking someone to leave the program is not a place they’re afraid to go if it’s felt that someone is routinely affecting the program culture. The system of returning interns and step-ups in responsibility for those returning serves a number of purposes for both the program and the youth. As does the intergenerational work they do with community gardeners. Other things, like free WiFi in the office, all support interns use of the space. The program centres on educating youth about politics and social justice, about the history of East New York, talking about race, gender, trade, the criminal justice system. This feels so vital in supporting youth to step in to their lives and step in to leadership roles.

DSC_0984
Youth interns at work

Like many resilient systems, an important part of ENYFs! Work is about adaptability. Whilst David, acknowledges that a part of an organisation that’s been around for 20yrs is a certain stickiness that comes with how things have traditionally been done, it seems there are systems in place for some amount of feedback from interns (who are actively taught also how to give productive feedback in their internship), from gardeners (who have an internal review session annually), and an annual upstate retreat for staff to reflect on the work of ENYFs!. These all serve as vital parts of organisations.

It’s been a truly inspirational week at ENYFs! Thank you to everyone for making me feel so welcome.