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2014 JBF Leadership Award Honoree Karen Washington

Emily Carrus

October 29, 2014

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Karen Washington

Urban Farmer, Community Activist, and Former President,

New York City Community Garden Coalition

For Karen Washington, it all began with a tomato. “I had no experience growing food, and I took a chance,” she says of the decision to plant a backyard garden after purchasing a home in the Bronx in 1985. “I hated tomatoes—but when I bit into one of my own, I was hooked: I said, ‘I am going to grow everything.’”

What followed was nothing if not kismet. Washington saw from her kitchen window “a man with a pick and a shovel” working in the empty lot across the street—“an eyesore that turned my American dream into a nightmare.” She joined him, helping to transform that lot into a thriving community garden. More gardens followed when she connected with Bronx Green-Up, and her activity expanded to activism when she joined the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. “My training there taught me how to be a public speaker and gave me the tools of organizing people and engaging politicians,” says Washington.

In 1988 Washington took those skills to the steps of New York’s City Hall, joining “so many people who had a passion to change the complexion of their neighborhoods and fight the auctioning off of community garden space to developers,” she recalls fondly. “One garden at a time can’t fight the city, but a coalition of gardens can have a voice,” she says of the undertaking, which sparked the formation of the New York City Community Garden Coalition.

Washington’s voice was one that people listened to. She later became president of the Garden Coalition, tirelessly crusading for the preservation of green spaces in every way she could—all the while working as a master’s-level physical therapist in a career that would span more than 37 years. “My clients were sick, aging, and obese. Everything they were eating was processed,” she laments. “I didn’t see the fresh food I was growing in these gardens in my neighborhood supermarkets.” In response, Washington helped spearhead the launch of the La Familia Verde Farmer’s Market 13 years ago in the Bronx; the “’little market that couldn’t’ has become a mainstay,” she says, for fresh, locally grown produce.

“Karen is one of the pioneers of the idea that the whole urban community should be involved in producing its own food,” says Cynthia Hayes, executive director of the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network and a 2013 JBFLA winner, who nominated Washington. “She has a contagious energy that fuels her work. So many organizations work in silos, and she has the ability to break down those barriers, bring people together, and point them in the right direction.”

Washington now tours the country as a public speaker on topics of rural and urban farming and an agricultural system that is inclusive and fair for all. She’s a board member for the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, the New York Botanical Garden, IOBY (In Our Own Backyard), and Just Food; co-founder of BUGs (Black Urban Growers); a teacher at the New York City School of Urban Agriculture; and a member of the Women, Food & Agricultural Network, among other roles. But the title that fills her with the most pride? Being hailed the honorary “Queen of Urban Ag.

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The 2014 James Beard Leadership Award recipients were honored at a ceremony co-hosted by Good Housekeeping on October 27. Karen Washington also spoke during the first day of the JBF Food Conference, which took place October 27–28 in New York City. Watch the complete video archive of the entire two-day event.