“Everybody speaks dirt.” - An Interview with Gerldine Wilson on Growing Justice Amidst Change in Buffalo, New York
Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what work do you do in the food system, and how did you end up doing it?
My name is Gerldine Wilson. I am legally blind, a retired preschool teacher, and mother of 3 grown children and a grandmother of 6. I am a community activist by nature.
I am the founder of The Victoria Ave. Community Garden. This garden is located on a corner lot in Buffalo, New York that was once an abandoned property with overgrowth so tall it covered our street sign. I came to establishing the garden out of : 1) The concern for the safety of children who had to stand on the corner in front of the abandoned property to get on and off their school bus and 2) I was tired of watching my elderly neighbors as well as families with children have to pay taxis to get to where they could secure fresh produce. Many were not able to or it was not feasible to walk to the grocery store.
It took our Block Club approximately 12 hours to clean this property. It had been that way for over 6 years prior to my taking over the Block Club. We then engaged in a battle to have the City tear it down the abandoned building on the lot. After about 2 years the property was demolished. We sought help through our city ‘s Block Grant and other programs to get support for a Community Garden. We tried unsuccessfully for about 2 years. We then sought help through The Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo (now known as Grassroots Gardens of Western New York). Within a few months our Garden was established.
The community I am from is right in the middle of a “food desert.” There are at least 3 corner stores within walking distance but nowhere to get fresh food. The garden was established out of a need to provide fresh food for a community filled with children as well as seniors. It turned out to meet more than the physical needs of the community.
This work is hard. What do you do to keep yourself going? How do you keep developing your skills?
I agree this work is VERY hard! After over 6 years of leading the garden I have found myself in the position where I have had to resign from the leadership. I am 61 years old and exhausted. I am however hoping to continue working to support the garden, as I feel it is very vital to my community. I am hoping to work in a different capacity this year, not so much physical labor.
I keep myself going by reminding myself how important my work is. Since being diagnosed as legally blind I am focused on how those who are physically and mentally challenged can successfully be a part of gardening and being able to contribute and benefit from the whole fresh food experience which should be available to all.
I am also a writer so I use my writing as a means of escape when I am weary in the garden. Our garden had the opportunity to participate in the publishing of a book called “Read, Seed, and Write.” It is a collection of recipes, stories, poetry, and artwork by some of the gardens of Grassroots.
What is Grassroots Gardens of Western NY?
Grassroots Gardens of Western New York is a non- profit organization which assists groups -- Block Clubs, schools, Community Centers, etc. in establishing Community Gardens in and around Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York. All produce grown is offered free of charge. They have approximately 109 gardens across Buffalo and Niagara Falls. In addition to trainings and workshops their contributions to gardens include but are not limited to : soil, seeds, seedlings., materials, and training for garden boxes, mulch, hydrant hookups and permits for watering, vegetable plants as well as perennial flowers, and a host of other materials and support to establish and maintain gardens.
Grassroots Gardens partners with a number of other groups to offer a wealth of workshops as well as personal support for anything that is needed to ensure our gardens are a success.
What do you see as the central challenge facing gardeners in New York State right now?
One of our biggest challenges has been convincing governmental agencies of the importance of community gardens. My personal challenge has been securing consistent help in maintaining our garden. It had more than 15 large garden beds and containers and just as many areas of flowers. Things like keeping the lawn mowed, consistent watering, and weeding, etc. has proved to be quite the challenge! Many of our original gardeners have aged out.
How are you and other gardeners meeting that challenge?
We are meeting the challenge by continuing to reach out to our government officials, continuing to appeal to community members, and reaching out to schools and community agencies to form partnerships.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
I have learned a lot of lessons along the way. Probably the most important lesson is to pace myself, all the work cannot be done at one time. Also that there are many levels of supporting an issue. Some hit the streets, some are consistent in continuing their work, some use their pen to fight. I have done them all!
What do you want folks in NESAWG to know about supporting gardens? How can we all work together to address community gardens as a means for food access?
Our garden has a stake in anything pertaining to the support of those who resist and fight for the growing of fresh produce and dairy products. NESAWG can support this by continuing to bring growers of all walks of all walks together to collaborate and support each other. This was my first involvement with NESAWG (at the recent conference) and it was very inspiring!
We have a lot of abandoned lots and properties in our city. I believe there should be a certain amount of land in each neighborhood that can only be used for green space, like urban farms and community gardens, so people are able to better sustain themselves. I would like to see a certain amount of dollars allocated to the needs of urban farmers and community gardens.
How can we make gardens and fresh food more accessible to everybody, including those with disabilities?
I am looking to go into a position that will enable me to coordinate a program which will allow those with disabilities to also participate in our community gardens I’d like to evaluate each of our gardens to ensure they are as handicap accessible as we can make them. Some of the beds in our garden are handicap accessible, in the sense they are higher than the other vegetable beds. We just had a small portion of the garden made into a concrete walkway, making it wheelchair accessible. We are working on some signs in Braille.
I have been in a wheelchair and used a walking cane. With my issues of sight I experience challenges I never really thought about. I believe gardens/ farms should be accessible to all people. We live in a world that can be not so handicap friendly. The handicap population has been pretty ignored in these areas.
I don’t think it would take much to include us in the planning and maintaining of fresh food areas. Just a little consideration. I tell people you never know when you can become “handicapped.“ For me it was a matter of minutes one fall caused me 43 days in a nursing home rehab facility and a lifetime of mobility issues. It did not, however, change my desire to eat and provide fresh food. Blindness although I do have some sight did not change that either.
Please tell us anything else you think is worth sharing.
I am from a community that has changed over the past 4 years. What was once a predominately African-American community has now become very international. We are now introduced to new methods of growing, realizing what we considered weeds are food for someone else. We have found that gardening is a universal language. I say “everybody speaks dirt.”
My biggest issue is recognizing that EVERYONE deserves to have access to fresh uncontaminated food. It is possible and worth fighting for. On a side note we started our garden with the intent to make our corner safer and to provide fresh food to our Community. It turned out to do so much more. I live in s community that experiences our share of murders. Our first year and a garden my brother was murdered, about a month after that another neighbor lost her grandson to murder, then another neighbor. Our garden became a place where we could find solace and work out our grief in a common way.
Gerldine talks about the importance and difficulty of convincing elected officials that community gardens are important. The 2018 Farm Bill includes support for urban agriculture for the first time- including a new “Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Forms of Production” and a “Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education and Extension Initiative” competitive grants program- but it’s up to us to make sure our legislators prioritize community based projects.
Script: Hi, may I speak to the staffer who works on agriculture issues? I'm calling as a constituent and a ______(community gardener/eater/etc). I am calling to thank Congress for including provisions to support urban agriculture in the 2018 Farm Bill. As we move into implementation, I would urge congressional oversight in making sure that community based projects, including community gardens and community-run farms, are included and prioritized in these new programs for funding and resources. Thank you.
All photos were provided by Gerldine Wilson.