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Karen Washington

Food Justice Activist

Bringing produce from Black farmers into New York City, to boost access to healthy food and expand economic opportunity.

Headshot of Karen Washington

Karen Washington sees food—specifically, farming—as essential for racial justice. For four decades, she’s worked at the nexus of the two, turning an empty lot in the Bronx, New York, into a community garden called the Garden of Happiness. While organizing for better housing and safer streets, Washington has also established many food-related organizations, from the La Familia Verde Farmers’ Market, to the Black Urban Growers to the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners National Conference, to the Black Farmer Fund.

In 2014, after retiring as a physical therapist, Washington pursued her dream of farming on a larger scale, alongside several friends from community gardening. Together, they founded Rise & Root Farm in Chester, New York, an hour away from New York City. Rise & Root is committed to social justice, growing food for people in the Bronx and providing seedlings to New York City’s community gardens.

Washington never imagined being a farmer. “I equated it with slavery,” she says. But after living in the Bronx and seeing people of color suffer from higher incidence of food-related diseases, she found her calling. “What I’m most proud of in this journey is learning that my ancestors weren’t brought here because they were dumb or illiterate, but because of their knowledge of agriculture. It was my ancestors who built this country.” 

As an Emerson Collective Fellow, Washington will build a regional food distribution hub in Chester to serve as a drop-off point for Black farmers who live in upstate New York and a pickup spot for New York City markets. Black farmers will be able to get produce into the city, without the length of the drive or the cost of tolls and parking as a barrier; Black communities will boost their access to fresh produce. By fostering this kind of rural-urban connection, Washington will create a model to be replicated.

More about The Emerson Collective Fellowship.

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