Growing Community, Gardens, and Land Trusts: Raymond Figueroa, Jr. in the South Bronx

This post was written by Syed Ali and originally appeared on CoLab Radio, a publication of the MIT Community Innovators Lab. CoLab Radio has graciously allowed us to reprint this important piece.

Growing Community, Gardens, and Land Trusts: Raymond Figueroa, Jr. in the South Bronx
By Syed Ali

Ray is a man of many hats, but when I imagine him it is his black beret. I met Ray once, when he hosted our group for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service project at Brook Park, the community garden he helps lead in the South Bronx. He was wearing the same black beret another time I remember him seeing him around, at a food policy breakfast as President of the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC), forcefully advocating for a more community-driven approach in a room full of researchers and public health workers.

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I imagine Ray’s beret comes with him to the Pratt Institute, where he is a Visiting Instructor in the Graduate Center for Planning.

Ray Figueroa at Friends of Brook Park/Photo Credit: Rob Stephenson

While I had a heard a little already in these chance encounters, I was intrigued by Ray’s holistic approach to planning and how he connects his passions for food, youth, and community development. I connected with Ray over the phone for about an hour so that I could ask him about his approach.

The responses that follow have been edited and condensed.

1) Where are you from? How did you end up in the work that you are in now? I’m from NYC, specifically East Harlem, otherwise known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio. It’s similarly demographically and located geographically across the bridge from the Mott Haven community where I am actively working.

My formal background is in education policy: not so much looking to be an educator but to glean insights into what informs wholesome and robust human development for individuals in their formative years. That led to me to studying how pedagogy and curriculum and resources are shaped by a macro context of expectations for communities.

There are disparities around education and social outcomes and I wanted to glean insights into what is shaping these outcomes. That led me to alternative modalities for education, specifically experiential learning modalities: engaging in activities as a vehicle for learning and for promoting human growth and development. Hence my engagement in urban agriculture and in community gardens and community farming.

2) How did you make that transition? Were you working with schools?

I was solo as an education consultant to after school programs and I attended a conference around agriculture and urban agriculture. I was immediately taken by the opportunity that it represented from not only a community food-based perspective but from a youth engagement perspective.

It was an opportunity to engage in community development through engaging in youth development activities via urban agriculture. That’s a good 20 years ago.

3) How do you describe the work you’re doing now?

It’s an interplay of embracing my philosophies as well as looking at salient issues confronting the young people the South Bronx, specifically the school to prison pipeline.

Young people are being alienated from education.

They are pushed out or dropping out and thus at a greater risk of interacting with the criminal justice system.

From a developmental perspective, young people are looking for alternatives that affirm their personal agency, personal power, personal efficacy via becoming part of a street family, a street organization, more pejoratively referred to as street gangs. That in turn leads to high risk behavior for coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

At Brook Park, we have a youth Alternatives-to-Incarceration program where we work with young people who have been court adjudicated, are currently adjudicated, or who have been formerly incarcerated.

The community youth farm lends itself to working with these young people because from a developmental perspective, human beings in their formative growth and development years have a need for being productive and having agency. The activity of growing, cultivating, and harvesting food and bringing it over to community pantries gives it to them.

At Brook Park, we also have an entrepreneurial dimension for growing, cultivating, and harvesting food where young people also have an opportunity to earn income, which is exciting.

Both of these dimensions of engagement allow for young people to experience a more wholesome sense of their self-esteem, being fed by an activity that is not only socially responsible but can also be personally beneficial.

Some of the youth who come through our Alternatives to Incarceration program are invited to be a part of the pepper growing collective of farms in the South Bronx for Bronx Hot Sauce. Our program is as much an alternatives-to-desperation program as much as an alternatives-to-incarceration program.

Young people are hungry, literally. They’re food insecure and they need money to buy food.

4) It seems empowering to have these peppers served everywhere from the South Bronx to the Union Square Greenmarket. Does that show the young people you’re working with that this is something they should value for themselves?

It is implicit and explicit that work has value. To be remunerated for it helps to underscore that value. It doesn’t take a whole lot for a young person to embrace an alternative, another way of being productive.

That’s what community farming does for young people. These same young people have been involved in building school gardens in Mott Haven, mentoring elementary school children in how to plant, how to prepare soil, how to take care of a plant.

This is a multi-dimensional approach to youth development through alternatives-to-incarceration.

5) Other than being from El Barrio, what events or experiences have informed your decision to get into this kind of work?

It’s really just observing what’s going on in our community and having an overall sense of social sensitivity and social responsibility. I thank my primary educator, my mother, for that.

In El Barrio and the South Bronx, I observed that things were not as they should be. There were far too many disparities informing abysmal outcomes in our community, not least massive unemployment and poverty, which informs food insecurity in particular.

6) You’ve done this work with Brook Park for a long time, but you’re also the president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition and teaching at the Pratt Institute. How do you balance these whole body consuming experiences?

It is whole body and whole soul and it keeps me extremely busy, but I look at it as multidimensional engagement; it’s all part of the same work. With the garden coalition, I’m trying to replicate the community development vehicles we see in Brook Park and other community farms and community gardens around the city.

I’m trying to formally realize, from a public policy perspective, regulatory protections for these types of community-cultivated institutions so going forth there is a continuity that can promote community development.

Community development is not incidental. It requires the continuity of institution building over the long haul.

Pratt affords me the opportunity to go deeply into issues and the great privilege of working with the future professionals coming into urban planning. Pratt is about the future: how to promote sustainable community development from the very practical considerations of urban planning.

We have to look at planning as a field that promotes public service and can help dismantle disparities around race and class. Reach out to Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. We, through NYCCCG coalition, are working on the establishment of a comparable community land trust.

It’s a formal collaboration between a local community development corporation, Nos Quedamos, and the NYCCGC. We joined in on a project that is now being sponsored by NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

We participated in a request for an expression of interest—essentially concept papers—on how community land trusts can be developed. We submitted that they can be developed in a way that is sustainable—that includes green infrastructure, micro-grids, micro-food hubs—along with affordable housing.

We’re now in a concerted effort with other groups that were shortlisted by NYC HPD on the development of community land trusts in the South Bronx and around the city. How can planning and development be rooted in community in such a way that we have active community engagement and stewardship over the long haul?

Community gardens are not an amenity. They have historically always been a grassroots, informal form of community-based institution building. They’re community-cultivated green spaces where folks came together as a collective and came to consensus about what they would like to see out of these previously abandoned spaces.

Folks were really resisting what would otherwise the trappings of poverty, unemployment, and abandonment. Here are folks embracing community self-determination in the humblest of ways, to be productive in such a way that honors their sense of human dignity.

Community gardens serve as a very efficacious foundation for engaging in the next level of development around community land trusts.

7) You’re getting into this already, but I’m curious about your theory of change. What change is your work designed to create? How are you creating the change that you want to see?

I look at the work with and through and by community gardens. These are community cultivated spaces, that allow people to iterate and delineate their productivity in a way that is self-determining and that honors their sense of human dignity. In so doing, it lays the foundation for civic engagement, leadership development, and continued community development initiatives that are genuinely sustainable.

Folks involved in community gardens come out to vote. They hone their sense of leadership by virtue of the initiative that they take. This addresses some of the worst vestiges of poverty.

Poverty is not just economic, but it’s also a poverty of inactivity, of being idle via unemployment. Community gardens do really do get at that in a way that motivates folks to be engaged and build upon that.

With the collective of pepper growers in the South Bronx, we’ve proven already the economy of (production) scale that can be realized as a result of community gardens and community farms coming together in producing and aggregating a harvest of peppers that supports Bronx Hot Sauce, which is being sold in upscale venues and right here in the community.

The young people who are in the pepper growing collective are saving money for themselves but they’re helping to save the city and state money vis a vis incarceration costs. To realize savings and generate income circulated locally is a pretty robust model for community-based economic development.

From an ecosystem services perspective, the permeable surfaces—the rooted plants and trees in community gardens—help to mitigate storm water runoff.

NYCCGC is doing a major storm water runoff mitigation project in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Close to 50 community gardens, through local community garden coalition LUNGS and the NYCCGC, received a $2 million grant from the State of New York for storm recovery.

That may sound like a lot of money but it’s literally a drop in the bucket when it comes to storm water runoff mitigation. Building sewage treatment plants to handle comparable water overflows as a result of extreme weather from climate change the cost would be prohibitive.

That’s another area with cost savings.

8) You talked a bit about the successes, but what are the challenges and struggles that you are facing right now? If these challenges were to be alleviated, what possibilities would that open up for the rest of your work?

Community gardens are still grossly undervalued from a public policy perspective. They continue to be vulnerable to displacement. When one displaces a community garden, one is by extension already acting to displace a community.

In El Barrio, there are 7 community gardens that are threatened by real estate development right now, driven by rezoning for affordable housing. 95% of community gardens are found in the lowest income neighborhoods.

These communities bear the historical legacy of redlining and community gardens rose up as a form of grassroots resistance, reclamation, and rebuilding.

The rezoning is an iteration of urban renewal, undervaluing communities of color and low-income communities.

9) Looking into the future, where do you see yourself and/or your work headed?

We have a burgeoning movement as folks around the country embrace community land trusts. That along with the rising appreciation for cooperative culture and cooperative economics.

NYCCGC is collaborating on the New Economies Project, on public policy around the development of cooperatives and I’m super excited about that. I’m excited about the research going forward and the advocacy and community organizing that’s informed so we can have communities that are rightfully developed.

We in the community garden movement are not against development. We’re not saying real estate development is a bad thing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

How can realize win-wins with urban planning being a quintessentially public service?How can that inform public policy?

Public policy is about the public good, not the deep-pocketed interests of real estate.

How can we realize real estate development but also realize community sustainability and resiliency?

10) Is there anything else you would like to share? Do you have any final words of wisdom for professionals working in community development after their graduate education in planning?

Revisit the assumptions that are informing urban planning and public policy when it comes to the valuation of communities and how that valuation can sometimes be reductionist from a real estate perspective.

Trying to re-conceptualize around assumptions that have been historically built up is part of my work in this area.

There is an a-historicity, a historical amnesia. We need to contextualize the history so that we can embrace social justice in a way that can be a very practical win-win from a municipal development perspective.

Syed Ali is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, studying interventions in the socio-spatial determinants of health and wealth. Syed was raised in the Bronx and is a graduate of New York City public schools.This post is part of the What Does Community Development Mean to You? series. Click here for other posts in this series.

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