The Keynote Speaker, Karen Washington

Karen Washington

When my sister invited me to the 33rd Annual Making Brooklyn Bloom event, I didn’t know what to expect. Little did I know, Karen Washington, an urban farmer and food justice activist, who also sits on the board of  the Mary Mitchell Center (where I work) was going to be the Keynote Speaker.

As time moved on, everyone in the Coffee Palm House (where most of the congregation gathered) conversation switch over to one main question, ‘are you going to the Keynote address’.

I didn’t know who the speaker was and I thought for sure I didn’t care. I was not planning to go until someone said, Karen Washington is speaking. I looked blankly at him and said, Oh, I know her.  I should have said, I know of her.

Until then, I had only knew her on the surface. Even though I’ve seen her around the  Mary Mitchell Center and at different events, our paths didn’t cross much. I knew her enough to know her name, face and had distant memories of her.

My ‘don’t care attitude’ became an automatic yes. I was eager to know who she really was and why so many people were excited to hear her speech.

I can’t say that I know her now, but I do know more about her.

She is a baby boomer who grew up in the Bronx in the NYCHA projects. Even though her grandparents and parents were not farmers, in 1985 she started her own garden. Her love for gardening extended to her love for her community. She found herself at community meetings with strong desire to change the mindset of the community and politicians who didn’t make a connection between food and justice.

Her speech was very welcoming and she set a family atmosphere in the room. Her main theme was the generational gap in the food movement. She asked the audience, ‘Who will be there [many years from now] to grow food in our community?’ She bought up many difficult topics like race and age, using humor like ‘I just got my AARP Card!’ and the truth like ‘yes, slavery happened but that’s not who we are today’  to avoid the sting in the room. There was no ‘icy chill’ in the room that one may feel in such circumstances. Everyone seemed to be open to talking about the differences and more importantly, the solutions.

The following is one of the statements Ms. Washington left with the crowd: ‘asking is powerful and silence is the weapon that keeps us from being engaged’. She made it clear that asking is not easy for anyone but it’s a task that has to be done. She encouraged everyone to continue to garden and grow but to ask the young and the old for help. She said, start a dialogue because if you don’t, those you don’t know will and our history will be forgotten.

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