by Sarah Wali
Karen Washington traces her persuasive powers as a community leader back to 1966, when she was 12 years old. Her younger brother had insulted much bigger kids, and they were standing outside their building in Harlem waiting to beat him up. Her mother pleaded with Karen to go down and calm the rowdy bunch.
Karen stood tall and confident, and in a wise voice beyond her years told the big kids that her brother didn’t mean what he said, and that they probably didn’t want to get in trouble for hitting him.
She surprised them, she said, by confounding their expectations of African American women. “They don’t even know me, but they have this preconceived idea that I’m black, I’m loud, I’m uneducated,” said Washington. “So I use that sort of persona then with educated language and I get people to listen.”
Within five minutes, she had talked the angry teenagers out of hitting her brother.
Now, at 55, Karen Washington uses similar conflict resolution techniques to solve bigger problems in her current Bronx neighborhood. In the 21 years that she has lived in East Tremont, she has taken on tough issues, such as crack and cocaine and street violence. She brings the same focus and passion to her latest mission – providing healthy food to low-income New Yorkers and using neighborhood gardens to create community and ultimately battle crime.
“The social issues intertwine with food,” she said. “When you don’t have money and you can’t provide for your family, you are going to buy the cheapest food items for your family and you see an increase in crime. You need to feed your family.”
Washington created La Familia Verde, a coalition of 12 community gardens in East Tremont in 1992, and started a local Bronx farmer’s market where everyone could sell their produce. She joined the board of Just Food, an organization which connects local and urban farms with communities, and the Mary Mitchell Center, a community center blocks from her house.
When Washington was looking to find funding for the Mary Mitchell Center, she called the one person she knew could help, U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano. She went to Washington, and explained how the center was going to fight crime by keeping kids of the street in after school activities, and increase job productivity by offering technology classes.
“He sees it,” said Washington. “He sees that people in low-income areas may not have the resources but we do have the knowledge and the power.”
Her passion for improving lives led her first to Hunter College, where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in physical therapy. By 1981, she had completed a master’s degree in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics, and began her career as a physical therapist.
Washington moved into 2161 Prospect Ave. in East Tremont from Harlem in 1985 to give her children, Kendra and Bryant, more space to play. The cozy row house seemed a perfect place to raise her little boy and girl, except for an empty lot across the street. She was told developers were using the plot to build a row of houses similar to hers, but when they found too much bedrock in the soil, they abandoned the idea and the plot.
“Year after year, there was garbage and vans and stuff like that,” said Washington. “If you live near garbage, people think that you are that garbage, and we are not garbage.”
Although she was working full-time as a physical therapist, Washington — with the help of her neighbor, Jose Lugo — set out to save the desolate patch of land. By 1989, she had successfully petitioned Green Thumb, a city Parks and Recreations group, to help her transfer the city-owned plot to a community garden, the Garden of Happiness.
Neighbors flocked to the new garden to plant collard greens, mustard greens, kale, cantaloupe, corn, string beans and squash. They spent hours comparing gardening tips, vegetables and stories about life in the Bronx.
“I learned they were having problems with health, schools, housing and jobs,” she said. “I felt that the community gardening work I do is great because it also helped bring out the social issues that were affecting the community, and they were huge.”
At first, Washington was hesitant about going to a community meeting. She was a mother of two juggling a full time job and the management of the Garden of Happiness. However, after much coaxing by a neighbor, she finally attended a Crotona Community Coalition meeting, and it changed her life.
“When I walked in there I saw at least 50 people talking about the same problems that were going on in the neighborhood,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not alone.’ ”
Washington became a regular at both the Crotona meetings and the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she presented solutions to the major issues the community was facing. When she was called upon, she marched up to the podium with her gray-streaked dredlocks swinging behind her, and in a firm tone gave solutions to community issues.
As she spoke, her eyes opened wide exuding the passion she felt for the cause. Members would discuss issues with her after the meeting, and she would stand quietly looking at the floor, with her head tilted towards them listening attentively.
Kendra went on to become a school principal and Bryant an inspector for the Department of Health, and Washington focused more of her efforts on her community.
In 2003, she accepted the role of president of the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. The Rev. Jai Dean of the Community Church, which is based in both the Bronx and Brooklyn, attributes the changes she has made to her ability to network and grab the right people’s attention.
“She was active, she knew the politicians, and she knew who to call to get things done,” he said.
Last year, she took her concerns to a City Council hearing. There, she spoke about the problems she had encountered with the Green Thumb program.
“By the time she had finished her presentation, it was like we can all go home now,” said Dyanne Norris, principal administrative associate for Green Thumb. “She was most articulate, and the one person who presented answers to the questions, and I was just overwhelmed.”
Washington focused her efforts on providing the tools her community would need to succeed. In 2005, a devastating fire in the Garden of Happiness reassured her that her community appreciated and needed the work she had done.
“We stood out there, and we were crying,” she said. “Then the neighbors came by to pat us on the back and say ‘Don’t worry, we’ll build again.’ I knew right then and there how much the community loved that garden.”
She applied for the grant program at Orange Thumb, a garden tool making company, explaining the situation at the Garden of Happiness. The application was accepted and the group was awarded $4,500 in cash and Home Depot gift certificates.
“That’s my passion,” she said. “I love to grow food.”
One rainy Sunday afternoon in October, Washington sat at her East Tremont kitchen, eating yogurt and granola, listening to WFAN. The Yankees were beating the Red Sox.
Ashley and Noodles, her two rescue cats, played at her feet.
She looked out her window at the Garden of Happiness, and smiled.