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Leader: Alexis Mena
Project: Grow Brownsville
Neighborhood: Brownsville, Brooklyn
Raised on ioby: $6,755 for an aquaponic system as part of the food hub at University NYC.

Public Health is about more than doctors and medicine. It's also about access to healthy foods, places to play and exercise, looking out for one another, and so much more. Whatever the culture of health looks like in your community, we want to help you strengthen it! Learn about Grow Brownsville from Alexis Mena, and how he and his neighbors are working to build food sovereignty, fight for racial justice, and improve access to healthy, and affordable, food in his community.

What is grow Brownsville? 

Grow Brownsville is a project that started out of University NYC, which is a co-working campus where creatives can access resources to reach their full potential.

Grow Brownsville is the first step of a larger initiative aimed at creating a decentralized food hub to serve the food systems in Brownsville and East New York, working directly with shelters, schools, and public housing. We want to gain a better understanding of what our local food system needs, and then create that system, so to that end we’re crowdfunding to create an aquaponic system to raise fish and grow food for the community. Our intention is to create a network of farmers and gardeners who are able to economically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually benefit from working with the land, to be stewards of the land and able to provide for themselves and their families.

Grow Brownsville's greenhouse. 

How did you come into this work? 

I’ve been a place-keeper and a community organizer for over eight years. I started off doing graffiti, the art of communicating with your neighborhood and in a language that only they can understand. That was my first place-keeping project, communicating with the rest of my hood. From there it evolved to murals, and then it evolved into taking over public land to create public gardens, public spaces, skate parks in dilapidated and abandoned warehouses and vacant lots and seeing what my community wanted to transform those spaces into.

How is place-keeping different than placemaking, which many people might be familiar with?

Place-keeping originates from placemaking, but place-keeping is about long term space management of abandoned spaces–warehouses, empty lots, or just forgotten space. It’s a concept which lets communities have autonomy and power in making decisions about a space, and a concept that has a place cared for and maintained by the people who live there.

Where did the idea for this project come from? 

Part of the inspiration for this project was a book I read, “How East New York Became a Ghetto,” by Walter Thabit, and it explores the history of East New York and how the issues we have today are issues that have lingered for a long time because of systemic oppression– through real-estate, through the removal of health clinics, municipal services, banking, redlining… For God’s sake the federal government let banks get away with cutting up districts by race! Those effects still linger today, and it’s caused poverty to linger, and it means food access is an issue.

There’s a term that’s been thrown around for a while called food deserts, and our neighborhood was referred to as a food desert. But when you look at the bigger picture, the history, you get a better understanding, and a more appropriate word would be food apartheid. Because it’s a systemic problem. And it’s not just this black and white thing, even among Black and Brown communities, this food apartheid exists. Grow Brownsville wants to be part of the solution.

 

Alexis Mena (right) with a few of Grow Brownsville's and University City's collaborators. 

There’s a big component of racial justice here. 

Oh, definitely. In a country where the people of color have always been treated as the consumers, or the product in times of colonization, it's important to note that food sovereignty is directly tied to economic justice. Being able to understand the systems and how they work will then give us the possibility of taking control of those systems to make sure they're working for everyone. One of the things that we need to start asking ourselves is who's not at the table, and who needs to be?

Why is it so important that communities become stewards of the land, and gain a meaningful connection with their food?

All too often people of color, especially after colonization and the slave trade, became traumatized and they didn't want to work with the land. Then for a long time we tended to neglect ourselves and depend on mass agricultural or commercial agriculture to feed us. Unfortunately, the agricultural system has failed us, and it's time for people to be able to step up and take power back for themselves. The trust that we instilled in our farmers 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago is something that we should still have around today. But we put those very delicate food systems in the hands of people who don't necessarily have our best interests in mind.

Our intention with Grow Brownsville is to reinstate that trust and empower people with the knowledge that they already have inside of them so that they can bring that forward and reconnect with parts of themselves that may have been forgotten or been traumatized. I'm a firm believer that working with the land is healing. It's something that reconnects you to who we truly are at our essence, and it's a way of dealing directly with the source.

So our model is to teach people to fish, and not be the fishermen trying to feed you at the market all day. It’s not even necessarily about making everyone a farmer. It’s unrealistic to think that in 2019 I’m going to be able to do that. But if they can have a moment to reconnect with their food system, and shift their emotional, psychological, and spiritual relationship with their food, then I’ve done my job, and we’ve helped pushed the needle a little bit closer to food sovereignty. We’ve gotten closer to a place where our communities have more control over our food system, over what we put into our bodies.


Some of Grow Brownsville's collaborators and supporters. At the core of the project is a community oriented framework. 

What challenges have you come across? 

For a long time I’ve argued that one of the largest issues we have in front of us is a psychological barrier. That we need to heal, and realize that we deserve this, and that we have to love ourselves enough to realize that we deserve more, and we deserve better. When we finally make that decision communally, then we can start demanding more of our politicians, and of our spaces and the people around us. But we can heal.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from community organizing all of these years, and especially this project, is that people want better. Folks might be skeptical at first, but they do want better.

What do you find most motivating in this work? 

I think one of the most motivating things I have in my life is the support, the verbal support, of people just walking by our project and showing love and appreciation for what it is that we’re doing. They just like to know that this change and this kind of contribution is coming into our community. Knowing that whether this project succeeds or not doesn’t really matter, but that this model–of coming together to inch toward something communally, cooperatively–is powerful. We’re taking the initial steps that we need to create to make a better world.

 

About Alexis

Alexis Mena is a community organizer who uses urban agriculture and his multidisciplinary approach to the arts to empower and support the healing of community members. He aims to create agoras where we can focus on building social capital and alternative economies. His skill set ranges from graffiti/murals, to sculpting, screen printing, body art, urban agriculture, landscape design, and constructing gardens and green spaces.

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