Vwazinaj se fanmi is a Haitian saying which translates to ‘the neighborhood is family.’

That’s the core belief of Universe City, an urban farming incubator in Brownsville which spent the past month working with young people to bring the latest farming technology to the community gardens of Brownsville and East New York.

The youth cohort, as part of the organization’s Grow Brownsville initiative, were paid $15 an hour (thanks to a grant from Beautify NYC) to install garden hoses, tree pits and automatic solar-powered irrigation systems in order to sustain and improve community gardens.

Universe City cohort members. Photo: provided.

Universe City teaches Kombit, the traditional Haitian practice of community farming and mutual aid, and is, as Universe City Co-founder Alexis Mena defines it, a “farming party where everyone pitches in.”

“One of the intentions for the program was to support local community gardeners in doing what they do best, which is sustenance farming,” Mena said.

Low-income neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York are persistently subjected to a systemic scarcity of fresh produce and healthy food, making community gardens a crucial disruptor in this cruel pattern.

Mena said community gardens were essential for addressing food insecurity and enriching the neighborhood, but sometimes they were overlooked.

“The adjustments made by [the youth cohort] support gardeners in these communities in growing more food, since a lot of time it’s the older population that’s doing a lot of this work,” Mena said.

“They are not getting the same support from the community as in the past, so we wanted to show up for them.”

Revitalizing garden beds with compost from BK Rot. Photo: provided.

The 15 members of the cohort, aged between 16 and 24, got placed with student mentors from Cornell University’s BlackSpace Urbanist Collective and the Department of Architecture, Art and Planning.

In the mentorship sessions, the youth were supported to pursue projects that engaged with agriculture and benefited their communities.

One of the Grow Brownsville youth cohort members used her experience to create an Instagram page that promotes a cultural education around spices and herbs.

“She is diving into being a herbalist,” Mena said.

“Kombit farming and Beautify NYC has been one more step in her evolution toward what she wants to do. What we’re doing is showing young folks that whatever it is you think you’re here to do, that can happen.”

NeON Arts — a program of the Department of Probation in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute — recruited Universe City to take part in Beautify NYC, which funded 21 public art projects in seven different neighborhoods across NYC.

The grants were made possible by the New York City Artist Corps and the City Cleanup Corps. 

In addition to the youth cohort, Universe City distributed 2.7 million pounds of fresh and healthy free food to the East Brooklyn community in 2020 as part of its response to food insecurity and COVID-19.

“Less than 1% of that food was grown by us, though, and so that inspired us to support other gardeners and farmers in the community to do what they do best, which is grow food,” Mena said.

Currently, the organization is fundraising for an aquaponic urban farm to create accessible, affordable produce for its neighbors.

On October 16, Universe City is honoring the graduates of its youth program with a Kombit experience at Abib Newborn Learning Garden in Brownsville for workshops and celebrations.

“To see this batch of young people expressing their full humanity is a very beautiful thing to me,” Mena said.

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Miranda Levingston

Covering everything Brooklyn. Twitter: @MLevNews

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