Back in May, we posted on Jeanette Koncikowski landing the position of Executive Director, Grassroots Gardens WNY (GGWNY). Since that time, Koncikowski has had her hands full, growing an organization that I feel is one of the real catalysts for monumental positive change in Buffalo, especially on the West Side… er… the East Side, as you will soon learn.
Following is an interview with Koncikowski regarding the organization’s continued growth in various bold new directions.
With so many ideas and plans constantly in the pipeline, how does GGWNY stay on top of everything?
We are well caffeinated! Also, Google calendar. We have a small staff but the team brings their hearts to work every day. We also have a working board and our board members give hours of their personal time every week to the organization. And of course, our gardeners! There are a number of gardeners who work very closely with us, whether as trainers or mentors. This collective dedication plus regular communication between all of us makes sure we succeed.
With over 100 gardens, and growing, how is your organization able to sustain itself? Is this part of the new Land Trust model?
This spring, we will have a record season with an expected 108 gardens in the network. We prioritize materials and technical assistance for the newest gardens but also look at resource distribution through an equity lens. However, all of the gardens in the network are able to access some level of support if they need it. We are lucky to have long-term support from local foundations and partners like the United Way. Our funding has grown to include USDA and DEC support through subcontracts we have with partner organizations and one of our most long-standing relationships is with the Land Trust Alliance.
In 2016, we began exploring what ownership would mean for some of our gardens and with the purchase of two of our gardens, we became a land trust. This means we hold these gardens forever on behalf of the community. We will continue to mainly operate as a lease holding organization and work closely with the city governments of Buffalo and Niagara Falls to do this as we transition to owning more gardens.
We are hoping to become the first accredited community garden land trust in the country…
We are hoping to become the first accredited community garden land trust in the country when we apply for accreditation with the Land Trust Alliance next year. In the meantime, we are accessing which gardens in the network need the protection that permanent conservation would provide along with which gardens have the most longstanding community investment. We expect to put in several more offers to purchase lots in the coming year and our goal is to have a balanced portfolio of land in all parts of the city of Buffalo as well as in Niagara Falls in the future.
All of the gardens are different, and now you have therapeutic gardens? Where did that idea come from?
We have a beautiful array of different gardens: some produce food, some are strictly ornamental. Some are on tiny lots and others encompass several city lots. We have a new therapeutic garden initiative that we are inviting partners and member gardens to participate in on a pilot basis. So no new gardens specifically created for therapeutic purposes; rather, we are exploring new programs with the gardens we have that can support behavioral health interventions, all without asking anyone to leave their neighborhood. It’s about meeting people where they are and using the gardens as a tool to do this. For example, a school partner may consider how their garden can be used to help an emotionally upset child find calm and connection before returning to the classroom. Or perhaps a school social worker can use the garden to implement a nature-based trauma treatment instead of seeing a child in their office. Maybe one of our gardens led by seniors decides they’d like a grief group for widows and widowers to be held seasonally there. As we are community-led, our role is to facilitate these connections and hopefully find funding and curriculum or program assistance to bring the ideas to fruition.
This initiative is near and dear to my heart. In fact, it’s how I first came into connection with Grassroots Gardens. In 2014, I was suddenly widowed at the age of 36. A few months later, I had to leave the home I shared with my husband and the new place I landed had a sad, overgrown yard. It was the eyesore in the neighborhood. So I spent the first year after he died upending and transplanting overgrown shrubs, hauling away brush, and planting seeds. I knew that I needed to replant my life and that was expressed through my garden. That next winter, my children and I attended a program at Wilson Support Center where we created a stepping stone memorial for my husband that still lives in our garden today. I started thinking more about other ways that connecting grieving families like ours to gardening could help. In 2016, I called Grassroots Gardens to see if they knew of any therapeutic garden programs. The staff said there wasn’t a program like that yet (but maybe I should think about writing a grant if I was interested in starting one). They also invited me and my kids to a volunteer work day at the Food Bank garden. Volunteering just that one time at the Food Bank garden, I saw the emotional connection the people in the garden had to the land and to each other.
In 2016, I called Grassroots Gardens to see if they knew of any therapeutic garden programs.
Fast forward two more years – when I saw there was an opening for a new Executive Director, I applied. It felt to me like the universe was conspiring to make this happen when they offered me the job. But my job is not to bring my vision to the organization. Rather I see my job as enacting the vision of our community of gardeners. I visited over 80 of our member-gardens last summer and heard story after story about the healing power of the community gardens. For example, one gardener told me how the garden and the new community she found there made her depression lessen. Gardens show us the stages of life and death. They give us a place to express strong emotions that can otherwise overwhelm us. They literally remind us that in our darkest winter, spring will bloom again. When I shared my idea for formalizing a therapeutic gardening initiative with our board and gardeners, it made sense to everyone because it just an extension of what was already happening here.
It feels like its coming full circle even though we are just getting started. This June 15th at the Victoria Avenue Community Garden, we’ll host our first workshop on gardening through grief. Participants will get to take home their own memorial stepping stone. It will be facilitated by staff from the Wilson Support Center along with myself and one of our long-term gardeners who has used her garden as a tool to help her heal from grief too.
Are you researching other models from other cities? Where does Buffalo get its inspiration?
Yes, we are always interested in what is going on with community gardening and greening across the country. Right now, we are especially interested in cities like Chicago that have both strong food justice projects as well as sustainable funding for their community and school gardens. Yet we remain wholly unique in that we have so many member gardens in the city of Buffalo and are now growing in two cities.
What is your greatest takeaway from GGWNY so far?
We really do garden communities. As much as GGWNY is about land conservation it is equally about community conservation. We aim to be fearless advocates for both. Our member gardens are spaces where people not only have an opportunity to grow food for themselves and their families but our gardeners always share the bounty. They care about creating habitats for pollinators alongside creating a neighborhood or school refuge. I came to GGWNY because I missed working directly with the community. My favorite part of any week is the the time I spend getting to know our gardeners and in the gardens. I especially enjoy meeting our youngest gardeners.
What has been the biggest challenge to date? Juggling it all. It is a lot for 3 staff. I focus on the administration and fundraising primarily and then we have a Garden Education Coordinator, Greg, who works with our learning gardens and a Community Garden Coordinator, Joe, who works with our neighborhood gardens. Under my predecessor, our member-gardens and programming tripled in size but now we need our organizational capacity to keep pace with our growth. The challenge is that it is hard to find funding for general operating support. We are working on increasing our fundraising and public support so that we can be less dependent on grants over time.
What is in store for 2019? In addition to the therapeutic garden initiative, we are also increasing a focus on addressing accessibility in the gardens. We are continuing to make the organizational changes required to apply for and hopefully achieve our Land Trust Alliance accreditation in the coming years. We are also focusing more heavily on building our network and outreach efforts in Niagara Falls.
Our new bike-blender is expected to be a big hit with the school garden workshops because the kids can make smoothies right in the garden with their own pedal power.
What sort of workshops are popping up? Did you know we offer about 100 workshops a year? All free and open to the public thanks to our partners like the United Way. Our spring series with MAP and Urban Roots focused on seed starting, vegetable growing techniques, and fruit tree pruning among other topics. We are going to be offering our first American Sign Language garden workshop in May. This summer we’ll do a number of new workshops such as “Potatoes and Tomatoes” about grafting. Our new bike-blender is expected to be a big hit with the school garden workshops because the kids can make smoothies right in the garden with their own pedal power. Check our social media and website for updated workshop listings.
How can people get involved? Do you need supporters? We welcome any city of Buffalo or city of Niagara Falls resident to garden with us as these are the cities in which we currently hold master leases for lots. Residents can contact our office to be connected to their nearest community garden or if they live in an area without a garden, they can find out how to start one. Our website, www.grassrootsgardens.org, includes a map of all the current gardens in network. We also welcome volunteers and donors from all over Western New York who support our cause.
Is there an area of Buffalo that is need of gardens? Most people are surprised to learn that there are actually more Grassroots Gardens on the East Side now than the West Side of Buffalo, where some of our oldest gardens got started. However, there are gardens all across the city including in South Buffalo, down on the waterfront, and in Black Rock-Riverside. The only areas in the city of Buffalo that lack community gardens are those that lack vacant land: namely Elmwood Village and North Buffalo/Hertel Avenue area.
There are actually more Grassroots Gardens on the East Side now than the West Side of Buffalo.
How many local organizations do you work with? We have an incredible number of partnerships which is a testament to the collaborative nature of the organization. This past season we worked very closely with the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) on our market gardens and workshops. We also worked with groups like Groundwork Buffalo and Field and Fork Network to co-create a youth urban agricultural training program called Fresh Food Fellows. In Niagara Falls, ReNU Niagara and the Western New York Land Conservancy were major partners in 2018. Our community gardens managed by Journey’s End Refugee Services will be expanding this year as they launch a new market garden. I am especially excited for new relationships with WNY Independent Living and Deaf Access Services this season. Many of our gardens are managed by block clubs, churches or community centers. Say Yes Buffalo is a major partner for our programming in the community schools.
What is your current wish list? We greatly appreciate in-kind and material donations, whether from individuals or business partners like nurseries. Peat pots are always needed for seed stations, as are bags of organic potting mix or gardening gloves for workshops. Gift certificates to local nurseries like Urban Roots are also always gratefully accepted.
Do you think there will ever be an indoor garden, where the community can reap the rewards year round? GGWNY has talked about a greenhouse for a while. Right now we are focused on our land trust accreditation but I wouldn’t rule out an indoor garden in the future so there will always be a place for free year-round food access.
What is your biggest obstacle? Buffalo’s short growing season combined with our hot summers. Just when your long-awaited spring greens are ready to eat, you come out the next morning to find they have all bolted.
Who is your biggest supporter? Our gardeners! GGWNY wouldn’t exist without them. We gain so much through our relationship with our member gardens. We were started by activist-gardeners and remain committed to centering our gardeners in the organization as it grows in new ways.
Get connected: Grassroots Gardens WNY