by Karen Washington
What does Utopia mean to you?
Growing up, I would think of it as a fantasy sort of realm, a way of living. You want to be in a space where everyone feels free to do what they want. There’s no negativity and all resources are shared by all. There’s peace and there’s harmony, throughout. It’s that magical place, that you as a human being, want to aspire to where you have a connection and harmony with not only humans, but with animals and plants as well.
Maybe that’s that’s why we wanted to tackle this question — because Utopia feels like this really perfect faraway ideal that’s almost unattainable, but when we think about community gardens, that almost feels like an applied utopia, a small scale version that we can study and possibly scale up. So how could you, or how would you, apply Utopia to the work that you do in community organizing or community gardening?
I’m doing it right now— living in my world and living my dream, working in community with the friends who shared a dream that we put out into the universe. We said, “One day, we’re gonna farm together,” and now we’re farming together and we live very closely together. We try to provide a safe space for the people that work with us and make it a place that follows our values. We’re rooted in food justice, and it’s something that we strive for. We’re not perfect because we’re human but there are tools and strategies out there that when we do have conflict, we can deal with it holistically. One thing to be very careful about Utopia is the human aspect. You do have frailties, you do have pitfalls, and you do have things that sometimes don’t meet your expectations. The ideal shouldn’t be perfection because then it doesn’t feel real. I remember growing up, and thinking to myself, “Wow, what if I had the ability to clone myself?” And then I say to myself, “Karen, what if everyone was like you? How boring would that be?” So even in Utopia, you have to make space for mistakes and to grow from your mistakes. Mistakes challenge you and and falling down challenges you, so, do we really want to strive for a place where everything is perfect? Or do you want to live in harmony? I wouldn’t say Utopia but harmony is where you’re able to find that level of balance.
I know you work a lot in food justice, which is an ideal for many of us, just like collective liberation is. They are really big ideas, but when I think about a world that’s utopic there IS food justice. So how do you approach those ideas within the work that you do?
Just give people a chance to be human. Give people a chance to have resources and land. Give people that opportunity to be themselves. I find that the world does not look at abundance, or who we are as people, but instead, always looks at scarcity. There’s this idea that if we give something to somebody it’s being taken away from someone else. All we ask for, especially people of color, is opportunity. We’re not taking away anything from anyone. We want what all people want: clean water, fresh food, to be healthy, to have a roof over their head, and the ability to provide for their family. I want to see people, no matter who they are, have the same opportunity as the next person: the same opportunity to buy a house, to live in an apartment, to live in any neighborhood and to have free access, without barriers. I just want people to look at people as being human, instead of judging them by race, religion, ethnicity or wealth. It’s very, very basic. When I walk in the door, the first thing people notice is that I’m Black. The second, that I’m a woman. Those are the two things I’ve been first recognized for all my life and I’ve never had a chance for people to look at me as just being me, just being human. For instance, I look at what is happening in Texas, how the governor has sent people on buses as if they’re products. How do we accept the notion, when people’s relatives came here as immigrants — not my relatives — who came enslaved, but how do we reckon with that when people deny others the same opportunity? There’s so much fear, because for so long you’ve been the oppressor, and now the country is starting to turn brown, diversify and it scares them, because of their own history of oppression and abuse. They’re triggered by brown and Black people in power because they’re afraid that they are going to replicate the oppressor, and do the same thing that they’ve done to us for so many years. So now you have to position yourself to hold on to what you feel is your value. But in the end, you’re going to lose because you cannot stop change. Either you embrace it or it’s going to change without you.
You mentioned that people need the opportunity to have land, clean water, and food, which seems inherently “Utopic” in and of itself, but how do we create access to land?
We have to change the dialogue as well as how we assess land. I had to change my whole concept of land ownership. How do we own land, or own anything when we don’t live long enough? I had to change my framework, because I realized I can no longer say I own anything. I can be a steward of the land, I can take care of it, but we’re not on Earth long enough to own it. We don’t really own anything. We can’t own anything because we’re gone in an instant. When you go on, the house doesn’t go with you. The land doesn’t go with you. You might think that that house is going to be in your house for generations and it might be! But it also might not be. Do you own it? Or do you just happen to be on this earth at this point in time? You can be a caretaker of land, you can have a home and enjoy it, but do you really own it? You don’t own anything—Nature owns it; it goes back to nature. It goes back to the universe.
How do we foster stewardship? Or how do we foster connection, or reconnection to the land? And how did we lose that connection to begin with?
It’s because we thought that Utopia was a house, a backyard, a car, and a job. We lost that connection. And in the end, when Armageddon comes, you can’t eat a car, or jewelry, or Bitcoin. The people who are going to survive are the people who know how to grow food. An orchard or the crops that I’m growing are priceless. We have to get back to the land, back to that call, back to what’s really real and what nourishes us. If we say that we turn to dust when we die and we return to the earth then we have to renew that connection to the earth. We’ve lost that because we were reaching for materialistic things that are empty. Going back to the land, being in the land, and building thankfulness for being a steward of the land is so satisfying. Those that are returning to the land by becoming farmers and caretakers are starting to see that connection again as we work with nature, rather than against it.
How would you say food sovereignty and even generally, just growing our own food and cultivating our connection with the land nurtures our mind body spirit? How is that utopic?
I say each and every day that someone made that long trip along the transatlantic coast, that ocean, that journey for me to be here. The suffering that they had to go through for me to be here means something and I got to tap into that. Someone sacrificed their life so I can be here and be in tune to that. To understand what it takes as a people to try to hold on to that legacy, that history, or how I got to be my being is so, so important. By understanding that then you understand the importance of community and the importance of learning about your legacy and the history in your family. I don’t know who that person was… I’ll find out maybe one day, but someone made a lot of sacrifices… a lot of sacrifice along the way for me to be here. I needed to be here in a place that’s far, far away from my ancestors. We need to stop for a second and acknowledge the ancestral lineage that we all have, and to be mindful of what that means, especially for people of color, and especially for African Americans who didn’t come through Ellis Island. We came here enslaved. So I think about going back and reaching out to that person along the line who gave me life to be here.
How do we reconcile that relationship with the land as peoples whose ancestors were enslaved, as people who are immigrants, as people who are refugees, and as people who are settlers? How do we find connection maybe to a land that’s not ours? And what does that seem like?
It’s not ours! Like I said, I’m farming on land that I can’t say is my land. All I can say is that I know that there are Indigenous people on this land, and they have given me the chance to be a caretaker. And that’s how I look at it. I can’t look at it as “Oh, I’m in Chester, New York, and I’m on land that I have no connection to.” I have been given that land to be a caretaker and I asked their permission to be that caretaker, and I try to take care of that land to the best of my ability.
How can the readers who read your interview apply utopia? How do we build the world that we deserve?
Treat each other with kindness. With love. It is so simple. Kindness and love. Easy, easy, easy, easy, easy, easy.
Karen is a farmer and activist. She is Co-owner/Farmer at Rise & Root Farm in Chester New York. An activist, food advocate; in 2010, Co- Founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS) an organization supporting growers in both urban and rural settings. In 2012, Ebony magazine voted her one of their 100 most influential African Americans in the country and in 2014 was the recipient of the James Beard Leadership Award. Recently in 2020 Essence magazine name Karen one of their Essential Heroes recipient. Karen serves on the boards of the New York Botanical Gardens, Soul Fire Farm, the Mary Mitchell Center, Black Farmer Fund, and Farm School NYC.