Our Time Press

THE NEW ACTIVISTS: Brooklyn’s Inspired Urban Ecology Leaders are Growing Gardens, Trees, Earth Centers and More

Howard University grad Sawdayah Brownlee is Operations Committee Co-Chair, Board of Directors, Brooklyn Queens Land Trust. She told OTP that her early interests in “how things work” and her “love for the aesthetic and experiential learning ignited a lifelong relationship with education and creation,” and led to her present work in urban ecology.

Urban Ecology

Hattie Carthan passed April 23, 1984. This week marks the anniversary of her transitioning, and there’s the thought that because of her work, hundreds of trees grow in an area of Brooklyn where there once was blight. The caretakers of her legacy today are young people who are committed with the same fervency, keeping the light on her history and contributions to the field of urban ecology, agriculture and environmental sciences and careers. They are working on different pathways but with the same goals. That work is bringing STEM knowledge to thousands of families and children in the neighborhood and beyond. Children are planting trees, tending gardens, being introduced to urban agriculture and making earth connections.

Brooklyn Queens Land Trust women, including, left to right, Sawdayah Brownlee, Dorothy Mills, Moriba Jackson
and Domica Roberts, welcomed Spring early at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens’ Magnolia Plaza, home to the Hattie
Carthan Tree, in center. Photo: David Greaves

Sawdayah Brownlee

OTP (Bernice Elizabeth Green): What were the steps you took to your rise as a BQLT Board Member?


DR: Upon graduating from Howard University in 2011 with a BA in Africana Studies, I discovered a need to cultivate myself in the science and art of growing plants for self-determination.


From 2015-2018, I served as the Director of Youth Programming at The Youth Farm in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and as a teaching artist for the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. At MoCADA, I facilitated art projects in the theme of agriculture. I continue to work in my community for land & food sovereignty and community maintenance as a board member for BQLT and a Program Associate of racial justice-centered arts programming at DreamYard Project in the Bronx. 


OTP: What do you see as the work that’s needed to keep our gardens alive and what are you doing to contribute to this effort?


DR: Our gardens are cultural institutions and a cultural institution cannot thrive without intergenerational relationships.


Many of our city’s community gardens were founded by people trying to maintain their culture (their ways of knowing and being, their food ways, etc.). Gardens have done the work of conserving many different cultures, but are in need of younger membership to be in conversation about their goals, lifestyles, needs, desires and how gardens can respond to those things.


OTP: Is there other work to be done?

DR: Culture cannot be preserved, passed on and grown to new levels without open space, of which has not been easy to come by and hold on to. Also, I have worked with folks from ages 3 to 21 in many programs throughout the city. In these programs, gardening has always been built-in, allowing me a chance to facilitate conversation between community members that may not have met each other elsewhere.


OTP: How are your messages reaching the grassroots?


DR: Gardeners have a strong history of activism and self-determination. Passing on this spirit to younger generations is tantamount to our survival. BQLT continues to partner with schools and other CBOs to reactivate a love of the earth in our youth but also work together on affecting change within public policy to ensure gardens’ sustainability. 



Domica Roberts

OTP: How did your interest in plant life at home lead to agriculture?


Domica Roberts: A representative from a program called East New York Farms, based in Brooklyn, visited my high school and presented about the internship and the opportunities that were possible. My interest in urban farming developed. Through this program, I became fond of gardening, urban agriculture, intergenerational relations, food justice and advocacy, community involvement and eating healthier, not only for myself, but for my family as well.


OTP: Did your involvement in those areas lead you to the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust?


DR: I became an intern to other organizations doing similar work, I was exposed to an even larger world of urban agriculture and food justice, and developed a stronger sense of responsibility towards doing my part to advocate for and communicate the importance of green spaces, not only for food, but for general wellbeing.


OTP: What happened next?


DR: The summer of 2017, I officially joined the BQLT team, and have since been continuing work supporting community gardens while attending CUNY City College of New York for a BA in Digital Design.


OTP: What do you see as the work that’s needed to keep our gardens alive and blooming, and what have you done — are doing — to contribute to this effort?


DR: There is so much to be done to protect our gardens. People must understand the value of green space, how it affects your mental health and how it is not only beneficial to a few, but to many. Shiny, new skyscrapers are not the direction we need to go in, but frankly, I’m sure no one even wants them, either. However, standing around and hoping the few protesters that do actively fight these developments and zoning changes will be enough, will never stop, nor even slow down the process. The benefits of having green spaces not only include huge parks; they are numerous, and there is a priceless value that comes with it.


OTP: In what ways can residents be active in this movement?


DR: This city is ours as people, and we need to take ownership of it before it is too late. I have signed petitions against zoning changes, I have shared info about green movements whenever I come across news, and I have supported community gardens however I can since I was in high school, but the job is not done, nor will it be easy to get finished.  BG








(Our Time Press continues The New Activists, next week, featuring BQLT’s Dorothy Mills and Moriba Jackson.)


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