Ashleigh Eubanks: Food and Cooperation in the Boroughs of New York City
Today on Rootstock Radio, we’re talking to community organizer Ashleigh Eubanks. Ashleigh is the Food Justice Manager at RiseBoro Community Partnership where her work includes food systems education, supporting local co-op development, building cross-movement solidarity and fostering local leadership. Not only that, Ashleigh was named one of Brooklyn Magazine’s “30 Under 30” for her work as a food justice organizer in 2018.
Tune in to Hear About:
- All of the incredible programs through which RiseBoro serves seniors—and others—in their community.
- The rich history of community organizing and activism in the boroughs of NYC.
- Ashleigh’s own story of growing up in a food desert, and how the inequality she saw in her state inspired her to make change.
- How food is an entry point for all sorts of activism.
- The thriving cooperative community in Brooklyn—food and agriculture cooperatives are just the beginning!
Rootstock Radio Interview with Ashleigh Eubanks
Air Date: May 20, 2019
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and what a pleasure it is today to be talking with Ashleigh Eubanks, who is a community organizer, a food justice manager at RiseBoro Community Partnership, and her work includes food systems education, supporting and helping develop a local co-op, building cross-movement solidarity, and fostering local leadership. And a leader herself, welcome, Ashleigh.
ASHLEIGH EUBANKS: Hi, thank you. Thank you so much.
TM: I also noticed you’ve been given a recognition of one of the Brooklyn’s 30 Under 30 Changemakers.
AE: Yes, glad that happened.
TM: And I bet you’re this kind of person who sees injustice around you, aren’t you, and says, wow, we have to do something, and you just dive in. And so I’d really love for you to tell us a little bit about RiseBoro that you’re part of. What a great name! And this is, of course, in Central Brooklyn, isn’t it?
AE: Yeah. Well, so RiseBoro is, I would say, like the main office, the headquarters of RiseBoro is in Bushwick. However, RiseBoro does work really all over the city. And RiseBoro Community Partnership has been around since 1973, and it’s what we consider a community development corporation (CDC). So RiseBoro provides, one of the main things that RiseBoro does is provide affordable housing, mostly in Bushwick but also all over Brooklyn. And RiseBoro also has, from its initiation RiseBoro had another name, but it has always been committed to working with senior citizen population and really being a place for senior citizens.
And so RiseBoro has five different program areas, and those program areas are they do senior stuff, [unclear 2:34], so there are senior centers that they own and operate. Housing is one; they also do education work, and health—so a lot of the work that I do in regards to food falls under this health category—and then empowerment, so there is in part creating opportunities to really support community members in increasing financial access and all these other things. So RiseBoro’s, their mission really is, even though like housing is one part of it, in creating healthy communities it’s addressing all these different things too. So it’s not just food but it’s education, it’s empowerment, and it’s health. And those are what’s important, I think, in building really strong, vibrant communities is supporting people holistically and creating those opportunities for folks to connect and have services and support services that allow them to really grow in all these areas.
TM: So it’s really a deeply community-based work that RiseBoro’s doing. And wow, 1973, that’s like over forty years they’ve been at it. And I don’t think a lot of our listeners know that when you think about the New York boroughs, you know, you think about the Bronx and Brooklyn, and I just heard a population statistic for Brooklyn that it was, by itself, one of the top cities in the country.
AE: Yeah, yeah. And I’d say like New York City has a really strong and deep history of community organizing and communities really using their power to demand services from the city and really… Yeah, whether it’s housing, whether it’s access to green spaces, there’s like a really rich history of community organizing and community activism among residents of all five boroughs. Like all the boroughs have a really vibrant history that, if folks are doing community organizing work, especially in cities, it would really be great to just learn a little bit more about that.
TM: So, Ashleigh, are you from Central Brooklyn community? Where are you from, and how did you get involved?
AE: Mm, yeah. I am originally from—I’m not from Brooklyn, I’m not from New York City, actually. I’m originally from Hartford, Connecticut, which is a small city, the capital city of Connecticut. A lot of people think of Connecticut and think of like really wealthy, rich [unclear—Connecticut? 4:53] with like summer homes. But, like anywhere, Connecticut also has poverty. And so I would say I grew up in a food desert—Hartford is a food desert where the, most of the residents of Hartford are low-income black folks, folks from the Caribbean. And I would say, so I’m doing food justice work now, and whenever people ask me that question I realize that, yeah, I grew up in a food desert. My family didn’t have a car for most of my childhood and the closest grocery store was quite a ways away, and it had…the quality of the food was terrible. And I was someone who always really loved food and cared about food and cared about health.
And I also had this other part of me that was, I was a community activist, and ever since I was a teenager I just really wanted to do social change work, just because of growing up with really intense inequality in Connecticut. You know, it’s one of the wealthiest states, but you could imagine, if you’re not wealthy, living in a state that’s wealthy, just the inequality that exists. So ever since I was young I was engaged in community organizing and community activism. But it wasn’t until I got older, and I moved to New York about five and a half years ago. I have family here, and I was doing community work. I was working at another CDC. I worked at—RiseBoro is my third CDC, so I’ve learned a lot about the communities that I’ve lived in and engaged with from working at CDCs.
And a lot of the issues that I’ve been working around here in New York are really similar to what I experienced in Hartford. So I realized that there was this intersection between the… I did a lot of racial justice work and supporting youth that didn’t have housing, and also doing a lot of organizing around queer and trans issues. And so I realized that food actually was an entry point—it was a way to really engage and mobilize people across movements, across backgrounds and identities, because we all eat and we all are part of the food system. And in many ways, we all struggle with similar issues—I mean, like some people, it’s like a lot harder for them to eat, but we all are engaged in the exact same food system. And so food justice work, I realized, was a way for me to engage people in conversations around justice that wouldn’t necessarily have those conversations otherwise.
TM: Wow, thank you so much for pointing that out. The more and more I learn about the topic, interviewing people, it’s so obvious that so many of the ills that we have, both with social and environmental justice, which are now constantly being talked about in the same sentence because they’re so completely linked, really have so much to do with what you just mentioned: this huge gap between the rich and the poor. Now I’m seeing that you are connecting it with potentially things like co-op development, empowering the community: “Hey, have your own store.” Tell us a little bit how you evolved into that space.
AE: Yeah, so I think one of the things that is important to me, and what is really special and what has been really powerful with doing co-op work—and I’m working with co-ops on a number of levels, so I’m working with consumer co-ops, which are co-ops where the consumers own the store or the business. So I’m working with the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op, which is a cooperative, a food cooperative based in Central Brooklyn, specifically the neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, and the whole mission of that is to have a community-owned grocery store. And it’s really important in Bed-Stuy because Bed-Stuy is one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. It’s probably like, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights are probably the most desirable neighborhoods to live in, I think, of people like in their early twenties and thirties, probably in the whole city right now. And so, as you can imagine, that [unclear 9:12] changes the neighborhood. And there are people who are from those neighborhoods who can’t afford all of the new fancy bodegas and the grocery stores and restaurants that are popping up, and so it’s really important to have a grocery store that is owned by the people.
And so, with co-ops, for example, cooperatives are less like, “Oh let’s increase access.” So many programs and nonprofits that are going into a community usually [are] trying to like save people or help people, or they see it as an access issue, and it’s really a power issue. And so cooperatives acknowledge that people should have power, and that community members should have power and influence and agency. And co-ops are a way for people to exercise their self-determination. So it’s not like, let’s bring in, have an outsider bring in a grocery store that determines what is affordable, but it’s how can the people in this neighborhood have ownership over what food comes in, what the prices are, and how could they also benefit from that grocery store, and in that by people in the neighborhood owning that.
And so yeah, the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op, the organizing, the store itself does not exist, but the people who have been organizing have been organizing for most of five years now, and it’s started by people who were really passionate about having really good quality food and wanting to be a part of that. And I live in Bed-Stuy, I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy for five years, and even before I started working with them officially it was a project that I had heard about through a friend, and I was like, I definitely want to be a part of that, and my friend was like, yeah, you definitely should. And then before I came to RiseBoro I was working, I was doing food justice work in Bed-Stuy, and that was an entry point for me to really engage with them too, and at the personal level and at the professional level of supporting them. So I sit on one of the committees of the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op, the Outreach and Membership Committee, and spend a lot of time figuring out, how do we bring low- to moderate-income black folks into this project to help us open this door.
TM: Well, you know, when I’m looking at the kind of work that RiseBoro Community Partnership is doing, it started out with affordable housing. And now it seems so logical to also, housing, food, health, these things should all be affordable and available to all of us. There’s no reason not to. And you talked about the Brooklyn community Bushwick being very much senior. I kind of see seniors kind of like children. They, kind of on both ends of the age spectrum, seem to be the most vulnerable to both health issues and also to environmental issues.
AE: Yeah. So actually, I’m new to RiseBoro. I’ve been working here a little bit over a month, and so I’m learning more about the history, like the deep, the long, longtime history. And from what I’ve heard from another employee, is that RiseBoro is also like, kind of a lot of the beginning phase in the history of RiseBoro was started by seniors, also like acknowledging that seniors are often left out and in these positions that are vulnerable. And also seniors hold a lot of power and knowledge, and so seniors organized and kind of demanded services. Yeah, like RiseBoro came out of a demand from senior citizens in the community that were like, “We need the X, Y, and Z, and we want to see this.” So speaking about, too, the ways that people who are often the most vulnerable also know what they need and demand it, and that’s when the services come. That’s when the nonprofits arise, that’s when all these other more institutional forms of support emerge, is when the demand is like, when there’s a demand made by those people.
TM: And I read here somewhere that Bushwick has very high obesity and diabetes. Is that correct?
AE: So yeah. So working in Bushwick, the work that I do falls in, I guess I would say, the health arm of the organization. And we also have a…we work really closely with another program called Wellness Rising that, the whole point of Wellness Rising is actually to help decrease the amount of people who are going into hospitals for issues related to high blood pressure, hypertension, and diabetes. And so the folks who are under Wellness Rising work with a group of folks that they recruit from a local hospital, community members, and they work with them and offer fitness classes. So they offer like yoga classes, strength training. We partner with them and do cooking classes.
And RiseBoro also operates two farmers’ markets, so there’s always talk of how to, actually bringing healthy food into the community, like RiseBoro being a vessel[? 14:10] that is also bringing food into the community. And they partnered with EcoStation, which used to operate one of the markets on Saturday, and then kind of have like absorbed that market. And also we run a Sunday market. Both of those are starting in May. And then Wellness Rising also offers food boxes. They partner with another organization to bring healthy food to these people that are in the Wellness Rising programs.
And I think it’s been effective. Like folks are learning about what they can do in their own lives to keep them from going into the hospital, to keep them healthy. And it’s just oftentimes like increasing access to the resources that people need to take care of themselves. And so that’s like by bringing food to folks and like bringing free yoga classes, free fitness classes, and then giving them a little bit more information about what does it mean to have this diagnosis. So RiseBoro is definitely working with folks around that really particular issue because that is something that is a reality in Bushwick.
TM: Well, if you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez, and here today with Ashleigh Eubanks, a community organizer and a food justice manager in RiseBoro, which is in Central Brooklyn. I kind of just want to talk just for a minute about how you are an activist. And I was just thinking, while you were talking, wow, how refreshing to see the passion, the intelligence, the drive and need to do this community work that I see in you and many of the youth. Do you feel that there’s an energy in the new generation and the millennials to really start empowering themselves more to taking solutions into their own hands and to trying to really create change?
AE: Mm, yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that, I believe it’s just a thing to talk about the youngest, whoever is like the youngest, whatever the newest generation is, and a critiquing of that. And yeah, I am a millennial. I also appreciate, especially in working at RiseBoro and doing really deep community work, the opportunity to work across generations. I think that’s really important because there’s so many different approaches. And, as a young person doing community work, there’s nothing that I’m doing that is new, you know? There’s no issue that is unfamiliar; there’s no one that hasn’t thought about the same issues that I’ve thought about. And so, as a young person, I think that the context and the environment changes, and we are in tune to that in ways that come from just being active and engaged in society at this time in our lives.
But I think that, as a millennial, it’s really important to us for the work that we are doing and how we spend our time to be valuable, and to feel like we’re contributing in some way. And that could be like [unclear—17:36], it can be self-important, like whatever critiques people want to have with that. But I’ve grown up since I was in college—I guess my first year in college was like the first time I went to my first march or rally, and it’s since become such a deep part of my life. And I think it’s because we really want to be a part of change that happens, and we have a lot of passion and ideas, and we want to be a part of that. And so I think that being a millennial at this time is a blessing, especially if you are someone who knows your position within the grand scheme of a movement and knowing that it’s also important to look back at the people who have done the work before. So it’s great also talking to you, where I’m doing co-op work but it’s also really new to me and so, relatively new, and you’ve been doing co-op work for over forty years, right? So I think opportunities like this is also really great and necessary.
TM: And so are just trying to also, I think, increase the number of activists out there, which I’m always trying to figure out how to do, because we all need to be activists right now. But you know, what I find that I’m trying to always unravel is helping to understand this link between food justice and environmental justice. And actually everything is always connected. And when I was reading about Bushwick and the amount of seniors there, it really struck me that over 80 percent of Bushwick are seniors and are “foreign-born.” And how do we get that across to people who feel that they, or have forgotten that they came from immigrants, and want to demonize them? Have you had to deal with that, living or working around different communities that do have high immigration?
AE: Honestly, no, not when I’m in the communities themselves, I don’t hear that stuff. It’s usually when I leave the communities and I’m in places that have more white folks, more wealthy people, more conservative people. But I think what’s important to me is that I spend my time and energy building power with the communities themselves.
And you know, working around food, working with food and working in the field of food, and especially to include justice work, we would not be able to eat if it weren’t for immigrants and people from other countries. So immigration is one of those issues that is deeply, deeply tied into food work and food sovereignty work, because most of our food is actually grown by people—whether the food is grown in this country or whether the food is shipped from other countries—the majority of the food that we eat in this country is grown by brown people and grown by people from Mexico and Central and South America, and it’s grown by people who are not paid a living wage and who experience a lot of harm and systemic violence. And so when we’re talking about food, we are benefiting from that labor. And when we eat and we get cheap food, or even when we get expensive, like a lot of the even organic food falls into this category, and so I think it’s important to know more about what the food system is and actually how do we get the food that we get, and what is the human cost.
TM: You know, I want to just go back to co-ops for just a minute, since it’s such a great topic for me. And when we talk about food justice, what are ways that you think that co-ops really have a role in both food justice and in empowering communities?
AE: Yeah, that is a great opportunity to talk about so many awesome co-ops that I do work with. So yeah, we were talking about food justice and co-ops being an opportunity and a space for people to claim power within the food system. And we. for folks who haven’t really heard food-systems talk, our current food system is a corporate food system, so it’s driven by capitalism, and the people that… A lot of our food, like industrial ag, is like the driving force of how our food is grown. So the main objective in the current food system is to make the most money with the least amount of input and resources put into it, and so the whole driving theory behind capitalism. And so when we’re talking about food and people’s livelihoods, we all have to eat, but that is the mentality that drives our food system. That means that a really, really small amount of people with wealth are determining and have a lot of power when it comes to the food that we eat.
And so the whole point of cooperatives is shifting power, and shifting power into the hands of community, and sharing power and decentralizing it. And I think it’s really, really important to have more co-ops in the food system because that’s people taking back control over the land, over their bodies, over their health, over the food that they’re eating, because there’s so much exploitation that happens when our food system is the way that it is now. And when that power and that decision-making is shared and the profits are shared amongst people, then the objective is really more about how do we have healthy communities.
And so the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op I mentioned earlier is one where we’re doing that and literally how we’re getting better quality food here. Another co-op that I work with is called Brooklyn Packers, and Brooklyn Packers are a co-op that does sourcing, packing, delivery work, and that’s like distribution is a huge part of the food system. It’s like how are we getting food to us. And in a city like New York City, food comes from so many different places, but Brooklyn Packers really focuses on how do we get local food to folks. So they do that by partnering with small food business owners, and Brooklyn Packers will hold this relationship with local farmers—and local can be upstate and local can also be like some community gardens or like people growing in the city, and getting food, building those relationships and being that bridge that connects, bringing really local food to stores, or community programs like smaller nonprofits, like us, for example, when we’ve [unclear—used? 24:38] the Brooklyn Packers a couple of times for some cooking classes. We also worked with Corbin Hill.
But I think that, yeah, one of the great things about the Brooklyn Packers is it’s community-run. It’s all, all the members right now are black folks who live in New York. And it’s really important to them to know, like for us to know where our food is coming from and to also be that bridge and be that person who… It’s really hard for farmers to come into the city and have those relationships and know, like once I’m in the city, where do I go? Where do I bring my food? And so Brooklyn Packers offers to be that bridge. And it cuts out also a lot of other middle people. You know, when we’re also getting food that is coming all the way from California or Mexico, there are so many other hands and steps in the process that bring the food to us that also affect the quality of the food and the food that we eat. So Brooklyn Packers does that.
RiseBoro is looking now to see if we could partner with them to also launch a CSA program where we are bringing CSAs to folks in the neighborhood. And CSAs, for people who don’t know, is community-supported agriculture, and so it’s basically bringing farm shares to people at an affordable price. So it’s great to also be working with a co-op on the distribution side.
One co-op that I have had the pleasure of working with for the past two years is a community chef cooperative that I’m working with all these community chefs, even before I came to RiseBoro, and they are a collective of community members that are leading cooking demonstrations and cooking classes. And they are just a really dynamic, great bunch of people that are really helping to engage the community members and change the way we think about food and the way we think about what is healthy food and healthy cooking. And it’s great because they’re people from the community who are talking to people from the community about, “Hey, I had diabetes, or I have diabetes, and this is how I cook for it, and this is what I do.” And it’s really important, I think, for people who are talking about health issues to be talking to someone like them. I think that we hear information better that way and there’s more of an understanding and a compassion when it’s not outsiders coming and telling people how to eat.
And so this cooperative, yes, a collective of community chefs. There are seven of them, and they actually work really closely with us now and are teaching cooking classes at RiseBoro, especially with our Wellness Rising folks, and engaging with these people who have been diagnosed with diabetes and hypertension, high blood pressure. And so they’re doing this work too, the education piece.
And also it’s fun. We’re keeping recipes and coming up with recipes together, and it’s just so much better than a nutritionist—it’s received better than how a lot of institutions, when you go to the hospital, you talk to a nutritionist, and there’s a lot of like “You’ve been doing this wrong, and this is how you should do it the right way.” And I think that there’s a lot of shame that people feel around health that is just—it’s so much more complex than that when we think about race and access and all that. So it’s great to have this community chef cooperative that is community members talking to people about food and changes that they have made and can make.
TM: That is a fantastic model, and thank you so much for bringing that up. And for our listeners, more about the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op, CBFood.org. And also RiseBoro has its own website too, RiseBoro.org, if you want to learn more about a beautiful model of community empowerment and community activism. Ashleigh, thank you so much for all this hard work that you’re doing, for all the passion that you have, and also for joining us today and sharing that with us. It’s been a real pleasure.
AE: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to talk. Thank you for all of your years in doing co-op work. It is definitely not easy. Thanks for the opportunity to come and talk about it.
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