When the alarm woke me from my deep Saturday morning sleep at a shockingly early 8:00 am on May 16th, I had no idea what to expect from my first experience at a Food Justice Summit. As an 18-year-old college student with limited food justice-related community service experience, the upcoming day of service projects and advocacy training workshops was somewhat of a mystery to me. I had spent the prior week helping prepare for this youth summit — which brought together 50+ teens from throughout NYC to serve, learn about, and discuss food justice and sustainability — alongside a small team from Students for Service and the Teens for Food Justice Initiative, one of the nonprofits organizing the event. But, even the days I spent on those preparations did not prepare me for the impact of being part of this summit. I had no idea how much a single day of powerful conversations and experiences could change my thinking and mindset about these issues.
As I arrived at the Bushwick Hylan Community Center, which was graciously donated for the day by Grand Street Settlement, I began to see high school students of all ages and ethnicities coming together. T-shirts with a sustainability theme as well as a string pack full of supplies were handed out to students, as they signed in and filed into the assembly space. Excitement filled the hallways as leaders and organizers gathered last minute supplies and teens began to mingle and chat as they waited for the morning activities to start. Sign up sheets for service projects and workshops hung on the walls of the gym where we gathered, and participants browsed them, weighing options and planning their day.
Kicking off the event was a panel, moderated by a Teens for Food Justice teen volunteer, that included a diverse array of professionals working for nonprofits and government in the areas of food justice, sustainability, and service. Each spoke briefly about their personal and professional experiences and their passion for their work, giving advice and painting a picture of what a career in these fields might look like for us teens. The panel introduced topics, such as food and income inequality, that wove throughout the summit — key points that were re-enforced through our later activities. I was struck both by the diversity of the panelists’ work and the similarity of their missions: to find ways in which we can all live more sustainably and equitably. The energy that came from each panelist encouraged the teens as they anticipated the start of their day of service and beginning making their own impact in forwarding these goals.
After the panel, the service project groups assembled and departed for their sites. Each group consisted of at least one community leader, who brought the teen volunteers to various service locations throughout Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant, from soup kitchens and food pantries to community gardens and a hydroponic indoor farm. I was tasked with leading a group of about 10 volunteers to Shiloh Garden, where we were met by Darlene, Shiloh Garden’s and Tasia, of GreenThumb. The group was split into two, with one focusing on the construction of soil beds which would be planted by a local elementary school, and the other on improving a composting system for the local community. The gardeners shared their knowledge of complicated scientific topics related to composting and urban agriculture, as well as their passion for their work and dedicated enthusiasm for making this garden a wonderful and valuable resource for the community. Their energy inspired all of us volunteers and set the tone for an extremely worthwhile and educational few hours. By talking to other Summit participants, I began to realize how beneficial gatherings such as these can be. Conversations about gardening, history, ethnicity, and connection were just a few of the topics covered by both the leaders and students as they drilled wood, cut leaves, and spread coffee grinds in the compost pile, all while learning to work together as a community. I was truly surprised to see how willing this group of 15 and 16 year-olds were to get their hands dirty and ensure that the goals of the Shiloh Gardeners were met that day.
Then, it was time for lunch, a healthy feast prepared and underwritten by local restaurant, Peaches. Sitting and talking with a few of the young men who were in my morning service group, I was impressed by their dedication to working on behalf of the public good. Looking around the room, one could see the drastic change that had taken place in just a few hours; we had gone from being a tentative and nervous group of strangers to a room of teenagers acting as if we had known one another for years.
Laughter and smiles filled the gym as the afternoon Youth Panel took their seats on stage. This collection of speakers consisted of youth leaders from across the five boroughs who displayed an equally impressive, diverse array of backgrounds and service and advocacy experience. Through their work with various nonprofits, such Resilience Advocacy Project, Community Food Advocates, East NY Farms, Groundswell, and Teens for Food Justice, this group of engaged and accomplished teens demonstrated maturity and understanding of both activism and society in general. Topics such the prison-industrial complex, diversity, gentrification, income inequality, access to resources and services, and discrimination were all touched on throughout the course of the discussion. Hearing these high school and college students speak on behalf of their organizations led me to think about my potential impact as a young person in a new way (and made me wonder what I could have achieved in my high school years if I really put my mind to it).
The discussion set the tone for the afternoon workshops, which focused on fundamental principles of both advocacy and food justice. Based on their workshop choice, each student had the opportunity to delve into a particular topic, ranging from media as an advocacy tool to environmental policy in our schools and larger institutions. Brainstorming sessions catalyzed creative thinking among the teens about how to create change in local and larger communities, how to inspire others, and how to best allocate time and resources for greatest productivity.
The last leg of the event brought the students back together in the gym to share thoughts about the day and their experiences. Whether they found the Summit to be a life-changing experience to move them forward as activists and advocates or a flint to spark new thinking about service and advocacy, the day, undoubtedly, made an impression on all participants. The event’s success is a testament to the dedication of each volunteer to improving the lives of others and allocating their privilege of free time to a movement that will better their society in every imaginable way.
Written by Ben Levinsohn (back row, far left) rising sophomore at Hampshire College