Beyond raised beds
Peony Nobrega-Walcott advocates, inspires and educates her community as a MCC Summer Service participant in Brooklyn, New York
On a typical Saturday morning at Radical Living’s youth summer program in Brooklyn, New York, you’ll hear laughter. You’ll feel the warmth of sunny yellow t-shirts and waving hands welcoming you to the circle. If your attention drifts beyond the circle, you’ll see tomatoes, peppers and herbs spilling out of several raised beds.
Around the circle, youth summer program participants practice statements in response to the prompt, “I used to be ____, but now I am ______.” One youth shared, “I used to hate gardens, but now I love gardens.”
The first prompt was followed by a second: “Tell us the story of how that change occurred.” The first prompt was about more than just dislikes changing to likes; it encouraged reflection on how the individual has grown and changed. The follow-up prompt expanded on the growth that the individual experienced to become who they are today.
Radical Living is a community organization rooted in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The organization was formed in 2015 by community members including Vonetta and Jason Storbakken and board member Denise Haggins. The organization found alignment and affiliation with Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, a member of the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches (NYCCMC) and a congregation of Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) of Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA).
The organization aims to build community by addressing food insecurity, sustainable practices and exposing youth to green spaces. They support resident-led efforts to increase healthy food options, educate residents about their role in the food system and reconnect residents to food, the earth and each other.
MCC partners with Radical Living through MCC’s Summer Service Program, which is a ten-week program for young adults of color in the U.S. that runs from June to August. The program encourages and strengthens leadership capabilities within young adults while nurturing a commitment to community engagement.
Peony Nobrega-Walcott has been part of Radical Living from its start, first participating as a summer program participant. She served with the organization through MCC’s Summer Service program in 2021 and 2023. Peony also began serving on the board of directors of Radical Living in 2021. Peony’s role with Radical Living this summer, which is her second time serving as a Summer Service participant, involves communications, partner outreach, event planning and social media coordination, a task that she shares with her sister.
Radical Living’s summer programming takes place at Calvary Fellowship African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The church provides space for a garden, workshops and a kitchen where Radical Living leaders and youth cook with fresh ingredients, many of which are grown in the raised beds on the property.
The neighborhood around Calvary Fellowship AME Church is considered a food desert, a term used to describe places with limited access to nutritious food at affordable prices. Food deserts tend to impact historically marginalized and low-income communities.
Peony explains, “The core of Radical Living is focused on gardening and bringing fresh fruits to Black and brown communities - primarily Black, because we live in a Black community. That’s what the garden is here to represent: that we can have fresh food.”
Although she studied business at Babson College (Wellesley, Mass.), Peony also enjoyed taking environmental classes on her own time and has a passion for climate action. Through her MCC Summer Service assignment with Radical Living and beyond, Peony advocates for environmental and social justice by educating and inspiring members of her community on topics including urban gardening and food security, gentrification and racial equity. On the overlapping topics of environmental and racial justice, Peony says, “It all matters to me. I can offer the knowledge I have.”
Peony brings her gifts and perspectives to Radical Living’s youth summer program on Saturday mornings. The program is free of cost and focuses on sustainable food systems, environmental justice and the empowerment of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) voices through storytelling, art workshops, mindfulness exercises, camping trips and urban gardening.
During the summer program, Radical Living encourages youth in the community to eat healthy food. They teach them how to cook with fresh ingredients grown in the community garden and provide recipes and produce to take home to their families.
The urban garden at Radical Living not only helps to provide fresh, affordable food for the neighborhood, but it also fosters community. It provides a space for people of all ages to form relationships that encourage people to grow and support each other.
Urban gardens are a source of empowerment for the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. They are a form of resistance against the systemic racial injustices that disproportionally allow for food deserts in Black and brown neighborhoods. They offer a source of hope and resilience for the communities affected by food insecurity. Peony says, “[The gardens] show them that we do have a different option. We don’t have to eat the fast food.”
While some may walk past the cucumber vines climbing up the fence at Radical Living and only see the raised beds of a small urban garden, others within the community see much more. They see empowerment of their own voices, the voices of their neighbors and the voices of the youth within their community.
By creating an urban garden that builds community and reconnects residents to food, the earth and each other, Radical Living is working towards their vision of a more just society. They envision a world where systems of exploitation and domination are dismantled; where every person and community are valued and strengthened to meaningfully participate in society.
As MCC and our partners respond to basic human needs and work for peace and justice at home and around the world, we pray for and move toward a vision of communities in right relationship with God, one another and creation. We strive to act justly and love mercy, identifying and resisting oppressive systems, walking with the marginalized and promoting healing.
In New York and around the world, MCC partners with churches and organizations that work to support people in adapting to the challenges of climate change and environmental harm. To work for just and durable peace is to name, dismantle and transform structures and legacies of injustice, including those that contribute to racism and the differential impacts of climate change in the U.S. and around the world.
Please pray for MCC and our partners as we strive toward right relationships with God, one another and creation.
To learn more about ways you can get involved in your local community or support MCC and our partners in mitigating and adapting to climate change, visit ClimateActionForPeace.com.
To learn more about MCC’s work addressing racial equity, visit mcc.org/what-we-do/initiatives/justice-equity.
Churches and organizations who are interested in partnering with MCC through Summer Service can learn more and apply at mcc.org/SummerService.