Desi Gillon is a 2019 participant in Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)’s Summer Service Program at Radical Living in Brooklyn, NY. In Radical Living’s urban gardening program, Desi co-led local children and youth in mindfulness and breathing exercises alongside Vonetta Storbakken, their supervisor and executive director of Radical Living. Gillon engaged them in discussions about current environmental and social justice topics and taught them how to grow plants from seeds, cultivate gardens, grow their own food and prepare meals with the ingredients they have grown. Originally from Chicago, IL, Gillon is a New York City transplant and completed their Masters in Divinity in May 2019 from Union Theological Seminary (New York, NY).
...May we have a world’s celebration where everyone stays put, our roots seeking amusements together deep in the earth, our branches entwined in the winds…
- Jack Manno, “Earth Blessing”
This past year, I was fortunate enough to work with a couple of community-based organizations helping with community health & wellness with a particular focus on urban gardening and youth work. I was finishing up my third year of seminary when I found my passion for political healing practices, youth work, and plant wisdom. It became evident that black and brown communities needed to not only engage in work around sustainability and environmental justice, but also grapple with how their faith contributes to their understanding of the earth as a sacrament.
I often find it challenging to enter communities as a newcomer. Despite this, Denise, Jason, and Vonetta made me feel like my opinion mattered, my expertise was valued, and the work I did [in my assignment] was thoroughly enjoyed and needed! Throughout the summer I was constantly grateful for my friend Candace for connecting me to Radical Living, a space that does such great work. When I first saw this opportunity with Radical Living and [MCC’s Summer Service Program] this summer, I thought it was a stroke of luck; but what it really was, was a testament of community.
MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas
Sometimes when I am facilitating a workshop or a lesson around big topics such as climate change and sustainability, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get folks to understand the importance of it all. This can be even more difficult when you are working with youth of various age levels. However, even though I would be leading program or assisting in some way, I always felt like I was the one doing the learning at Radical Living. On the first day, some of the kids were telling me about “the three sisters,” a form of companion planting used by indigenous communities in the U.S. that includes squash, beans, and corn. I had only found about “the three sisters” weeks prior in my plant wisdom course [at Union Theological Seminary]. I realized throughout the summer, that what we mostly have to do as faith leaders, movement leaders, and youth workers is to let people come in with their own knowledge and to learn from each other. That way, your collective grows along with your community garden. Words, phrases, and ideas get planted like seeds. Some don’t stay and others take root. And those ideas will change and shift just like the fruits and vegetables you’re growing.
In Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, Lauren, the main point of view character, becomes dedicated to preparing herself and her community to survive during severe environmental and economic crises. When some folks around her are scared at the information she is giving them, her father gives her the advice to teach people instead of scare them. So, Lauren begins to collect seeds to store in her emergency kit for when the time comes when she will need them. Throughout this summer, I have felt I have been collecting seeds: ideas, friendships, information, insight, and so much more. Radical Living and MCC opened the door for me to find roots in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn this summer, and I am forever grateful.
MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)’s Summer Service Program supports young people of color to develop their leadership skills through working with their local churches and communities. For more information about how your congregation or organization can partner with MCC’s Summer Service Program, visit mcc.org/summerservice.
Radical Living, a community organization rooted in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, aims to build community around food, sustainable practices and green spaces by supporting resident-led efforts to increase healthy food options, educate residents about their role in the food system and reconnect residents to food, earth and each other. The organization was formed in 2015 by Vonetta and Jason Storbakken and board member Denise Haggins under the auspices of 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).