Operating Outside the Comfort Zone

One of Grassroots Gardens lots on Buffalo's West Side
November 28, 2017
Girish Jayant

When I first started the High Road program, the eight weeks I was facing in Buffalo seemed to stretch out interminably ahead of me. Now, there’s little more than two weeks left and as cliché as this may sound, I can’t believe how quickly the time has sped away from me.

Six weeks ago, I admittedly had some reservations about the start of my summer experience here. While the high road program came highly recommended to me and my specific placement with Grassroots Gardens aligned with my interests, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit out of my element. I used to do a bit of volunteer work in high school and I suppose I have always paid lip service to the importance of activism and community involvement, but I would never have described myself as a passionate activist, dedicated to combatting systemic injustices and promoting equitable economic development. Yet here I was, a biology major in a house full of mostly ILR students, keenly aware that my college education up till that point had been severely lacking in the issues of community development that seemed central to the high road program. Part of me felt like I didn’t know what I was getting into. Then, I had to contend with the prospect of spending a summer in Buffalo. I had never been to city before and I will admit up until the start of my freshman year, I was one of those New York City kids who lumped everything above the Bronx under the unflattering umbrella label of “upstate New York”. So despite all the pre-program readings that insisted Buffalo was a vibrant city on the rise again, I’m not sure I actually bought the whole “talking proud rhetoric”.

But slowly and surely, I adjusted and learned to operate outside my comfort zone. Working at Grassroots Gardens was initially not what I expected. It was lot more desk work than I was accustomed to (I like to move around a lot), and full of many more logistical problems than I thought would be present. I often heard my bosses complaining that people hadn’t come to pick up their plants or that a certain garden was dying unattended and they would have to cancel its lease. It all made me question the very nature of Grassroots Garden’s model; did anyone honestly have the time to get together a bunch of people for planting, did anyone want to bother coming out on a weekday to paint garden signs? Community action seemed like such an overly optimistic concept, the idea that people cared enough to do any of this. I of course, began to realize that I was underestimating the people of Buffalo when I started doing inspections of school gardens. I remember walking through a neighborhood that was relatively low income by the looks of the houses and arriving in front of the school. I spent five minutes searching for the garden before realizing it was right in front of me all along, so tiny and dilapidated that I didn’t even notice it because I was expecting something so much grander. The entire garden consisted of nine small barrels with maybe one to two plants apiece, in place of actual raised beds and all but two of plants were at death’s door or fast approaching it. It was an extremely sorry site and as I approached the next school in the neighborhood, I expected the same sight. Imagine my shock when I saw a huge space, covered in gleaming grass and twelve large raised beds of healthy vegetables and ornamented by bushes and trees. As I looked over the plants (not that I needed, they had hardly any blemishes), a young boy no more than twelve years old walked up to one of the beds and started harvesting something. When I asked him if he took care of the garden, he told me that he was part of a gardening club in school and since he lived so close by, him and some of his other friends were taking care of the garden over the summer. He then offered me one of the strawberries he had harvested and I say without exaggeration that it was the best tasting strawberry I have had all summer. Community work is chaotic, its unpredictable and it relies on bringing people together for something they are probably not making money off of, a task easier said than done. And it doesn’t always work. So many of our gardens failed, turning slowly into messy beds of weeds and neglect. But for every garden that fails, there another one that blossoms into something beautiful and becomes a point of pride for everyone in the community. Progress is slow, but when it happens there is an unmistakable sense of pride that makes you want to push forward. My specific task at work has mostly been to create a harvest of the month guide, effectively a guide on how to garden and cook a different vegetable in a new and creative recipe for each month. When I first started the project, it seemed trivial, almost a glorified cookbook. But, bit by bit it came together and I’m proud of the current product. At one point this week, I got to speak to students working with the Massachusetts Avenue Project as a part of a panel working on Buffalo’s school gardens and farm to school program. They all gave us great feedback on how to improve Buffalo public school lunches and I was excitedly thinking about how I could incorporate their feedback into my guide because a few years down the line, my packet will be used in the creation of new school lunches; it will take a while, but I take pride in my work and whatever positive difference it can make.

In a way, I think this newfound pride of mine is really just a symptom of me catching the Buffalo spirit. I think I have begun to see where “talking proud” truly comes from. Buffalonians are surprisingly connected with one another and all surprisingly passionate about the advancement of their community. Despite the many issues of segregation and divisions both physical (Kensington expressway) and psychological, there is a real sense of community and pride in this city. Buffalo’s tremendous diversity only adds to this sense of community. As someone who grew up in New York City, diversity shouldn’t really be a new phenomenon for me, but the scale of Buffalo and the passion most people have seems to draw all the different groups even closer together than they are in NYC. Places like West Side Bazaar have come to symbolize everything I love and respect about Buffalo. People of all backgrounds come together and there is a pride in Buffalo’s cultural assets and the slow but steady improvement of its community; many restaurants in buffalo got their start as a booth in the West Side Bazaar and now they continue to enrich the community.

Six weeks in and I feel more at home with the High Road in Buffalo than I ever thought possible. Buffalo has grown on me and I am not looking forward to this time two weeks later when I am going to have to say goodbye to the program and to this amazing city.