At first, MJ Robinson may seem an unlikely choice as community gardener in residence for the City of Providence Parks Department, a position created by the city to determine how best to serve the city gardens. MJ found the position through sheer chance while looking over a city job board for opportunities for a friend. In fact, MJ never really thought much about plants or about growing them until acquiring their first indoor plant in 2014. But as it turns out, this job is less about gardening and more about creating community – and in this respect, MJ is imminently qualified.
MJ graduated from RISD Continuing Education with a certificate in children’s book illustration in 2019 (“yay!”), and is currently an educator at the RISD Museum. Working there has been a growth experience in keeping people excited about learning, and MJ also works with staff to resolve sensitive issues. As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer, MJ understands sensitive issues. In coming to personal terms with the politicalization of gender, they’ve gained a great deal of insight – MJ knows first-hand how oppression can affect every aspect of a person’s life. They have been very involved as a volunteer organizer for LGBT and racial justice concerns. This experience as a community activist was a big plus when it came to the parks position.
A month and a half into the job, MJ is still gathering data and setting up meetings with and between various groups. Bringing these factions together is an important aspect of the parks residency mission and it takes an ability to manage on both micro and macro levels. MJ has met with about 13 community gardens in the city park collective so far; each one is independently run. Until now there have been no lines of communication between them, and MJ wants to change that.
MJ’s goal is to see where the needs are greatest and build equity between the gardens, with a long-term goal of seeing the big picture and identifying individual strengths and weaknesses. Right now, the gardens in the wealthier neighborhoods have an easier time making their plots thrive because of they have a greater number of resources, with more funding and connections. After visiting several sites and talking with those concerned, MJ sees a way to balance the playing field by concentrating on the needs of the neighborhoods with fewer resources. “They need the most help because they just don’t have as much money.”
MJ sees great possibilities in the diversity of the gardens and with the people and cultures they draw and sustain. The young, the elderly, the immigrant populations, and people of every gender and ethnicity come together in the gardens. Bringing agriculture to the city is a benefit on both seen and unseen levels.
Southside Community Land Trust (southsideclt.org) is one of the biggest groups involved in urban agriculture. I worked there myself years ago, taking busloads of inner city kids through the neatly laid plots and bunny gardens. I’ll never forget how even the most jaded of the children freaked out when they realized they could pick a piece of kale off a plant and eat it right there: “This stuff comes out of the ground?!!” It may have been the first time any of them realized that food comes from some place other than a store – just one of the many reasons that the city gardens aren’t just for growing plants, but for providing a very real experience in our increasingly virtual world.
In addition to creating a network and connecting park groups, MJ hopes to help the groups share solutions and advice, and find support and strength. MJ will also be learning from and collaborating with the Partnership for Providence Parks, a non-profit that supports neighborhood groups and volunteers in Providence parks. A learner by nature, MJ loves working with all of the garden groups because the various approaches are so inspiring. And they might soon be taking their work home with them – as the proud new co-owner of a house in Smith Hill, MJ’s appreciation of plants is now finding expression in the backyard, creating a warm and nurturing city park of their very own.
Follow CJ on Instagram and Twitter @meejy_, or visit their website at mj-robinson.com. For community garden inquiries, contact email@example.com