Planting beds at Java Street garden

For Earth Day this year, we have one simple request: don’t volunteer.

To be sure, shoveling dirt for a couple hours is nice, planting one tree does have a lifetime of impact, and picking up litter on the beach makes a big difference. But the Earth is more than a one day investment.

In our land access advocacy work at 596 Acres, we don’t seek volunteers. We don’t need people just looking to help out, pitch in, or feel good about the day they devoted to a good cause. We work with people who want to work on improving the planet, starting right at their doorsteps.

The people we support in organizing for access to vacant public lots in New York City are doing it because they want to WORK the land. Generally, they don’t work for access to become farmers, and they’re not doing it because of a trendy urban agriculture movement. They want to be able to have a community in their neighborhood that works together. They want to take down that fence that has been there for 50 years, but they want it to be a public place to share, rather than another new shoddy private condo. You can’t do that by just being a volunteer.

For Earth Day, we want you to work for your community. New York City policy and policing are too often focused on fracturing communities for the sake of quiet homogeny. But when you work for access to the vacant lot on your block, you are pushing against all of that. You are making your community safer by establishing more communication channels amongst your neighbors. You are making space for everyone in your community by literally creating space to share. And you’re doing it together, by working.

To put a finer point on it – communities are not formed by volunteers. A volunteer for a day cannot make a sustainable community group. Communities work together to accomplish a real goal. Communities work together to make a plan for how to get access. Communities together get to savor the moment of getting the fence open and entering a vacant lot . Communities work together to plant the first seeds in new garden beds, build that community-run compost bin, and attend the community event on their lot.

For Earth Day this year, we at 596 Acres challenge you, not to volunteer, but to work. Find one of our signs on a vacant lot in your neighborhood, or go to our website and put in your address. In a very crowded city where nobody feels like there’s any available space, we’ll show you possibility. And then, for this Earth Day, instead of volunteering you’ll begin to work – together, for you, your neighbors, and the Earth – for much more than a day.

– Paula Z. Segal & Richard Semegram

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