By Ashley Phillips
Green Right Now
Ajamu Brown, 32, was raised in Central Brooklyn amongst families who immigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life.
While growing up watching his community suffer from the effects of crack cocaine, AIDS, a failing educational system, and poor housing, Brown decided he was going to make a difference. He headed to upstate New York where he received his degree in speech communications from Ithaca College. After graduating, Brown joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer on HIV/AIDS education and outreach.
"During that time I learned a lot about Namibia's delicate eco-system. It was difficult to witness the high rate of human and environmental degradation, but I learned how important it was to have bottom-up strategies and community support in solving problems that will create sustainable solutions," Brown said.
He returned to New York City, got a masters in public policy from Tufts University and became involved in sustainable community outreach in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn where he is developing a sustainable living “toolkit”.
Brown is one of several innovators being funded this year by an Audubon Society initiative and underwritten by Toyota called TogetherGreen.
The 40 TogetherGreen grant recipients chosen for 2009 each receive a $10,000 stipend to engage their communities in conservation and environmental awareness, as well as an all-expense paid training and follow-up retreat. The fellowship recipients represent 37 cities in 20 states and one U.S. territory.
Crediting his interest in sustainability to his family, Brown remembers his mom quoting the proverb "waste not, want not" and his stepfather explaining why he was switching to compact fluorescent lights in the 1990s. It was his father's commitment to education, community empowerment and self-sufficiency that inspired him to begin working on behalf of the community.
Brown wanted to build a more sustainable Brooklyn, and now with a grant from a Toyota-Audubon Society collaboration, he’s getting the chance to do just that.
At the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, he will develop a community sustainable living toolkit to educate residents, businesses and decision makers. His "green map" will highlight Bedford-Stuyvesant's green assets, including environmentally responsible businesses, restaurants that use local foods, farmers markets, green learning centers and programs, community gardens, including key sites within the community's largest and oldest green space, anchored by the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, Herbert Von King Park and the Hattie Carthan Community Garden.
"The purpose of a green map is to be an effective tool for community advocacy, highlighting social, cultural and service resources of a particular geographical area. My mission is to help develop a community map that can assist with the identification of vacant public land for community gardens use, help coordinate outreach around ‘green' activities, and to support and encourage networking among community activist, advocates and decision makers," he said.
With issues such as high youth unemployment, crime, and lack of affordable housing in Central Brooklyn, sustainability often gets overlooked. Brown hopes that the green map will educate residents and stakeholders on how limited resources can be used more efficiently to meet the community needs, reduce food shortages, poverty and global warming. This strategic outreach plan will give the community the information and tools they need to build a more sustainable Brooklyn.
Brown's green map initiative will not stop once the year and a half long fellowship is complete. "I hope that this green map can continue to be used as a tool to educate the community about its resources but also the many threats that could undermine our delicate food shed,” Brown said. “For example, currently local residents and allies are fighting to protect Bed-Stuy Farms, an urban farm that produces over 7000 pounds of produce per year and feeds 3,000 people a month. It is now in danger of being sold by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to developers to repay a debt incurred by Neighborhood Partnership Housing Development/Direct Building Management."
"The TogetherGreen Fellowship will also allow me to spark the interest of young people in the neighborhood who are unaware of urban planning, public policy and sustainable development opportunities,” Brown added. “Many of our potential new leaders reside in under-resourced urban areas like Bedford Stuyvesant and I intend to use this fellowship to identify and cultivate new leaders on environmental sustainability issues in Central Brooklyn.”
Other grant recipients include Angela Mangiameli from Wilmington, North Carolina, a conservation biologist with Audubon North Carolina, and Valerie Pckham, a 13-year veteran of the Philadelphia Zoo.
Mangiameli is preserving the habitat of shorebirds and seabirds on Lea-Hutaff Island. She will educate beach visitors with safety tips and facts displayed on educational panels around the island.
She will also enlist local volunteers for island protection efforts including picking up litter and putting up fences for nesting birds. Mangiameli will then visit classrooms to teach local youth and the ecology of the coastline right next to them, including giving them first hand looks at the island through field trips.
"In working as a coastal biologist focusing on waterbird conservation, I strive to communicate the value of barrier island species and habitats to beach-goers. This fellowship will allow me to expand my knowledge and impact in this area, and facilitate long-term improvements in public outreach on North Carolina beaches," Mangiameli said.
Peckham, of Philadelphia, currently serves as the conservation program manager of the Philadelphia Zoo. She is taking the approach of "two minds are better than one" and partnering with Audubon Pennsylvania. The project will combine the Philadelphia Zoo's "Footprints" sustainability platform and Audubon Pennsylvania's "Audubon at Home" program, to provide ways for individuals and businesses to reduce their impact on the planet and enhance wildlife habitat. Through sustainable gardening, tree plantings, carbon offsets, and other green actions, Peckham will help local small and medium-sized businesses reduce their carbon footprints.
"Ultimately though, TogetherGreen fellowships are providing an opportunity for passionate conservation leaders to come together, to learn from each other and to work to make the world a better place. I'm not sure how to describe a benefit like that – maybe priceless?" said Peckham.
TogetherGreen Fellowships, a five year initiative, is now in its second year of connecting conservation leaders with communities and each other around the nation. TogetherGreen engages thousands of people to unite in habitat protection, as well as wildlife, water, and energy conservation.
"We are pleased to usher in another extremely gifted group of TogetherGreen Fellows who have tremendous potential to inspire and lead others," said Audubon President John Flicker. "They have the talent and the passion to help tackle the huge environmental challenges and opportunities we face in the years to come."
The inaugural class of TogetherGreen Fellows was named in 2008 and in less than one year recruited more than 3,400 participants for their conservation projects and contributed a combined 37,000 hours to their conservation action projects.
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