One of the first connections I made was Tobias Fox — the managing director and founder of Newark Science and Sustainability (SAS). He seemed very interested in the goals and objectives of News Voices; much of what I relayed about the project resonated with him.
From the moment we met it was clear that we share a common belief that it’s important for local residents to have the information they need to become active in their communities.
This conviction has made Tobias one of the strongest News Voices allies, especially in relation to our work on the Civic Info Bill, which will strengthen local journalism around the Garden State. Newark SAS signed letters of support for the legislation, attended related Free Press Action Fund events and distributed petitions advocating for the bill.
How would you describe the work you do?
I'm the managing director of Newark Science and Sustainability; we advocate for the localization of food and energy production. We do this through hands-on education programs. We host a lot of workshops around urban agriculture. I manage two community lots through the city’s “adopt a lot” program.
Through our urban-agriculture initiative, I’ve been helping to transform vacant lots into urban farms and creating a farm-to-table cooperative, a food collective and distribution networks. We’re also reaching out to the neighborhood bodegas to see if they would be interested in purchasing some of the goods from the urban farms. Residents also benefit from having a garden in their backyards by having access to fresh and healthy food.
I also work with renewable and sustainable energy such as solar, wind, pedal bike and energy storage. I strongly advocate that we stop looking at wellness and nutrition as two separate entities, and combine them and implement them in our recreation departments.
The final phase of my work is eco art, which is transforming recycled and natural materials into art and ecological building.
Sounds like you have a lot going on — tell me more about the food collective and who you work with on this.
In 2012, I became deeply engaged in work on health-care disparities and sustainability. My work was noticed by Whole Cities Foundation, which is an entity of Whole Foods Market.
Whole Foods came to Newark and did not want to be seen as a gentrifier, so they brought in three nonprofit foundations to help provide seed funding for community-led projects. Whole Cities Foundation has been very supportive of Newark Science and Sustainability. They saw the potential in taking an organizing approach in bringing people together to create tangible solutions around social issues and the environment.
The Newark Food System Collective started from an idea by Meredith Smith from the Whole Cities Foundation. She and Sybil Bost from Whole Foods Market developed a proposal and released it a year ago. We wanted this to be a community-led initiative. I didn’t want it to be organization-led and wanted to use the skill sets that residents in the city of Newark had. There are 10 of us who are local community leaders who decided to come together to develop urban agriculture and nutrition programs throughout the city of Newark.
Looks like you’re making transformational change in a lot of different ways. What do you see as the role of local news in your work and how would you describe your experience with local journalism?
There are some great media outlets that are doing great work. It's important that we have a spotlight for local voices. For my work, it helps when local voices become national and that’s why local media is important. It helps lift up those important voices and tells a story from a grassroots perspective.
For me, it’s always been a positive experience. [Local news outlets] always want to know that the work we’re doing is beneficial to communities and I think that some of the folks that I interact with in the media try to focus on the positive aspects of communities and don’t harp on negative stories. It’s a struggle to keep a balance.
The internet has been the saving grace for it all. Some of these smaller outlets and independent journalists can’t compete with corporate-sponsored media. The use of the internet has enabled stories and topics to go directly into my inbox.
It sounds like you’ve been fortunate in getting positive coverage and you’ve been able to use social media to promote the work that you do. Has social media been an effective tool for you?
Social media has enabled me to be my own journalist and tell my own stories and has helped me tremendously in that way. I have embraced social media because it allows me to touch a much larger audience and has made our world smaller. I don’t have to wait to be interviewed to tell my own story.
If there's one thing you wished local news covered more, what would it be?
From my perspective, they could do more coverage of the ways urban agriculture, renewable energy and sustainable-living practices have impacted and changed our lives. I’d also like to see more about how sustainability practices work in other parts of the world and how we can implement them here. How do we create more dialogue?
How can people support the work you’re doing?