Image by Carole Cohen Photography, of Lilia Toson’s wedding; Lilia and her son are also Seasonal Flower Project members:).
For some of you new to Molly Oliver Flowers, I want to take a moment to introduce myself more fully.
I am a farmer, florist, and educator. I was raised in Connecticut/Mohegan land, and I’ve lived in New York City for almost 21 years (except for 1 year living in Santiago, Chile, and 2.5 years in Santa Cruz, California.) I think it’s extremely important to be transparent as a business owner, and I want everyone here to know exactly who, what values and practices they’re investing in when they support this business.
I wanted to write about my inspiration and intentions when creating Molly Oliver Flowers, and how I endeavor to be an accomplice to the movement for liberation of Black people and to grow an actively anti-racist business.
While I’ve been very vocal – I think – about my commitment to sustainability over the years since I launched this business, I have been less clear about the ROOT of those values. A series of life experiences led me to draw the connections between racism, environmental destruction, climate change, the industrial food system, and health disparities (especially food access / diet related disease). So today I wanted to write about these and share a little bit more of the road I’ve been on that led me to food justice activism, then farming, and then to flowers and how Molly Oliver Flowers attempts to grow a system devoted to social justice, and to systemic change in our food and farming system, in land ownership — so that we can build a more future that centers the wellbeing of the planet and all people.
The recent prevalence of a new term – intersectional environmentalism – coined by Black environmental activist Leah Thomas (@greengirlleah on Instagram) incapsulates these truths and values. Leah says in a recent interview with The Good Trade:
“Throughout my studies, I became startled by the facts that it was indeed harder for black, brown, and low-income communities to have access to clean air, water, and natural spaces. Even worse, minority and low-income communities were statistically more likely to live in neighborhoods exposed to toxic waste, landfills, highways, and other environmental hazards. As my textbooks encouraged me to protect public lands so they could be preserved and enjoyed, I couldn’t help but wonder, “for whom?”
It was a winding road for me, as a white woman raised in a white, middle class town, to wake up to my own conditioning and privileges. This was not taught in school, shamefully (and unsurprisingly). But I was from a young age an introvert, an aspiring artist, always prone to introspection and self-reflection. I was eager to get out of my hometown, to buck the mainstream, to understand the world.
I have always been driven to self-reflect, and I think long wondered – even as a child – why it was that people who didn’t look like me lived in urban areas, in poorer neighborhoods around New Haven, where I did some after school activities and actually interacted with people of diverse racial and religious backgrounds. These things were not explicitly explained to me; they therefore were “normalized.” This is one aspect of white silence. The privileged childhood I had, in rural Connecticut, was not a feat of hard work on my parents’ part (though my parents both worked hard), but also a generational inheritance of privilege. I believe the series of experiences that led me out of my bubble woke me up – moving to NYC for college, focusing on authors of color as an English major, and moving abroad for a bit.
But my awakening to the truth of needing to be in a continuous open process of waking up, of constantly learning, and that you never fully “arrive” as a white ally, came later.
Obsessed with the idea of moving to “the big city,” from my early teenage years, it was the only place I wanted to go for college. At Barnard on the upper west side, as an English major, I concentrated in post-colonial literature and read dozens of novels, short stories and poetry by authors of color who painted vivid pictures about the effects of colonization, enslavement, and neoliberalism on their histories, bodies and minds/psyches. I had incredible professors. My senior thesis professor, writer Caryl Phillips, a St. Kitts-born, Kittitian-British author, introduced me to many life changing authors: Franz Fanon, Michael Ondaatje, Zadie Smith and others. His auto-biogrpahical work “The European Tribe” details his experience as a black man traveling in Europe. These writers and their incredible impactful works opened my eyes to the global reality of modern day racism – both the everyday kind and the systemic kind.
After graduating in 2003, I headed to Chile, with a plan to learn Spanish and work as an English language teacher. (There’s a longer story there but I’ll refrain). It was in Chile that my analysis of racism and classism crystalized. I witnessed all the same disparities (in many ways writ larger) and experienced daily how my privilege as a white, English speaking, North American woman allowed me to function and move through society there with relative ease (minus the cat calling, which was rampant).
In Chile, I shopped for and cooked my own meals for the first time. While I preferred the colorful, bustling, open-air wholesale markets with farmers’ stalls piles high with every kind of pepper and fragrant herbs, it was clear that the North American “norm” of shopping in massive, freezing cold supermarkets with mostly imported foods (even produce) was the aspiration for many Chileans. Chilean fruits, along with copper, were largely being exported rather than enjoyed close to home.
One young tutoring student I had lived in the very wealthy part of town, home of the 1% of Santiago, where families had mini mansions, maids, and 4 cars in the driveways. My 1.5 hr bus ride back to the center of the city offered a complete contrast to this privileged life: there was makeshift housing built up along river beds; a bus full of darker-skinned and indigenous working class folks, people busking for cash. Many of them maimed, wearing visible scars of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship that lasted 17 years (1973-1990) and had only recently ended. The disparities screamed loudly to me. I saw the color lines drawn — the darker and more indigenous the skin tone, the less wealthy, job-secure, and healthy you were.
I also kept a part time job translating Chilean news into English for an English online newspaper called the Santiago Times. Started by a leftist Rhodes Scholar named Steven Anderson, we focused on stories of marginalization and oppression: illegal deforestation in Patagonia; the loss of Quechua Indians and Quechua language; a growing childhood obesity epidemic.
It was here, in Chile, with my head out of books, that I really grasped the relationships between the phony (but lethally real) construct of race and environmental health, personal health and wellbeing. Corporate greed and globalization had led to human health crises just as it had led to the destruction of precious natural resources and ecosystems. Of course there was little to no regard for the indigenous people native to Patagonia – merely exploitation; a modern day passive genocide. It was clear: racism was rampant, and whiteness, and North American whiteness – was somehow corporately held as the norm and the goal of success to aspire to. This has political underpinnings: under the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chicago Boys reshaped Chile’s economy to be directly benefit North American corporations.
I ended up staying a year. It was difficult to return home in Sept. 2004, as I’d made incredible friendships and had carved a life out for myself, but the overriding feeling was one of responsibility — that I needed to return home to help figure out what the solutions could be…. if the US was exporting a false narrative of success and health based on exploitation of natural resources, racism and greed, how could we grow and broadcast a different narrative?
Upon my return, I entered a major depression and serious bout of anxiety. I went through a kind of reverse culture shock: I had gone from living in a place where I lived close to my food sources, and where most working people bought the bare essentials from their local corner store (loose rolls of toilet paper, loose cigarettes, you get it…) to a place where everyone bought way more than they could ever need and zoomed around in oversized SUVs, seemingly oblivious to the poverty and class disparities abounding… Seeing anew this racial inequality and consumer culture on steroids was shocking to my system, even though I of course had grown up conditioned in and by it and stood to benefit from it as a white woman.
I moved in with my mother, got a couple jobs at a local bookstore and clothing store, and tried to re-acclimate. It was hard. I felt deeply lost. I didn’t know how to re-integrate and felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems to overcome. When a co-worker mentioned an urban farm in New Haven that could use volunteers, my ears perked up. That sounded positive. I cautiously showed up and became quickly hooked… digging my hands into soil, working alongside people who shared an optimistic, practical, hands-on vision of the future, was all so healing. I returned to volunteer as often as I could – even though it was actually late fall 2004 at this point, and pretty freezing out.
I wound up moving back to NYC. At the suggestion of the Farm Manager Josh Viertel, I reached out to a then 9 year old non profit, Just Food. They happened to be looking to fill Americorps*VISTA positions in the South Bronx and East New York, where I would work with a local community based organization to increase food justice. I applied, and got the job. My first real job, although it was severely underpaid for that first year, and — white privilege 101 — there was a very small chance that a person FROM that community – one of the poorest districts in the entire US – could have taken the job with its salary of about $10K. I happened to have funds from a serious car accident at 16 that I was able to use to pay my rent that year. So I, a white chick from Connecticut, moved to the South Bronx, and got a real schooling (long overdue) on my privilege and how it showed up at home, in the US. So in fact, the entire system of charity was also rigged, positioning white folks to be “saviors.” My intentions were pure – I was passionate about food justice. But these were things at the time, that I didn’t even fully grasp.
I ended up working for For a Better Bronx, an environmental justice non-profit for three years, 2005-2008. FABB had grown out of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which was famous for successfully blocking the building of yet another incinerator in the South Bronx. FABB’s founders connected the dots between environmental racism and health: the over-presence of waste transfer stations, major highways and prisons in communities of color, along with disproportionately high asthma and diet related diseases.
The over-presence of calorie-high and nutrition-poor cheap foods, and the lack of farmers markets. They had a holistic vision of growing community health and community power through community organizing and local, creative initiatives. They wanted to teach Undoing Racism to youth of color, which they did, and they wanted to support community gardeners (the vanguard of food justice advocates in NYC) to grow more food for the community.
I learned so much in those three years. My boss Carlos was Puerto Rican. The folks on the Board were former Black Panthers, Young Lords and Nietas. They had radical visions. And they schooled me in the ways my privilege was showing up. Back then, I was defensive. I was the definition of white fragility. While it was impossible not to be aware of the ways my privilege created ease for me in some ways – an approachability, and safety for me as I walked around the neighborhood, but it was tough to admit to myself: guilt overpowered me then, into silence on the matter.
Carlos taught me community organizing 101, and yet, my whiteness only got me so far there. I had to build relationships, real ones. I was not a trusted person – I was white, from CT, and an outsider who knew little of the oppression the long term community members had lived: mostly African American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and newer Mexican immigrants. And living and learning there from some incredible women of color I came to know and befriend, I grasped that it would never be so easy to helicopter in a Community Supported Agriculture program, even if we designed payment plans, accepted SNAP benefits and set up a revolving loan. I joined a working group of CBOs and community health service workers who were also developing CSAs in other parts of the Bronx. We would meet to discuss the intersections between food access and health disparities and race and to share resources and swap stories about whether our projects were effective, and how to improve them.
Due to the still somewhat inaccessibility of the CSA model, FABB decided to organize a farmers market my second year. In tandem, I decided to offer an after-school gardening group with Latinx kids who I met through a sister organization, called Atrevete Latino Youth, run by Lisette Nieves. We were able to start our own plot in El Girasol community garden, and it was alongside them and the gardeners in that space (and others around the neighborhood – Brook Park, Padre Plaza…) that I first learned to start my own seeds, transplant, prepare soil, make compost… It was like swimming in the dark in the beginning. I had no idea what I was doing, but we witnessed the miracle of growing our own food together and it was life changing.
Organizing the market and growing for it with the students, some who are still in touch and friends, became my passion. At that time, circa 2006, there was a renaissance growing in the city around urban agriculture and around the country: as white folks were waking up to food injustice thanks to mainstream moments like the publishing of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and constant information in the news about the rise of childhood obesity, community gardens became a focus of attention again. I, through FABB, joined a farmers market training group with other gardeners in the Bronx looking to start markets out of their community gardens. It was then that I met Karen Washington, a formidable force of nature – a longtime community gardener (and full time physical therapist) who advocated for the longevity of community gardens and helped found the NYC Community Gardening Coalition. She is now a farmer, co-owner and founder of Rise and Root Farm in Chester, NY. Her fight back then, I learned, was so much more than a fight to grow gardens. Through her, and other women of color gardeners who became my mentors, I developed an understanding of community gardens’ history — as spaces of resistance — where people of color reclaimed land that had been divested from and redlined, and through blood, sweat and tears created urban oases where people connected with land, nature, and grew fresh culturally-significant food.
I began meeting with diverse group of community garden and food justice activists from across the city and across organizations in 2007 to begin visioning a Farm School, that would serve as a decentralized, popular education hub for growing and sharing food growing, farming, and food justice knowledge and practices.
Karen and I wound up moving to Santa Cruz together in 2008, to attend the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems’ organic farmer apprenticeship program. At that time, it was one of only 2 formal programs in the US; these have since proliferated due to a scant amount of funding allocated in the USDA farm bill that year.
I applied to the program because I felt in order to really change the food system, I had to understand how food was grown at scale. Community gardens were miraculous, and their existence and sovereignty needed to be protected, but they’d never be able to grow all the food for a city of 9 million. Luckily, one boon for working a year in Americorps was the education stipend which did cover my costs for the Apprenticeship. It was an incredibly rich experience, where I lived 7 days a week on a working farm – and learned the ins and outs and long-developed practices for organic, sustainable, small farming. I was introduced to growing so many new crops, including many types of flowers. I struggled with bouquet making, but loved working with all the colors and textures of flowers… they really uplifted my spirits, and that became my fix in the sea of crops to be grown. I have to say that this education, however transformative, also lacked a critical lens on racial justice in the food system. Though they tried. It was white led, and the resources and syllabus and the histroy they told reflected that white lens. It was not until I was back in NYC that I began to really deepen my own understanding of the rich legacy of Black farming and the contributions of Black farmers to the realm of organic agriculture — so whitewashed by media.
After a couple years in California, one at the UCSC Farm and Garden, and 1.5 at Live Earth Farm, an 80 acre certified organic vegetable farm, I felt a need to return to NYC and the community of food justice activists who were growing gardens, legalizing bees, building chicken coops, proliferating free workshops on food growing and composting and rainwater harvesting. I wanted to bring back that knowledge and information.
And I have to say now, that looking back, I didn’t see the ways I was about to reproduce and continue those same representation issues we see everywhere. But I think I knew I needed to move home to figure that all out — California wasn’t home, and it was a place where the mythology of the organic farmers (a white man or woman) ran deep, with no analysis of the legacy of enslavement, loss of black land ownership and loss of black farmers.
So I returned, found some part time work with GreenThumb NYC and with Green Guerillas, doing outreach and resource distribution to community gardens across the city. I rejoined the incredible group of folks visioning Farm School NYC, and we landed our first major USDA grant in 2010. I stepped in as an interim Director, and in 2011, began teaching Propagation and Growing Soils. I also began volunteering at a nascent urban farm project called The Youth Farm in Crown Heights. I grew this project alongside two other white women, one of whom was also connected to Farm School and also teaching for Farm School. We developed many programs – for youth, for community, for volunteers, and an organic farming training program — an apprenticeship for adults. We grew our cultivated land each year, and with that increased sales through a CSA and farmers market and restaurant accounts. We wrote grants, and we threw fundraisers. We were able to raise enough money (30% of which through produce and flower sales) to cover three part time salaries. I worked there for 8 years as Co-Manager, and in the end, trained dozens of New Yorkers (over 40 of whom completed our 7 month intensive training) in organic farming skills. I introduced growing flowers, feeling that flowers brought so much joy, and were yet another avenue to facilitate conversations around food justice, racial justice, and farmworker justice.
This 1 acre farm project, while it became definite hub of learning and exchange, was not without strife, contradiction, or complex tensions around race and power. While we grew a lot of food, and created a valuable space for growing knowledge and access to nature for hundreds of visitors/volunteers/school groups/market customers every year, in so many ways it wasn’t radical and did inescapably perpetuate the non profit industrial complex.
The Youth Farm was founded by two white women (before me, in 2010) and a white Principal, and it took us several years until we had consistent leadership from people of color. My very presence in the space, I came to sense and understand, did reinforce stereotypes of the white savior and the white organic farmer (even if that was FAR from my intention).
After a couple years of facilitating a program made up of mostly adults of color, I came to grips with the reality that my presence and sometimes, my ignorance, was too triggering to create a positive learning environment for people of color. The trauma of the history of enslavement meant the disconnection and disenfranchisement to land, and many of my ‘students’ were working to reconnect with land and soil and heal their relationships with land. Of course many young people, out on the farm for the first time, would say “this is slave work.” Their understanding of their relationship and right to a healing relationship to land was eclipsed by this painful history. While once again, there’s much more I could say and speak to on the Youth Farm, the essential lesson I learned that it was not helpful to the larger cause of food sovereignty to maintain a position of power, to manage a garden space in a community of color.
And so in 2019, I transitioned off the farm, and went full time into developing Molly Oliver Flowers, which I had started in 2012. (The pat time farm job had not paid the bills, and I saw an opportunity to grow a floral design business supporting local farmers and connecting people with seasonal flowers for events).
I still teach around the city, and love to, and try to bring my ethos and approach of popular education – honoring the experience of those in the room – to all of the spaces in which I teach. I try to bring that mindset to Molly Oliver Flowers.
So, Molly Oliver Flowers is an outgrowth of these many life experiences: of learning the value of local food (and flower) farms and wanting to support them to thrive to help build new green economies; of learning about the harmful effects of industrialized agriculture which exploits natural resources and vulnerable populations (both migrant laborers and the people who eat the processed foods born from this food system); of a love of working with flowers, and wanting to help people connect to seasonal flowers for their events.
For me, these issues have always been intersectional. I support local farms — be they mostly white still — so that we continue to have a growing local agricultural industry that is made up of small farms, run by communities and for communities. Farms have an impact on land and water health, and if we support local farms, we have the opportunity to advocate that they use safe, chemical-free practices, and to have equitable labor and hiring practices. Healthy food and beautiful flowers should be accessible to all. There are many systemic and systematic reasons why organic food is expensive and still unaccessible for many – mostly to the poor and people of color. Industrial farms, growing commodity crops like corn/soy/wheat receive government subsidies. Small diversified farms do not. Large industrial farms largely rely on undocumented, migrant labor – and therefore do not incur the same costs of paying a legal, minimum wage and health benefits or paid sick leave. There is modern day slavery present in our food system, widespread abuse of immigrant laborers, and women.
And so, I continue to support and donate to organizations that support the liberation of people of color on land. I continue to raise awareness of black farmers – and the Black farmers, organizers and leaders who champion this cause for reparations. I continue to support the liberation for all of us from the corporate control of our food system and their pillaging of our precious natural resources, as their food system is making us undernourished and chronically ill.
I believe fully that none of us are free until we are all free. I see the intersections of race, health, and environmental destruction at the hands of white-owned corporations (which is predicated on the devaluing of lives of color – both in cities across the US and abroad in countries like Chile, Ecuador, and Vietnam and around the globe. Gentrification is the new colonialism is the new imperialism, am I right?
In my next journal post, I’ll talk more deeply about how these intersections come into play in the floral agriculture industry, and floristry. For now, I’ll leave you with this, hoping it brings a better understanding of the root of my drive and passion in life. My journey as a white woman into ally-ship and I hope towards accomplice-ship has been winding. A journey of listening, reading, developing humility and grace. I will continue to push for liberation from oppression of all forms, and I’ll continue to learn and be open to listening when I trip up and make mistakes.
As mentioned above, I’ve long discussed my commitment to sustainability, but have not spoken loudly enough about how this commitment is linked to my passion to commit to a life of anti-racist activism and learning. That’s the first change I want to make. I will be working on an updated mission statement, that I want to put thought and intention in to. In the interim I will just write off the cuff to say I am committed to the following:
- Purchasing from local farmers of color and other vendors of color
- Working to better learn the needs of people of color when it comes to their celebrations and floral needs
- Representing black joy and the celebrations of joy of all cultures
- Hiring people of all colors, ethnicities, genders, faiths, ages and abilities
- Making sure the working environment is accessible in all kinds of ways
- Creating space for regular conversation about equity with those working with me
- Continuing to explore the idea of a worker-owned co-op
- Continuing to donate to the above organizations and others
- Continuing to share and amplify the voices and stories of POC farmers, florists, and clients
I want to leave you with a list of a few relevant organizations and farms and individuals that I follow and donate to personally and through Molly Oliver Flowers – starting w/ the most local and spanning out to national:
Hattie Carthan Community Market
Brooklyn Rescue Mission
East New York Farms!
La Finca del Sur
Rise and Root Farm
Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust
Soul Fire Farm
National Black Food and Justice Initiative
Federation of Southern Coops
Detroit Black Food Security Network
If you are curious about our basic practices when in comes to sustainability, see below!
Since 2011, MOF has developed production practices that honor our co-existence with the earth. Some of these practices are:
- REDUCING CONSUMPTION THROUGH RENTING VESSELS: Offering a variety of vessels for rent to our clients, and re-using these as long as possible, cuts down on event waste – and waste in general. We encourage guests to grab flowers, not vessels.
- REUSING MATERIALS: Cardboard, bubble wrap, and other packaging from past vessel shipments is re-purposed for safe transport of designs. MOF avoids all use of synthetic floral foam or other non-biodegradable products and chemicals. When we cannot repurpose or reuse, we up-cycle materials like metal, soft plastics, and rubber through investment in Terrecycle’s Zero Waste Bins.
- STRICT AVOIDANCE OF SYNTHETIC CHEMICALS: To support a healthy working environment for all, we avoid purchasing flowers that are heavily sprayed with pesticides/fungicides. Close relationships with local farmers allows for transparency in terms of growing/labor practices.
- COMPOSTING: MOF composts all organic waste from production in the studio and post-event at a local urban farm, half a mile from our studio.
- CUTTING BACK O2 EMISSIONS: Rather than own a vehicle, MOF minimizes needs for fossil-fuels by participating in the sharing economy and renting vehicles for events only. Molly enjoys supporting public transportation and rides the subway frequently.