Leslie Radcliffe is a New Haven Community Leader and the Founder and Lead Coordinator of the Truman Street Greenspace and Garden in the Hill, in collaboration with the Urban Resources Initiative’s Greenspace Program. The project has been featured in the New Haven Independent.
Can you tell me what led you to starting this project?
Community service has always been part of my background, coming from a large family & growing up in the community of Brookside. In that neighborhood people were very much family oriented, so your neighbor was more like a relative – it was not unusual to know your neighbors well and help them out. When I was at High School I somehow got the opportunity to take part in a teen leadership training program, but I didn’t really do any community outreach until I threw myself into church, and wanted to put my hands to something. I had administrative and artistic skills, and let it be known that I was available to help. But at the beginning I made a lot of suggestions and got turned away, and began to realize I needed to not be a leader but be a servant – so I ended up doing a lot of work like cleaning, which wasn’t what I thought my skills were, but was what was needed. I got involved in a prayer walk in my neighborhood, and as I was walking and handing out tracts, I was awed by that movement of prayerfully walking through a neighborhood where I used to be involved in kind of nefarious things, and that experience led me to working with the organizers – the Christian Community Commission. They hosted gospel music festivals in the community, mostly done through donations and community good will. That was my first community outreach opportunity, where I learned that you couldn’t really accomplish anything worthwhile unless you joined with other people and were willing not to do your plan, but ask the community what it is they want – to go with the people’s plan.
Over time I gained more leadership training and a familiarity with the city’s different agencies and assets – there’s so much out there you can tap into. I became aware that I couldn’t save the world, and it wasn’t my job to save the world, but I could do a little where I was. Now, the start of my current project was actually pretty selfish! The house I moved into in 2009 was in quite a dangerous neighborhood, and I knew that in order to stay there, I knew I would need to help make it safe. I began by just talking to people, getting to know the neighborhood, working out who had the same kind of vision for change that I did. I was directed to different people who provided me with tools and skills and insight and I took part in a training program that would provide grant money, and I planned to use the money to make a community garden. Importantly, I began to learn that people would be engaged or motivated to different levels, and you have to meet people where they are. Even if people don’t give anything, if they aren’t breaking down or threatening your project you should celebrate that and celebrate them where they are.
One of the first projects we tackled was street cleaning. On the day we were going to have the street cleanup, all these children showed up – maybe they came because there would be snacks, and that’s fine, but once we started cleaning I realised that I could be a person of contact and support for them.
There’s a lot of things that I believe my generation failed to pass on, so there’s this generation with very little instilled connection to their community. Children can’t be left to their own devices – they have to be raised and nurtured – if they’re left to their own instincts, they’re only left with the instinct of survival. I knew that addressing this problem was more than I could do alone – I’m an elder now, and I know what my limitations and my strengths are in being able to support teens and young adults, but I knew that I could work with the young children coming behind them, in order to give them what they need. So my focus became the community kids. I never thought my calling would be to plant a garden, but it seems that it is! As I made changes to my own diet I realized that fresh food in the store is far too expensive – so I said ‘let me give it a shot to grow things on my own’, and that’s what we started to do in the community too!
How has the project’s focus changed over time?
We’re not totally organised – we don’t have a written vision, or written objectives and goals, but in the beginning it just started with the street cleaning, and that has also developed – we’re gone from street cleaning into cleaning yards – now that’s embarrassing when a child asks you if they can clean your yard! But to see the joy and sense of accomplishment that the kids had when they cleaned, or when they planted and something grew – it gave them the sense of ‘I can do – I did this, and I can do other things’. The children connected with each other and even connected with other adults in the neighbourhood – lots of opportunities for little life lessons that help them in the future. We don’t do the street clean ups anymore, because it’s quite a transient neighbourhood. When projects depend on transient residents, they don’t work so well. But the community garden is a place to come back to – and we hope they will! The project constantly evolves depending on who is available. Some of the kids have even taken plants home and made home gardens, so that’s really encouraging – that’s another part of the neighbourhood which is being looked after.
What are the current challenges you face as a community leader?
The transient nature of Truman Street is the major challenge – every year, every season, feels like starting all over again with meeting people and what challenges they might bring with them. Language is a challenge – the majority of the residents are Hispanic, and I only have a little bit of Spanish, so I’m going to make time this year to learn. The bilingual children are really helpful, even in interpreting for other children! There can also be cultural barriers – just because you speak Spanish, doesn’t mean you’re part of just one cultural group! But even with those barriers, there are members who are committed and come out every year. So we find different methods of communication – like a snack, a smile, a hug.
What do you wish you had known about community service when you were 20?
My twenties were a little different! When I was twenty I was raising a four year old. But I was still involved with leadership training, and was still doing some mentoring. If I could say anything, I’d say it’s a blessing to give of yourself, to participate on a volunteer basis where you are intentionally giving more than you are receiving. Devote yourself to a particular project over a substantial amount of time, not only to get to know who you serve, but whom you are serving with. There is so much to be gained from being around likeminded people – that sustains you when the madness starts to creep in! When you’re in your 20s, you have a lot of time ahead and have a lot of energy to give, so make the most of what you can learn through service. Whether you become an urban farmer or a wealthy philanthropist, you will learn things you’ll take on with you: these contributions don’t just make you a better person, they make you feel better. You don’t have to do big headliner things to make a mark.
What do you still struggle to remember or still have to learn?
When you’re in service, the people you’re working with or for are constantly changing, and so you have to constantly adapt to your surroundings and be willing to meet new, sometimes difficult people where they are. That’s a constant thing to remember: that you don’t know what this person experienced and so you have to make a conscious step not to respond negatively. And hopefully they will then join you in the struggle!
What motivates you to keep going? What are you hopeful about?
We’re not there yet – we’re not there on my street, and if we are, then there’s the street next door, the city, the state – that’s what motivates me. Somewhere there’s always going to be a need, and if you can help fulfill that need in whatever capacity it is there’s always something to contribute. We don’t need recognition for what we do, and even if what we do doesn’t work out, there’s value in that act of giving.
I don’t like waste. Nobody is born to be thrown away. Nobody is born to be a waste.
Any other thoughts?
I heard someone recently talking about Yale students, who said ‘these people have no idea that it’s more than just coming out and doing stuff in the community – these privileged white kids who come out in the community and think they’re helping and then they’re just going to go back to their castles.’ But I don’t think that’s true – these Yale kids who help don’t have to do this. They’re here for a reason, even if they don’t know what they’re here for, there’s something in them that’s drawing them out. They could stay in their ivory tower and not come out. Even if someone just came out and did a day of service and never did anything else, we should be glad for that one day they’ve given. We don’t know how it will impact them later, or what it will bring them to do down the line. So do what you can do, and that’s enough!
Want to get more involved in community gardens in New Haven? Get in touch with Leslie at email@example.com.
Hannah Malcolm (M.A.R. World Christianities 2016), Rev John Magee Fellow at Dwight Hall