Berries. Chard. Eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and herbs. These are some of the delectables growing in Robyn Gibson’s plot at the Woolson Street Community Garden in Mattapan, where her sister Reann helps cultivate (and consume) the bounty.
But produce is only part of the picture: as the garden’s co-coordinator (Robyn) and community organizer (Reann), the sisters nurture not only flora but also the neighborhood’s human fauna.
The sisters understand this need firsthand. As Mattapan natives, they remember 44 Woolson Street as it was for years—a weedy, overgrown city lot wedged on a street that endured several violent incidents.
Even as girls, both sisters valued environmental and social justice. Robyn remembers reading Thoreau and Emerson at Winsor, using these authors as tools to help shape her concepts of inequity and community building. Reann credits AP Environmental Studies with honing her focus on urban spaces and social justice.
After graduating from college in 2012, Reann returned to volunteer as community organizer with the Mattapan Food & Fitness Coalition, which was working to develop green spaces along the Fairmount commuter-rail line.
When Woolson Street arose as a possibility, Reann began knocking on doors, soliciting visions for the lot. Almost universally, neighbors favored a community garden.
Robyn, who runs REG Solutions, was inspired by her sibling, and impressed with MFFC’s commitment to green spaces, healthy food options, and equity within Mattapan. She joined MFFC as a volunteer (both sisters now hold leadership roles), and used her nonprofit management expertise to secure resources for the garden.
“The need for more green spaces is a huge issue in Boston,” says Robyn. “There are these undeveloped city-owned parcels that are eyesores, and symbols of community trauma, suffering, and violence. People want something positive.”
In 2013, the design process began.
“It was really cool!” says Reann. “Several architectural groups came to discuss what we wanted and didn't want. Some people in the neighborhood had trauma, and we wanted them to feel ownership. We didn’t want it to feel like organizations were coming in and dictating.”
In 2014, the garden opened publicly. Since then, volunteers have hosted yoga classes, harvest fairs, and cultural exhibits. Robyn obtained a city grant for local artists to paint pollinator-attracting benches and planters. Reann, who works at BU and is completing a master’s in public health, secured university funding for a seed collection.
“Everyone wants to know about the next program,” says Robyn. “Each year, we get more families to paint and work with us. We have a waiting list for plots. We keep on trying to figure out our neighbors’ needs.”
Unfortunately, nature doesn’t always cooperate. This year’s carrot crop didn’t pan out, for example. The cucumbers are a bit anemic. “And I got two male blueberry bushes!” laughs Robyn. “I’m getting a friend to help me out.”
For the Gibsons, who tend both the soil and the soul, it’s a small price to pay.
Juliet Eastland ’86 is a writer in Brookline, Mass.