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Open Letter to Governor Cuomo

Dear Governor Cuomo:

I   am writing to ask for your intervention in the recent decision to deny For The Good, Inc. State funding from the DEC for an Environmental Justice grant for the second time in as many years.

For the Good is a Black female-led NFP operating in Utica since 2002 with the mission of assisting low-income residents in overcoming poverty by their own means. Our Community Gardening Initiative, in operation since 2008, does just that.

Last year, when we were denied Environmental Justice funding, it was because our document vault, clearly in place as an uploaded file, was not ‘submitted.’

At that time, Senator Griffo addressed the administrator with the emphasis on the importance of funding the Community Gardening Initiative in Utica. There was a tacit understanding that this year’s application for funding would be favorably decided.

This year’s application was submitted with 4 minutes to spare on February 2. The initial award date was May 14. Then it was switched to Earth Day, April 21, then back to May 14. We received our denial letter June 29th.

This particular proposal, so recently rejected by the DEC, had the approval, support and active participation by Cornell Cooperative Extension, The Farm Bureau, Working Solutions and the NYS Department of Corrections along with the board of directors of FTG.

The concept  involves introducing previously incarcerated inner city Black men to farming and agricultural jobs. They would begin their journey in the two previously flourishing Community Gardens begun by FTG in 2008.

The men would learn basic carpentry with the rebuilding of the 10 year old dilapidated beds made of native hemlock from the lumber mills on the north side of Oneida Lake. They would also be taught small engine repair on the mowers, weed whackers, chainsaws, and tillers in use in farming and horticultural businesses such as landscaping.

Cornell Cooperative and the Farm Bureau had both planned for farm tours throughout the region to introduce and orient the would be agricultural and farm workers to new opportunities on the countryside.

Mr. Cuomo, area-wide, agriculture is 25% of Oneida County’s economy. The average age of our farmers is 55. A common complaint of the farmers is lack of labor. This proposal would have begun a process of developing a homegrown workforce instead of requiring migrant workers.

Actually, Mr. Cuomo, Black folks were the original migrant workers here Upstate. For generations Black Southerners came to our area to work the fields and harvest the crops. At one point when the Italians moved away from their agrarian past, Blacks were invited to stay. Then agriculture went mechanized. And Blacks were stuck in an environment where being Black did not enhance your job opportunities.

I don’t know if it happened where you grew up, or if you noticed but, but in Utica there was a time when Black men would gather at corners early in the morning. A farmer in a truck would roll up and point to 2 or 5 or however many men said farmer needed for ‘day’s work.’ The guys would hop in the back and spend the day working on his farm or on his crew.

In any case, today, as a result of Mass Incarceration, we have a population of Black men whose lives and families have been stifled by the NYS prison system.

Mr. Governor, your acknowledgement that the impacts of Mass Incarceration deserve attention is admirable. This proposal provides a solution by bringing these men into a labor market that needs workers. Unemployment for Black men in Utica is unfathomable and abysmal.   According to the latest data, Utica’s Black children live in 74% poverty. Most of these children live in fatherless homes. Overall poverty is at 40%. These are Third World country statistics we’re dealing with, Mr. Cuomo.

This program has the power to reunite these men with their families and bring down the crushing demand on Social Services our community has suffered for generations. The money these men have the potential to earn in agriculture will stay right here in Oneida County, unlike the foreign nationals who send their pay back home.

Another positive objective of the program is participation in a DOC’s program called Thinking for Change or T4C. This program addresses the many psychological and emotional barriers to success which inmates can succumb to while in prison. The violence, the suspicion, predation, vulgarity, immorality, the aversion to authority and other debilitating personal, and emotional responses to prison culture.

Sadly, this prison culture has thoroughly infiltrated the American Black community as these men have circulated ‘prison venom’ throughout our community over the past 40 years bringing it with them and anchoring these elements in their homes, lives and on the street. Think ‘beltless pants and underwear.’    The cost of T4C for was to be paid for through the program, splitting up the days between gardening, building, cultivating, planting, harvesting, tool and equipment repair and maintenance, and farm and ag tours.

These men, instead of harboring suspicion and hatred would learn to work together as a team. The motto of our gardens is ‘Building community as we grow good food” and that’s just what we do.

These gardens have provided literally tons of free, fresh, organic food for those living in Utica’s food desert since 2008. Obesity, as a public health crisis has only worsened especially in the Black community. With your help we can make a difference.

As a matter of fact, the loss of the DEC Environmental Justice monies has resulted in the inability for FTG to participate in Oneida County’s Summer Youth Employment Program.  We are unable to pay for garden leadership.

For the past three years young people, from every nationality in Utica, have learned organic gardening skills from FTG and brought home hundreds of pounds of fresh organic produce, herbs and fruits to their families. This is while the gardens were tended to provide for others to come in, lend a hand and benefit.

This year, as I have let you know, we have no funding for staff, therefore no regular garden leadership. There are volunteers but they too require direction as crops do and will fail unless proper guidance and sufficient hands are there to guide and direct the work.   This program can make a difference and can serve as a transformational pilot project, should you decide to intercede, which is why I write to you consider doing so.

Mr. Governor, with your vast powers to grant millions, even billions of dollars to for-profit businesses, please be so kind as to assure that this not-for-profit, working hard since 2002 to assist Utica residents in overcoming poverty, is granted the funds to operate this Ag and Farmworkers Education program which benefits so many people on so many levels.

Most sincerely,

Cassandra Harris-Lockwood,

President & CEO For The Good, Inc.


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