Members of Movimiento Cultural Afro-Continental (MCAC). To watch attendee Veronica Conde's entrance, check out the videos below. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Veronica Conde listened to the drums, counting her footfalls on the grass. A downbeat, and she extended her arms, making space for the folds of an invisible skirt. She spread her fingers, moving her wrist to the rumble of the barril. On stage, the story of La Negra Martina came to life in drum and dance. Soon, it seemed that all of Goffe Street Park had a heartbeat.
Sunday, Conde was one of hundreds to come out for the inaugural Gather New Haven Festival, a six-hour celebration of music, dance, food, nature-based education and environmental justice that had the park buzzing all afternoon. As attendees delighted in cooking, birding, and yoga demonstrations, danced away the afternoon, and met dozens of health-, climate- and jobs-focused vendors, it marked a celebratory first for the organization.
Gather emerged from a sequential merger of Schooner, Inc., the New Haven Land Trust, and New Haven Farms in February 2020 (read more about that here). Last year, the organization dreamed up the festival after dozens of people came out for an annual seedling sale at Ferry Street Farm despite a torrential downpour.
“We learned a lot” in planning the festival, said Executive Director Brent Peterkin, who has been leading the organization since May 2020. “I’ve had hundreds of conversations at this point, and it means a lot just to see people come out and let us know that our hearts are in the right place.”
Top: Diana Nguyen and Miguel Vargas. Bottom: Gather New Haven Executive Director Brent Peterkin.
From the park’s well-loved basketball courts to the stage to the playground, a sun-soaked energy wove through the space. As environmental educator Gammy Moses set up a drum circle on the grass, vendors greeted the first wave of attendees with everything from natural shea butter soaps and African waist beads to verdant, deep-veined collard greens and kale.
Beneath a tent for the Common Ground Mobile Market, Miguel Vargas stood in the middle of leafy greens, yellow squash, zucchini, lettuce and onions all in neat wooden baskets. At the tables's right corner, Vargas and his brother, Kae, had set up neat jars of honey collected at Common Ground’s West Rock farm. Two feet away, peaches the color of sunrise overflowed from their bucket, and spilled out over the table.
Vargas said that Common Ground is hoping to spread the word around the market, a veggie-packed SUV that travels around the city, making stops in Fair Haven, the Hill, and West Rock through November. The market has become well-loved for its price point, which is far lower than other farmers’ markets in the area (two dollars for a pound of onions or summer squash, or head of lettuce, for instance), even before double SNAP benefits kick in. Now, Common Ground is hoping to expand the program as demand grows across the city.
As Vargas chatted with passers-by, Diana Nguyen examined ears of corn, stacked gingerly atop each other and still sweet-smelling if a customer got close. A community engagement associate at the Nature Conservancy, Nguyen goes to other farmers’ markets, she said—but often “it’s like I’m window shopping” because the produce is too expensive. She was amazed when she found the mobile market, and realized that she could afford its vegetables.
One tent over, Jacob Romm showed off handmade, recycled paper and designs printed on a letterpress, some of them with legos. A graduate student in Renaissance literature, Romm learned about Gather when he moved to New Haven from Upstate New York, and fell in love with the Quinnipiac River Salt Marsh on his frequent runs.
The marsh is one of five New Haven nature preserves in Gather’s care—and has been a bright spot of his time in New Haven. Earlier this year, he and his girlfriend watched baby ospreys hatch as they marveled at the magic of a salt marsh in the middle of a city.
Nearby, vendors Emily Wong and Jamilah Rasheed folded candles, body butter, and “Shea by J” natural soaps into the mix. Born and raised in West Haven, Wong grew up wanting to see “nothing but happiness” from the people around her, she said. This month, she launched her business, Karmic Cycle Candles, as part of that goal. When she saw the chance to sell her candles at the festival, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I’m a big manifester of good intention, and I want to do the same for other people,” she said. “Candles are a big peacemaker. They calm you. They make you happy.”
Top: Emily Wong of Karmic Cycle Candles. Bottom: Jamilah Rasheed. "Shea By J" is available at Edge of the Woods, where Rasheed has been a customer for years, and Thyme & Season.
Beside her, Rasheed had arranged her soaps on a rack, turning the display into a palette of rose, peach, tan and charcoal. The engine behind the Field of Greens community garden in the Hill, Rasheed started “Shea By J” several years ago, after looking for a product “that did not have junk” and coming up empty. At first, she came up with a simple body butter with shea and coconut butter, coconut oil, and jojoba oil. Then, she began a “really experimental” foray into soap, driven by her concern for a product that did not have lye in it.
As the homegrown business expanded, she was able to get her products into local markets including Edge of the Woods and Thyme & Season. Now, she is one of a growing number of small-batch Black business owners providing alternatives to mainstream, commercial beauty products. Often, those companies—Unilever is one giant, for instance—advertise skincare and beauty products for Black people, but are owned by white corporate leadership.
Around vendor tents, social service groups beckoned, from Travelers on A Mission and the New Haven Climate Movement to a collective working to save the Goffe Street Armory. Beneath a tent for the New Haven Federation of Teachers, president Leslie Blatteau described the day as fitting into the union’s mission of “getting teachers and community to collaborate more.” Near the street behind her, a cooking demonstration from Chef Sil’s Vegan Kitchen snapped into action. Young voices from Harris and Tucker School rang out over the court as students described their studies into Social Determinants of Health.
Steve Rodriguez and Shannon Dickey of Solar Youth set up a bracelet making station.
As the crowd doubled, attendees walked around with dishes of rosemary chicken, carrot-studded green beans and red lentils from Lalibela and burritos from Alegria Café. Across the sprawling grass, families rolled in, kids running toward stations for yoga, drumming, and birds of prey. Beneath a blue-patterned tent for Solar Youth, Steve Rodriguez and Shannon Dickey guided a few young visitors through bracelet making. Friends caught up, often holding each other at the hands and forearms as a way to say hello. Everywhere, it seemed, there was a mixture of laughter and dancing.
On the grass, Moses began to play music, the sound of the drum connecting him to the history of a diaspora (a video is at the bottom of this article). Around him, young musicians settled into the grass and extended their hands, listening for a beat. As they joined in, Moses charted the course of rainwater from the sky to the state’s rivers to the Long Island Sound, where it helps preserve a delicate underwater ecosystem that is now under threat from pollution and climate change.
“Connecticut River! Will make you shiver!” he sang, and tiny palms beat the drums around him, sweetly out of sync. “Coming all the way from New Hampshire Coming all the way from New Hampshire!”
Top: Thabisa. Bottom: State Rep. Robyn Porter with her sister, Tracey Porter, and her grandson, Amir Joseph.
When he moved on to a slowed down, percussive “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” both kids and their parents clapped along in delight. As an environmental educator, he later said that he is always grateful for the chance to teach young people about environmental stewardship through music. Around him, parents and grandparents were grateful too: State Rep. Robyn Porter and her sister, Tracey Porter, eased into a dance with her grandson, Amir Joseph.
“We need more of this, more community and more fellowship,” Robyn Porter said as Moses and his daughter Asyra led the circle in a new rhythm. “This shared space creates a shared experience. It creates memories, and it connects us in a way that’s authentic and much-needed after the pandemic. That social isolation did something, and this kind of helps to undo the damage.”
As members of St. Luke’s Steel Band launched into their first number, Geneva Savage bounced her infant granddaughter Addison in her arms and marveled at the scene around her. The daughter of transplants from the American South, Geneva grew up in New Haven, with a home garden bursting with collard greens and tomatoes. When she had her son Jonathon, she chose to raise him in the neighborhood, close to the park on Henry Street.
Top: Geneva Savage, Jonathon Savage, Elizabeth Savage, and 11-month-old Addison Savage. Bottom: Jackie Russell and Amelia Gray.
She saw Sunday as a full-circle moment, she said. As a kid, Jonathon fell in love with nature in his own backyard and at Martin Luther King, Jr. School, where teacher Lillie Perkins introduced him to live worms and bins filled with healthy, rich soil. At the time, he was so enamored of the worm bins that Perkins let him bring one home with him. “He dug up the front yard” trying to figure out how to make it more hospitable to plants, Geneva remembered.
Years later, he became the farm manager for Gather, where he still cares for and supervises the organization’s seven farm sites across the city. He brings that plant geekery home with him too, said his wife Elizabeth: the couple has a garden and potted lemon trees that come inside for the winter months. In time, he’ll be passing that green thumb onto Addison.
“It’s amazing to see the community come together for this event,” Elizabeth said.
“It’s wonderful!” chimed in Geneva, adding that it brought back memories of raising a child in the neighborhood. “The info that has been given is so good.”
It was, indeed, a day of celebration for many who had grown up in the area, and were excited to see the park used to gather community in a new way (for years, Goffe Street Park has also hosted Gospel Fest and Black Gay Pride; it was also home to the city’s Caribbean Heritage Festival before it moved downtown in June). Watching a yoga demonstration, Jackie Russell remembered growing up in the neighborhood, and watching the park fill with families and kids as a central gathering place. Sunday, it felt like Gather had captured that spirit.
“One thing I really appreciate is the diversity,” she said as her kids. “I think community is so important. We want to show people that we’re connected.”
Top: Zane and Sherene St. Juste. The run Justeliving Naturals, and Zane also works as a photographer, poet, and spoken word artist. Bottom: Shanique Reid, Amari Kelley, David Toles, and Riketta Jones.
As steel pan yielded to bomba, Shanique Reid and Riketta Jones echoed the praise for the festival that flowed through the park. Raised in the neighborhood, Reid said she was excited to return to the park for something so focused on the community. Both lauded the number of Black-owned businesses focused on self-care, particularly brands like Candice Dorman’s Beaver Hills-based Ekow Body.
“I like it!” Reid said of the festival, adding that she has a particular soft spot for steel pan. “I think it’s something positive for the community. You feel comfortable.”
Back at the vendor tables, lifelong New Havener and Treasure Beads founder Antoinette Cameron pulled out a string of red waist beads for QueenRa El Bey, a recent transplant to New Haven from Kansas City, Missouri. A daughter of Westville and the Hill, Cameron grew up with eight sisters, a background that lit in her a spark “to empower and encourage and uplift other women,” she said.
Four years ago, she founded the business as a way to do just that. Sunday, she showed off strings of bright waist beads and beads from her “Wild Side” collection, inspired by nature and animals. Waist beads are a path to being in touch with one’s body, she said: the wearer can tell how their body is changing in real time.
“I welcome women to come over as they are,” she said. “As I tie the strings, I hope that it energizes the women [wearing them].”
Top: Antoinette Cameron, 7-year-old Bentley Cameron, and Ben Cameron. Bottom: QueenRa El Bey and her daughters.
As she tried on a string of beads, El Bey said had read about the festival online, and walked over with her daughters, Royal and Hevona, to check it out. “I think it’s a way to reach out to the community,” she said.
Even as the afternoon wound toward evening, the festival showed no sign of slowing down. On stage, bomba flowed into a performance from Thabisa that had feet tapping across the space. Young kids—and the young at heart—danced across the grass, some tiptoeing close to the stage as others busted out their fancy footwork. In the audience, longtime cultural champion Elaine Peters rose from a seat on her mobility aid and began to sway as her chihuahua, Coconut, padded delicately through the grass.
Doreen Abubukar and Deb Abibou.
As they packed up on the nearby basketball courts, CPEN founder Doreen Abubukar and Deb Abibou finished a day of teaching people about the climate crisis—and handing out surveys to assess community members’ most urgent concerns and needs. She said she’s grateful to be doing the work with Abibou, who works for Connecticut Sea Grant.
Months ago, Abubukar said, she became interested in climate change literacy after driving her niece to work in the early hours of the morning, and watching water spurt inexplicably from manhole covers across the city. She later learned that it was one of the new signs of climate change, heavy rains from which may stress the city’s sewer and plumbing system.
That’s when she started teaching, and also collecting community members’ input. What she found was that people don’t always associate a direct call for environmental action with hotter and more violent summers, overtaxed plumbing systems, power outages, storm damage and food insecurity they may be facing in their own lives.
“There are so many people that don’t know,” Abubukar said. “We give them that connection to what it looks like in everyday life.”