Urban Environmentalist Gets Her Due

Lucy Gellman | June 13th, 2022

Urban Environmentalist Gets Her Due

Community Gardens  |  Culture & Community  |  Agriculture  |  Arts & Culture  |  Newhallville  |  Learning Corridor  |  CPEN

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Doreen Abubakar and Michael Burger. Lucy Gellman Photos.

A lifelong champion of environmental justice and community placemaking has been recognized for her work on the state and regional levels. To celebrate, she’s continuing to cultivate her urban oases in New Haven—and to empower the next generation of Black gardeners in the process.

That champion is Doreen Abubakar, who last week received the 2022 Audubon Connecticut Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut state office of the National Audubon Society. Saturday morning, she and members of Audubon Connecticut held a small ceremony at the inaugural “All Things Pollinators” event, held in the UrbanScapes Native Plant Nursery across from the Newhallville Learning Corridor.

The garden sits at 133 Hazel St., at the corner of Hazel Street and Shelton Avenue. Audubon Connecticut also honored Abubakar in a large celebration in Greenwich last Thursday.

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Menunkatuck Audubon Society President Dennis Riordan, NHS New Haven Director of Community Building & Organizing Stephen Cremin-Endes, CPEN Founder Doreen Abubakar, Audubon Connecticut Executive Director Michael Burger, Urban Resources Initiative Associate Director Chris Ozyck. 

“I get up every day with the mission of how to move this work forward,” she said Saturday, sitting for a moment as a generator revved to life, and her niece Lynesha Miller began prep on a mobile taco station. “Pulling people together with the same focus—that has been a trademark of mine. It’s not easy work. My thing is, ‘Build it, they will come.’ I’m a dreamer, but then I’m a person that follows through in realizing the dream.”

She has been cultivating the pollinator garden for three years with support from the ​​Menunkatuck Audubon Society and a group of young people from the neighborhood, including New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) students, recent graduates, and people returning from the carceral system in need of work. In three years, it has grown from a few raised beds to over 2,500 native plants, from bee balm to multiple kinds of milkweed.

The recognition comes after over three decades of environmental service to New Haven, from conservation efforts with the West River Watershed Partnership to her restoration of “the mudhole” into a thriving neighborhood greenspace along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. It is part of the work that grounds her in the city she calls home, where she has raised five children of her own and nurtured hundreds more through her outreach and creation of the Community Placemaking and Engagement Network (CPEN).

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Saturday, Audubon Connecticut Executive Director Michael Burger said he was particularly excited to honor Abubakar because her work so closely dovetails with the organization’s commitment to coastal resilience, forest health and community conservation. For her, planting has become a pathway to youth development, addiction prevention, and health and wellness. In addition to her own five children, she has nurtured hundreds more over the years. 

Born and raised in New Haven, Abubakar was first exposed to the outdoors on a high school camping trip, when she was a student at a then-nascent High School in the Community. Back then, she was more accustomed to the hard sprawl of a concrete basketball court than thick woods and rivers down which she had to canoe.

When the van dropped a group of students at a section of the Appalachian Trail, "I was met with the surprise of swarming bugs” and immediately sprayed her whole body down in insect repellant, she recalled to laughs from listeners. It marked the beginning of a trip that would transform how she understood nature and her role within it. Her first days were tough: she faced swarming bugs and canoe-inflicted seasickness that lasted for the entire trip. The thing that pulled her through was “the awe” at the trees and river surrounding her on all sides.

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NHFPL Library Technical Assistant Jeffrey Panettiere. 

When she returned to New Haven, she held fast to that spark. In the 1990s, Abubakar worked with environmentalists Ed Grant, Jerry Poole, and musician, activist and environmentalist Richie Havens. Havens founded the East Coast-based Natural Guard to teach city kids about nature and land stewardship. When Abubakar joined the then-fledgling organization, she was the only person of color on the local team (Joann Sciulli, who went on to found Solar Youth, was one of the early educators). She realized how much she enjoyed teaching others, especially young New Haveners, about the environment.

She never lost her love for environmental stewardship and education. Two decades later, Abubakar founded the West River Watershed Partnership, based in the part of the city she and her husband call home. It led to the inaugural West River Water Festival, meant to “to engage people of all backgrounds” with canoe rides, guided trail walks, and hands-on demos and tutorials as they discovered the vibrant watershed in their backyard.

Just a few miles away in Newhallville, Abubakar had also begun work on revitalizing the former “mudhole," a vacant lot in which she could see a thriving greenspace. In the years since, the Newhallville Learning Corridor has become a space for summertime arts festivals, harvest celebrations, bike meetups and black birding groups.

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The Watershed festival brought her in touch with Dennis Riordan, a Westvillian who currently serves as the president of the Menunkatuck Audubon Society. After the two met in 2014, they became colleagues and fast friends. After seeing her work on the Newhallville Learning Corridor and attending a pollinator conference at the Connecticut Agricultural Station, Riordan proposed that the two work together on a native plant nursery.

They were especially interested in providing plants to the surrounding, primarily Black Newhallville neighborhood, Abubakar said. She and Riordan connected with the Fairfield-based Pollinator Pathways program, which has since expanded nationally. Menunkatuck  also secured a grant from the National Audubon Society that allowed them to start planting in the summer of 2020. That July, the two began with a few raised beds and teens hired from the neighborhood. In the three years since, it has grown to 2,500 plants. 

“I am thankful for all of my mentors, for all of the strong personal and organizational partnerships that I have been able to make throughout my journey as an urban environmentalist,” she said, holding her award to her chest as she spoke. “And I am thankful to the higher power for my gift as a visionary who can look at an ugly vacant lot in a rough neighborhood and see the potential of what it could become.”

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Tyshaun Lester, Malachi Hill, and Lynesha Miller.

Standing by a storage shed as she listened, Abubakar’s daughter Zanira said she was overflowing with pride for her mom. During her own childhood in New Haven, Abubakar sometimes missed events with her own family because she was working to make sure the community had what it needed.

“We always noticed the sacrifice she made,” Zanira said. 

Around them, the “All Things Pollinator” event was in full swing. Tables from WildOnes, the composting-based organization Wiggle Room, the Kellogg Environmental Center and Wilson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library wrapped around the greenhouse, all buzzing with activity. As kids collected books “weeded” from Wilson’s collection, Library Technical Assistant Jeffrey Panettiere handed out information on the branch’s new gardening efforts, an outgrowth of a seed library that started last year.

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Jesse Hubbard and Geordie Elkins.

At a table close to Shelton Avenue, Geordie Elkins and Jesse Hubbard of the Ecotype Project rolled “seed bombs” from soil and clay, placing them gently in recycled quail’s egg containers. At the center of each “bomb,” they placed a large seed, exhorting the practice of “guerrilla gardening.” Both said they were excited to be on site Saturday, spreading the gospel of environmentalism one attendee at a time. The Ecotype Project is part of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut (CT NOFA) and Highstead, a conservation effort that has grown from Redding, Conn. to the region.

Closer to the greenhouse, entomologist Kim Stoner walked attendees through different bee specimens, pointing out the nuances between bumble bees, honey bees, and carpenters. Beneath glass, their swollen, pinned abdomens shone in the light. Years ago, said Riordan, it was Stoner’s pollinator conference at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station that left his and Abubakar’s mind abuzz with ideas for the abandoned lot.    Doreen_Award_2022 - 10

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Top: Darnell Moye, Randall Fleming, and Michael Peterson. Bottom: "I think it’s important for kids to be out in the open," Joan Hilliard said. 

Attendees milled around, some catching up and others meeting for the first time. A member of Friends of Beaver Pond Park, Joan Hilliard said she was excited to see the pollinator garden in full bloom after meeting Abubakar through her daughter in law. She said she was paying particularly close attention to the young people who were present, who ranged from babies in strollers to high school graduates.

As a kid, “I always played outside,” she said. “I think it’s important for kids to be out in the open.”

At the center of the action, Darnell Moye, Michael Peterson and Randall Fleming bounced from booth to booth, seeing where they were needed before taking down their own tent. Both freshman in high school, Moye and Peterson said they are excited to work in the garden for the first time this summer.

For Fleming, it’s a home away from home: he’s been with planting efforts since the very beginning in 2020. Three years into it, he has begun growing his own food, including red bell and hot jalapeño peppers that are not yet ready for harvest. Since graduating from NHPS, he said, he's become interested in pursuing the culinary arts at ConnCAT. The garden has given him a hands-on education: he can now rattle off facts about the purple leaf cone flower and direct people to the best plants for butterflies and bees. 

“I’ve learned a lot of new stuff I haven’t learned before,” said Peterson, a freshman at High School in the Community. “I wasn’t really into plants before.”

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Kim Harris.

At the fence that surrounds the garden, Inspired Communities Inc. Founder and CPEN board member Kim Harris struck up a conversation with Neighborhood Housing Services’ Stephen Cremin-Endes, who has been a champion of Abubakar’s work for years. As a lifelong resident of Newhallville, Harris said she’s thrilled to see the garden flourishing, just as she celebrates the learning corridor just across Shelton Avenue.

This summer, she will be working with kids in the area as part of a reimagined “One City” summer camp. Just as in years past, she plans to use the learning corridor as an activity spot.   

“I love this,” she said. “We want to expose more kids to this. This neighborhood has served me well.

As Riordan took a seat at the garden’s first-ever picnic table, Harris walked through the garden and came by with a pressing question.

“I want something that attracts butterflies,” she said. Riordan looked up and thought for a second, maybe two.

“Swamp milkweed,” he said, referring her to part of the garden where thick sprigs of green rose into the air and swayed in the early summer breeze.

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Kim Stoner, whose pollinator conference at the helped kickstart the garden. 

Even as a 1 p.m. end time approached, the pollinator party showed no sign of stopping. At a taco station, Malachi Hill and Tyshaun Lester helped Miller scoop servings of tomatoes, veggies, cheese and refried beans into tortillas. Both raised in the neighborhood, the two said they’re grateful to work this summer in the garden, communing with a small slice of the natural world in their own backyard.

"This is showing people that there’s opportunities,” said Hill, a student at UConn who met Abubakar through an AmeriCorps placement.

“And that there’s still hope,” chimed in Lester, a student at Ely Whitney Technical High School in Hamden. “If you really think about it, you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Watch more from the event in the video above.