By Sarah Quinter
BK ROT is a compost collection service powered by local youth in Bushwick, Brooklyn. They offer seasonal compost pick-up memberships to residents for a small fee, which helps them provide stipends to local youth who run the service. The following is an interview with Sandra Nurse, one of two founders of the project.
What led you to want to start BK ROT?
Myself and my partner had an idea to start compost collection by bike a couple summers ago while starting up a CSA bike delivery service. We really loved the idea of creating more jobs around biking and local food. Ultimately, we felt that more education and awareness would be needed at the city and neighborhood level before people could make a living composting. However, it’s great for youth coming out of high school or still in school who need to pay phone bills, buy metro cards, help out with household expenses, or save up for smaller things they’d like to do. So we decided to develop it as a service that directly put some cash in kids’ hands.
Why is it important here and how?
When we were playing around with this idea, I started doing some research about youth employment in Bushwick. The youth unemployment numbers for the outer boroughs is over 70%. Among undocumented youth, there are no certain numbers, but city reports say its much higher. The project is important in my view because there are so many ways youth of color become invisible in our city. It’s much harder for them to become independent or get dignified employment. It’s important in this neighborhood because of how quickly it’s gentrifying along racial lines, and the compounded social, political and economic inequality this leads to. More importantly, this is not charity. This is a service that people are willing to pay for, and it directly respects the labor needed to do it.
How does the program work?
We sell three-month memberships for $45 to community members. We give members compost bags for the season and then they get their food scraps picked up every Sunday between noon and 3pm. Our bikers have their routes and pick up the food scraps. They then bring these scraps to our compost bins and mix them in.
What is compost, for those who may not know?
Compost is decomposed organic materials, such as fruit, vegetables, grass, hay, paper, etc. Composting is the process of creating the ideal conditions for the rapid decomposition of organic materials; these conditions are normally created in a compost bin. When the process is complete, the organic materials become a nutrient-rich material that is dark, crumbly and looks and feels like soil.
What do you hope to accomplish through BK ROT?
What I originally hoped to accomplish was a mix of getting people to compost, finding a way for the community to support that work and use this as an opportunity to build an empowering opportunity with local youth of color.
After asking some of our bikers about this question, I realized what is being accomplished and the potential is far beyond what I could anticipate. It kind of hit me in this one moment last Sunday: I was at the composters with one of our riders, Michael, and we were turning this big hot compost pile and started talking about the loss of top soil. I am currently taking a class called Growing Soils at Farm School NYC, so I am a beginner learning and reflecting on soil — which feels bizarre and at the same time incredibly fulfilling — and I wanted to share that with him. So we’re turning and suddenly found ourselves talking about how volcanoes under the ocean made the mountains and then those were slowly eroded and resulted in soil, how long it all took, how quickly its all going away and how composting is one way to add back and repair what’s being lost. We end up staring at this incredibly hot pile for awhile — there were all the bugs that have migrated from somewhere to be in this mix — and he just says to me, “This is so cool.”
I’ve been reflecting on that moment, especially as I’m asking myself what I hope to accomplish here and why I spend my Sundays dealing with rotting food. I’m not an expert at all; I was just someone who liked doing things on my bike and wanted to re-align what I did as “work” with what I thought was missing in my community. I guess I realized that I am learning alongside these kids, we’re learning together how much time and energy is required for this project both at the practical level when we start to understand how much our community wants to contribute or how much food scraps one person reasonably transport – and then at this natural level where we start to know when the earthworms will show up, when the leaves are finally composed or when the rain will really be helpful to this alive and growing pile. I just am excited that someone who is 17 also thinks it’s awesome.
Your website says the program is designed to place youth and local residents directly into larger social and environmental justice movements. What do you mean by this? What does social and environmental justice mean to you?
To me, when someone works towards social justice, they are working to correct injustices that exist in our society, such as racial inequality, discrimination against immigrants, and corporate exploitation of peoples and lands. Along those lines, working towards environmental justice is working to protect the planet from human destruction, but with an analysis that those historically and presently suffering most from human ecological destruction are communities of color.
When we say we’re placing youth and local residents directly into larger social and environmental justice movements, we’re saying our framework is working to tackle these social ills such as high rates of black and brown youth unemployment in the city, undocumented youth not being able to get dignified employment in the city, the disproportionate numbers of these youth being forced to live in areas exposed to toxins, and the exploitation of youth of color through low-skilled/low-wage jobs (we pay $15/hour cash).
Additionally, we are creating a “green” job that is a little bit out of the box. Most green jobs are not actually improving the environment. Composting is directly diverting valuable food scraps from a toxic landfill into to our community compost systems in order to transform it into one of the most vital resources for growing food, amending and rehabilitating compacted and contaminated soils, and reducing our waste stream overall. Creating an opportunity for local youth to really understand this process and be have this knowledge is, to me, so important. So many urban youth, including myself, are not educated about these simple ecological practices and I see compost as the gateway eco-addiction. Once you do it, you just love it and want to learn more about the environment.
How do you see BK ROT being affected by the ongoing gentrification and displacement in Bushwick? How do you see BK ROT interacting with and responding to these changes?
How much time do you have? BK ROT really came out of thinking about and dreaming about how to live better. We spent a lot of time thinking about how can we sustain ourselves through honest work and not take more than we need. I realized that there are so many individuals moving into the neighborhood (I’ve only been here six years) with more disposable income and access to jobs. Many of these folks are very familiar with composting. In fact, 100% of our members are white, living in lofts in Bushwick or have migrated to Ridgewood, have experience with composting or are knowledgeable about it. Where I think BK ROT creates a little magic is how two populations that might never interact are able to acknowledge each other through mutual aid and respect. Our members know what our project is about; they know BK ROT specifically empowers youth of color and they know we are trying to bridge two worlds around the goal of composting, a community practice. Along the same lines, our youth bike to these new apartments in Bushwick and to gentrifying areas in their neighborhood. They are aware of these changes and dynamics happening so close to home. Through this project they are able to interact and small relationships are building, even if abstractly. I think it establishes a lot of respect on both ends. It’s not just people who are throwing money at something because of guilt or some other idea of privilege. They actually need this service because they are really busy people. And these kids can actually use the extra income to support their families and to gain some independence in their lives. It really is mutually beneficial.
Your bio says you are focused on experimenting with Grace Lee Boggs’s concept of “Reimagining Work”, where “value is placed on the work required to build eco-cities, and marginalized groups are empowered to envision and direct this work.” Who is Grace Lee Boggs? Can you explain the concept of reimagining work?
To start, here are a couple quotes that got me really moving on this from Grace Lee Boggs:
“We have so much to rediscover. There are so many creative energies that are part of human history that have been lost because we’ve been pursuing the almighty dollar. We haven’t recognized at what expense we’ve done that, expense not only of the earth, not only of people of color, but of our own selves. We no longer recognize that we have the capacity within us to create the world anew. We think we are only the victims.
“There’s something about people beginning to seek solutions by doing things for themselves, by deciding they are going to create new concepts of economy, new concepts of governance, new concepts of education, and that they have the capacity within themselves to do that, that we have that capacity to create the world anew.”
Grace Lee Boggs is a pretty legendary civil rights activist who has lived in Detroit since the 50’s. She was married to James Boggs. They both committed their lives to community education, empowerment and activism.
I am in no way an expert and this was something I picked up and having been lingering on since I went to Detroit last winter and had a chance to see so much inspiring work done around folks growing food, prioritizing ecological practices and using these are opportunities for community organizing. The phrase about eco-cities is my own interpretation of what I took away. I had been reading for the last three to four years about post-growth society, or when capitalism reaches its limit of human and ecological exploitation and can no longer grow its Gross Domestic Product in the traditional sense. I found this all to make sense and was looking at what movements out there are calling on us to recognize this future and respond with action. I was fascinated by the Transition Movement and how small towns in the UK were literally “powering-down” from fossil fuels and focusing on building community resilience through hyper-localizing and re-introducing lost skills. But it wasn’t until I went to Detroit and was just blown away by actually seeing a post-growth urban setting, and seeing so much of that creative energy around food justice, urban farming, and community schools, that I realized this is how we need to orient ourselves. We need to look at what are all the real jobs that need to be done to have eco-cities. If we’re all going to live in NYC with millions of people all heading to a future with rising temperatures, damaging storms, more people needing healthy food, etc., there are really labor intensive jobs (that also require public access to land) we need to prioritize, such as local farming, composting, and moving towards fossil fuel-free transport. This work needs to be valued and lifted up above corporate jobs and marketing and PR careers. AND those who benefit financially from this work need to be those who are always shut out of valuable work – people of color and the working poor. We have to really see the future for what it is, just one more extreme recession after another, and start looking at working to protect our natural environment, our water, our air, our ability to grow our own food and make this the new work we aspire to do. We know how to live better, we know how to respect the land, that knowledge is in our history and we need to re-imagine how to make it work in our day-to-day reality.
What’s your vision for the future of Bushwick? How should we think about our future as a neighborhood?
I think our neighborhood is a beautiful place to have lived in. It still feels like a neighborhood. It feels like there is community here. After six years, I’ve only started to realize all that goes on here and it really makes me feel hopeful. Since I was a military brat who moved every two years growing up, Bushwick is the first place where I’ve had the opportunity to learn about all the parts that make up a community. It’s also hard to imagine Bushwick keeping that neighborhood feel when there is such growing inequality and when so many people are being displaced. Sometimes it feels that if you do not own property, you cannot really have a voice. You are always subject to being priced out or at the mercy of a landlord who sees dollar signs coming their way.
I think Bushwick’s future should be envisioned by those who live here. I believe that evolving vision(ing) should occur where diverse groups and individuals come together through processes that allow everyone to meaningfully participate. I don’t think we all have to believe in the same things or that there is one way for Bushwick to evolve, but I believe there needs to be more voices coming together to at least debate and have healthy conversations about what we want and how we can make things happen.
It’s also always challenging to have an active populace, one that is really paying attention to all the moving pieces — and they are moving fast. I am pretty excited that participatory budgeting is coming to our district and hopefully that will be a way for people to bring to life the things they believe should happen in our community.