Envisioning a Greener Bridgeport

Rooting in the Seed of Community Power

Ofonime Udo-Okon

For the past couple of years, I have been studying what communities look like when they assume they are powerful rather than powerless. The last couple of months have been incredible. All over the country, people have occupied the streets, calling for justice, and bringing to consciousness the myriad of injustices that delusions of white supremacy have perpetrated. If there is anything we can take away from this short snippet of time, it's that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities have voices and they will be heard— and BIPOC communities are taking action. They are emboldened and empowered; the same can be said for the Bridgeport community. 

 

This year’s Juneteenth was extremely special for me— and not because the rest of America finally tried to understand why it is such a special day for our community. I had the chance to witness Bridgeport residents stand in power, their power and collective communal power. I had the chance to listen to Bridgeport community members tell me exactly what they envisioned for a Bridgeport with 100% undeveloped Remington Woods. 

 

Bridgeport Envisions

 

I find that ideation works best when folxs feel connected enough to trust each other with their ideas— and trust that the space will welcome their vulnerability. These sessions usually work best in person. The listening and visioning session, unfortunately, was not in person. Like most Zoom calls, I had to prepare for technology surprises and the limitations of digital connections. 

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One of the biggest things I've been cultivating for the last few years has been the gift of graciously listening and holding space for uncertainty and possibility. This isn't always easy because, like any other human, I walked into the world with my own personal stories, history, emotional baggage— a worldview and a lens in which I see the world.  As a researcher, it is important to lay aside my preconceived notions as best as I can, and simply listen to what folxs have to say. I find that when I am able to shut up long enough to listen, I hear the most amazing things. 

 

Bridgeport envisions a Woods reclaimed, renamed, and reconciled back to the community: a community of life that is welcomed and adopted as a central part of Bridgeport’s identity; a green space where children can explore an earth connection and relationship; a space where education can be rooted in nature. Bridgeport envisions a Woods where youth have the opportunity to engage with new extracurricular activities; a free park space where the community can walk,

bike, and hike; a Woods where art becomes alive and residents can live, work and play. Bridgeport envisioned a Woods that is saved with the power of the entire community and the voice of the East Side Neighborhood Revitalization Zone (NRZ). Bridgeport envisions a Woods that gives birth to horticulturists, landscapers, farmers, botanists, park rangers, forest managers, organizers, and leaders. Bridgeport envisions community forest gardens and a Woods that addresses the food apartheid on the East Side. Bridgeport envisions a Woods that will encourage youth programming and job opportunities for a greener future. 

At this point in the call y’all, my heart was moved in wonderment. There is something magical about not assuming a savior role and just allowing the community to speak power to itself. Once I finished clutching my pearls, I asked the folx on the call what they valued, what their families valued, what their community valued, and what they felt Bridgeport valued or should value.

 

Bridgeport Values & Barriers

Bridgeport values its physical health and mental health. Bridgeport values its relationships with friends and family. Bridgeport values art, and safe spaces. And equally as important, Bridgeport values sustainability. 

 

The barriers that were identified were not surprising. Bridgeport’s vision and values are obstructed by capitalism and corruption, lack of public awareness, the supposed lack of resources, and the ideology that we are somehow separate from nature. 

 

The Ask

Often, the conversation stops at visions, values, and barriers. By then we have enough information to justify the work that we do. However, it has been important for us to ground ourselves in the voices of our community. Afterall, these woods belong to the people of Bridgeport. I told the folxs on the call what Sierra Club was asking for: 100% undeveloped Woods -- although that matters, what makes a difference is what Bridgeport wants. Here is what they told me: 

 

Bridgeport wants preservation to be grounded in the conversation of reparations. The community should be involved in the restoration and the remediation of the woods in the entirety of the process; there should be open meetings where people can learn more and add to the conversation. The preserved space should be used as a grounding space where we can live in harmony with our natural neighbors. 

 

Now What? 

Sierra Club, our power is rooted in our language. We are not just asking for 100% undeveloped Woods. We are asking for a Woods reclaimed, renamed, and reconciled back to its community. We are grounding our ask for preservation in the conversation of reparations. We report back to the Bridgeport community and give the community whatever it needs us to give it. We envision what Bridgeport envisions, we value what Bridgeport values. We stand as allies, we stand as fiscal sponsors, we do whatever it is that the Bridgeport community requires us to do. That is how we use our platform for the furtherance of a community that has been dismissed, disregarded, and disadvantaged. That is how we root this fight in the mustard seed of community power.

Ofonime Udo-Okon is the Community Outreach Coordinator of the Connecticut Chapter of Sierra Club.