Niraj Ray; Founder; Cultivate the City

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Niraj Ray
Cultivate the City

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Niraj is the founder of Cultivate the City. He served as a 2013 NWF Emerging Leader Habitat Fellow. As a fellow, Niraj was involved in restoring the J.O. Wilson Elementary School Kitchen Garden in Washington, DC in order to increase the sustainability of the school, better integrate it with the community, and provide educational opportunities for students on nutrition and urban agriculture.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a fellow help shape your career?
Niraj Ray:
When I first started with the NWF fellowship, I had just finished my graduate work down in Florida, and I was working with the EPA here in Washington DC. I was working on coastal environmental quality and land-based sources of pollution, and it was just a very different environment compared to what I worked with on the NWF project. With my NWF project, I was heavily involved with the community, and I started a school garden for a school that previously didn’t have specific programming related to healthy food or eating locally. That gave me a chance to get involved outside of an office setting and really explore my leadership potential and how I could foster collaborative action on community projects. My position with the EPA was heavily office based, and while I was working with different communities around the U.S., it was a very different relationship. My role was to look at how grantees used available funding to achieve their goals and help share best management practices with other communities.

The NWF Fellowship, in itself, and what I was doing for that project were very different from my formal education had prepared me for. And on top of that, that school garden that I started actually became the first major project site for the new company that I started.

So basically, that’s what got me out the door and got me actually engaged in the community and gave me the gusto to start my own business. And in addition, through fellowship activities and the retreat, I got to connect with a lot of other up-and-coming environmental leaders and people that are around my same age and going through a lot of the same experiences that I am. It really helped us coalesce together, and I still keep in contact with a lot of them, and we vet our ideas with each other; we give each other lessons learned, and it’s just a really robust community of peers and mentors that the fellowship introduced me to outside of my project.

DC: What would you say was the number one thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF?
I would say the number one thing would probably be building social buy-in for community-based projects. Before, I had limited experience with that, and this project gave me an opportunity to really foster collective work amongst all these different players with sometimes contradictory missions to reach a common goal.

DC: You mention that you founded Cultivate the City. Could you talk a little bit about that process? How you put those pieces together?
So, when I was working at the EPA, I had started a rooftop garden there, just on my lunch hours and after work, and that ended up becoming a really nice project at work that a lot of my coworkers really enjoyed. They would come out during their own lunch breaks, and they would pick food. We would have a collective lunch once a week in the office, and it just created a fun community around it. And that made me realize the importance of what I was doing outside of just the school setting, and how this applies to people in just about any setting. When I left my position with the EPA, I was already working with the school garden and a couple of restaurants, but I had grand visions of taking this to a much larger scale which just wasn’t possible with the constraints of my full-time job.

I had juggled both responsibilities for about a half year before I realized that I was just burning both ends of the candle and wearing myself too thin; it just didn’t make sense. And, in order to actually do this project justice, I had to be full-time with it. And so, with that, I ended up leaving my position with the EPA. I still keep in touch with them; we check up on that garden twice a year – we set it up in the spring and then we take it down right before winter. So, it’s not really like I left that project, but it really made me realize that the cubicle life just wasn’t right for me. There was more that I could do with hands-on engagement learning.

So, with Cultivate the City, the mission of the organization is to develop sustainable farming practices that emphasize growing vertically. We use a lot of vertical farming systems; we try to maximize what we’re growing per square foot, and our overall mission is to develop a hardy local urban food system. So, we also work with some local farmers in Maryland, like for apples and peaches and things that we have no intention on growing in the city, but we’re still supporting local farms in that way. And then we grow a lot of local produce on-site at our own farms, and last year we supported a 20-family CSA at the school garden. This year, we’re opening up a new rooftop farm, and so, we’re really increasing the capacity of what we can grow and what we can provide to other urban farmers in the area.

DC: What motivated you to begin on this path towards making a difference for sustainability?
My background is originally with conservation and management of natural resources to protect endangered species. At the EPA, my formal charge was looking at land-based sources of pollution and how they contribute to coastal environmental quality. And through that project and also my thesis work, I realized just how much of a disproportionate affect agriculture has on our environment. We worry about cars and a lot of other things, but agriculture is by far the number one contributor to greenhouse gases. And then on top of that, you have issues like pesticides and pollutants in our waterways resulting from agricultural runoff. And just more and more I realized how getting people to realize this in an urban environment would really create a cascade in the whole system.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
NR: I would say my personal mission is focusing on helping people realize the impact that their individual actions have on the environment for better or worse and helping create those small changes that eventually add up to not just environmental change but also social and economic gains as well for the community.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
There are definitely a lot of great speakers and just amazing role models in the urban agriculture movement. I think it takes a certain breed of person that wants to do these kinds of projects. I feel like most of the people that I encounter, I definitely try to take lessons learned from them; I think some of the biggest players, some of the people that first got me interested in this path, I would say would be Will Allen from Growing Power; Vandana Shiva, who is an Indian environmentalist and anti-globalization author who works a lot with empowering farmers in rural communities; Stephen Ritz from Green Bronx Machine; Ron Finley, who’s a guerilla gardener out in south-central LA. And then, in general just all of the local farmers that I work with on a regular basis, and they’ve been doing it for multiple years; they’re an invaluable source of information.

DC: Did you have any mentors or career coaches assist you personally in shaping your career path?
As I mentioned earlier, I work with a lot of new, young farmers who are basically going to be the future of farming in cities, and we definitely try to work together, and actually with the new garden center that we’re starting, we’re also starting a new urban farming collective. Basically, it’s 6 or 7 of us that concentrate on different aspects of urban farming – installation of vertical systems, growing mushrooms, bee keeping, etc., and we all are going to work together and really increase our reach because I don’t think that we’re anywhere at the capacity of the projects we can have, and by working together, we’ll increase the effectiveness of these farms.

And then in addition, when I used to work at the EPA, there was one coworker in particular that I’m still very close with. He is probably the one that has professionally mentored me the most. His name is Jamal Kadri, and he has a very extensive background in water management and natural resources, and that is a big part of what I’m doing because we also deal a lot with stormwater reclamation. We’re actually the only school garden in DC that uses all of our rainwater to irrigate all of our plants. At some of the other schools, there’s this backlash against using stormwater. But we’ve been able to work out a really good system where we have about 3000 gallons of water that we are able to store on-site. And we treat all that water before actually using it for plants. And it’s been working beautifully. So, he’s been a very good mentor for me.

And, then last but not least would be my dad. He’s the one who I think really got me started on this project. He’s always wanted a farm, I think, since he was like 4 or 5 and had to leave his family farm in India. I think that, since then, it’s always been in the back of his mind that he wants to have a farm. Growing up, he would take us on random trips over the weekend to different farms. I hated it growing up, but it’s really funny how it’s come full circle once I’d actually chosen my career path. Basically, I don’t think he could have planned it any better.

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability in the agriculture sector?
NR: Well I would say, the first thing is get out and do it because for me I never had a background in farming before I actually started planting seeds and growing stuff. And, especially in farming, I think that experience is the best teacher.
There’s only so much you can learn from a book, and you really have to make those mistakes. That’s really the only way you’re going to learn. And you also learn what you actually enjoy. There’s so many things that sound interesting in the books, and then when you actually go do it, you realize where your true passions lie, and that’s how you figure out what you want to pursue career-wise. There’s this great quote from Jaime Casap – he works at Google – he says, “Instead of asking our students what they want to be when they grow up, we should ask them what problem they want to solve.” And I think that’s a really important message that we’re really trying to inspire the farmers of the future and this really helps change the whole tone of the conversation to what they really need to learn to create the changes that they want to see as opposed to, “who’s going to pay my next check?”

Food & Agriculture

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017