New Leadership at Bed Stuy’s Magnolia Tree Earth Center

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New Leadership at Bed Stuy’s Magnolia Tree Earth Center

Brooklyn Food Coalition volunteer Abby Sherer visited the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in Brooklyn to talk to their new leader, Beverly Johnson. Come to the 2012 conference and find out more about what else community organizations like Magnolia Tree are up to and get involved!

Green campaigners in Brooklyn celebrated a venerable survivor on February 9.  The Magnolia Tree Earth Center, housed in a brightly renovated brownstone on Lafayette Avenue in Bed Stuy, welcomed its new executive director Beverly Johnson with a packed to the gills party of gardeners, youth organizers, and other community minded folk who toasted the 40-year-old institution.

“I know that our founder Hattie Carthan is looking down and saying, yes, that’s what I was talking about,” said David Greaves, editor of the weekly newspaper Our Time Press and president of the Magnolia Tree center’s board.

On hand was State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a supporter of the center’s Tree Corps, an environmental education program for twenty middle and five high schoolers that is relaunching this month. Also celebrating were members of the Association Blacks in Energy, partners of the Magnolia Tree Center and, with Our Time Press and Bacardi, sponsors of the party.

“It’s funny because I’ve never been an outdoorsy kind of girl,” said Ms. Johnson, the new director. But she joined Magnolia Tree after retiring from NYU-Polytechnic of NY where she supported students of color in their effort to earn engineering and science degrees, and saw the connection. “Imagine us bringing opportunity for the community of Bed Stuy. If we have people from business, from education, gardeners, food specialists from all walks of life, the Society of Black Engineers (a sponsor of a key summer program of the center)… we all get together and bring whatever you have is good to the table.”

In the fall, she aims to provide tutoring for middle and high school students in math, science and engineering. This summer Magnolia Tree is bringing the National Society of Black Engineers’ Summer Engineering Experience for Kids to the neighborhood.

Nancy Wolf, one of the founding members of Magnolia Tree and vice president of the board, remembered the community group’s beginnings and Mrs. Carthan.  Mrs. Carthan was already an activist in late middle age when she saw a lone Magnolia grandiflora growing on Lafayette Avenue, much further north than is comfortable for it but protected by the surrounding buildings.   “She learned a parking lot was going to be built – it’s always a parking lot that’s going to be built when you raze trees. … She coined a slogan, Save a tree, save a neighborhood.” Through her organizing, the now 127-year-old tree was granted landmark designation in 1970, and the brownstones followed seven years later.

The Center’s actual incorporation was in 1972, the year of Earth Day. “Earth Day happened,” Ms. Wolf recalled. “It was one of these blockbuster things. People’s lives were changed. I know mine has.” Ms. Wolf was at Pratt when she learned “there was a lady at Bed Stuy who’s trying to do something.” And indeed she did, rallying around the Magnolia tree to launch environmental programs and consciousness in the neighborhood, and the Magnolia Tree Earth Center.

“This was a survivor organization,” recalled Ms. Wolf. “Many groups were born after Earth Day. Very few organizations that were born out of Earth Day excitement survive. Magnolia Tree did, one of the first growing out of an African American community.” Nearby, a massive community garden with Hattie Carthan’s history posted on the fence tells the story that is still in the making.

– written by Abby Scher for the Brooklyn Food Coalition
Contact Abby at and follow her on Twitter @abbyscher