Cafritz Award recipient Singer leads anthem for environmental justice reform

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Few people are humbler than Josh Singer. Even with a successful career, numerous adoring fans and a Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Award for outstanding government service, Singer would still rather spend time with plants than talk about himself.

“He is one of the most authentic people I know,” said Regina Northouse, a longtime friend of Singer’s and the executive director of the Food Recovery Network. “In his very humble and subtle way he empowers people.”

It’s safe to say Singer is a fan of the outdoors. As the community garden specialist for the DC Department of Parks and Recreation since 2013, his job is to build urban agricultural sites like educational farms, community gardens and production farms, which are dedicated to growing crops. But Singer has always gone above and beyond what his job requires of him.

“My favorite thing to do is volunteer co-ops,” Singer said. “Creating things that can sustain communities indefinitely.”

Josh Singer, formerly a high school history teacher, began volunteering after the 2008 election with nonprofits working on urban agricultural sites. (Photo courtesy of Josh Singer)

Singer came into the parks and rec community young and eager to start working on improving society. He was working as a high school history teacher until the 2008 national election led him to volunteer with grassroots and tree-planting nonprofits that partnered with urban agricultural sites. After that there was no turning back. He fell in love with the potential he saw in solving numerous problems with his new career.

“I used to be cocky and think that just planting a garden could save the world, but in reality it’s about understanding bigger concepts like systemic racism,” Singer said. “We don’t do a good job of talking about systemic racism in this country. For example, food deserts — those are intentional,” he said, referring to the term given to urban locations in which it is difficult to access affordable healthy foods. “Then you can discuss housing inequalities and realize these [food deserts] are just the outcome of a very intentional system.”

The deeper Singer gets into urban agriculture, the more aware he becomes of how interconnected problems involving food and poverty are in society. When he isn’t busy with his normal job duties, he is teaching classes to both children and adults, educating himself about racial inequalities in the U.S. and volunteering his time to work on food recovery programs. He said he has learned a lot about the correct way to approach urban agriculture.

“I’ve learned the importance of taking the time to determine what a community needs,” Singer said. “At first I just assumed I knew what was best, and that’s really dangerous. It’s not just about designing the garden structure, but I want it to be in a way that changes the power structure.”

His profound revelations led him to incorporate designers and members of the community-in-need during the planning process so that they can all work together to decide what’s best.

“It’s rare to see a white man pushing the boundaries on white privilege and fighting for people that don’t have the same privileges as him,” said Singer’s friend and coworker, Xavier Brown, small parks specialist for the DC Department of Parks and Recreation. “He’s always challenging himself.”

Community garden specialist Josh Singer says his work in urban agriculture has shown him the depth of society’s problems involving food and poverty. (Photo courtesy of Josh Singer)

One of Singer’s first projects was creating Wangari Gardens, a 2.7-acre park along Irving Street NW complete with 50 fruit trees; a public vegetable, herb, medicinal and berry garden; a strawberry patch; and an outdoor classroom. The goal was to increase food access in Columbia Heights.

“I really like the idea of building these things so that they can sustain on their own, and finding different ways to donate food,” Singer said. “That’s how we create a sustainable change.”

Singer was one of the 2018 winners of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Awards, which recognize outstanding performance by DC government employees. The winners were formally presented with their awards at a June 20 ceremony hosted by George Washington University’s Center for Excellence in Public Service.

Knowing Singer so well now, Northouse said she is not surprised at all that he won a Cafritz Award. She met him while he was setting up Wangari Gardens in 2012 and their paths became more intertwined when she began working with the Food Recovery Network.

“Moving here from Maine I had the understanding of DC that people only care about their jobs and don’t care about the environment,” Northouse said. “Josh was someone who very quickly dispelled that for me.”

The DC Department of Parks and Recreation has 35 community gardens, six urban farms and 56 composting sites. Singer’s upcoming project is to build a 2-acre farm in Ward 7 at a site still to be finalized that will use a “multi-partner approach to increase capacity and accountability.”

Singer, whose wife is a horticulturist, often takes his work home with him. He said she is a big help when it comes to plant questions.

“People ask me about plants, so a lot of times I forward her questions,” Singer said. “And she taught our garden carpentry course.”

Singer and his wife met while taking a beekeeping course and now live in their Ward 4 home with a 14-month-old daughter. He says he doesn’t want to force anything on his daughter but there are certain issues he wants her to understand.

“We are definitely going to raise her with a garden,” Singer said. “I want her to not just accept things as natural and to focus on understanding social justice.”

Along with the 2-acre farm project, Singer has many other plans in motion. He is always searching for new ways to better serve his community.

Northouse said she truly believes Singer can help change the world.

“I think it is important for the city of DC to provide more opportunities to Josh Singer,” she said.

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