CIEVEL XICOHTENCATL Community Engagement Manager and DESTINEE FORBES Storytelling Fellow co-interviewed The LP’s community partner and founder of Yon Vilaj CORDELIA (COCO) JUNE. During the interview they discussed the importance of holding oneself accountable when working in community, The LP’s Community Leadership Council (CLC) and what Coco hopes to achieve in her new role as an inaugural council member of The CLC.
CIEVEL XICOHTENCATL: Coco, let’s start the conversation by having you share a little bit about yourself and how you came into this space. What led you to the work you’re doing today?
COCO JUNE: I’m a community organizer, urban farmer, educator and herbalist in training. I came into this field because I was kind of in a rut in my life, and I wanted to get back to my roots. I grew up on a farm in Mississippi and in South Carolina, and I also lived out in Georgia and Florida as well; my family moved around a lot together. After living in New York for some time, I realized I was searching for something more. One day I came across a notice that Green Thumb – an organization that supports programming and materials for community gardens across NYC – was having a conference – so I decided to go check it out. Sheryll Durrant, who is Garden Manager at Kelly Street, was actually one of the speakers at the conference and it was at that event where I realized that this type of work is what I wanted to do. After she spoke, I went up to Sheryll and asked for her email and I expressed my interest in coming into this space and shortly after began volunteering. Sheryll has been my GPS as an urban farmer. She introduced me to the B.U.G.s Program, so I am also a certified black urban grower. I did start farm school, but left; I do plan on continuing at some point, which was also a recommendation of Sheryll. All of these introductions into the field helped me shape an idea that I’d been holding onto for a while and the experience helped me birth Yon Vilaj, which means “one village” in Creole.
Coco gardening; Photo courtesy of Coco June
[Yon Vilaj] has a university, and I am working on a curriculum which I’m almost finished with. It’s the Yon Vilaj University but it’s “Y-O-University,” where you learn how to be you in your space and your community and the focus is career culture and community. It’s a ten-unit program that works off of five elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Heart. Yon Vilaj YOUniversity is a school of resources. We’re not really teaching anyone anything, we’re helping them navigate themselves among their culture and community.
CX: The university is mostly Bronx-based, right?
CJ: Completely Bronx-based. The best part is that I put into the budget to convert an old school bus into the space we will use. It’s going to be half working space and sitting area, and there will be an awning so they can have a flea-market.
CX: I love it. And I guess – I think what I’m thinking about a lot is how I feel a lot of excitement for what’s currently happening here at The LP Kelly Street space in terms of The Community Leadership Council (CLC) and the people that we’ve started to work with on the council. To give a bit more context about The CLC: it’s a group of hyper local leaders that either live in this area of Hunts Point/Longwood or their work is mostly based in this area. The LP is at a point where it’s been five years of deep partnership and community building and we are wondering what it looks like to pull a body of community members and leaders together to continue activating the space. Coco is one of the six leaders that we have in the council. The council is made up of members of different backgrounds who are intergenerational; the members reflect different bodies of work and experiences and also fields.
DESTINEE FORBES: Cievel, how did you go about appointing people to The CLC?
CX: In terms of how I went about sourcing leaders I was thinking, “…in the face of change, displacement and possible gentrification, how do we preserve what’s already here and how do we amplify folks that are already doing the work?” What I think has been really great about the entire process is looking at where folks align. We’re going to begin to do some research around what are the resources that everyone brings to The Council, and how can each one of them support each other. I think there’s a lot of potential and there’s a lot of momentum right now with the Council, and I think everyone’s really excited about the possibilities. But back to Coco, what do you hope to fulfill with your new position as CLC council member?
CJ: With my position on The CLC I would like to bring in my program Bodega Boost. With Bodega Boost, I want to teach people how to be a community, and to hold ourselves accountable for providing for ourselves instead of waiting for a savior to come. Bodega Boost is about asking bodega owners for what you want their stores to sell––it’s a practice of empowerment. They’ve given us whatever we ask for, but unfortunately, we’ve been in a rut where we’re asking for Takis, you know? If we start asking for a relationship with the community gardens to help build and get the community more involved with beautifying bodegas by just having healthier food choices – we are closer to providing for ourselves.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wearing Bodega Boost tote bag; Photo courtesy of Coco June
My goal is to put the culture back into agriculture, which is a part of being in community, respecting our elders, pulling our youth to their potential. For Bodega Boost we have a cart built, and it is going to be run by volunteers, and the cart is pretty much going to be like the water cooler of the community where everybody gathers to gossip, and we hand out resources for the community board. I want the community boards to be the new gangs; the new hotspots, the new clubs where people want to go and engage and talk about their needs and their community and have their voices heard. We’re pretty much asking people of the Bronx, and soon to be Harlem, what is it that you want in your community, what are you willing to give, and what do you want your community to give you. It has to be an even exchange.
CX: So, similar to what Coco was saying, it’s thinking about, ways to radically imagine. What does a flex space look here, and you know, I think there’s something really magical about sharing space with the garden and with leaders like Sheryll who have a lot of insight and expertise and connections. Being that we have people like Coco, we have someone from the Garifuna community, Adiby Rochez, who is part of the dance coalition, we have Fay [Bonas] who’s a resident artist and just a resident here on the block and also Ramatu Ahmed, Executive Director at AFrican Life Center. We have other people like Frances Rivera who has her own nonprofit, called Longwood Village. So it’s exciting to see – we’re at this point where we’re assessing what alignment looks like between everyone and discovering what are the shared values that everyone holds. And so it’s exciting to be reminded of the work that’s taking place here, and then how this fits and supports – and how The CLC still have the leaders continue supporting the mission of the shared space.
DF: Coco – I’m interested in your sayings, “community is a verb” and “community over clout.” I would love to hear you describe in your own words what it means to you in terms of community and sustainability.
Photo of Coco June; courtesy of Coco June
CJ: Yes – a lot of the things that I do are moved by my faith. I think the word community and just the word alone – commune means to live and in unity as one, and it’s not a place like, “Oh that’s my community.” You don’t go to community, you know? It’s the people and what they do. So that’s why I use the hashtag community is a verb because I feel like it’s an action, it’s not a noun, it’s not a person, place, or thing. It’s the movement of a person, you know, within the place with their things, which is their power, their talents, you know, and that’s what Cievel has kind of been able to gather together through the formation of The CLC the talents of the people who are active activists, you know? I like to move with love, and I feel like anything else is moving backwards. So I have to be positive and realize that we all have to live here together. It’s not going to be awesome all the time, but how can we do that and what will that look like? And I know a lot of people––I know I go against the grain with my approach.
Photo courtesy of Coco June
DF: That’s good!
CJ: I know a lot of people are like, “Well let’s have conversations and forums and panels,” and I’m over it. We know what we need to do, and we have to hold ourselves accountable. We’re getting lazy.
DF: So – your work is an act or a practice of abundance, and seeing as abundance is our theme this year at The LP – can you just add a few words to that?
CJ: It really came from a place of annoyance. I was annoyed, you know? I’m working my ass off, paying someone else to raise my child, you know? I asked my boss for a little time off to go see my son’s play, and they’re like, “Oh no, you know we need equipment” I was like I’m not doing this anymore. Rent’s too high, I’m not paying my rent. Some people call it a meltdown, I call it an awakening. I didn’t leave my house for three months until God told me what I needed to do. And it was Yon Vilaj. He was like, “Don’t complain anymore. You have the power to talk to people.” And I stopped and free-styled for a year, and I free-styled with Sheryll just hanging out with people I wanted to be around. I felt I was very selfish about it. I was like, “I don’t owe anybody shit. Don’t ask me for nothing. I’m over it,” you know? Because it’s like, you help people and then when you need a little help people look at you like you’re crazy, or they try to charge you. I was like, “I’m sick of this,” we need to learn how to be a community.
So I’m here to snatch the fear out of my people and say, “You’re the one with the magic, not them.” Whoever “they” or “them” are, you know? We have the sauce. And ya’ll need to wake the fuck up and figure it out. So I’m here to hold people accountable, it’s not that romantic. It really isn’t. Because when people say, like, “Oh, it’s so unfair,” it’s like, “Well, what are you doing?” I see your lips flapping and I don’t feel nothing but the breeze. What are you doing, you know? That’s the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Father is the thought, the mind, what you think, what you want. The Son is the flesh, it’s the people. And the Holy Spirit is what you do with it. What you do with those thoughts and ideas. You don’t hold onto it and then say everything’s not fair. You do something. That’s what everybody’s grandma told them.
DF: You’re right! Coco, thank you so much for sharing.
To keep up to date on everything going on with Coco and Yon Vilaj follow Yon Vilaj on Instagram: @yonvilaj and make sure to check out their website here. Yon Vilaj believes that community members should be a source of strength – participate in Yon Vilaj’s Community Questionnaire to support them in helping build a social relationship between neighbors and community. All photos by Tyrell Holland .