Gerldine Wilson is a self-described survivor, a grandma, a gardener, a poet, and an artist. She is a longtime community-builder, living on the east side of Buffalo. Gerldine is the past president of her block club and the founder of the Victory Garden, a community garden in the Masten district of Buffalo. She spent three years as the Accessibility Coordinator at Grassroots Gardens WNY, leading efforts to make the network's community gardens more accessible. She is also the co-designer and an original facilitator of They That Sow in Tears, a workshop on grief and gardening. This past year, she curated an art exhibit for people with blindness at the Niagara Arts and Culture Center and recently published a literary anthology with them. She is also a certified peer counselor.
Jeanette sat down with Gerldine for a lunchtime interview at their favorite spot, The Lunch Box, to hear more from her about her work in the community, her thoughts on surviving and thriving, and getting comfortable with being celebrated.
JK: Thank you for making the time to speak with me today, Gerldine. You do so much for so many. I'm curious, who do you consider to be your community?
GW: My family, my neighbors, the businesses that are around me, the people that are in between my house and where I go. My community is not just contained to my street, though. I have a community of women who I call upon when I'm in need. My family is my community. Sometimes we all have to gather to heal each other and celebrate each other. When you say community to me, there's no limit to who or what that is.
JK: When we met, I feel like we had an immediate kinship because you took me to your community garden and told me how it helped to heal you. And my garden has done the same for me. Tell me a little bit about your garden, then and now.
GW: Oh, we've come a long way with our garden! We started with two or three food boxes. We started by thinking that a garden was going to feed people's stomachs. But a month into it, we realized it had to be the kind of place that could heal your spirit also. Which is what gardening has done for me. So naturally, it would be something I wanted to provide for everyone else. The garden now is completely different than what it started out to be. There are not just boxes of vegetables. There are spots now where you can just sit and take a breath. There's our sign, Victory Garden. Because the garden is a sign of victory for me. I've overcome a lot of things since that first day we met, standing there in that garden.
JK: Last year, when we had lunch here, you told me you were taking a step back from a lot of things in your life and you were going to rest. (Gerldine laughs.) And then the next time I got an email from you, not only were you in an art show, but you were curating the art show and now you have a book that just came out, in which you are a contributing author. How do you balance making time for creative pursuits and rest and your community work? Is there such a thing as balance?
GW: Honestly, there are times they are all the same thing. There are times my community is my rest. There are times when the book or the garden is my rest. So I've had to accept a redefinition of rest. Because when we had that talk last year, I had all these intentions of doing nothing but for me, what is nothing? I don't know what nothing is! And I don't think nothing is healthy for me. I have to do something! Art is healing for me. The writing of the book was healing for me. That is rest. Now sometimes they all get jumbled and out of whack. One of the things I'm learning to do is sit for a moment, close my eyes and just be. I don't have to have my hands doing anything. Or my feet doing anything. And that's new to me. I'm still learning how to do that.
JK: This past year you were also recognized as a Buffalo Black Achiever. How did that feel to you, because you are a very humble person, Gerldine, and I know it took you by surprise...
GW: I was so honored but the honor felt so above me. Having the spotlight on me in that way...I struggle with being celebrated. I struggle with accepting being celebrated. But it was truly a great honor. I'm still in awe and shock. Because I don't feel like I did anything to deserve it. Because you just do what you do. I did the garden because it was what I needed and then other people benefited from it. I just live my life doing what I do and not thinking about earning an honor. But I was treated like a queen. They made everything they could do to make me feel celebrated. It has broken ground for me to be able to accept being celebrated. I can celebrate other people, I like celebrating other people, but don't turn a light on me!
JK: One of the things that I've noticed in the community work we've done together is that there is a tension between people's survival needs and people's desire to thrive. What happens when you have that desire but resources have been and continue to be denied to your community...and yet, I still see ALL the things you are doing. What does thriving mean to you?
GW: That's a hard one. First and foremost, thriving is surviving. There are things that I have survived. When I get up in the morning and I can put my feet on the floor and have some semblance of sight, I thrive. For me, I put things into two categories: I put them into life and I put them into death. And when I get up, things that are challenging, I have to put in life or death. And I choose life. When I was diagnosed as legally blind, I had to choose either life or death. I wasn't going to choose death, so I chose life. So that daily choice, of choosing life, is thriving to me. There are things I still struggle with. There are things I need. But I'm glad to be alive. So if I'm alive, I'm thriving. As long as I can put one foot in front of the other and I can do something for someone else, even if it's something little, that's thriving to me.
For an excellent #longread on Gerldine's work in disability justice, check out this recent story from Civil Eats. Gerldine and other writers with visual impairments have also published a literary anthology that can be purchased on Amazon.