Two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Jenga Mwendo saw potential for rebirth in an overgrown lot in the Lower Ninth Ward, where she'd grown up. Calling on residents' not-too-distant tradition of backyard gardening and historic sense of self-reliance, Mwendo rallied her neighbors to clear the lot and plant some seeds.
Soon after, she founded the Backyard Gardeners Network, a nonprofit that runs two community gardens—the Ernst Garden and the Guerrilla Garden—and encouraged residents to get involved. In addition to overseeing the maintenance and use of both spaces, the nonprofit hosts volunteer groups, organizes workshops and events, gives away seeds, and runs a donation- and grant-funded resource center that includes a tool-lending shed for people who want to garden but don't have the supplies.
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Mwendo, 38, was born and raised in New Orleans, but left to pursue a career as a computer animator in New York. In 2005, just months before Hurricane Katrina would ravage the city, breaking the levees and submerging many houses under up to 12 feet of water, Mwendo purchased a home in the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward as an investment property.