Over the past year, I've received a good-handful of emails from well-meaning folks that want to contribute to Tallahassee's food movement. The messages go something like this: "I'm a young person excited about growing my own food and am looking for a way to give back. I'm thinking that I'd like to start a community garden for a ________ [insert: poor, Southside, Frenchtown or other lower dollar/power area]. What do you recommend? How should I get started?"
I never know quite how to respond. On the one hand, I recognize that folks are sincerely interested in offering their time and energy to a) improve Tallahassee's food security b)increase the access to fresh food in Food Desert areas of Tallahassee, c) take on a sustainable project that reduces food miles, and d) to get to know folks outside their typical networks. All that I admire and respect. I also acknowledge that volunteers are critical for the food movement, and deserve appreciation and opportunities for stimulating engagement.
As an organizer, however, the word for always makes me pause. ("I'd like to start a community garden for..."). What such a word suggests is that folks who might be the "recipients" of such "service" can't put in a community garden themselves. They don't know how to garden, they don't have any local garden experts to turn for advice, they don't have a truck or tools, they can't round-up the necessary money, etc. Or, perhaps, the community members are "ignorant" about the value of community gardens, and so need someone who is "informed" to "educate" them by demonstration. Then, as the thought-process goes, because a garden is built, people will get involved ("build it and they will come"). There are lots of dangerous underlying assumptions in there, the most critical of which is that certain communities are deficient, i.e., they're unable to do things themselves and need someone else to do it for them (this is often referred to as "helping people").
Let's just address the idea that poor communities can't grow their own food without outside help. In my own experience here in Tallahassee, I've found that amongst poorer neighborhoods there is a high concentration of folks that grew up on farms (this is not exclusive to poor neighborhoods, it just also happens to be true in poor neighborhoods). Most of the elders that don't have direct farm experience nonetheless grew up tending and eating from their family garden. Moreover, folks farmed and gardened to feed their families. A productive farm or garden meant no one need go hungry that year. Let me say here that although I run a food gardening business, I've been gardening since eight, and am the "Man in Overalls" I have never relied on my gardening efforts to ensure my family from hunger. Thus, for me--or anyone else-- to show up un-invited to a community to start a garden for a population that has such storehouses of knowledge is presumptuous to say the least. Or, in another light it's just kind of silly.
Imagine someone starting a garden in your neighborhood for you because you don't know enough to appreciate fresh food or because they consider you incapable.
Before I bore you with platitudes, I'll share a story.
A few weeks back visiting Amanda Edmonds, Executive Director of Growing Hope in Ypsilanti, MI she took a friend and I to visit a community garden on the lawn at a high-rise housing project. (Amanda and I met back in August at the ACGA, American Community Gardening Association annual conference.) PS- take a look at Growing Hope's youtube video if you'd like to first:
Anyway, Amanda showed us the garden. There were some garden plots in the ground. Some were raised-beds. There were even a couple wheel-chair accessible beds (like these) for elderly residents. While looking around at collards and kale and onions, etc, Amanda told us the story about how the garden got started.
Seven years back, after volunteering at another community garden for one-and-a-half years, a garden that she'd helped found, the administration of the public housing project (behind us) got in touch with her. They told her, "Hey, we've got some money left over in our landscape budget, so," the asked, "Would you design and build us a community garden?"
She said, "No. I won't.... But I will facilitate an interest meeting." Continuing the story, she shared, "So I printed some fliers and asked a couple folks I already knew in the building to put them up. At the meeting about 25-30 showed up; we did some asset mapping, talked about what kind of garden they wanted, how it ought to be designed, what our next steps were, and it went from there." Not feeling confident about what "asset-mapping" was I asked for clarification. "Well, for instance, we found that there were folks that had gardened in the room before, folks that had gardened their whole lives-long, folks that had grown up on farms. They had all the skills they needed in the room."
And the best part of the story came when I asked Amanda, "So who is the coordinator now?" She looked at me quizzically. "You know, the garden leader? Who calls the shots? Organizes the other gardeners?" "Oh," she said, "No idea. One of the gardeners I suppose. Who knows. I haven't been involved since we had the first couple meetings."
Later on, in a book Amanda gave me entitled Building Communities Curriculum (published by the ACGA) I looked up Asset-Mapping. It says, "The Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) premise is that neighborhood [projects] can be achieved by locating all of the available local assets [individual gifts, associations, institutions, land and buildings, and local economies] within a community and connecting them with one another in ways that multiply their effect." The book further recommended the ABCD Institute.
So, in conclusion, for those of us trying to further the food movement-- that is, for those of us inspired to support community gardens, delve into urban agriculture, share the truth that we can raise tons of food within steps of our kitchens-- we can learn a lot from Amanda, an extremely effective food movement organizer. For starters, she did her homework; she volunteered for a year-and-a-half first. She was invited by someone within the housing project to get involved. She resisted the temptation of doing things for someone, instead worked with the community. She played a role, and then stepped out of the center because the point wasn't Amanda, the point was the community garden.
Did you hear this neat piece about vacant lots in northern cities and a 60-acre urban farm in Cleveland?