Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Think Big

There was a giant amongst us last week, and few knew of his presence here. The man was Will Allen. His stature derives both from his size- he’s 6’7”with biceps as big as a baby’s head and hands like catchers’ mitts- and his extraordinary accomplishments. A recipient of a MacArthur Genuis Fellowship, a Ford Foundation Leadership grant, and a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, Allen is the founder and visionary-in-chief of Growing Power, an urban agricultural project, currently operating in Milwaukee and Chicago that focuses on community building through sustainable farming. The multi-faceted organization is dedicated to filling the need for access to high quality fresh food for those who live in the most underserved neighborhoods and to teaching inner city residents- especially kids- how to grow fruits and vegetables and produce food in ecologically responsible ways. And he’s doing things on a huge scale- running 70 different programs from intensive year round greenhouse growing to compost production and aquaponics. In the process, empty lots and blighted landscapes become mini-Edens and people acquire tools for economic independence and a productive future.

He was recently profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine- it’s a fascinating story and you can read it here. There’s also an interesting Q & A with him posted on the American Horticultural Society’s website

Allen was in town to deliver the keynote presentation at the American Horticultural Society’s 17th Annual National Children and Youth Garden Symposium hosted by Cleveland Botanical Garden, July 23 – 25. He used the occasion to meet some of CBG’s Green Corps participants and visit three learning gardens where they work. The training program for urban teenagers, which fosters food growing and entrepreneurial skills and environmental stewardship, is right up Allen’s alley.

I got to tag along as he toured the Yellow House site at Chester and E.66th. He chatted with the teens who were showing off their berry bushes, pepper and tomato plants, beds of kale and carrots, honey boxes, and compost bins, asking questions and giving them advice. Then we had lunch on the porch, dipping chips into bowls of Ripe from Downtown Salsa, one of the products Green Corps kids make and sell at area farmers markets and grocery stores. “This is good stuff,” he said, “very, very good.” And it was clear to me he was talking about much more than what we were eating.

Afterwards we drove to the Fairfax garden at E.79th, a place where three abandoned houses once stood, and the Lonnie Burten “farmstead” at East 46th and Quincy. Allen was all smiles, calling these spots “places of inspiration.” He sees value and opportunity in the vacant weed filled lots and boarded up buildings that are endemic to so many city neighborhoods. So do the Botanical Garden’s Green Corps staff, students, and volunteers. Given enough time and support, people like this are convinced that urban agriculture has the potential to generate economic activity and jobs, make wholesome food readily available to all, and create something less tangible but equally important- hope.

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