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Some Lessons in Community Organizing

Months ago a similarly socially-conscious minded friend mentioned a group in Detroit who was working to teach at-risk youth to ride and repair bicycles. I scoffed at this – does anything scream “upper-middle class white person with a guilty conscience and too much free time” louder than teaching inner city kids about bicycles? A few weeks later when I excitedly mentioned to the same friend our group’s plan to start a community garden in Congress Heights, he quickly pointed out the hypocrisy of my criticisms of the Detroit group.
“No, no, no,” I explained. “Our project will be different. It will work. I mean, who doesn’t love fresh vegetables and getting their hands dirty!?!”
Yeah. Turns out gracing the food deserts of Southeast DC with fresh basil and a compost pile hollers white guilt just a little bit louder than bicycle repair workshops.
It also turns out a lot of people don’t actually delight in the image of daisies sprouting from the back of a toilet and a little fresh thyme to sprinkle on their dinner. In fact, it appears that there were some people who downright disliked our garden.
The first time I stopped by to check on the garden after planting, I was upset to see that some of our planters were missing, and bunches of transplanted seedlings had been torn up. I immediately realized that we should have known better. I read my share of Saul Alinsky in college, and we missed the basic principles of community organizing. As he says in Rules for Radicals, “As an organizer I start where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be.”

Because Saul Alinsky is almost as awesome as fruit.

Just because we have college degrees and “jobs” (even if they are AmeriCorps) and apartments in Northwest, does not mean that we bright-eyed young folk can waltz into Congress Heights, deposit some tomato plants, then sit back and watch as the world changes. When you can barely afford to put food on your table, I am certain having fresh herbs to garnish your dishes with is not high on your list of concerns. And learning the proper technique for dead-heading marigolds is not going to help you get a job. We failed to take into account the way the community is. And wild about gardening is definitely something that this community is not. Yet.
This doesn’t mean we’re going to give up. I believe if we are persistent, good things can still come from this garden. And even if we don’t grow a single bean, I think the lessons we have all learned are valuable enough.

Oh. And just in case you were wondering, that The Hub of Detroit actually looks pretty awesome.

We’re gonna have to start again…

It all started with an e-mail from the Ellie titled “Bad news bears…” A little humor to break the bad news that someone or kids trashed the garden. Pulled out the starter tomato plants, messed with the beds, toppled over a few plants we had in pots, toppled some of our planters, stole the sink. Felt bummed by it as I suspected this might happen. Only because often when I go to the site there is garbage strewn all over the place like chicken dinners, beer cans and such. As though someone goes into the dumpster and tosses a bag of garbage around. Whenever we first started the project there was a big tire tracks rutted into the grass where we planned to have the garden. So, my gut feeling was that it was only a matter of time that a garden would get messed with. It’s too bad really but we will prevail! We will keep at it. Ellie has been great at trying to encourage children to help her a bit. We thought of putting up signs. So, we’re going to have another work day soon to replant and hopefully persistence and patience will pay off. Oddly, though, they didn’t mess with the radishes or onions… the fish tank is intact with the plants growing and roots visible. How exciting is that! We will do better in this next effort to invite residents and the children that helped us last time. The residents are happy to see us there in the garden and the children come out to help. So, we will stick with it for the residents.

Preparing a place for the plants to grow!

We’ve been working hard to prepare the garden beds building beds out of pallets. Had great weather April 2nd.  We returned April 16 to deliver a truck full of soil — it was raining!  We had fun shoveling mud and trying to clean the truck before turning it into UHaul. Tomorrow April 30 is the BIG day for planting!  We are so grateful for all the donations of seeds that some of us started on our window sills with some success.  Although, I didn’t do so well starting my seeds so I cheated and bought tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and herbs starter plants.  No guilt no worries — I know Pettiti’s in Cleveland have good plants and I was lucky to have made a trip to Ohio to pick up a flat or two!   I’m wondering how much waste my red wriggler worms can make to give us nutrients for the soil.  Hopefully we’ll have enough plants and seeds to start in all our containers! Our next project might be making sure we’re watering weeding on a regular basis.

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First step for all gardners…

Finding a site and finding a way to make it happen were our first steps.  So far, we have a site — possibly three!  Community of Hope graciously is willing to let us help put in a garden at their Hope site. It makes us hopeful that things will grow.  We certainly are filled with hope as Megan, Josh and Ellie got on Craigslists and all the other places that people go to get free stuff donated.  We have supplies!  Supplies to make raised beds out of old pallets, seeds and allowed to use the tools provided at the site!  Now we just need dirt…soil…glorious nutrient filled dirt!  I am getting worms but they can’t eat enough food to produce enough dirt for what we need.  Think think think…where can we borrow a truck to pick up a big pile of dirt?

This is the spot!

It is a Purposefully Inauspicious Prelude

This here blog, I reckon, will contain, herein, the wondrous and whimsical story of Notre Dame Americorps’ first attempt at starting a permanent community garden, right here in our nation’s capital: Washington DC. For us, this is a side project done in the hours not spent at our primary volunteer positions.

The idea is to create a gardening space where future volunteers (Americorps and otherwise) can have the opportunity to help strengthen the community in the most direct way possible: by growing and sharing food. Specifically fruit, because fruit is awesome.

We are your humble hosts, serving as both gardeners and bloggers. As this story progresses, each gardener (including yours truly) will be posting their own stories to create a chronicle of our adventures — including the wacky hijinks we pull, the deep friendships we forge, and the valuable life lessons we learn along the way. And if we manage to grow any fruit we might mention that too.

Oh, who am I kidding? We’re Americorps Volunteers. Do you know what that means? It means we get stuff done. For America.

It’s kind of our motto.

More specifically, we are:

Sister Mary

Ellie

Megan

Sarge (Me!)

To kick things off, Sister Mary and I went to the site earlier this week to snap some pictures and get a better idea of the task we were undertaking.

All in all, things don’t look all that bad: minimal trash to remove, decent view — I think we really have something here. I’m excited to be a part of it, and you should be too! So excited, in fact, that you can’t wait to check back and see our progress!

So excited that you bookmark us!