Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Making new creation on an urban farm

In the growing movement around community gardens in the heart of many of our cities, we find that something more than food is growing. What we find being planted are seeds of the new way of life we keep talking about, the seeds of new human communities and cultures that will not only survive the coming turmoil, but are likely to thrive.

Alice's Garden, Milwaukee  - Photo: M. Swedish
I garden at one such farm, Alice's Garden, a fixture in the City of Milwaukee for some three decades. It began out of the tragic demolition of a neighborhood for a freeway that was never built. I remember when that happened. It was in the mid 1960s, and the community was made up mostly of middle class African-Americans who had come to the city during the Great Migration. As it says on the Alice's Garden website:
A large segment of a strong, vibrant African American community was dismantled, almost all of whom had arrived during The Great Migration. The land remained empty where homes, families, and community once existed, destroyed for a highway that was never built.
In the late 1970s, Milwaukee County approved the development of a community garden on a portion of the empty lots in a neighborhood called Lindsey Heights, just minutes from downtown (though in many ways a world away). It took its name from the former Executive Director of Milwaukee County Extension, Alice Meade-Taylor. What she saw for the mission of the farm remains true to this day. Hers was "a vision for building neighborhoods and nurturing people [that] included gardening programs for children, youth and their families."

Venice Williams
In 2004 the SeedFolks Youth Ministry, led by Venice R. Williams, "was invited into the garden to expand their existing, city-wide, youth and family programming and to further develop the urban agricultural programming at Alice's Garden." It has been growing and evolving ever since.

Important to note: it never started out as merely a place for community members to have a garden plot and grow some food. It was always, from the start, a project with a larger vocation, a project of, by, and for the community. As Williams has said so often, we are growing more than food here, and food may not even be the most important thing we are growing.

That said, we are certainly growing food - lots of it. Some of it ends up in local markets. Williams has developed a line of herbal products to be found in markets and restaurants all through the city, raising money for the garden's many programs. She has also created an apprentice program to train others in how to grow herbs and create products that are healing or delicious, and often both.

What does it mean to grow community and resilience, along with a little pride and dignity? It means regular gatherings [potlucks, always potlucks, some of the best potlucks in the city] with our community of farmers to talk about how we garden, sharing wisdom about best practices and techniques for organic growing (it is an organic farm only, no chemical inputs allowed, so you can imagine after three decades how rich this soil is). Whether in the garden or at these meetings, you get a sense of the diversity of gardeners: African-Americans, white folks like me, Latinos, Hmong, young and old, sometimes whole families that share the labor.

Alice's Garden Conference at Body & Soul, April 8
What does it mean? It means growing community beyond the gardeners, of seeing this space as one part of a set of interrelationships that spreads out into the larger community. While much goes on in the garden, the garden itself is part of a network that is active year 'round. It's offices are in a former Lutheran church, which also houses the Body and Soul Healing Arts Center in the Sherman Park neighborhood (which received tragic notoriety during the uprising last summer in response to the shooting by a police officer of a young black man). The space is well-used by community organizations and is a place to gather during the cold months. Activities include the herbal apprentice program, space for community organizations to hold meetings and events, for dance and the arts, for indoor markets that include local artisans and their wares, programs for children, book-reading groups, and more.

Leading a workshop on environmental justice, Jan 19
On the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday each year, the community is invited to a day-long program of presentations and workshops - and meals, of course, because food is always involved. The event is underwritten by grants and donations and is always free - and packed!

In December 2015, Williams convened a new community "space" called, The Table: A 1st Century Style Community in the 21st Century. The idea is to come together as those first Christian communities did in the aftermath of Jesus' execution and the experience of his resurrection. They gathered in homes around a shared meal. They blessed and broke bread and shared the cup. They remembered him. It was that simple. All the churches in the world cannot do justice to (and surely distort) what was the original meaning of those events in Jerusalem.

We gather one evening each week at Body and Soul, we share food, we share our lives. We check in, share stories. In the end, we break bread and share a bit of grape juice, followed by lots and lots of peace hugs. From small children to cherished elders, everyone participates. In this sacred space, a sense of trust and interpersonal safety has deepened over time.  We have delved into some of the most difficult conversations to be had in this segregated city in which trust among people of color and people of white is hard to come by. We went as a community to see I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about James Baldwin, which is both searingly honest and revealing. It was Williams' brilliant idea to host two community conversations about the film. The invitation went out on Facebook to anyone who had seen it and wanted to talk about it. A racially diverse group of more than 45 people held some extremely uncomfortable exchanges that left most of us with plenty to ponder in the following days.

Cheri Johnson and some Girl Scouts one recent rainy evening
So this is some of the network that is growing in the City of Milwaukee around this one center called Alice's Garden (there are other "centers" in other neighborhoods). For many of us, the garden is the heart of this network, one of the things that binds it together. There we grow food, and we grow community. We also grow a deep spiritual relationship with the space, the soil, the worms, the broad sky, and with one another. The garden boasts a labyrinth designed by Jeff Rainwater of Resilient Cities and a gift of Milwaukee's Lake Park Lutheran Church. The work was done by volunteers and is now under the care of our "spiritual caretaker," Cheri Johnson. It is gorgeous, created from herbs so that as you walk the path, especially in the warm summer months, the scents rise with each step, while the pollinators buzz among the blossoms.

The garden is not apart from, distant from, separate from the challenges of a city that struggles with poverty, high unemployment among the historically discriminated-against, rising gaps between rich and poor, and racism, always racism, evidenced in part by the highest incarceration rates of African-American males in the country.

We are not unaffected by that reality, nor an escape from it. We sometimes hear gunshots and almost always the sirens screaming by. This is part of the ambience, the reality of the space we occupy. Many of the people who come to the garden are dealing with trauma, or emotional pain, and the garden is one place where they can come to just be, to rest, to find some healing.

The gathering for Sherman Park - Photo: Venice Williams
We not only grow food, we grow spirit and culture, understanding and friendship. The warm months are full of happenings in the garden - yoga classes and family movie nights, rituals and dance, music and barbeques, and more potlucks. Last summer, in the wake of the Sherman Park uprising, Alice's Garden hosted one of the best examples I have yet seen of the city coming together - from the base, from the roots, diverse and determined to change the reality here - a cultural event of poetry, drumming, dance, music, oblation offerings, passionate speeches, and more. It stays with me, that event, because it truly was an expression of all we could be, the city we could become, if we can commit more deeply to strengthening the organic connections among us, the ones broken by a history of discrimination and injustice.

What created the legacy of racism and segregation here is a story that is as old as the nation. It begins in slavery and continues in forms of economic and cultural segregation, in structural discrimination, in the high incarceration rates and lack of employment opportunities, in the economic abandonment of so many neighborhoods that once thrived on the manufacturing sector, in deteriorating public schools and crumbling of the social safety net in this era where responsibility for the common good and the good of the commons is severely lacking, that sense that we are all in it together, instead of only for our own self-interest.

In the face of that history Alice's Garden exists, and many other community organizations working now to retake neighborhoods and develop them for the needs, or from the needs, of the people who live in them. In this one example of Alice's Garden we see the potential for an upending of the city's historical legacy of white rejection of integration, of that legacy of separation and flight. It is an example of welcome and inclusion, of healing some very broken places in the community, a community in which I have taken a certain stand.

I grew up with white privilege. I grew up in a suburb (Wauwatosa) that was founded in the 1920s as a whites-only community, enforced by restrictive codes established by real estate groups that developed the neighborhoods. I didn't know that as a kid. But I began to understand what was really going on in the late '60s and early '70s, in those tumultuous college years marked by the combined energies of the civil rights and anti-war movements. But it was only recently, and after my 25 years away from my hometown, that I learned of them, of the existence of the covenants that brought me to see the adults of my childhood in a very different light. I give you this example typical of my Tosa suburb:

"LIMITATION OF OWNERSHIP: The ownership of all lots, blocks or parts of lots in Rogers Park shall be forever restricted to persons of the White or Caucasian Race, and no lot, block or part of lot in said Rogers Park or any building thereon, may ever be purchased, owned, leased or occupied by any person who is not of the White or Caucasian Race. This restriction is not intended to include domestic servants employed by the owner or occupant of any lot in said Rogers Park."

Vol. 1134 Page 99
Owner: Joseph M. Guentner
Date Recorded: Feb. 17, 1926
Length of Term: Jan. 1, 1976 

In case we have any illusions left that this kind of legal segregation was only a product of the South.

Since returning to Milwaukee in 2007, I have asked myself what I can give back from this history, this legacy from which I benefited greatly at the cost of the lives of others. I don't write that out of guilt, which is not really helpful, but out of a sense of responsibility, and of justice. Two things stand out for me: 1) tell the truth about this history, especially from the vantage point of my experience growing up here. Tell the truth clearly, without equivocation or defensiveness, dispassionately, honestly; 2) join in communities where the reparation of this history is underway, where the truth can be shared, where, across these divides, we can be honest with one another and heal some of this pain, and, in doing so, begin to create a new cultural and social reality for Milwaukee.
Learning about the Lk Michigan watershed, summer 2016

I began my work under the umbrella of this  non-profit with a project I called, Spirituality and Ecological Hope. The point was to raise awareness of the planetary crisis we face because of how we have lived here - the violent aggressive assault on the planet by our white western industrial economic culture and its expansion across the Americas. For decades before that, I was deeply involved in social justice and human rights work, especially in DC and my 24 years with the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico, one of the national organizations working to support the Central America solidarity movement here in the U.S. In the past several years, I began to look deeply at how interconnected that violence is - that the violence against the living systems of the Earth comes from the same source as the genocidal violence against native peoples here, and the violence of enslavement on which this nation was constructed. That is the violence that we must eradicate from our lives, our culture, and our hearts.

In spaces like Alice's Garden, something crucial to our future is underway, something that holds promise for the restoration of the broken relationships between the human and the Earth, and those among humans themselves. It is a commitment of justice, but also of ecology, a healing of the broken connections that are threatening to tear our world and our life-sustaining ecosystems apart.

The potential for healing so many wounds is right here, right now, in exactly the places where we dwell. Who, once getting a glimpse of this vision, would not want to be a part of it? 


Photo: Cheri Johnson

~ Margaret Swedish
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See what the Garden's latest big project is all about: 

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You can also read this essay on our website.

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