An urban farm grows community leaders
When Olivia Dudley brought kohlrabi home, everybody thought the odd-shaped bulbs looked like little aliens. Olivia’s mom, who did most of the cooking, had no idea what to do with them. Mother and daughter searched for recipes online and ended up making a sautéed dish that also included Swiss chard – another first for the family.
The kohlrabi and Swiss chard made their way to the Dudley’s kitchen via Urban Roots, an Austin nonprofit dedicated to “empowering youth and nourishing community,” as their t-shirts say. Olivia, a poised 15-year-old with expressive hazel eyes, has been at Urban Roots for two years. During the spring and summer, she gets paid to work at Urban Roots’ sustainable farm in East Austin, and every weekend she takes fresh produce home.
“In my family we don’t really branch out and try new things,” she says. “So this has been a new experience for me. I’ve been able to bring this back into my family, and we are definitely trying new foods.”
Urban Roots is the brainchild of Max Elliott (MSSW ’12). Elliott, who has been interested in community work since at least high school, realized early on that food and farming brought people together. A stint as horticulturalist in a community garden in New Orleans affirmed Elliott’s belief in food justice – the desire to ensure that everybody, no matter their socioeconomic status, has access to healthy, fresh, and sustainably grown food
His time in New Orleans also drove him to social work.
“I realized that my training as a horticulturalist was not enough,” Elliott says. “I could teach people how to plant and compost, but what the community really needed was developing capacity and leadership, and engaging young people. I was really doing social work, and I felt very unprepared.”
At UT Austin School of Social Work, when given the choice between the clinical or policy/program management concentrations, Elliot went for clinical.
“I had already worked for three nonprofits and I felt that I had enough experience [with program management]. I wanted to round up with clinical skills,” Elliott says.
Social work clinical skills such as understanding human psychology, communicating clearly and listening well, empathy, and facilitating co-operation among individuals and groups have been essential for Elliott as executive director of Urban Roots.
“It’s interesting, doing group and family therapy actually allowed me to understand organizational systems better,” Elliott reflects. “It also helped me to develop a cooperative and collaborative leadership style. Also, we work with young people and their families. Clinical skills are key to engage with them and face any situation that comes up. I actually think that we need more people with social work skills in our local food community.”
Urban Roots is doing its part in this last regard: in addition to Elliott being the executive director, Emily Mares (MSSW ’12) is director of development, AJ Ragosa (MSSW ’15) is program manager, and master’s student Kerrie Sheedy was the development intern this past spring.
A day at the farm
“Empowering youth” and “nourishing the community” can sound like abstract slogans but they did come alive for me when I visited the Urban Roots farm on a volunteer Saturday this past May.
The two dozen youth interns ran the show: they welcomed and registered volunteers, braved the awkwardness of small talk with strangers – most of them adults to boot – and offered farm facts with assurance.
Two first-year youth interns – Biak, a soft-spoken Burmese with a straw hat, and London, with a blue ponytail at the top of her head – led icebreakers with some hesitation and the gentle support of Urban Roots adult staff.
“I was exactly like them last year,” Olivia says. “I was not used to leading people in instruction. In school, you are told what to do by your teacher, and you do it, and that’s the way it is. But here at the farm, you are in that role of the teacher, you are telling people what to do.”
As a second-year intern, Olivia bears with pride the title of assistant crew leader and enjoys supporting first-year interns like Israel, who led our volunteer crew in the tasks of weeding and putting cucumber transplants into the ground.
Israel was highly personable one-on-one: while weeding next to each other we comfortably talked about soccer, the Pope, Mexican food, his love of bugs, and his extended family in Coahuila. But he was still finding his footing as a crew leader. Olivia and Urban Roots staff helped him to show our crew how to attack small weeds with a hula hoe, call water breaks, keep track of time and goals, and challenge us to weed one more row in the last minutes allotted to that task.
At transplanting time, things got more technical.
“We’ll be putting these into the ground now,” Israel announced to the group as he pointed to the beds of cucumber transplants lined next to our patch. A few rows of grown fennel plants with feathery tops separated us from the next volunteer crew, which was still busy weeding.
“Do you want to show them how?” prompted a farm assistant named Julia.
“Okay. One person carries the beds and places the transplants along the strip, every two feet,” Israel explained as he knelt down with a metal ruler and measured two feet along the black, flat irrigation strip that zig-zagged our patch.
“Do they all have to go on the same side of the strip?” asked Julia
“Well, yes,” Julia said with a smile.
“Okay, on the same side,” Israel continued. “Then the other person makes a hole big enough, puts some of this at the bottom like this, one-two – he gently shook a plastic cup with bone meal twice over the whole— puts the transplant, and covers it with soil.”
“Do we want to pack the soil at the top?” Julia chimed in.
“Right, we don’t want to,” Julia confirmed as she knelt next to Israel.
“At Urban Roots we say we are a modest farm, so we cover the transplants with soil all the way to the shoulders,” she joked as she made sure that the transplant’s root ball was not visible.
When the volunteer shift was over at noon, our crew celebrated weeding and planting six rows of cucumbers by cheering and shaking together. Olivia led the countdown, and to my surprise, cheering and shaking with people I had met that same morning did not feel so strange after working and talking with them for three hours.
“They do a lot to create a meaningful community on volunteer days, with the opening circle, the introductory games, the closing circle,” says Scott Kampmeier, who has been volunteering with Urban Roots for the past six growing seasons. “They don’t have to do that but they do it, and you feel like you are part of this little three-hour community. I love that. And I’ve met so many interesting people over the years.”
Before our crew headed back, a volunteer named Bianca asked me to take her picture as she posed in the middle of our neatly planted rows with open arms, muddy hands, and a satisfied smile.
Every year, through the work of staff, youth interns, and volunteers from the community, Urban Roots grows about 25,000 pounds of produce. Almost half is donated to local soup kitchens and food pantries, and the rest is sold at farmers’ markets and through a CSA subscription program.
The Saturday I visited the farm, volunteers left at noon but the youth interns stayed. On Saturdays they eat together – they pack their lunch, which always includes an Urban Root vegetable of the week – and afterwards they attend workshops on subjects such as money management, public speaking, social justice, and sustainable agriculture.
Before I left the farm, I asked Olivia what she has enjoyed the most about her two years at Urban Roots.
“I love something about being at least a semi-boss,” she said, and stopped to think for a bit.
“I’m not the head person, that’s Max (Elliott)’s role,” she clarified. “But I have some say in some of the things we do, and I love that. I feel that it will help me further in life. I want to own my own marketing firm in the future, and this gives me some experience on how to be a boss. We learn for example to celebrate what we do, to communicate clearly… things that will help me to be an effective boss.”
By Andrea Campetella. Photos by Martin Do Nascimento.