Last Thursday, Rita Gaither invited me to the Bay Street community garden on the corner of Bay and Goodman across from Nathaniel Hawthorne School # 25 where students from her “Yes We Can” Summer Youth Employment Program built greenhouses.
As Rita had twice invited me to watch her Robert Brown High School students in action at Edison — first to make blueberry loaf bread then for a reenactment of the 1960 Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins — I knew I was in for a rich experience.
Along with Rita and her students, I met Nathaniel Hawthorne’s librarian Janice Daitz, environmental educator Walter Nelson of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, social entrepreneur Larry Burnette of Burnette AirFarms and urban farmer Josiah Krause of Seedfolk.
Collectively, they tell stories of growing independence, building bridges between schools and empowering communities.
Arriving at Nathaniel Hawthorne, I first met Janice. Built in 1934 on the hundredth anniversary of Hawthorne’s visit to Rochester, the school is one of the oddest buildings in Rochester.
The architect created a near exact replica of the Custom House in Salem, Massachusetts where Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter. The school secretary says visitors marvel at the wood paneling and floors, taking in the 19th century ambience.
Janice explained how the garden came to be and what was happening that day:
We [School 25] have a small garden out behind the library created with a donation in memory of a teacher who passed away. Our student’s interest in gardening was quite high, but we had some problems maintaining the garden partially because it was not readily accessible when school was not in session.
So I applied for a grant to create a community garden that students along with the surrounding neighbors could maintain and enjoy.
Receiving the grant, we put in raised beds, a shed and a water spigot. People in the neighborhood walking by comment on how nicely the garden spruces up the area. One woman living down the street was thinking about moving but the creation of the garden made her think again. Another woman said: “We keep an eye on the garden for you. If someone tries to mess with it, we tell them to stop.”
We’ve had different groups volunteer in the garden including a boys club group from our school. Also, Webster United Church came with 50 or so volunteers (including some exchange students from Germany), weeding and cleaning up the garden until it looked immaculate.
For various activities, we partner with Allendale-Columbia. Once, when talking about the garden, Allendale mentioned their students had studied the endangered Monarch butterfly and had become experts. Their students made a field trip, teaching our third grade students about Monarch butterflies. Allendale donated over 80 plants as both schools planted a beautiful butterfly garden.
This afternoon, as part of their summer class, a group of students from Edison worked on making mini greenhouses. Even though the temperature was in the 90s, the students were cheerful and helpful. They also weeded and put together raised beds. The instructors gave them the option of getting out of the sun early, but many of them stayed and worked hard. One student, Angel, said; “but we have to finish. The job isn’t done.”
We have another group of students from the College at Brockport coming to work in the garden for their Day of Caring at the end of the month.
It has been a real community effort.
Rita’s story is about how this summer her students are gaining independence and life skills. And making money.
Drawing students mostly from Edison, but also Monroe, Franklin and Gates-Chili, Rita’ s “Yes We Can” Summer Youth Employment Program is funded through Rochester Works and employs students with various cognitive and intellectual disabilities. The program partners with Rochester Rehabilitation, the RCSD, Burnette Air Farms and Virtual Workforce. Describing their obstacles and determination, Rita says:
Besides faced with unique learning challenges, my students are inundated with such circumstances as poverty, chronic family illnesses, and perpetual homeless.
Several live in single parent homes. A sister and brother recently lost their precious 14 year old sister due to lack of medication after having a seizure in her sleep. Grandparents are courageously raising 7 grandchildren. One student’s house is completely infested with bedbugs and mold. In spite of life’s circumstances, our team continues to declare Yes We Can.
What do these summer jobs means to a family? One student answered: “At last my family will be able to purchase beds.”
Students have transformed into independence in ways hardly imagined. They just needed to be given a chance. The chance to live our motto: You don’t have to wait until everything is perfect to serve.
Walter Nelson of the Cornell Cooperative Extension was there, generously givng his time and horticultural expertise. Walter sees a two-fold message in the garden and the food it produces. To those living in the city neighborhoods, the garden — along with other similar community gardens — is direct evidence that people are actively and positively shaping their environment. To those in the suburbs, the message is that far from a blighted wasteland, the city is actually a place where people are building new forms of green, local economies.
Larry Burnette of Burnette AirFarms sees the garden as an oasis pushing back — metaphorically and literally — against Rochester’s food deserts. Larry explains how initiatives like Yes We Can play multiple roles in the process:
Josiah Krause of Seedfolk was there to (literally) provide “on the ground knowledge” to the students in greenhouse construction and garden management.
Yes We Can helps animates a concept meant to systematically eliminate Rochester food deserts. Affordable healthy food within walking distance of most residents is the major objective. We will create ongoing sustainable careers in the process.We will do so by giving people well paid opportunity to make a positive difference in their community. We will filter in people historically disenfranchised or who have been told they will always be dependent. We will flip that narrative upside down. I also identified several people to hire directly myself when we are able to properly hire our first full time employees. Many of these youth already have amazing work ethic. As demonstrated, exceptional work ethics in every regard.
A 2012 RIT graduate with a degree in molecular biosciences and biotechnology, Josiah — like Larry — is committed to overcoming food insecurity.
Josiah is blunt about the social and political dimensions of community gardens. Fundamentally, Josiah says those most impacted by food insecurity — like many in the Bay/Goodman neighborhood — must be the ones who grow and control the garden.
Otherwise, gardening projects can become exercises in beautification that can be aligned with or precursors to gentrification. And, in Josiah’s stark term, can border on colonization.
Josiah is right that community gardens must be firmly grounded in principles of sustainable, local economies.
For me, the Bay Street community garden has been a model or vehicle for both personal and collective empowerment. And when students from a private school in Pittsford interact with inner city public school students, the mutual exposure can help break down “Two Rochester” barriers.
On my visit, I saw what good people can accomplish working together.