Leadership Transition Announcement

We have some bittersweet news to share: later this summer, Gunnar Liden will be transitioning out of his role as the Executive Director at Youth Farm. Gunnar has grown with Youth Farm for 22 years, serving as Executive Director since 2006. During this time, he’s stewarded the organization through many periods of change and growth with thoughtful, generous, and exemplary leadership. We want to take this moment to thank Gunnar for all the time and care he’s put into Youth Farm over the years! We know the future has great things in store for him and wish him all the best in this new chapter.

So, what’s next for Youth Farm? The growing season is upon us, and we’re growing right along with it! We recognize this moment as an opportunity to reimagine what leadership looks like at Youth Farm – and that’s just what we’ve been doing. Since January of this year, a transition team of board and staff led by Associate Directors Sarah and Amanda, have been working hard to envision and actualize an updated leadership model that will allow us to live out our values and support our vision for the future of Youth Farm. 

In the coming months, we’ll continue to share information and updates about leadership at Youth Farm. For now, check out these letters from Gunnar & Kenny, Youth Farm’s Board Chair, to learn more.

A Message from Gunnar

 

Dear Youth Farm Family,

I am reaching out with much love to announce my planned transition from the Executive Director role at Youth Farm in Summer 2022.  

I began my work at Youth Farm just two days after I graduated college. I had no idea of the wonderful journey I was about to embark on. For the first 7 years, I had my dream job, building a neighborhood program from the ground up on the West Side of St. Paul alongside the most amazing group of young leaders. We did everything together – we farmed together, we cooked and ate together, we fed our community and ran markets together, we ran around and played together, but more than anything, we developed life long relationships. In both the fun and challenging times, we always knew we could lean on the trust and love we had for one another. In 2006, Youth Farm took a chance and hired me as Executive Director. The past 16 years, we have collectively grown Youth Farm into the amazing organization it is today, working through financial ups and downs, geographic and programmatic growth, all while staying true to our youth development roots and our mission – We Farm to Grow. We have accomplished so much during this time, and none of it could have been done without each other. 

Youth Farm is in a great place and is ready for new leadership to launch itself into its next phase as an organization. This transition is strategic and purposeful. Alongside our staff team of directors and our board, we have been working since January to envision and bring to life what’s needed next for Youth Farm’s future. We have solidified our values and our vision and we are aligning the skills, assets and the opportunities in front of us with a leadership model that supports the organization we will be in the future.  

I end this ironically struggling to find the words to express my gratitude and love for all in the Youth Farm family. From those original Youth Farmers on the West Side, to the multitude of amazing program staff, board volunteers and community partners who have been dedicated to the communities we work and live in, to the powerhouse team of leaders currently guiding Youth Farm to new heights, I say this without hyperbole, I love you like family. I am so excited to see Youth Farm continue to blossom and am so thankful for your willingness to let me be a part of your journey for so long. 

Thank You!
Gunnar

A Message from Youth Farm Board Chair, Kenny

 

Youth Farm Family –

As you saw in Gunnar’s note, after a remarkable 22-year journey, Gunnar will be leaving Youth Farm later this summer.  Before going any further, I want to express my gratitude for Gunnar – for his tremendous leadership over the years at Youth Farm, for helping us to grow as a recognized community leader, and for the caring, thoughtful, and deeply personal way that he helped Youth Farm get there.  Along the way he has become a friend and confidant to many including me.  Congratulations Gunnar and you will be missed!

After nearly six years on the Youth Farm board, today is my first chance to write to all of you so here’s the briefest of introductions:  I’m Kenny, I’m the board chair, a Minneapolis resident, a volunteer with Youth Farm since 2016, and someone who is inspired daily by the work of the Youth Farm team in the Twin Cities.

While I will miss my partnership with Gunnar, I agree with everything he said – Youth Farm is in a great place and it’s time to chart our course towards what’s next.  I want to give you my assurance that the stewardship of the organization is in good hands.  The Associate Directors, Amanda and Sarah, have worked with Gunnar and the Youth Farm board and staff to build and execute a strong plan for assessing our current state and determining what inclusive leadership looks like.  I’m proud that we’re approaching this work in a manner that is fully aligned with our vision, values, and purpose while balancing the needs of our day to day operations in neighborhoods, greenhouses, gardens, and beyond.  The growing season is underway!

Meanwhile, Gunnar isn’t bailing on us right away!  He has been a great partner in the transition plan and continues to play critical roles helping us to continue our youth development work while also building for the future.  It is a challenge that the Youth Farm board and staff are ready for.

With the upcoming transition, I hope that you’ll take a moment to share a word of thanks and gratitude with Gunnar.  If you have questions or concerns about the transition, organization, or our search processes and you want to connect directly with me, please do not hesitate to reach out.  Expect to hear more from me, the board, and staff in the coming months.

My continued thanks for your support and engagement with Youth Farm this growing season and beyond!

Kenny
kenny@youthfarmmn.org

Building collective impact – new and growing partnership with Rebound, Inc.

At Youth Farm, we often talk about building resilient networks of support for youth – but what does that mean, really? Well, part of that work includes connecting to like-minded organizations and working collaboratively to provide engagement opportunities for youth. As Leo Howard III, the Residential Program Administrator at Rebound, pointed out, “A lot of youth don’t even know about the community programs that exist for them.”

Rebound is a Minneapolis-based organization that works to create possibilities for youth in their own communities, specifically focused on eliminating reliance on the juvenile justice system while meeting the needs of Black youth. In an effort to bridge gaps and connect the youth he works with to the community initiatives happening in their own neighborhoods, Leo began working with Youth Farm’s Director of North Minneapolis Programs, Marcus Kar, during the 2021 growing season.

Youth Farm’s Director of North Minneapolis Programs, Marcus Kar (far left), guides Rebound program participants in a planting activity

“When I first connected with Marcus, he took me out to meet with another one of Youth Farm’s partners – the Loppet Foundation,” Leo said. “Within that first meeting I learned so much about both organizations’ programs. We also talked about how so many youth and community members feel like spaces like Theo Wirth Park (where Loppet is headquartered) aren’t for them. Together we need to do the work to make these spaces welcoming and show young people the possibilities that exist within them.”

As part of the work to make this happen, Marcus and Leo brought program participants from both Youth Farm and Rebound together in garden spaces across the Twin Cities. In our first year of partnership, teens worked together, leading and mentoring each other in activities including planting flowers, harvesting and pitting cherries to use in pies, and cleaning up garden spaces. Being in green spaces together has sparked conversations about food insecurity, why it is happening, and the power young people have to address it through community initiatives.

Two Rebound program participants water a newly planted tree together

“We are planting seeds both figuratively and literally,” Leo said. “Historically, I have seen a lot of youth programs address challenges that young people face through punishment, exclusion, and other reactionary methods – this does not address the real issues. My goal is to meet youth where they are at and find creative, innovative, and engaging ways to proactively learn about what they are going through and involve them in things that support them long-term both mentally and physically.”

Leo believes that community food work is not only a tangible way for youth to grow food and address food insecurity, it is also a way for them to build peer to peer and cross generational relationships.

Youth Farm Project LEAD, CeeCee (right), leads teens from Rebound in a garden watering activity

“As a youth worker, one thing that is important to understand is that so many young people have to put on a facade when they are out and about in their communities to protect themselves,” Leo said. “To change the systems that have made them feel this way, building relationships is one of the most powerful tools we have. When a young person has already connected with someone in a garden or on a bike ride or in a kitchen, they are able to break down walls and move through their community as themselves. Building trust is a game changer.”

After a summer of hands-on garden work, we are looking forward to the possibilities that exist as we continue to deepen our partnership with Rebound. In the coming years, Leo hopes to connect some of the teens he works with to jobs at Youth Farm. As we continue to make food and farming opportunities available to youth who need them most, we are also hoping to expand hands-on programming with Rebound to include cooking classes, farmers markets, and mentoring for younger youth.

Teens from Youth Farm and Rebound prepare to plant a garden bed together

“I think it is so important that people take this work seriously,” Leo said. “Being involved in collaborative community projects has more impact on young people than we know. It builds ownership, accountability, confidence, and trust.”

Youth Food Stories: Grace Mathews

For years, Grace Mathews has spent time with her dad and her sister in the kitchen – this is where she first gained an interest in food and gardening. Now, as a Project LEAD staff member, learning about cooking and growing food is part of her job.

We asked Grace about what comes to mind in conversations around food, something that will continue to shape her life in new ways:

Q: How long have you been working at Youth Farm? Where does your interest/passion for food and/or gardening come from?

A: This is my first summer working at Youth Farm, but I have been involved in different ways since 6th grade. My dad and my sister were the ones who got me into cooking and gardening, which I think are super fun. I love having a job where part of it is learning more about how to cook and grow things.

Q: What does food mean to you?

A: To me, when I think of food, I think of it giving people energy. We all need food to survive and keep us healthy.

Q: Why is it important for people to learn about and gather around food?

A: I think it is important to learn about the foods that make you feel good. Food is something that can make you feel better if you are sick or having an off day. It is also fun to know how to put together different dishes with other people.

Q: What are some of your favorite foods to grow, eat, and/or cook?

A: Right now my favorite dish to cook is perogies. I like to add pesto, spinach, and peppers as well. It is super fun to cook and is also really delicious.

Q: What things are you still hoping to learn and/or experience related to food?

A: I really want to learn how to season food better. My dad is a good cook and he always tells me that that is the next thing I need to learn. I really love to cook and that will make the things I make even better.

Youth Food Stories: Eliza Thompson

Back in the days of Youth Farm’s summer program, it was easy to find a young Eliza Thompson asking to be part of the kitchen crew for the day. Almost every day she wanted to be involved in the kitchen somehow. After years of being involved at Youth Farm and in the kitchen at home, we asked Eliza about her personal food story:

Eliza packing take home salsa kits (fall 2020)

Q: Where does your interest/passion for food come from?

A: I’ve always loved to cook! Currently, I make dinner, or at least help to make dinner, for my family every night. When I am looking for different meal ideas, I sometimes go back through my email to find some of the recipes we have been making this year at Youth Farm.

Q: What does food mean to you? Does it bring back memories, is it central in family gatherings, etc.?

A: Food is important to everyone. In my family, food means taking care of people. If someone isn’t feeling well or is going through a hard time, the first thing we do is make food for them. I think food can also be a really good part of hard days – it is easy to look forward to a good meal.

Eliza, center, serving food at a neighborhood event (summer 2019) with fellow LEAD staff members.

Q: Why is it important for people to learn about and gather around food?

A: I think learning how to cook food that is not only healthy, but truly good and enjoyable, is a great skill to have. Being able to make something and share it with other people feels really good. Last year, my sister returned home from a study abroad trip in Spain and made us a traditional Spanish dish of fried eggs and potatoes – it was a cool way to learn about her trip and another culture.

Q: What are some of your favorite foods to grow, eat, and/or cook?

A: I am definitely more of a baker than a cook! My all-time favorite thing to make is chocolate chip cookies. This year, in our family garden at home, we are growing lots of zucchini. I am excited to harvest those and make zucchini bread.

Q: What things are you still hoping to learn and/or experience related to food?

A: Even though I bake a lot of things I still struggle to make bread, which is something I would love to learn to do! I also really enjoy trying new things and want to continue eating and learning to make foods from other cultures.

Youth Food Stories: Pedro Bayón

Over the better half of the past decade, we have been honored to have Pedro Bayón as part of the Youth Farm team. Now in his first year as a Farm Steward, Pedro has taken on more and more leadership roles each year. Farming and food are both things that have had a major influence on Pedro’s life, and he has plans to keep them central for years to come. 

We recently sat down with this young leader to learn more about his food story and what it means to him:

Q: “How long have you been working at Youth Farm? Where does your interest/passion for food and/or gardening come from?”

 A: “I have been part of Youth Farm for over 6 years now. Before my time here, when I was really young, I remember my neighborhood had a lot of gardeners, so I was constantly exposed to different flowers and veggies simply while walking around. I would have a lot of conversations with neighbors about what they were growing and learned a lot about plants that way. Growing up, my parents also instilled the importance of food in me – we prayed before meals and talked about where our food came from. I would also cook with my dad and he would share with me why we ate what we ate related to our culture, affordability, and more. Then, when I was about 13 or 14, I got involved at Youth Farm and I was quickly introduced to more work related to plants and food.”

Q: “What does food mean to you?”

A: “Food is both essential and prominent in my life – food is something we engage with every day. Nowadays, it has become really important to me to think about what I am eating. In American society, I think food is often just thought of as fuel and so many people don’t think about the farm-to-table or factory-to-table process their food goes through. Access to food is also extremely important to me. I am working, both at Youth Farm and at a second job, to create access to healthy, local, and pesticide-free food. As people who have the means to produce food, I feel that it is our job to create access and knowledge around the food system.”

Q: “What are some of your favorite foods to grow, eat, and/or cook?”

A: “Recently I have really loved growing and eating a lot of sweet potatoes and squash because they are very nutrient dense. I also have always loved growing cherry tomatoes and greens like spinach and kale. These plants are low maintenance and make really good salads. Growing up, my mom had a flower garden and I was in charge of growing the veggies, which I still do today. I currently live in an apartment, so I have barriers to growing my own food due to space. Because of community spaces, like the ones Youth Farm manages, I am able to grow these things.”

A: “What things are you still hoping to learn and/or experience related to food?”

Q: “I am still interested in learning all of the science behind growing including how to grow plants more sustainably and as clean as possible. I am 20 right now, so my future is very much wide open, but I see myself going into music, community work, or agriculture. Bridging the gap between all three of these areas would be my ultimate dream.”

Friday’s Featured Leader: Emma Schluter

Within the first three weeks of her time as a Farm Steward at Youth Farm, Emma Schluter stood by the Youth Farm team as a pipe burst in the greenhouse, the St. Paul Public School teachers went on strike, and COVID officially shut down almost all in-person activities. Although her work may have looked different than expected, Emma used these circumstances as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Now in her last semester at St. Catherine University, Emma is set to graduate with a degree in Dietetics this spring. As graduation approaches, so does the end of her time working at Youth Farm. It may be something she stumbled into, but the impact of her work has been significant, both on her community and herself.

“St. Kate’s has a program that connects students to internships at outside organizations,” Emma said. “I had never heard of Youth Farm before, and when I started to learn more I wish I had known about the work. I was initially interested in growing plants, but over the past three semesters, my interests in the food system and the impact of introducing kids to the way it works have really evolved.”

Connecting to the food system is something dieticians have to do all the time, but Emma’s interests have become increasingly more specific – she sees a role for herself in community nutrition and public health, a role that focuses on healthy eating and living as a means to prevent long-term health issues.

“Both food and youth work are very important to me,” Emma said. “Coming from a dietetics background, I have tended to look at food and diets in a clinical way. However, there is an important need to be met related to preventative care, and a big part of the solution is involvement in the food system. Things I have been doing at Youth Farm, like engaging youth in cooking classes, are important ways of making healthy food more exciting and accessible. This focus on community nutrition and public health through engagement with food is where I see myself going in my career.”

Already, Emma’s connection to the food system and dedication to ensuring others are also involved is clear. Not only has she spent time over the past year working as part of Youth Farm’s greenhouse team, she also took on the opportunity to manage the garden at St. Kate’s.

“Last season, I was the garden coordinator for the five raised beds on St. Kate’s campus,” Emma said. “It was really cool to be involved with seeding plants in Youth Farm’s greenhouse, transplanting them into my school garden, and then harvesting the produce. This process really brought all of my work together. In partnership with the gardens on the property of Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet, I was able to deliver produce to the campus food shelf that serves students, faculty, and the patients at the university’s community clinic”

Emma at the St. Catherine University school garden

“As I was managing the garden space at St. Kate’s, I was also working with AJ and Zoelle on the new greenhouse catalog,” she said. “This was the biggest project I worked on during my time at Youth Farm and it has already carried over into other parts of my life, like planning what to grow at my school garden space.”

As she has looked back at her time at Youth Farm, Emma also thinks that the turbulence during her first few weeks has served as an important learning experience.

“When I started my position as a Farm Steward, I was expecting to spend my days in the greenhouse or hosting youth classes, but since last spring, my school has still not returned to in-person work,” Emma said. “However, I am happy with the places the work has taken me. As we shifted to a remote work plan, AJ [Youth Farm Program Specialist/Emma’s supervisor] encouraged me to spend distanced time learning. He suggested podcasts and resources for me to learn about the food system, gardening, and youth development. I thought it was really cool to be encouraged to take so much time to learn on the job.”

“Shifting my work throughout the past year has also made me use different skills,” she said. “I’ve really honed my skills in working on a team and being adaptable – things that are important in any situation.”

With these strong skills in her pocket, Emma is getting ready for another big shift – grad school. This coming year she will be studying Food and Nutrition Policy and Public Health. 

Emma (left) and AJ creating soil blocks at the beginning of 2020’s growing season

“There is such a strong need for lasting, systemic change within the food system that will impact generations to come,” Emma said. “Nonprofits and communities already do so much important work within the food system and policy needs to support and unify this work – that is the piece that I want to be involved in.”

As she continues to shift through all of life’s changes, Emma is set to be a changemaker – someone who isn’t afraid of a challenge, puts community first, and always looks for growth opportunities, related to both plants and people.

Friday’s Featured Leader: Zoelle Collins

Walking into Youth Farm’s greenhouse on a spring morning, Zoelle Collins is greeted by the sweet smell of soil and hundreds of sprouting seedlings. In the busy season of her last semester at Macalester college, Zoelle finds time spent nurturing plants to be both relaxing and rejuvenating.

Zoelle’s work as a Farm Steward at Youth Farm started back in the fall of 2020. Since then, they have been integral in creating a new greenhouse catalog, planning for the upcoming growing season, and assisting with day-to-day greenhouse operations. As she prepares for graduation and the transition into job searching, Zoelle took some time to reflect on her time at Youth Farm.

“From a very young age, I always wanted to be a middle school teacher,” Zoelle said. “I think middle and high school students are such a great group to work with. When I came across the opportunity to work at Youth Farm through the Off Campus Student Employment program at Macalester, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I would have the opportunity to explore my newfound interest in plants while working with younger youth.”

“From the second I walked into the greenhouse, I loved the positive vibe of Youth Farm and the clear purpose of everyone’s work,” they said. “Although I came in with a primary interest in gardening, I have since learned more about the goals of Youth Farm and the importance of the work going on within the food and environmental justice movements.”

Like many plans over the past year, Zoelle’s time at Youth Farm was impacted by COVID-19. Although she wasn’t able to do in-person greenhouse programming as planned, they did get to connect with Project LEAD (teen) staff members virtually, co-create an amazing new plant catalog, and assist with day-to-day greenhouse operations.

Trays of seed starts are lined up in the greenhouse throughout the spring. Zoelle has been a key member of the greenhouse team this season.

“The work I have done at Youth Farm has been new to me,” Zoelle said. “It was exciting to browse through plant information while creating the plant catalog – I even discovered plants I had never heard of like orange cauliflower and rainbow chard! It was also really great to be working in a team with AJ [Youth Farm Program Specialist] and Emma [Farm Steward]. The three of us got so much done together – we even finished sanitizing all the tools and trays in the greenhouse on time, something AJ admits always got pushed back in past years.”

As their time with Youth Farm comes to a close and graduation approaches, Zoelle has spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next.

“This year, especially because of the way COVID has changed things, I have really been focusing on what feels the most productive and enriching to me,” Zoelle said. “My work at Youth Farm has really set the stage for what I am looking for out of a future employer.”

As a double major in both Religious Studies and Creative Writing, there are many paths Zoelle could take, but she has a few ideas that are really starting to stand out.

“I have recently been looking into teaching positions as well as youth work positions, specifically at public libraries,” Zoelle said. “When I was younger, I participated in a summer youth theater program, and that has really kept my interest alive in creating alternative learning opportunities for youth.”

“Ultimately though, one day my dream is to open a plant shop, one where a dog roams around to greet the customers,” they said. “In the shop we would host local farmers to teach community classes. This might be a far out there dream, but it would combine my passion for plants and learning.”

If her work at Youth Farm has been any consolation, this dream is well within reach. Wherever post-graduation life takes her, Zoelle will surely continue to be a learner, teacher, and hard worker with the added bonus of a very green thumb, one that grows greener with every spring day spent in the warmth of a greenhouse.

A new year and a new member of the Youth Farm family – welcome to Program Specialist, Zach

Before heading into another busy growing season at Youth Farm, we are excited to welcome Program Specialist, Zach, to our team! Zach has a background in both education and agriculture and is excited to spend this upcoming season in our North Minneapolis gardens with young people.

Join us in welcoming Zach to the team and getting to know him a bit better!

Zach (far right) with Director of North Minneapolis Programs, Marcus (center), and the Northside Project LEAD/Farm Steward team

Q: How did you first become connected to Youth Farm?

A: Marcus [Director of North Minneapolis Programs] and I have known each other for several years and we have been talking about food systems together over the past two or so years. I had attended some events in the past and have seen Youth Farm at places like Open Streets, but the past year I got more involved with on-the-ground work and collaboration with the North Minneapolis team of Youth Farm.

 

Q: What is your connection to North Minneapolis?

A: I currently live in North Minneapolis and have also lived here for periods of time previously. I’m originally from the Rockford/Buffalo area and moved to Minneapolis when I was in college. Over the last 15 years, I have built connections, worked here, and made friends in North Minneapolis. Although I don’t claim to speak for North Minneapolis (or Minneapolis itself) as a whole, I AM interested in figuring out how to keep building mutually beneficial relationships, and what capacity I can bring to the work of food justice in combination with community members, and people like Marcus.

 

Q: What is your background in food and/or youth development work?

A: Before food and farming I was focused on education. I got a master’s degree in education right before I started farming, specializing in popular education for social change. I picked up a full-time farming job at Riverbend Farm in 2014 after graduation and that experience changed my whole perception on agricultural work, as well as my mind and body. I had done everything from substitute teaching to project-based learning with youth and adults, but I had never thought my focus would shift to food. Working on a farm helped me see how diet is connected to physical and mental health, and also how food systems are related to questions of sovereignty and liberation. 

 

Q: Why is food and youth work important to you?

A: Simply put, youth are the future. Education, specifically alternative education or “popular education,” is so important. I want to see youth developing the capacity to be social actors in their own world. So often, youth programs can be paternalistic and lead young people down a very narrow path, but I know that youth can be in charge of their own trajectory in life. I want to be part of equipping young people with leadership qualities so that they can grow into and develop into the people that they want to be. I also know that food systems and taking care of your body and health are important parts of social movement building.

 

Q: What are you most excited for in your new role?

A: I am most excited to be consistently working with youth again. Youth have infinite energy and I really love being around that while also learning new things from them. I’m looking forward to developing relationships and thinking through tough questions in new ways. Young people’s brains are still open to learning in new ways, while adults often act more closed off to possibilities. I’m also excited to be outside working with plants!

 

Q: What is an interesting characteristic or experience you bring to the team?

A: My prior experiences fit well within Youth Farm’s mission. There are two that really stand out to me. First, my interest in popular education. There is a real depth of theory doing this education work and I got to work with a really dynamic group of people when I lived and worked in Chicago who were trying to apply “theory” to real life, and real life to theory. I am always interested in discussing this work with others. Second, I simply love being outside and staying moving – I think this is why I connect with young people so well. I find it important to find a balance between work, curiosity, and playfulness.

Welcome to the newest member of our team: Program Specialist, Calvin Battle!

Calvin (right) with Project LEAD, CeeCee, at Irving Avenue Garden in North Minneapolis.

Last month, we were excited to welcome a new member to our full-time staff team: Calvin Battle! Calvin brings a positive attitude, a wealth of knowledge, and a passion for youth work to his role as Program Specialist. We are looking forward to growing with him on our team!

As he begins his journey at Youth Farm, we asked Calvin a few questions to learn more about why he stepped up to his current position and where he hopes to go with it:

Q: How did you first become connected to Youth Farm?

A: Through community engagement and having known Marcus [Northside Program Director] for a long time. Then, at the beginning of the summer of 2020, I was hired on as a Farm Steward.

 

Q: What led you to accept your current position?

A: I wanted to do more and step up from my position as a Farm Steward while getting more connected with the community and the organization. 

 

Q: What are you most excited for in your new role?

A: COVID and staying at home has been tough, so I am looking forward to hanging out with kids again in some fashion and getting back to the spaces we know so well.

 

Q: What long-term goals do you hope your time at Youth Farm will help you accomplish?

A: I hope this position will bring me some long-term stability.

 

Q: What is an interesting characteristic or experience you bring to the team?

A: Sarcasm, directness, and charisma!

Calvin (right) helping a young neighbor choose plants for their garden.

Q: Why is food and youth work important to you?

A: To me, this is like asking why we need water – food and youth work is essential and one day I will need another young person to take over my role. I want to see growth in both of these areas.

25 Years of Leadership: Alumni Feature, Jesus Perez

Jesus Perez clearly remembers one of the last days of his fifth grade year at Lyndale Elementary School. That day, a staff member from Youth Farm came and talked to his class, encouraging students to join them out in Youth Farm’s garden spaces throughout the summer. Jesus took a registration form home and now, over 15 years later, he is a full-time staff member at Youth Farm.

“Every position that I’ve had at Youth Farm has helped me grow a lot and pick up new skills,” Jesus said. “It’s like playing basketball – if you keep practicing at things, you will become better.”

And Jesus has a lot of practice. That first summer, Jesus participated as a Youth Farmer, which he did for several of the following years as well. He then went on to stay involved as an All-Star, Project LEAD, Farm Steward, South Minneapolis Program Manager, and, now, as a Program Specialist. In his current role, Jesus has been the key leader driving school partnership work in St. Paul, which is an area of work that continues to expand at Youth Farm.

Jesus prepping chiles in 2012

When he first started at Youth Farm back in elementary school, Jesus remembers being shy and reserved. He and his family had recently moved to South Minneapolis from Michoacan, Mexico, and he was looking for activities that would both keep him busy and help him make friends.

“The Youth Farm garden was right outside of my apartment building, so my parents didn’t have to worry about driving me anywhere,” Jesus said. “I didn’t have other activities going on over the summer and the garden program was free, so I decided to join.”

Jesus (left) working at a Youth Farm garden with a fellow Youth Farmer in 2011

During his first summer at Youth Farm, Jesus met a group of neighborhood kids his age and they all went on to become close friends. He also met a number of mentors who would influence the course of his teen years.

“When I was thinking about becoming a LEAD [teen staff member] in tenth grade I was really nervous,” Jesus said. “I was shy and didn’t feel like I knew anything about working with kids, cooking, or gardening. But, I saw the LEAD before me becoming mentors and earning their own money and I wanted to do that too.”

“Even though I didn’t know if I would be good at it, I applied for a LEAD position anyway,” he continues. “I was interviewed and hired right away.”

While others could clearly see the qualities Jesus brought to the LEAD team, he still had some doubts.

“For the first few years, I really felt like I wasn’t the best LEAD because I was still so shy,” Jesus said. “Over time though, I learned that it was okay for me to be shy or not know something, I just needed to be willing to work with people and keep my mind open to learning new things.”

Jesus (left) and fellow Farm Steward, Zainab, prepping a hoophouse for planting

After becoming more comfortable in his position at Youth Farm and building an even wider neighborhood network, Jesus graduated high school and thought his Youth Farm days were over. At the time, programming was only offered through high school, so Jesus prepared to focus his energy on his college classes at Normandale Community College. Sometimes timing works perfectly though, and right as Jesus was preparing to say goodbye, a new door was opened.

“I really wanted to stay part of Youth Farm, so I was excited when one of my mentors, the South Minneapolis Program Director at the time, Phil, told me about a new position opening up at Youth Farm,” Jesus said. “He encouraged me to apply to this new program called ‘Farm Stewards’ where I would work part-time with a group of other young adults to oversee farm management.”

Jesus and this new team piloted the Farm Stewards program which, to this day, engages young adults in leadership and workforce development through garden management and community organizing. As part of this pilot group, Jesus and his peers also helped to improve the program.

“When I first started as a Farm Steward, our team was working all over the Twin Cities,” Jesus said. “After working in this way for a while, we started to realize that transportation was an issue. It didn’t make sense for me to head all the way over to St. Paul to manage gardens when I lived in South Minneapolis. This helped us realize why neighborhood-based programming was so important – I knew South Minneapolis better than St. Paul and it was much more convenient for me.”

Jesus (right) leading a cooking class in the Lyndale neighborhood

“When I focused my work back in the Lyndale neighborhood, I began running regular after school cooking classes,” Jesus continues. “Running these classes helped me realize what my passion was: working with kids. I loved this part of my job, and still do, because it keeps me young and encourages me to have fun. These classes also helped me work on my organizational skills because it was on me to prep agendas for classes, bring materials, and lead.”

Jesus’ leadership as a Farm Steward did not go unnoticed. Both the team at Youth Farm and the community he worked with could tell that he was not only passionate about what he did, he was also very good at it. This made him an obvious choice when the South Minneapolis Program Manager position opened up.

“A lot of people wanted me to manage South Minneapolis programs because I had been at Youth Farm for so long,” Jesus said. “When I was offered the position I took it and was in that role for two years, which eventually led me into my current role.”

Jesus (left) and fellow Farm Steward, Shanna, seeding in a Youth Farm hoophouse

Timing doesn’t work out for everyone, but throughout Jesus’ time at Youth Farm, timing has been nearly perfect. As the organization underwent some major changes, Jesus found himself transitioning into a new position once again, one that brought all of his skills and interests together.

“After we transitioned out of South Minneapolis, I was happy to stay at Youth Farm as a Program Specialist, which is my current position,” Jesus said. “After both managing and running programs, I knew that I wanted to be able to do both. As a Program Specialist, I work to coordinate programming with schools in St. Paul and I am also able to deliver the programming that I plan – it is the best of both worlds.”

Over the years, it has been clear to see just how important Jesus is at Youth Farm. As someone who has done, quite literally, everything at the organization, he can relate to any program participant and he has been an important mentor to many. 

Jesus (right) teaching Project LEAD, Nick, how to make tortillas in 2019

So, the question is why? Why has Jesus dedicated so much of his life to Youth Farm? “Human beings should be provided healthy options,” he said. “Everything we do at Youth Farm focuses on providing people with better, healthier lifestyles. I am proud that we think about youth who don’t have access to certain resources, like money, because systems, like the food system, usually impact them negatively. Getting them involved is social change.”

Jesus is a testament to the importance of letting young people lead. The change that hundreds of young people will make while following in his footsteps is immeasurable. There is no doubt that leaders like Jesus strengthen community, lift others up, and create a ripple effect that will be felt for years to come.

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