In the summer of 1999, Elsie Churchill, who had recently relocated to Minneapolis from Chicago, kept noticing a group of neighborhood youth working in an urban garden right below her 16th floor window in the Charles Horn Towers. As a seasoned community organizer, it was a natural instinct for her to investigate – after all, she was eager to connect to her new South Minneapolis home.
With the help of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Shanna Woods, Elsie discovered that these youth were part of a neighborhood program called Youth Farm. Every day throughout the summer they would tend to the Charles Horn Towers’ garden and then, when their produce was ready to harvest, they would sell it at neighborhood markets. Elsie and Shanna hadn’t seen anything like this before, and young Shanna begged her grandma to help her get involved. Little did either of them know, this neighborhood garden project would impact the entire trajectory of Shanna’s life.
From the ages of eight to 24, Shanna made her way through every stage of Youth Farm’s progressive program model, eventually also serving as an interim program director and board member. After 21 years, her passion for the program has never faded.
“During my time in the garden I felt so at home,” Shanna said. “I had grown up eating collard greens and sweet potatoes and, when I entered the Youth Farm gardens, I would see those things growing. At program we would cook them up together and I would share my connection with those foods with all of my peers. And, in the same respect, we would cook and explore the culinary experiences of other cultures. In a time before diversity, equity, and inclusion were buzz words being thrown around, Youth Farm was already doing all of those things. As a young black girl I felt represented and heard. I felt like my culture mattered and I became responsive to the cultures of others as well. By growing in this way together, the people at Youth Farm quickly became my family.”
Not only did Shanna begin to connect with the people in her neighborhood, she also began to connect with her abilities as a leader.
“Year after year I kept coming back to Youth Farm because it truly made me feel important,” Shanna said. “When I was younger I struggled with self confidence. I never thought I would be a leader and I would often doubt my ability to accomplish big tasks, but everyone at Youth Farm pushed me so hard and they would never let me give up.”
“At the age of 15 I was sitting with companies working on budgets, evaluating farm management systems, and putting what I had learned in the garden into real world business decisions. We weren’t doing anything cute like picking team colors, we were making an impact on our neighborhood as youth. I had never seen young people pushed and trusted like that before and, in a neighborhood where the word ‘privilege’ isn’t thrown around a lot, I felt extremely privileged to be part of Youth Farm.”
Like many children, Shanna was upset when her family had to uproot her life in the Lyndale neighborhood and move to Brooklyn Center. At first, Shanna was resentful of the move. She had found something in Lyndale that she thought she could never find anywhere else. Soon enough though, her resentment turned into motivation.
“My move to Brooklyn Center didn’t cut my time at Youth Farm short,” Shanna said. “I was still just as involved as I was before, but eventually I knew that I had to connect to my new neighborhood as well. Youth Farm taught me that there are unique opportunities in every area, but oftentimes you have to seek them out. I became involved with Friends of the Library and Earth Fest in Brooklyn Center and eventually gained a fresh perspective on my new home.”
Connecting to neighborhoods in Minnesota was very important to Shanna, but her time at Youth Farm took her even further.
“One of my fondest memories from Youth Farm was visiting Philly Farm in Wisconsin,” Shanna said. “Our trips there connected the work we were doing in Minneapolis to the larger food system. We saw a formal organic farm in action and how cultural responsiveness could be enacted on a larger scale. As young people who had been working so hard to impact the food system in our neighborhoods, trips like this validated our work.”
The process of planning, planting, tending, and harvesting a garden may seem simple. However, the decisions that go into making this process successful are multi-faceted. They take time, resources, and expertise. For the last 25 years, the young people at Youth Farm, like Shanna, have been taking the lead in these decision making processes and using their knowledge of the needs of their neighborhoods to ensure that the produce they grow makes the largest impact.
“Throughout the course of my youth, I was taught to problem solve, community organize, and connect to resources. None of these skills have ever left me,” Shanna said. “I appreciated so much that the young people at Youth Farm were never pacified. Our opinions mattered and we were each encouraged to work with our strengths.”
Now in her late 20s, Shanna recently graduated from Metropolitan State University with a degree in social science with an emphasis on political science. She has taken her experience and education into her career and currently works as an employment coach at Lifetrack in St. Paul.
“Throughout the years, Youth Farm has impacted so many of the decisions I’ve made. I have maintained jobs in the nonprofit sector, continued to use the outdoors as a space for reflection and connection, and taken on community organizing and sustainability opportunities that I would have never turned to if it weren’t for Youth Farm,” Shanna said. “I, like many other people, have stayed so connected to the Youth Farm family because this organization refuses to sell out. No opportunities will ever be pursued that don’t benefit youth. This program is personalized, responsive, and effective and I cannot sing its praises enough.”
Shanna has been an integral part of the Youth Farm family and it is clear to see how the organization has shaped her life. However, one special person deserves an outpouring of credit for the overwhelming success of this young woman. Elsie Churchill was much more than just Shanna’s grandmother, she was a shining example of a strong black woman who connected to her community and led the way for others to follow in her footsteps. Looking forward, Shanna hopes to honor the memory of her late grandmother, but it truly seems as though she has already made not only her grandmother, but her entire community, proud.