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.”
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”
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
At Youth Farm, young people focus their efforts heavily on making community impact through food. This past year, Project LEAD Anastasia Thompson took some of Youth Farm’s recipes international, using food to connect to her host family in Spain. During her exchange year, Anastasia whipped up some Youth Farm chilaquiles and shared them with her Spanish family, while they introduced her to some new favorites including Spanish tortilla, Cocido Montañés, and Quesada Pasiega. After almost a decade of being involved in Youth Farm’s programs, Anastasia credits much of her exploratory palate to consistently trying new vegetables in the garden while she was growing up.
“When I was younger, I remember cooking with things that I wouldn’t normally want to eat if I was served it elsewhere, but since I had grown and harvested it I was invested and wanted to try it,” Anastasia said. “Kohlrabi and eggplant are a few vegetables that I wouldn’t eat before, but after growing and cooking them at Youth Farm I have come to love them. In Spain I tried a lot of new foods – one of them was a rice patty with fried pig’s blood. My host family wouldn’t tell me what it was at first, so I just tried it and ended up really liking it.”
Before she became a world traveler, Anastasia got involved with Youth Farm through connections at her church. Her father is the pastor at St. Stephanus Lutheran Church in Frogtown, where Youth Farmers used the kitchen to cook together for many years. After learning to cook and garden as a Youth Farmer and All Star, Anastasia was excited when she was offered a job as a Project LEAD.
“When I was involved in cooking classes as a youth participant [Youth Farmer and All Star] I started to take on more leadership roles, helping younger kids in classes learn new skills.” Anastasia said. “I found leading younger youth participants both fun and rewarding, so I decided to continue doing those things in new ways as a Project LEAD.”
This year, when Anastasia returned from Spain, she was ready to jump right back into her role as a LEAD, but she knew it would look different than previous years.
“In many ways, this year feels somewhat the same to me, our work is just done in smaller groups and we have a bit of a different focus,” Anastasia said. “While we are still gardening and working as a team of Project LEAD, we have taken a break from directly interacting with younger youth. Although I love to do that, this shift has given us the opportunity to re-envision what we are going to do in garden spaces both now and in the future. We have also had time to work on larger projects. We recently built a drip irrigation system at Main Farm and soon we are going to start some other building projects.”
As Anastasia and the rest of the team work through a summer of social distancing, she remembers some of her favorite Youth Farm memories, hoping to make more like them in the future with the return of more in-person gatherings.
“One of my favorite events we’ve done at Youth Farm was the Frogtown Farms kitchen and pizza oven opening,” Anastasia said. “Leading up to the event, we were invited to practice running the oven and then the day-of we made a bunch of pizzas and served them to people. This event really encapsulated what Youth Farm is all about – food, being together, and getting outside.”
This fall, Anastasia will be entering her first year of Post Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) classes at the University of Minnesota, where another important component of her work at Youth Farm will be put into play.
“I have learned a lot of leadership skills at Youth Farm,” Anastasia said. “This job [Project LEAD] is different from other jobs because of the level of input we are given as youth. We collaborate and discuss what we want to do as a team and our leadership experiences are unique because they are all neighborhood and community based.”
Throughout the remainder of her high school days, Anastasia plans to use the leadership skills she has gained at Youth Farm and combine them with skills she has learned in other parts of her life, hoping to one day become an international change-maker.
“After I graduate, I would like to get a political science degree followed by a law degree. Eventually, I want to work for the United Nations or another international organization,” Anastasia said. “My travels have really shaped what I want to do and have made it clear to me that I want to live internationally or be connected to international travel.”
With big dreams ahead of her, Anastasia continues to remain committed to working with and for those around her, saying that, “Youth Farm has helped me see that I want to help people no matter what form that takes – small or large scale.”
Her words perfectly capture the power of community work and leadership. At Youth Farm, young people may be growing food right now, but the skills they learn and the connections they make from organizing this work will go far beyond community garden spaces. That impact will travel halfway around the globe.
It is a timeless sentiment: we are able to do more when we work together. However, working together can be hard when you find yourself needing to adhere to strict social distancing practices. As an organization that is centered around gathering, heading into the 2020 growing season left us with many questions: How would we continue to grow food for our neighbors? How would we continue to engage communities in urban gardening? And, most importantly, how would we continue to support the development of young leaders? As we asked ourselves these questions, we realized the answer truly did lie within coming together, just in a different way. Over the course of our organizational history, a vibrant network of community partners has been integral to our work each and every year. This year, we knew that we could still grow alongside our community if we continued to work with these partners in new ways.
An important part of our partnership work each season starts within our St. Paul greenhouse. The greenhouse, which sits on the property of Cherokee Heights Elementary School, serves a number of purposes, including plant education for students and plant distribution for local growers. Beginning as early as February, students seed thousands of plants as part of their school day alongside Youth Farm staff. These plants are then distributed to a multitude of partners throughout the Twin Cities. When the doors of local schools were shuttered in mid-March of this year, hundreds of plant starts in our greenhouse needed attention, and hundreds more needed to be started if we were to deliver on all of our commitments to partners.
Working quickly and collaboratively, the team at Youth Farm developed new safety procedures followed by greenhouse-specific procedures. With the green light to get back in the greenhouse, Program Specialist, AJ, had a lot of work ahead of him. As he began to tend to the plants that were already in the space, a local partner reached out wondering if he could take in thousands of plants that were already started, and needed a home within a greenhouse quickly. He promptly replied, excited about the opportunity and the fact that he wouldn’t have to make thousands of soil blocks by hand, a task that students typically assisted with throughout the season. With all of these new plants, AJ soon realized that there was now actually a surplus in the greenhouse. As a seasoned community organizer and long-time gardener herself, Director of St. Paul Programs, Sarah, knew that time was of the essence, so she quickly began reaching out to partners throughout the Twin Cities, not wanting to see any plants go to waste. Meanwhile, Program Specialist, Jesus, worked closely with schools and teachers throughout the West Side and Frogtown neighborhoods to coordinate school garden spaces for the season.
Vicki Bohling, the Partnership Coordinator at Cherokee Heights Elementary School, found herself in a similar situation, things were changing quickly and she wanted to still meet as many of the needs of students and families as possible. “This year, I tried to stay grounded and adapt to the things that we would normally be doing,” she said. “At first, we didn’t know what the fate would be for anything for the rest of the school year, including the annual plant giveaway that we do with Youth Farm.”
With a surplus of plants ready to go out to local gardeners and interest flowing in from students, families, and school staff members, Vicki knew that distributing plants to the school community was both wanted and needed, and the team at Youth Farm was ready to do it.
“Throughout the month of May, our solid partnership with Sarah, Jesus, and AJ allowed for really fluid conversations that led to the development of a system to get plants out to families from the school,” Vicki said. “Along with the students and families of Cherokee Heights, staff were also really excited about plants. Not only was the team able to package, label, and distribute plants to families, they also created a surplus table where staff members could choose plants to take home.”
Quick organization paid off, as over 40 families took home eight varieties of flowers, vegetables, and herbs, all of which will turn into engaging outdoor growing activities, delicious home cooked meals, and reasons to work and reflect within urban garden spaces. On the other side of town, another school was also excited about the opportunity to continue growing with Youth Farm this season.
Na Yang, a fourth grade Hmong Dual Language teacher at Jackson Elementary School in Frogtown, uses plants for more than just growing food – she has turned them into learning opportunities and cultural connections for her students.
“During my second year of teaching at Jackson, I noticed that there wasn’t much involvement in the school garden,” Na said. “I decided to get more involved in the space, so I started planting and used the process of growing to teach my classes about life cycles.”
Over the next few years, Na continued to use the school garden space as a place for her and her class to grow together. She also used it as a space to connect her students to the Hmong culture, to which many of them belong.
“Every year I grow Hmong vegetables and herbs in the garden and then the students and I harvest, cook, and enjoy the food together. I also teach them the Hmong words for all of the foods – it’s a cultural experience for them,” Na said. “This year, since my students were not able to help me plant, AJ and Jesus came with plants from Youth Farm and helped me get the garden ready.”
Along with a network of students, teachers, and neighbors, Na is confident that the garden will be a success this year and will continue to provide a space for learning, connections, and access to delicious vegetables and herbs.
At Youth Farm, we know that spaces like Na describes are important to youth and community members alike. As plants continued to make their way out of the greenhouse, we looked beyond our school partners to see how our plants could support other organizations working to create outdoor learning opportunities. If we were not able to offer the regular amount of direct programming to young people ourselves, we knew that providing resources to others who also work with young people was the next best option.
The Urban Farm and Garden Alliance (UFGA) is a network of urban garden spaces in the Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods, working to connect and heal communities through gardening. Several years ago, Steph Hankerson, a collaborator with UFGA, worked side-by-side with Youth Farmers in the Frogtown neighborhood and every year since she has connected with Youth Farm in some way, be it through programming or plant distribution. This year, with an uncertain budget and shifting programming, UFGA’s need for free plants was evident.
“When AJ reached out to me after taking in more plants, I knew it would be a huge help to UFGA,” Steph said. “Money is tight, so free plants are an important resource that help us keep our programming going.”
One of the programs UFGA runs is a children’s gardening program. Megan Phinney, the coordinator for the program, was able to use some of Youth Farm’s plants in garden kits sent to families, which will be used to run the program virtually this season.
“This year the interest for gardening was still there among our community, but resources were lacking,” Megan said. “As urban gardeners, collaborative partnerships, like the one we have with Youth Farm, are so valuable and are truly what keep us all growing.”
In addition to the children’s gardening program, plants from Youth Farm went to dozens of backyard gardens and eight community gardens in the UFGA network.
“Each year partnerships like this have to adapt,” Steph said. “But gardening still remains not only an interest, but a need of the community. The network of partners that our community of growers has created is making a ripple effect – these plants are going from large growers, to organizations like Youth Farm, to community gardens, to families, to children. The impact keeps carrying on.”
After wondering whether or not we could keep growing for partners we had committed to, and long-time partners like UFGA, over the past few weeks we have actually found ourselves connecting with new partners.
In the same vein as the garden at Jackson Elementary School, Melissa Wenzel has been nurturing a native pollinator garden at Highwood Hills Elementary School on the east side of St. Paul. In 2018, the garden was designed by a local Eagle Scout from an all-Hmong Boy Scout troop as his senior project, and Melissa has since taken over the coordination of it. With some gaps still needing to be filled throughout the garden, she reached out to the Twin Cities gardening community on a perennial exchange Facebook page, where Program Director, Sarah, immediately drew a connection. Sarah knew that Youth Farm had access to a number of native plants through a garden that AJ had started and she also felt a strong connection to Highwood Hills, as one of her best friends is a teacher there and last summer Youth Farm came to work with the kids in her class.
“Sarah reached out to me letting me know that Youth Farm had connections to a variety of native plants that I was interested in,” Melissa said. “Within a few days AJ came to deliver 20 plants in eight different varieties. This simple, yet impactful, connection was so important to me because so many people travel through this space and truly appreciate it. It is a place where people can come, reflect, and connect.”
Carolyn Chisholm, Sarah’s longtime friend and Highwood Hills teacher, agrees. “The principal, along with the staff and community, have made it a priority to make sure this [Highwood Hills Elementary] is a place where people can feel pride,” she said. “The pollinator garden is another important way in which people can feel connected and enjoy the community here.”
Over the next few years, we hope the connection to the pollinator garden at Highwood Hills allows our partnership to expand. Last year, Jesus was able to come out to Carolyn’s class and do a “test run” of sorts to see what future programming could look like. Both Melissa and Carolyn are excited to see how the budding possibilities to connect classrooms, gardens, and Youth Farm programming at Highwood Hills could play out over the coming seasons.
Not only does Carolyn see the importance of experiential learning, she is also excited about the way in which program participants can learn from each other.
“My class was so excited to learn from Jesus because he is the perfect mix between ‘cool kid’ and teacher,” Carolyn said. “As an alum of Youth Farm’s programs, he has a special connection to students and understands how to engage them. This continuous process of learning from each other is so incredibly valuable.”
With plants now making their way into the ground across the Twin Cities, we continue to collaborate where we can. In each neighborhood, we strive to listen to the needs of the community and identify how we can be a part of meeting those needs while still keeping ourselves and others safe.The power of partnerships is woven within the fabric of the success of our entire organization and has been instrumental in our work this growing season. In a year of uncertainty, we have been certain of one thing – the communities we collaborate with are making an impact far beyond what we can write here, and that is the fire we need to keep doing what we do best: growing.
For almost a decade, community organizing, beautifying public spaces, and bringing young leaders together have been central activities in Divine Islam’s life.
Back in 2011, after an EF1 tornado hit North Minneapolis, Divine took on her first job at Project Sweetie Pie, an organization focused on building community through urban gardens. As Divine worked to beautify spaces across the Northside, she soon became deeply connected with garden work.
“After Project Sweetie Pie I started working at Emerge where I accepted a summer job maintaining the garden at St. Olaf Lutheran Church,” Divine remembers. “That summer I met JP, the Northside Program Director from Youth Farm at the time. Eventually I also met Mela and Sergio, a couple Youth Farmers who were working with JP at the St. Olaf garden. We all got to know each other really fast and eventually I was offered a job for the following summer – I agreed right away!”
“When I came to Youth Farm, I immediately noticed that it was the perfect marriage between working with the earth and working with kids – two of the things I am most passionate about,” Divine continues. “As a big sister, I have always had a strong desire to nurture and mentor younger kids, and that was a central part of my role at Youth Farm. I quickly fell in love with my work and also found a family that cared as much as I did about the food and community we were growing together.”
During her time at Youth Farm, Divine was a leader through her roles as a Project LEAD participant, nonprofit intern, and Farm Steward. She took on projects ranging from co-managing greenhouse work to grant writing and built upon her strengths and interests along the way.
“Throughout the years, I learned that Youth Farm was really giving me, and other youth, the chance to grow in a variety of ways,” Divine said. “Not only were we growing as community leaders, we were also growing both physically and mentally through eating nutritious foods together and taking care of something greater than ourselves. As young people, we became extremely community-oriented, focused on tackling current issues like climate change, and comfortable teaching each other new things.”
Of course, as any family does, Divine and her tight-knit group of fellow Youth Farmers faced a variety of unexpected hurdles throughout their time in the garden. From inclement weather to the occasional garden mishap, learning to navigate the unexpected was an everyday activity.
“One thing you never expect to learn as a young leader is how to keep others calm when blood is involved,” Divine said. “I remember one summer when one of of our Youth Farmers cut his finger open with a knife. I went into full-on problem solving mode and cut off a piece of my shirt to tie around the injury. It might sound crazy, but moments like that were when I realized that our work together throughout the community really made us a family. We were close enough and cared enough about the same things that he trusted me to help take care of him when he was hurt.”
As she has developed into a successful young adult, it has always been clear to see that Divine possesses an overwhelming amount of compassion for people, especially those who make up the community she surrounds herself with.
“When I moved on and went to college, I never stopped caring deeply about young people and their development as leaders,” Divine said. “In May of 2019 I graduated from St. Kate’s with a business degree, but I knew I wasn’t going to stop there. I am now in a teaching fellowship program and I am considering continuing on into special education. I’m not entirely sure what the future looks like for me, but I’m excited to see where this stage in life takes me.”
As time moves on and the world changes from day to day, Divine reminds us to be sure of one thing, “Even though it is quite simple, by caring for the earth and the community, you learn to be part of something greater and with that comes a great deal of empathy and compassion.” This is a lesson that is arguably more pertinent now than ever before.
During the sweltering summer of 2000, Mary Lee Vang, a 15-year-old high school student from the West Side of St. Paul, spent her days crafting meals over a hot stove. Each morning, her and a friend would collect food from neighborhood markets and bring it back to the kitchen of their summer host. They would spend hours chopping, cooking, and serving food to neighborhood youth and community members as part of their role as Project LEAD at Youth Farm. Since those hot summer days 20 years ago, Mary Lee has gone on to accomplish many things including earning her masters degree in social work, taking on several roles during her eight years at the Community-University Health Care Center, and becoming a mother to six happy kids.
As another winter slowly turns into summer, Mary Lee reflects on how her time at Youth Farm impacted her path in life and helped her land where she is today.
“When I first met Gunnar at the Neighborhood House on the West Side, I was so shy and introverted,” she said. “It is crazy to think about now because I don’t think anyone would label me as an introvert anymore. I truly think I learned how to speak for myself by being trusted with so many responsibilities at such a young age.”
Even as a young, quiet teenager, Mary Lee had a hard work ethic and was eager to learn, qualities that would later break her out of her shell. Those qualities were quickly realized by Youth Farm’s West Side Program Director, Gunnar Liden (now Youth Farm’s Executive Director). Gunnar had been assisting with a program at the Neighborhood House where Mary Lee attended a homework help group. As he began to recruit young leaders to help design and run Youth Farm’s first year of summer programming on the West Side, he quickly offered Mary Lee a job.
“Gunnar approached me at the right time,” Mary Lee said. “I was looking for a summer job and he needed help getting the West Side’s first Youth Farm summer program off the ground, so it was a win-win.”
That first summer on the West Side turned into many summers for Mary Lee, and 20 years later she still remembers why it meant so much to her.
“At first, I stayed involved at Youth Farm because I really loved working with younger kids,” Mary Lee said. “But eventually it became something much more. The second year I was involved in West Side programming we started our weekend market. Those markets made me realize that we were involved in something much bigger than ourselves at Youth Farm. As young people, we were involved in growing, gathering, and distributing food to our communities, and this felt huge. We were able to produce valuable resources, sell them at a fair price, and make a profit. Even though our profits were pretty small, they were so empowering. We had made important decisions and done something on our own.”
Not only did Mary Lee’s high school years at Youth Farm empower her as a leader, she also made impactful cultural and intergenerational connections.
“Youth Farm didn’t just teach me about food and farming,” Mary Lee said. “The programs we were running also involved a lot of personal learning. I remember going to a Khmer Rouge reenactment as a group and that has impacted me to this day. As a teenager, the things my family had gone through never really hit home for me. It was so powerful to attend this simulation and understand why my relatives had made the choices they did.”
“The Khmer Rouge experience was one of many things that really helped me connect to people outside of my age group,” she continues. “That was a huge part of working in community – being able to connect to kids, youth, adults, and elderly people.”
Mary Lee’s love for connecting with people has taken her in many directions throughout the course of her career. She has worked with every age group and has now settled into a position working with seniors. As an insurance care coordinator for Medica, Mary Lee advocates for the wellbeing of a caseload of seniors, many of which she says feel they do not have an important voice within society.
“Throughout the years I have learned that our society really values the middle aged, people that are of employment age,” Mary Lee said. “Youth and seniors are often impacted the most by issues within society, but a lot of times feel their voices aren’t heard. Throughout my career I have really focused on giving these groups of people a voice. I think Youth Farm really put this call on me because as a young person I was told that I was a leader and my voice mattered. I was told that the changes I made would impact the future of my community and I want other people to feel that as well.”
There is no doubt that Mary Lee’s impact as a leader has reached far beyond her teenage years at Youth Farm. Not only has she made a plethora of multigenerational relationships, she has also put her gardening skills to the test.
“A few years back, when I was working at the Community-University Health Care Center, some coworkers and I helped put together a garden project,” Mary Lee said. “From my time at Youth Farm, I understood how therapeutic gardening could be and, at the time, I was working as a mental health professional. The first few weeks of the program everyone was so impressed with my gardening skills, and I got to look back at how much I had learned all those years ago at Youth Farm.”
Mary Lee and her coworkers worked alongside the community to get their garden space up and running. In the long run, the project proved to be successful and allowed mental health workers to further explore the therapeutic benefits of gardening.
As Mary Lee now navigates the ins and outs of career and family life, she continues to look back on many of the everyday lessons she picked up from her time at Youth Farm.
“Youth Farm really allowed me to, in both big and small ways, impact and care for others,” she said. “As a woman, a mother, and a professional, I find it so important to teach young people, especially my children, that their voices matter. They can be leaders within their community and they can make change no matter how old they are.”
As times change, and the fight for equity and justice continues, we stand firm with Mary Lee. Young and old alike can make change. And, she points out, “When it comes to change, if you don’t do it, who will?”