Thursday, April 19, 2012

Metro North Community Garden: Do We Love Where We Live?

Ron Pauline, Metro North CG
Community organizers and community gardens alike struggle with some of the same issues: not enough involvement in the community. If you talk with Ron Pauline, one of the founders of the Metro North Community Garden, you get the perspective of experience.  "We don't love where we live," cites Mr. Pauline as a primary factor in the erosion of our neighborhoods and communities.

An interesting perspective. Do we love where we live? And how do we express that love? Are we simply driving into and out of our neighborhoods at the end of the day? Do we talk to our neighbors? Are they friends, acquaintances, or strangers? Does my attachment to place extend beyond my front door? My front yard?

If you see the Metro North Community Garden, it's obvious that someone loves it. It is immaculate. It is verdant. It is well planted, well thought out and well maintained. Each bed has a water spigot. The large mature camphor tree on the front of the property has been carefully pruned to allow sun to reach the garden.  Someone has spent a lot of time, money, and thought on building this garden.

But this garden faces the same challenge as so many gardens in our area. Inconsistency in participation. In so many of our area gardens, there are a few heroes who are doing the majority of the work and many who are relying upon "someone else will do it". But, this garden is loved.

Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, makes the point that LOVE is a verb. He continues to state that LOVE, the feeling, is a product of LOVE, the verb. That it is Hollywood that has promoted the importance of LOVE, the feeling, above and beyond acts of love.

So what do you do when you don't feel LOVE? You LOVE - you actively engage in demonstrating LOVE and the feeling will be the byproduct. This applies to all aspects of our lives. Our personal relationships - and even our communities? How are we expressing our love of our communities? And if we aren't doing anything, do we really love them?

Okay, it sounds dramatic. But lack of involvement in our gardens and in our communities is an issue. A big issue. And it's no secret.

As new gardens are proposed, part of the process becomes establishing to the "powers that be", whether grantors or property owners or the city, that the involvement in the project will be ongoing and will sustain the garden over time.  In other words, is there a community to support the project? And HOW are the project organizers going to ensure that? Existing gardens ask themselves the same question on a regular basis.

So what's the solution?  Michelle Simkulet of JCCI (Jacksonville Community Council Inc.) was on point when I called her in a quandry at the end of the previous paragraph.  Luckily, JCCI has just completed a 7 week study of the Slow Food Movement and had the following input:
  • Keep in mind the following components:  Organizational (businesses that are close to you), individuals (your neighbors - and not just the gardeners) and fixed institutions (such as schools - unlike businesses which may leave your area, fixed institutions will be there indefinitely). These are all stakeholders in your garden or project. You need make sure they are/become/stay involved. DIVERSIFY.
  • When you find yourself in the role of keeping a garden growing, remember:
    • No one is born as a community organizer and 
    • No one is born knowing all of the issues in a community

      So, do not second guess yourself. You have learned much about the community you are working within and will continue to learn as your project continues. Have confidence in yourself and in the work that you are doing. There will always be plenty of naysayers who will poke holes in your plan, making it seem like a failure before you've even begun. Keep going. Remember, they aren't experts either.
  • Build the community into your garden. Look around your area and find a way to include and benefit its members.  Perhaps dedicate space within your garden to the benefit of a neighborhood food pantry or other outreach service or ministry. Approach area businesses with the intent of partnering with them for community goals they have set. Host extension classes for area residents (free, just call them) - provide a resource to your area for more than just garden plots. Grow flowers for area children to pick for Mother's Day. Grow pumpkins for neighbors for Halloween. Let a yoga or tai chi class use your garden as a site for a class.
  • Start small - one bite at a time. You yourself should not bite off more than you can chew. You need to avoid burnout. You want to make sure your garden has longevity - and it needs you and your guidance. So pace yourself. If you and your fellows can only manage 6 beds - then stick with that. Growth will come naturally as you successfully implement what is manageable.
  • Don't pretend to know more than you do. There will be many unknowns as you proceed. Be honest and share what you've learned. Your passion and hard earned knowledge will win more fans than grand statements that you have no idea how you may implement.
  • Be very specific with what is needed from others be they prospective gardeners, volunteers or community partners.  People are leery of committing to spending time or money when there is no clear idea of what is expected. They will always overestimate what could be expected of them and that will keep many from getting involved. Be able to define EXACTLY what the commitment should be (i.e. 2 hours per week, 2 dollars per week). Don't be afraid of requiring a cash component.  Having a financial investment in a project is often a great motivator to staying involved and seeing the project through.
  • Assume nothing.  Be ready to clearly and specifically define the most basic of elements. It may be obvious to you what needs to happen next, but leaving those next steps undefined leads to misunderstanding and damages trust. It is worth the effort to ensure that all members of your group are on the same page. 
  • Consider using a Day of Service to introduce people to the garden.  As people become involved in your garden and in something they may have no experience with, they need to see it in action which enables them to get over the fear of the unknown. Then they are ready, willing and able to do it themselves.
To see a little more of the Metro North Community Garden, check out this segment on food deserts by WJXT Channel 4 and Tarik Minor.