Growing Their Own in Philly: A Chat with Urbanstead’s Lisa Gaidanowicz

Today I am so psyched to introduce you to Lisa Gaidanowicz, founder of the Philly based non profit farm, Urbanstead.

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In a nutshell, Urbanstead “provides hands on education to youth in areas of urban and sustainable farming, growing their own food, nutrition and healthy food choices, partner with local youth organizations with a specific emphasis of training at-risk and low income youth, and works with parents living and raising their children in Philadelphia.”

Urbanstead hosts its youth gardening program at the Francisville Urban Farm, in conjunction with the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp, where youth ages 6-22 tend plots through which community pride, farming skills, and self esteem are grown alongside the vegetables.

farm early spring

Urbanstead in the spring!

This amazing work of building strong community through farming is actualized through their mission:

Urbanstead addresses the problems of food insecurity as well as the lack of food options within our community. Urbanstead believes that farming in a city is the surest way to feed our children healthy food, become fiscally responsible, support a sustainable future and build our community. Urbanstead is dedicated to empowering our neighborhoods with the knowledge and skills to effect change toward more sustainable communities in Philadelphia. We believe that growing our own food is freedom. We believe that anyone who wants fresh food should have access to it at little to no cost regardless of location, income, gender and culture. We believe that by uniting our community, we can achieve food security.”

Incredibly inspiring, right? I get energized every time I see one of Lisa’s posts about the awesome things happening over at the farm. Anyone who has the magic to get adolescents excited about growing food has my support forever!!

Let’s get into it and hear what Lisa has to say about Urbanstead!!!

 

What first inspired the idea to start/get involved with Urbanstead and what did it take to make it happen?

My background is actually IT. I worked as a tech for years when I took a job with a local GED program in Philadelphia as their system administrator. During that time I was lucky enough to have a boss who took a giant chance on me and together we developed a career training program for our students which we then submitted for a very large grant.

We were lucky enough to win the grant and soon after, because I had basically created the program, I started teaching it with our students. Something switched on for me when I worked with these teens. I had never really paid attention to the need our youth have in big cities like Philly and just how many obstacles these kids face every day and suddenly I was realizing how important it was that we start paying attention. I fell in love with this work and realized, as cheesy as it might sound, that I had found my calling.

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At some point during my time in this program, another teacher and I brought a group of kids to a small urban farm in West Philadelphia. On the way there most of the kids did nothing but complain. One of them specifically told me “Ms. Lisa, you are INSANE if you think I’m getting my hands dirty.” At the time, I nodded, not really sure what to expect.

What actually happened, and what I really believe initially put the concept of utilizing urban farming as a means to engage vulnerable youth, is that within minutes of our arrival at the farm space, EVERY one of these teens had their hands in the soil. They were tilling soil, pulling weeds, planting tomatoes and trying some of the vegetables that were already growing. It was a level of engagement I had never seen before. When I eventually left the GED program, I realized that I wanted to continue this work and having been a hobby gardener previously, decided that working with young people in farm spaces was, in my opinion, the best way to do it.10440872_407558549383360_1112551172328716502_n

Here’s the thing though. I don’t have a college degree. I’m educated but I never earned the piece of paper to prove it. I started looking around at different programs trying to find another job that would let me work with youth and found that no one would hire me for anything other than my IT experience, which was a career I wanted to (for the most part) leave behind.

The only option, I felt at the time, was to start my own program. I grew up on and near farms in New England but farming in the city, until then, was really only a hobby. I started trying to learn more. I volunteered for a couple of different local programs, took classes through the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, increased the amount of growing I was doing in my home container garden and read any book I could get my hands on that had to do with urban farming and how to successfully grow food. When I felt I had enough of a handle on it, I started to look for partner organizations.

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We definitely got off to a couple of false starts, but eventually we were able to develop a partnership with a community organization in North Philly that had a space with no one to work it. Together we spent the past year cultivating that space, bringing youth in from all over the city for day long experiences in the garden, running a successful farm stand once a week (selling produce we grew!) and working on developing strong relationships with the community around us.

The response Urbanstead has received in just one year has been enormous. I’ve met some amazing people, developed some awesome partnerships, and have seen first hand how actively learning about and growing their own food in an environment where, by all norms you shouldn’t be able to do these things, has had a positive effect on our kids.

I agree that you most definitely have found your calling. You are doing such important work that also is very inspiring to others, like me, in this wild frontier of urban gardening.  I love that story about the teens! It is so true that if you can actually get people into the space and get their wonder sparked a bit, it all falls into place and before you know it they are hooked on growing their own.

I also love how you taught yourself from your base knowledge, coming from a progressive education background myself, i think this is an invaluable lesson for others. You just have to want to learn something. The resources are out there for you. You don’t have to follow the traditional educational path to actualize your dreams.

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What has been the biggest challenge that Urbanstead has/is working to overcome?

I think one of the biggest things to realize when you start an urban farm is to really engage the community around you and make sure that you have the support of the people who live and benefit from it. On paper, growing food seems like a great idea and why wouldn’t everyone want to be a part of something so good for them right? I don’t think I realized, in the beginning, just how frightening this is to a lot of people who have never been exposed to it.

We live in a city where our kids are facing violence and drug use on an almost daily basis. A large percent of the population we work with are below what can be considered a sustainable income and people for the most part, are struggling to survive. What is the purpose of a garden when there’s so many other, more important things going wrong? I didn’t understand the fear at first and mistook a lot of it for anger and initially I got angry back.

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I regret some of the choices I made early on, but I also realize how much I learned from those failed relationships and have been able to apply what I learned to create much stronger, more positive, and loving relationships moving forward.

These days, I’ve found working to develop strong partnerships, trusting relationships, holding up to what you say you’re going to do, goes a long way. I think urban farms not only produce food to improve physical health, but they also have the potential to heal communities that hurt. It just takes a lot of time and patience. The garden has taught me that, but so have the people (both young and old) that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with.

Thank you for your honesty! It is tough in this world of winning scare garden grants to admit to mistakes, but we all make them and you have learned from your with flying colors!

It is very strange how threatened people can be by planting vegetables.I have run into the same experiences and have also learned exactly what you said – building trust in the community by doing what you say you are going to do as well as approaching the project as an offer rather than telling people in a community that this is what you are going to do in their neighborhood regardless of whether they like it or not goes a long way.

Farms, nature connection, and community building most definitely have the power to heal “communities that hurt.” I love how you phrase that! So powerful!

Eric and T at the Farm Stand2

Do you have a favorite food connection activity to do with participants? What about it makes it your favorite?

You mean other than daring kids to eat hot peppers right? I’m kidding! (Well. Sort of. That *did* happen once.) I really like making seed bombs with the little kids. I know that, technically speaking, seed bombs aren’t as effective as we would all like to pretend they are. (You can’t wet a seed, start the germination process and then dry it out and expect that seed to live.)

However, it’s a chance for the kids to get their hands dirty and create something that will, ideally give back to their community. They get SO into it. I always make sure to toss a few of the still wet ones into parts of the garden that are a little overgrown so that we will actually grow wildflowers and when they come back they can see what has happened.

seedbombs

It’s the best planting seeds with kids and seeing their faces a week or two later when the seedlings start to emerge. It’s even cooler when those seeds turn into fruit/veg bearing plants that the kids can harvest and eat. I love seeing their faces when they taste something they grew. I always imagine it tastes just like pride.

Very true. Many of the children’s gardening activities out there don’t actually produce the intended results, but the process can be fun regardless. I still love making seed bombs too! So messy!

I also love seeing people’s faces when they pick something from the garden that they helped grow and are like I can really eat this? And when they do they light up! So powerful!! Yes, I bet it does taste like pride. There is no denying our physiological connections with the soil!

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Do you remember a particular childhood nature experience that sparked your sense of wonder and helped create your environmental ethic?

I was pretty lucky to grow up in an area surrounded by farms and nature. I spent a lot of my childhood walking around the woods, making forts out of fallen tree branches. I’ve been able to milk cows, collect vegetables I grew and feed chickens. It wasn’t anything special at the time…it was just something to do.

  In retrospect, I think I took a lot of what was around me for granted and never realized until I got older just how important it was and how lucky I was to have those experiences in my life.

Isn’t that so true. I definitely took for granted the fact that my grandpa and relatives grew a large portion of our food until I started teaching and realized I was the exception rather than the norm. That inspired me as well to teach others how to grow their own, so they could feel those connections to heritage, to the present community, and to the soil.

What is your favorite smell in nature and is there a story why?

Don’t laugh, but it’s totally cow manure. It smells like home.

Yes!! Fantastic!

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What upcoming urbanstead projects are you most excited about?

WELL, I am super excited to announce that Urbanstead received it’s very first grant from The Douty Foundation which will not only allow us to build raised beds in the open space of our orchard, but we’ll also be able to (FINALLY!) get our greenhouse delivered and hopefully a couple of loads of desperately needed soil and compost. (Philly soil is pretty rough…lots of fill…and although we’ve started composting, we definitely need some supplemental soil to make next year more productive!)

This said, we are still desperately in need of donations. We need tools…shovels, gloves, hand tools and of course, financial donations are always welcome and appreciated. We would really like to be able to at the very least, offer some financial compensation to our teens who work with us regularly throughout the season.

If anyone is interested in donating, our mailing address is 1708 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19103 (Please mark all packages c/o Urbanstead as we share our office space with another community business) and we accept PayPal donations through our website here: http://www.urbanstead.org/donate.html.

For any of your readers that are local to the Philly area, we LOVE our volunteers, so just get in touch with me through email at lisa@urbanstead.org and I will absolutely find a way to get you involved!  
Sounds awesome right? Isn’t Lisa an amazing force of nature? How inspired are you right now!!? Rally and get involved! Plant seeds of your love of gardening in Urbanstead!

What most inspired you about Lisa and her work with Urbanstead?

Share in the comments below! I know she would love to hear!

I love how she keeps overgrowing the challenges and things more amazing than she even expected bloom!!

Seeds to Sprout:

Be sure to follow Urbanstead on Facebook so you can enjoy all the wonderful pictures and projects Lisa and the gang are working on!

Are you going to be in Philly, or do you live there? Well get involved! Check out the Urbanstead site, learn about workshops, volunteer, visit their farm stand this summer, and donate tools, time, funds, or your gifts today!

Want to make some seeds bombs like Lisa? Check out this Wonder Wednesday post for the recipe to make your own batch. It was the first Wonder Wednesday post ever!

All photos courtesy of Urbanstead. Thank you!!

If you’re far from Philly, and in Florida this weekend, join me at The Girls Gone Green/Wings,Worms, and Wonder Seed Swap and vegan potluck this Saturday, November 22, 12-2 pm, at the Beaches Organic Community Garden! Get the details here!

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3 thoughts on “Growing Their Own in Philly: A Chat with Urbanstead’s Lisa Gaidanowicz

  1. Wow!! Thank you for this interview and writeup! So inspiring…. Empowering youth through urban farming. And empowering ourselves through co-creating these community programs. This is amazing! One of the most inspiring things I hear you say is that you don’t need a degree to start these sorts of programs… How empowering is that?! Really all it takes is commitment, dedication, and inspiration. To hear you talk about starting this project with your own two hands, reading and researching and practicing on your own, is very inspiring to me, as someone who spends a lot of time around “higher education” and who often falls into the, “I couldn’t possibly start my own program because I don’t have the knowledge” mind frame. Thank you for reminding me this isn’t so- that ultimately it’s up to me whether or not I access the knowledge through other more informal means.

    What I found most helpful in this article is the part about engaging community, which I struggle with (mostly internally- between “I can’t force people to garden!” And then remembering what you say here, people have other things going on too, and gardening may appear to just add onto those things). This inspires me to share with others how gardening has helped me work through these other things (and has been rather healing, as you say!), rather than be yet another “daily task” or job.

    Also love this advice, “I’ve found working to develop strong partnerships, trusting relationships, holding up to what you say you’re going to do, goes a long way.” So true!!

    All of what you talk about here is so amazing, Lisa and Kelly. Lisa, I’m wondering two things: 1) Urban farming is definitely a track I want to be involved with in the future, possibly working to get urban farms into schools in our area (Jax, FL). I’m curious what the response from schools in your area in Philly has been, if anything at all? I like your model though, of being a standalone community program too, and have never really considered that option before.

    2) I’ve also thought about doing something like this in upstate NY where I’m originally from, and I’m curious what winters/planning season looks like for you at Urbanstead? Do most of your educational programs happen during summers?

    Thank you so much for all of this!! I look forward to following Urbanstead now and contributing where possible. Happy planting 🙂

    1. WOW!! Thanks Meghan for such a thoughtful response!! I agree that Lisa’s just go for it approach, not worrying about conditioning for qualifications is a fantastic method. As if humans ever needed a degree to grow food and connect with and support each other! And the fact that gardening does create a safe space that helps us to work through other things in our life couldn’t be more true and is being proved through research more and more (ie people heal faster in hospitals when they can see nature, children show less aggression when they have regular access to nature). These are important things we must remember and just get out there and make nature and gardening happen!

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