Urban Growers Collective (UGC) is a non-profit organization founded by Laurell Sims and Erika Allen. Built from the framework of the Milwaukee based organization Growing Power, UGC is built by and for the communities it serves. Currently operating eight (8) urban farms in Chicago, the organization’s programming results in not only accessible produce but job opportunities, youth education programs, public workshops, and more.
We spoke to Malcolm Evans (Urban Farm Manager, pictured above) and Darion Crawford (Urban Farmer and Instructor, pictured below) to learn more about UGC and its programming.
Despite the fact that UGC is technically only 3 years old, it’s built upon over 20 years of prior work. Talk a little bit about the evolution of the organization and how the programs have progressed.
Darion Crawford: “When I started with Urban Growers Collective, I was a junior at Marshall High School. Back then, the organization was known as Growing Power Chicago. Now, I’m in my 30s and love to see children come to the farm and play outside in nature, just like I used to when I was younger.
I was part of Growing Power’s first year-round youth program 14 years ago when there were only 30 teens in the program. When I initially started, I was just really excited to get a paycheck. I was actually lucky enough to have some options for after school programs, but I chose to keep coming back to the farm because I loved the hands-on aspect of seeing something I created come to fruition. The sense of ownership and leadership the program gave me made me feel like I was supposed to be there.
After graduating high school, I worked with Growing Power for five years as a youth instructor and farmer. I left to work as a manager at Home Depot for eight years, and recently came back to Urban Growers Collective in March of 2020 to help manage the adult job training program. Coming back, I’ve seen massive changes for such a small non-profit. Urban Growers Collective has grown from employing 30 teens year-round to now providing over 200 jobs to teens. UGC has also added a program for 145 head-start preschoolers and the READI adult job training program for 50 men who are at high risk for gun violence here in Chicago.
Working here has always felt like working with family, but that feeling is stronger than ever before. The leadership team has worked together for over 15 years now, and it feels more team-oriented, organized, and structured. But no matter how hard the work is, I always enjoy it and feel satisfied when I end my day. I’m happy to be back working at the farms.
The “Art on the Farm” project has gone on since 2005. Talk about how this project has expanded with the addition of new farms and participants. What is the process for new artists/program participants to get involved?
Malcolm Evans: I started coming down to the farm that Growing Power had in Cabrini Green in 2003 when I was 10 years old. When I was 12, I had the opportunity to help build out the farm we have in Grant Park. Before that project, I didn’t think that downtown Chicago was for Black kids. The Gold Coast was full of rich people, and the closest we ever got to downtown was the McDonalds on Chicago Avenue. Once we started going to the Grant Park Farm every day, I began to realize that the lakefront and the parks are for everyone. There were 15 kids in our program at Grant Park the first year, and I think we all felt that way–by the end of the program we felt like we belonged downtown, too. Now we have 45 teens in our Grant Park program, and those teens give free tours of the garden during the summer. It’s opened up a new world to teens who never felt entirely welcome in our city.
Art is incorporated into the farm in a way that demonstrates that growing vegetables and edible flowers can be beautiful. The idea that the landscape can be pretty and productive is a shift from how our city is usually landscaped. It’s always fun to see folks walking around the garden and identifying all the varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers we grow in the space–there are more than 120, so it’s almost like a treasure hunt. It makes me proud to know that we are teaching people that growing food can be nourishing and beautiful in the very heart of our city.
UGC’s Youth programs range from preschool age all the way through high school. Are these programs designed for youth to progress from one program to another? What are your favorite aspects of the youth programs?
DC: I would say yes, the programs are designed to build upon one another, and there is a developmental aspect to the youth program that keeps it engaging year after year. I think that’s the aspect of the program I appreciate most–how much we engage our participants. I can’t emphasize enough how therapeutic it is to have a hands-on learning experience, especially for teens who are in school and can’t always see the tangible outcomes of what they are learning. It’s also incredibly important for teens to feel heard, and in this program, they have a voice and get to see their dreams manifest–from selecting crops all the way to managing market stands. When I moved into the role of youth instructor, I realized how much work teaching is, but also how rewarding it is to be able to pass on the opportunities I was given.
How has the pandemic affected operations? What adjustments have had to be made?
ME: The pandemic really made us think about a Plan B. We had to think about the way we grow food and how we can use our resources in a better way. Spring is usually very busy at the farm, but this year was extra busy because we had to start harvesting quickly. We needed to get produce into our emergency food relief boxes so that all of the folks who are unemployed or who don’t have access to grocery stores could get nourishing food to help keep them healthy while Covid-19 is spreading. With the help of our partners, we have been able to provide over 12,000 boxes of fresh vegetables and fruit and over 10,000 prepared meals to folks who need it most.
We also had to shift our youth programs to online learning. We were very nervous at first, but it has been amazing to see how creative our teens have been with their at-home growing kits. They have really stepped up and learned a lot about being responsible for their own plants while also doing research online and learning how to cook with virtual chef demonstrations.
One of the biggest initiatives has been the Grounds for Peace program, where UGC will be restoring 50 vacant lots in Woodlawn, Englewood and North Lawndale. Talk a bit about this process and the progress made as well as if there are plans to expand once this set is complete.
DC: I come from the same background as all of the men in the READI Grounds for Peace program. Like them, I see programs pop up in my neighborhood and I feel like they aren’t for me. I walk by and don’t know who runs the program, or if I do see the people running it, they certainly don’t look like me. But I remember walking by gardens on the west side and thinking, “How do I get in on that?” For the guys in the READI program, being able to engage, to reclaim land in their neighborhoods and have ownership over that space, is life-changing. To have their friends and family see them being productive and transforming empty lots into beautiful gardens creates a sense of change that’s hard to measure, but it truly changes everyone in the community. It’s so important to see people who look like you doing the work. It inspires everyone in the neighborhood to become engaged, and that’s truly how we slowly begin shifting the story from scarcity to abundance.
Grounds for Peace is a program designed for men most at risk for gun violence in Chicago – so to break that down, men who may shoot others or men who may be shot. This program costs about $25,000 a year per participant, which seems like a lot of money until you think about the fact that it costs over $45,000 to incarcerate one of these men annually. These men walk away from the two-year program with a better mindset and skills that they can pass down to their children.
With the Mobile Market, you’re combating food inequity by essentially bringing the grocery store to people’s front door. Talk more about this program and what it allows.
ME: There are a lot of areas known as “food deserts” in Chicago. These are neighborhoods with lots of abandoned buildings that don’t have many options for healthy food. At UGC, our mission focuses on providing healthy, fresh produce as well as teaching folks how to grow and cook with fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Fresh Moves Mobile Market is a converted bus that’s essentially a grocery store on wheels. The goal is to bring fresh produce to folks that have historically not had access to grocery stores. We have sites in different neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides, including schools, health clinics, and senior homes, so that as many people as possible have access to healthy foods. This year, we’re going to be launching a new Fresh Moves bus, which has unfortunately been delayed due to the pandemic, but we hope to launch in early November.
I love having the opportunity to show people where their food comes from and that a kid from the neighborhood grew this beautiful food. It’s really healing work. Most of the produce at the Fresh Moves Mobile Market comes from our urban farms from around the city, especially the South Chicago Farm, where we grow things like collard greens, peppers, tomatoes, onions, turnips, and carrots. We harvest it fresh from the farm and it goes straight onto the Fresh Moves bus. It gives me a lot of joy to meet our customers, and I know when I plant those seeds, that the work I do matters and that it’s changing my community.
RSVP Gallery is proud to partner with UGC alongside the release of the Nike Dunk Low SP “Community Garden.” A portion of proceeds from our collaborative tote will be donated to UGC. We encourage you to learn more about the organization here.