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Can Gardening Be A Form of Community Organizing?

by Cole on February 17 2012

Last weekend my office offered a two-day workshop called “Growing Communities” based on the curriculum by the American Community Gardening Association. Many people who registered had little idea of what to expect and were surprised to find growing tips nowhere in sight. The focus of the training is on the community part of community gardening; the goal is to provide skills and a framework for people involved with community growing projects to become effective community leaders and organizers.

There’s a misconception that “community organizing” is something that happens only in activist movements at the grassroots, but these skills are necessary for any public, communal project—even supposedly apolitical ones like a community garden.

Trish presentation

The real difficulty of a workshop like “Growing Communities” is that it tries to do two nearly opposite things: first, to empower people who don’t think of themselves as leaders to feel more confident and equipped as organizers, and also to help people who are already leaders to approach community projects more collaboratively. A community garden is a shared resource, after all, and strong leadership is not always authoritative; a successful and sustainable community growing project requires partnership, engagement and flexibility from its leadership.

These two objectives can often sound like two totally conflicting messages, and this was reflected in a handful of tense moments throughout the weekend. But as tends to happen, tension often comes with a breakthrough—and a great number of participants left the weekend with totally transformed plans for their own projects and careers.

Sometimes transformation and inspiration don’t mean visions for new projects, but instead making a current project more meaningful: one woman who had been in the initial planning phases of a community garden decided that she was not going to start the garden after all, and would first spend a couple of years partnering with existing gardens before moving ahead. That, friends, is an ideal outcome.

Growing Communities Manual

After an introduction to the principles and resources for successful community gardens, the crowd broke into four smaller groups and prepared to present their own workshop on the second day.

The effectiveness of the workshop is that participants learn leadership skills by —shocker— leading the second day themselves. Each group presented a workshop on a different community gardening topic—Asset-Based Community Development, Leadership Development, Communications & Marketing/Outreach, and Grassroots Fundraising Basics—so the second day is both an opportunity to learn the actual content of each session, and also to observe how each group presents their workshop differently.

At the conclusion of the weekend, every participant is then certified to teach this workshop elsewhere themselves.

Growing Communities Workshop

Lessons Learned

The curriculum is in need of revision. There is some language that should probably be updated to reflect clearer principles, and some few assumptions about goals and process that probably need a bit more explanation.

There is also great opportunity to make the introductory sessions more participatory, as well as the possibility of bringing in guest speakers (instead of the workshop organizers leading the entire morning).

Also, there’s the basic fact that not all community-based growing projects are community gardens. There are also backyard gardens, urban farms, and guerrilla seed bombers and green graffiti groups. …Ahem. etc.

Thus we’re toying with the idea of seriously revising the framework into several versions of the workshop:

  • The original two-day workshop (with major changes);
  • One-day workshops focusing on only one of the topics covered;
  • An “Advanced” version that would provide more depth around the principles and practices;
  • And even a four-day-long conference on organizing and community-building around food. (This possibility gets me really pumped!)