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Growing Young People from the Ground Up

Volume 3 Number 1 - April 2006

Angela Mason and Patsy Benveniste





Nature, gardens, and growing things for pleasure are unfamiliar concepts that hold very little attraction for young people growing up in the North Lawndale community of Chicago.  By providing students with hands on experience in the practice of urban horticulture, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Green Youth Farm has introduced young people to a whole undiscovered dimension of physical space and activity possible within their community; of relationships with individuals they otherwise would never meet or know, or possibilities for personal achievement laying dormant like seed in winter.  In turn the Green Youth Farm students have energised and inspired adults and institutions within North Lawndale and captured the imaginations of media, politicians, and philanthropists. 


Nature, gardens and growing things for pleasure are unfamiliar concepts that hold very little attraction for young people growing up in the North Lawndale community of Chicago.  When asked what would be most challenging about working on an urban farming project, one prospective participant replied, “I don’t really like chickens and I don’t know how to milk a cow”.  There were lots of misconceptions to clear up and basic information to communicate.  Through providing students with work experience in urban horticulture, Green Youth Farm, run by Chicago Botanic Garden, has opened up new dimensions for young practitioners to explore within their community: relationships with individuals they would otherwise never meet or know, and possibilities for personal achievement.  In turn Green Youth Farm students have energised and inspired adults and institutions within North Lawndale and captured the imaginations of media, politicians, and philanthropists.   

The Chicago Botanic Garden has a long tradition of supporting community and school gardens throughout the Chicago area.  In its 25-year history of working in Chicago’s diverse neighbourhoods, the Garden’s community gardening programme has helped more than 300 school and community groups transform their localities with gardens and green spaces. The Garden’s education division uses many tools to accomplish its outreach programme, including on-site summer education/work experience for city high school students; school field trips, teacher workshops and more.  The physical existence of the Green Youth Farm is also thanks to the support of the Community Gardening Department within Chigago Botanic Garden.

While the promotion of plant awareness and appreciation has remained the core goal of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s community gardening programmes, the means to achieving this mission have evolved as funders and community needs have changed.   Lessons learned from earlier programmes, managed by the Community Gardening Department, have also helped to mould more relevant and responsive versions of those programmes. 

The Green Youth Farm programme represents the newest generation of programming.  It began as a large field, in a north suburban forest preserve in the community of Waukegan, where 12 students from a local high school were recruited to maintain and harvest crops.  This was the core of the ‘green careers’ apprenticeship.  Their experience helped shape the evolution of the programme and today there are two sites.  In the 2005 growing season, 35 young people farmed a total of one and a half acres and produced more than 10 tons of sustainably grown vegetables, two tons of which were donated to a local food pantry.
While the two programme sites are physically very different, the communities they serve have striking similarities: low-income rates of 50%-98%; a predominately minority population of African Americans 70%-99.7%, and Latinos, and high school drop out rates exceeding 27%.  Programme participants are recruited through a fairly rigorous application and interview process.  Some of them struggle to articulate the reasons why they feel attracted to the programme.  When asked why they are applying to be part of the programme, most of the answers are a version of, “because it is something different”.  The students are very sceptical in the beginning;  but quickly develop a ‘can do’ attitude.  In the first couple of weeks they are asked to try many new tasks and there are a lot of, "I can’t do that".   By the end of the summer, they are proudly giving tours of the farm, talking about different varieties of crops, and even offering tastes to wary visitors.  They can also describe many of the different growing techniques used.  They learn about crop sciences, but more importantly they learn about themselves.  Dexter, a first year participant, was quoted as saying, “I thought Angie was crazy when she told us we were going to grow food here. This lot used to be an old laundromat.”  He also comments, “The most challenging thing for me was the planting;  but we worked hard and now look - our garden is amazing!”

An interdisciplinary approach is used to make the most of the diverse interests, learning styles and talents of the students.  The various cooking classes; art workshops, music sessions, and leadership development programmes all offer opportunities for the students to shine in some aspect.  The culinary component has added a new dimension; both the young men and women of the programme have developed an appreciation of where their food comes from and what goes into the food they are eating.  Most importantly, they have found a way to help those less fortunate than themselves.  Their work with food has given them a greater awareness of economic issues and driven them to a much greater awareness of the injustice of food policies.  Teresa, a first year participant, has teamed up with three others in an effort to get better, healthier meals served at the local shelter for the homeless; Kenya wants to focus product development on organic baby food; Courtney has joined the campaign to help reform school lunches, and Taverous has become an activist in the North Lawndale community for the Green Youth Farm.  Students are also developing a business plan with the intention of providing produce shares to the local senior-assisted living homes.  They have become philanthropists in their own way. The Chicago Botanic Garden has provided these youth with a chance to develop a sense of empowerment and community pride through sustainable gardening.   

The community gardening department is fortunate to have relationships with funders who recognise the importance of community outreach by large museums and botanic gardens.  The Green Youth Farm programme is made possible by generous contributions from a diverse group of philanthropic organizations: The Steans Family Foundation; Grace A. Bersted Foundation, and Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust provide private foundation support; corporate funding comes from Kraft Foods, Inc. and Harris Bank Foundation, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services provides governmental support.  The Green Youth Farm is supported institutionally through fundraising efforts by the Guild of the Chicago Botanic Garden. 


Pour les adolescents qui grandissent dans le quartier de North Lawndale à Chicago, la nature, les jardins et le principe de faire pousser des choses pour le plaisir sont des idées inhabituelles et peu attrayantes. En offrant aux étudiants l’occasion d’avoir une expérience pratique en horticulture urbaine, la ferme Green Youth Farm du Jardin Botanique de Chicago a permis aux jeunes de pénétrer dans une dimension jusqu’alors inconnue de lieux concrets et d’activités réalisables au sein de leur quartier, de relations avec des individus qu’ils n’auraient jamais connus autrement, et d’opportunités de réveiller leurs capacités personnelles en dormance comme des graines en hiver. A leur tour, les étudiants de Green Youth Farm ont stimulé et inspiré les adultes et les institutions au sein du quartier de North Lawndale et ont captivé l’imagination des médias, des politiques et des philanthropes.


Para los jovenes creciendo  en la comunidad de North Lawndale en Chicago, naturaleza, jardines y la idea de cultivar cosas por placer son ideas no familiars y con muy poco atractivo. El proporcionar a los estudiantes experiencias prácticas en horticultura urbana en la Granja verde juvenil del Jardin Botánico de Chicago ha introducido la gente joven a una nueva dimension de espacio fisico y actividad que es possible dentro de su comunidad; de relaciones con individuos que de otra manera nunca se encontrarian o conocerian; de posibilidades y alcance de logros personales que han estado dormidos como semillas en el invierno. La granja verde juvenil ha activado e inspirado adultos e instituciones en North Lawndale y cautivado la imaginacion de media, politicos y filántropos.

About the Authors

Angela Mason, Coordinator & Patsy Benveniste, Director of Education
Green Youth Farm
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL. 60202 USA