It takes a greenhouse to raise a child. That's the belief of the bold educators at Umoja Learning Circle, a community-based African-centred school at Islington and Albion. And it's why they've invited the guru of the Growing Power eco centre in Milwaukee up to share his secrets about developing composting and character.
Youth advocates are paying attention to the Growing Power approach in the wake of an epidemic of gang activity and youth shootings on the once famously peaceful streets of Toronto. It's no accident, many believe , that the outbreak of violence comes 10 years after local pre-teens lost school, social and recreational supports during the Harris and Chretien-imposed cutbacks of the mid-90s.
And some kind of green offering may help in the healing and rebuilding.
All-absorbing projects like the one Umoja's embarking on just might make the difference. ("Umoja," the principle of the first day of Kwanzaa, means "unity.") The grow lab they're constructing is based on the magical greenhouse prototype developed by Milwaukee's Will Allen, a former basketball star. He visited Toronto last week with his daughter Erika Allen to work with Umoja students and speak to a series of meetings hosted by FoodShare and Afri-Can FoodBasket.
The Growing Power project Allen developed breeds fish and grows salad greens through the winter, teaches leadership and job skills to youth in underserved areas, beautifies neglected neighbourhoods, feeds the poor, launches immigrants in agriculture, sponsors farmers markets, boosts community safety, uses worms to turn 400 tons of food waste a year into black gold, makes 700 pounds of honey and fights racism.
A version of his eco-plus enterprise is now taking root in Chicago, most recently with food gardens on 19,000 square feet of high-profile Grant Park, "Chicago's front yard.' Using funds that traditionally went to lawns and flower beds, Erika Allen hired youths who tended 120 varieties of herbs, edible flowers and greens.
"If you engage with the community, you don't need fences around the gardens,' Will Allen says of other of their projects in once derelict areas of Chicago. The gardens and the hope they provide make the communities safe, says the activist who has just won a Ford Foundation Leadership For A Changing World Award, the U.S. version of a Nobel Prize for grassroots innovators.
Food production not only cures what might be called "nature deficit disorder," but it's also, the Allens say, the foundation for social, problem-solving and career skills that last a lifetime. "We're not training farmers," says Allen, who was raised on a farm in Maryland, "we're raising citizens."
That's the kind of talk that inspires Tafari, the principal of Umoja Learning Circle. The grow lab, says Tafari, who only uses one name, illustrates a primary theme of her school's student- and African-centred curriculum: environmental education and closed-loop systems that recycle waste, reincarnating it into a new stage of life.
"The education children get here is real and hands-on, which builds character and eventually self-esteem,' she says, "not the oppressiveness and negativity they feel in mainstream public schools. Food security and planting things is so important in this school. I've seen hyperactive kids calm down when they work with plants in the soil. It's like there is a spiritual connection between children and soil.'
When the Allen team visited last week, the students, most of whom are between the ages of five and 10, constructed a grow lab that can produce fresh fish and salad greens right through the school year. Erika Allen led them through a visioning session that produced a design for the grow lab, which will include two aquaria for tilapia. The students will build a system like the one in Milwaukee that will pipe fish water enriched by poop through a gravel bed that purifies it to fertilize a bed of houseplants, salad greens and cooking herbs.
"The kids just loved Will," says Tafari. "He's grounded and in touch with himself and has a real gentle vibe that children pick up on right away," she says. They had to do some shovelling, and the smallest boy in the class just had to work beside Will [a towering 6-foot-8]. It was so cute."
I've worked with Will Allen for several years on the board of the Community Food Security Coalition, and was chilled when he first told me about how he starts each morning looking in the mirror before strapping on his armour to deal with the racism he'll confront all day. So it's no surprise that he sees food production as having an anti-racism angle.
Food brings all communities together, he says. "Why not use it as a tool against racism?"
"Social justice and the civil rights movement have to be aligned with food security," Erika Allen told community workers at a meeting sponsored by Afri-Can FoodBasket in the Lawrence Heights area. "We need to open a space where people can talk about these things."
Ironically, slavery and racial exploitation have been associated with the stoop labour of mass-scale agriculture for some 10,000 years. To use food production as a vehicle for personal dignity, empowerment and anti-racist dialogue cuts against the grain of that tradition. The worm has turned.