Seventh Street Urban Planters: Community Youth Go Green - by Catherine Sheehy
Sharonna Rivers, Tosha Cheeks, Nick Gaines, and Ashley Kirkwood were visibly antsy as they waited for the signal that they could begin. Their nervousness soon dissipated as the four District of Columbia high school students, part of the Seventh Street Urban Planters 1, began an engaging presentation about their summer community garden project to their families and local community leaders on Aug. 11, 2005. By all accounts, their internship was a success; listed among their accomplishments is the fact that they donated more than 200 fruits and vegetables harvested from their garden on 7th Street NW to a local shelter and food bank. What's more is that the students themselves learned about the relationship between diet and health, while acquiring some new teamwork and leadership skills along the way.
The Seventh Street Urban Planners were one of several teams of high school students who interned over the summer with the EcoDesign Corps, a project of Shaw EcoVillage. Shaw EcoVillage is a local nonprofit that was founded to train youth to be effective catalysts for positive change in Washington, DC's urban neighborhoods.
Veggilicious spoke with team member Sharonna Rivers this summer. We were joined by Lynnard Richard, a graduate of and now team leader with the EcoDesign Corps, and Josh Burch, Program Director. Sharonna's and Lynnard's experiences with EcoDesign Corps highlights the success of a community-based program that helps young people develop the skills and confidence to be community leaders, while learning more about the environment and how to address the needs of the communities in which they live.
Veggies in the City
EcoDesign Corps was launched in 1998 to provide paid internship opportunities to young people, age 15-19, to undertake projects that create solutions to real-life community issues while developing teamwork and leadership skills. Over the past several years, EcoDesign Corps has worked with almost 300 young people on projects ranging from designing and building community gardens to orchestrating letter writing campaigns to local officials on issues of pressing community interest.
Students who are accepted into the EcoDesign program work with other students and team leaders to develop a problem statement, mission, goals, and objectives for their summer project. The Seventh Street Urban Planters explained that their mission was to use the garden and nutritional workshops as educational tools to improve the health of the community and the environment, and work toward their vision of a city in which all residents understand nutrition and have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Their goals for the summer were more immediate. First, they decided to share the garden's harvest with Bread for the City, a local nonprofit that provides food, clothing, medical care, legal, and social services to the District's most vulnerable residents. Second, they wanted to use the garden to promote health education, third, they wanted to make the garden a more inviting place, all the while having fun.
Fulfilling the Vision
As with all great visions, the Seventh Street Urban Planters began with logistics. The community garden Sharonna and her team worked on was created a couple of years before by Lynnard and his team. Although the work of planting the garden had already been done, the task of restoring and maintaining the garden was no small task. For instance, the team struggled for a week to remove a grass-covered chicken wire couch that someone had installed in the garden and that had become a hazard as it became entangled in weeds and other debris.
The educational workshops posed a different kind of challenge. Sharonna's job as Outreach Leader was to head development and delivery of these workshops. Before doing any outreach, however, Sharonna and her team had to teach themselves about health and nutrition. The students then gave presentations to others their own age and younger about the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid, which emphasizes fruits and vegetables, dietary supplements, and healthier snack choices. Initially, the team struggled with how best to present the information: "The little kids didn't pay attention at first," Sharonna explained. So they found they had to adjust the program and do things that were more interactive - like making some of the healthier snacks with the kids.
Sharonna and Lynnard both explained that their experience with the EcoDesign program was much more than the community garden project. "[My team] didn't have respect for each other at first," Sharonna explained. But by engaging in team-building exercises, she and her teammates not only earned each others' respect, they became friends.
Students also learn how to use tools and build things, giving them confidence in their ability to develop new skills. Lynnard explained: "I was on the team that started the garden, and I learned how to use an electric saw. I never used one of those before." Lynnard and Sharonna also agreed that giving presentations to groups of other students helped them develop better speaking skills. Additionally, their respect for themselves and each other grew upon preparing and giving their final presentations in front of their community. "Getting dressed up, with everyone there for the same purpose," was the capstone to the experience, Lynnard said. In fact, it seems that this helped the students see themselves the way their families and communities were beginning to see them - as the community leaders of the future.
When asked what Sharonna would want Veggilicious readers to know and do, she responded immediately: "Come out and learn how to garden, and volunteer with Shaw EcoVillage." Veggilicious would add one comment to Sharonna's: eat your veggies, too!
To learn more about how you can contribute to the growth and success of the Shaw EcoVillage and the EcoDesign Corps, visit www.shawecovillage.com, or contact Josh Burch, Program Director, EcoDesign Corps, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.265.1560.
1 Teammate Edwin Mata was unable to join the team for the presentation.