Imagine being trapped in a food desert, an area where your main source of nutrition is only the local corner store. There are are no large chain grocery stores or farmers markets. Fresh produce is over a mile away. Across Pennsylvania, over two million people lack access to fresh food. According to a 2011 interview with Philabundance on RadioTimes, Philadelphia has the lowest per-capita rate for access to supermarkets in the U.S. In APIARY 9, we’re asking writers to think about the many forms of sanctuary. Sanctuary can be many things: a neighborhood block, your grandmother’s kitchen, a church, or even an urban farm. When one North Philadelphia neighborhood wondered how they could bring fresh fruits and vegetables to their community, the Philadelphia Urban Creators and Life Do Grow Farm provided an answer - and a sanctuary.
Over a year ago, I visited an urban farm on a mission to learn more about environmental sustainability. At Life Do Grow Farm, a project of the Philadelphia Urban Creators, I found a space unlike most in North Philadelphia. My first sight was of colorful murals, ripe with community and fellowship, painted along the walls. I left rejuvenated by this oasis found in a North Philadelphia desert. When I was asked by APIARY if I knew of any places in Philadelphia that stood as a sanctuary for community members I immediately thought of Life Do Grow Farm. I knew that I had to learn more about how this sanctuary came to be and the driving force behind it. Philadelphia Urban Creators not only revitalized a dilapidated lot which was once full of baby diapers and crack baggies into a sanctuary full of delicious, nourishing food, they also use this space to bring the community together through a variety of social justice events and artistry. In order to fully understand the motivation behind the transformation of this space, I recently sat down with a few members of the Philadelphia Urban Creators. I was joined by my APIARY colleague, Steve Burns.
I first sat down with Jeannine Kayembe, Co-Executive Director of Philadelphia Urban Creators, Shaded under a raised pavilion, Jeannine told us how fate and determination joined forces to change her neighborhood’s world. At a poetry event, Jeannine met her business partner, Alex Epstein. Alex ran a program called New York to New Orleans which led a group of young people to help an urban farm in the ninth ward of New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Jeannine jumped on the opportunity and took a twenty three hour trip with Alex and few of her artist friends to New Orleans. When she arrived he ninth ward didn’t look too different from North Philadelphia and she asked herself, “Why does North Philadelphia look like the ninth ward when a storm never hit?” She and Alex decided that things had to change and reached out to The Village of Arts and Humanities, a community organization in North Philadelphia.
The Village was generous enough to give Jeannine and Alex a lot bordering a railway line just a few blocks away. While the lot was previously a tree farm full of fertile soil, piles of trash and debris blanketed the area. The process to transform the space into what is it now took two years. Jeannine enlisted the help of convicted felons in the community to conduct a cleanup. This group had previously joined her and Alex on trips to black-led farms in the southern United States to learn more about how agriculture could build community. Jeannine said, “Here in the community the job choices are sell weed or crack, or come here and pull weeds in the hot ass sun and make an honest living. This has afforded us the opportunity to not take on lives that are not positive for the community. We all wake up and choose not to succumb to the oppressive system.”
Some of the new changes to Life Do Grow farm since my last visit, include the implementation of a new irrigation system and even more community involvement activities designed to break down institutional systems of racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. All of this thanks to urban farming. This growth in programming and outreach has necessitated an organizational change of Philadelphia Urban Creators from a project to a non-profit. This has allowed them to become more political in what they do. Jeannine says, “I call this Switzerland because it’s untouched by any diplomatic bureaucratic oppression that exists outside of these walls.” Philadelphia Urban Creators is better able to hold events like their First Friday and Second Saturday where outside community organizations are invited to celebrate work they’ve done (i.e. the literal fruits and veggies of their labor) in Life Do Grow Farm. Life Do Grow Farm is for everyone and can be shaped by anyone. “This is also a dream sanctuary,” Jeannine continues, “where we can dream up events like one where there are queer of color djs who love vegan food. Cool. Let's do it, let's find them and let’s do it.”
Stan, the Assistant Farm Manager, who grew up in the neighborhood, finds so much joy in giving back to the community. “[Working at the farm] helps me to understand my connection to the land and my roots in the community.” Before working with Life Do Grow Farm he didn't consider himself a farmer; now he carries that title with him every day. He’s also developed into a leader in the farm and in the community. Stan has made it his personal goal keep the farm accessible, despite the gates surrounding the space. “I don’t want us to be a community garden that is a community within a community, we want this space to be for everyone.” A sanctuary for everyone it is indeed - including the youth on Life Do Grow’s Junior Staff, who fall under Stan’s careful instruction. I saw him teach young men and women to care for the farm’s vegetables - including potential new farmers. As I listened and watched, I saw a whole new opportunity bloom. One that didn’t lead to jail, but to independence.
Wayne, a senior in high school, who serves on the Junior Staff of Life Do Grow farm has been a part of the movement for five years. He tells me, “The older generation really loves what we do and now they can pass it on to their young ones in their community.” The youth have made this their sanctuary. Wayne expressed that he is no longer reliant on corner stores. He says, “You don’t have to go to a corner store and fill your body up with that bs.” That bs being overly processed, sugary foods and salty snacks. Instead, he goes right into the garden for what he needs. When I asked him about the future of the farm, he said, “I can see this expanding into different neighborhoods and cities.” He wants to carry on the legacy of the farm in his own life in order to ensure that this sanctuary stands the test of time for the next generation.
Another Junior Staffer, Malik (also known as TNC Laid), uses the farm to empower his passion for hip hop music (be sure to listen to the tracks “Rich or Famous” and “By Your Side” - they’re amazing) through their festival event, Hoodstock. He is on the event planning committee and helps to curate the artists and musical acts for the show. The farm has also helped him to realize his own long-term goals - including college and a career in music. In the fall he’ll be attending Full Sail University for music recording. He also envisions Life Do Grow farm becoming a sanctuary for the public schools by giving them access to healthy, nutritious food.
Lavont finds that, regardless of outside forces, he can find peace at the farm. “Even if there are things going on at home the farm gives me a peace of mind and makes my mood change. I can come to the farm and that makes me happy.” As he gets older, Lavont hopes to step into a leadership role with the farm. And that may just happen.
As we wrapped up the interview, we asked Jeannine how she envisioned the future of the farm in five years. She wants to be a central food hub for North Philly. She also wants improved technology (i.e. solar panels and self-watering irrigation systems). Perhaps most important of all, Jeannine wants to pass the seeds of leadership on to her young staff members. “In five years Wayne will be 23, Lavont will be 24, and Malik will be 22. I was a 24 year old director and I would like to see young people like Wayne and Lavont be Executive Directors of this place.” That’s a beautiful legacy for a group of young Philly farmers. Life Do Grow Farm is a sanctuary for adults and youth alike in North Philadelphia. It’s a place where experienced leaders nurture curious young girls and boys from just around the corner. It’s also a place where members of the community learn that hard work, the kind done with your own two hands, can change your life. Together, the community established at Life Do Grow Farm by the Philadelphia Urban Creators is reshaping the political, social, very literal landscape of North Philadelphia - perhaps for generations. We can’t wait to see what grows next.
Visit Philadelphia Urban Creators online and learn how to get involved! Their kale is flawless. We promise.