Three years ago, APIARY visited the Life Do Grow farm to learn about the Urban Creators and the communal sanctuary they build and sustain through urban farming in North Philly. This month, we caught up with Urban Creators' Alex Epstein and Robert Smith to hear about the farm's plans for growth in the new decade: a collaborative co-op model that allows LDG to share resources, access, and investment in the community's local small businesses from the ground up, and an expanding team with a fresh crop of new job positions open on their website to all applicants. Learn about all these evolutions and more in the full interview below!
APIARY: When we last spoke with the Philadelphia Urban Creators at the Life Do Grow Farm in 2017, you'd recently made the change from a project to a non-profit, implemented a brand new irrigation system, and launched new community programming at the farm designed to break down institutional systems of bigotry. How has the switch to a nonprofit model allowed you to keep growing (pun intended) in the past three years? Has it changed the way the farm operates on a day-to-day level, or on a seasonal level?
Life Do Grow (LDG): The Urban Creators was founded in 2010 by a diverse group of young students, artists, activists, organizers, entrepreneurs, and creators in North Philadelphia. Inspired by our differences and shared passion for ‘creation’, we came together with a vision to transform a 2-acre plot of vacant land into a farm. We spent our first year organizing door-to-door to strengthen relationships with our closest neighbors and local allies. We spent our second year clearing away debris and planting our first seeds of change. Our third year saw the transformation of this land into Life Do Grow: our urban farm, sanctuary, and our home.
Because we were all so young at the time, everything was brand new to us, and forming a non-profit seemed like the best way to build capacity for our collective dream. We started off under a fiscal sponsor in 2010, and got our own 501(c)(3) status in 2014. Having a non-profit status enabled our co-founders to leverage resources to manifest their dream of transforming the land (Life Do Grow) into a space for cultivating food, artistic expression, economic opportunity, and youth leadership.
Between 2010-2019, we successfully revitalized over 3 acres of blighted land into a network of urban gardens and public green spaces. In addition to Life Do Grow, we helped start 3 community gardens and 9 school gardens. We have provided fresh produce to dozens of local families each year; engaged over 7,000 students and volunteers; provided 130 employment and leadership development opportunities for 75 (unique individual) Philadelphia youth; and curated 68 public events which engaged 9,835 attendees while building visibility for 412 emerging artists and 191 small/local businesses. Through this work, we also contributed to a 40% decrease in Part 1 Violent crime in our immediate area. Most importantly, we have created opportunities to deepen our relationships with one another, our community, and our local environment.
APIARY: What kinds of new events and programming can visitors look forward to at the Life Do Grow farm this year? What priorities do you consider when choosing the kinds of events you want to bring into the space?
LDG: This year at the Life Do Grow farm the Free Spirit Cloud Company (FSCC) plans to host a variety of art based events to showcase the extensive creative talent in our community and across Philadelphia. Visitors can also expect events that encourage community connection and engagement.
We prioritize information based events and workshops where our community can expect to learn through experience. For example, in the spring we are launching a free monthly event which will be an opportunity for artists and entrepreneurs alike to gain exposure and engage directly with their community and consumers while also providing food, tours, workshops, etc.
APIARY: In our last interview, we also talked about the future of the farm, and the hopes that the seeds of leadership would be passed on and nurtured in the next generation of staff members over time. How has your team grown and evolved along with the organization?
As we enter our second decade, we have come to recognize the limitations of our organization’s capacity to build true equity in our community. As a non-profit, there are simply no pathways towards ownership of any kind, and our existence remains dependent on outside funding. Therefore, we are now shifting from a traditional non-profit structure towards a more collaborative model that incubates and supports the emergence of radical new ideas and social enterprises in our neighborhood.
Starting in the spring of 2020, we will begin offering memberships to small local businesses, organizations, and artists whose values align with ours and whose work will have a meaningful and lasting impact on our neighborhood. All members will have shared access to co-working/co-creation space at Life Do Grow; all Urban Creator assets, tools, and equipment; intimate consultation and business support; coverage under our insurance; collaborative marketing opportunities; and fiscal sponsorship/admin support, if needed. In this way, we can invest in the early growth of these startups as they each build their own equity and economic opportunity, while collectively co-operating Life Do Grow and increasing our overall impact on our community.
My experience with Urban Creators started a long time ago. Its hard to tell when because all of the experiences and stories all mesh together but I must have been between age 12-14. I joined because I was already close to Chuck (one of the Co-founder's sons) and we would already hang and help out. Then, the opportunity came that we could actually work there. Over the years I've learned so many priceless lessons about everything; agriculture, life's hardships, and myself. My experience with Urban Creators came at such an impressionable time in my life that it truly helped mold me into the man that I am today. At some point during my adolescence I branched off and created my own Arts and Entertainment company (Free Spirit Cloud Company) with the goal of using art as a medium to bring communities closer together and to establish Philadelphia as the art capital of the world. UC directly influenced me and can be credited for a lot of our principles. Now, because of the mentorship of Urban Creators the Free Spirit Cloud Company has more opportunities than ever. UC has given us a platform to host artistic showcases, create revenue, educate the youth, and so much more. UC has invested so much time and effort into us that we know we could never pay them back. All we can do is take every lesson, every resource, and use them to create as much as we can in hopes that we may be fortunate enough to help someone the way Urban Creators helped us.
– Robert Smith (2020)
APIARY: Lastly, if our readers are curious about the farm and have never been before, is there a specific time or event series you'd recommend for newcomers to check it out? How about folks who want to roll up their sleeves and get involved working on the farm?
To get more involved, we will begin hosting 2nd Saturdays at the farm starting in May, which will be a great opportunity for folks to come volunteer, dance, buy our produce, support local businesses and artists in our community.
To help us move towards a new more cooperative model in 2020 and beyond, we are currently looking to hire for 4 key new positions at Urban Creators. These positions include a Director of Operations, Neighborhood Organizer, and 2 Farmers. Applications for these positions will be up until March 6th, and all the information is on our website at: www.phillyurbancreators.org/jobs. All are welcome to apply!
The Urban Creators is a grassroots platform for radical and collaborative imagination. Since 2010, they have used food, art, and education as tools to nurture resilience, self-determination, and equity in our communities. Now, they are committed to supporting the emergence of a new generation of organizers, growers, artists, social entrepreneurs, innovators, and Urban Creators of all kinds.
Life Do Grow (LDG) is a Neighborhood Creative Commons, situated in the heart of North Central Philadelphia, on the ancestral lands of the indigenous Lenni Lenapei. LDG is a dynamic and ever-evolving ecosystem of creative ideas, currently comprised of an urban farm, public park, outdoor classroom and community space, venue for artistic and cultural expression, and co-working/co-creation space for several small local businesses. It is a canvas for ingenuity; a safe-space to explore boundaries, discover passions, and experiment with new ideas; a hub for community to organize, build equity, and foster economic opportunity; and an organic garden where we can all learn to connect more deeply with the earth and one another.