Community Outreach at the Garden

What is the biggest lesson we've learned from the first six years of building the Bartlett Park Community Garden?  That community organizing has been more important to our success than anything else we've done.  

That's saying a lot, since the work of improving the soil, building fences, tearing up grass, coaxing seedlings into maturity and writing grants has also been a huge amount of work.  But six years later, we would not still have a garden if we didn't have people in the community working day in and day out to keep the garden going.

The garden was envisioned as a project that could rebuild relationships between neighbors, indeed rebuild a faith in the neighborhood itself.  We wanted a spot that was beautiful and a place to be an antidote to some of life's stresses for a neighborhood facing more than its fair share of financial and social pressures. People were eager to have a place to grow some food when we were starting.  But it has required a wider focus on cultivating neighbors' willingness to get to know one another and work together in order to build the team that sustains the garden today.

Outreach and organizing have been at the heart of our mission from the beginning.  The group that exists now at Bartlett Park Community Garden is the product of years of knocking on doors, being willing to introduce ourselves over and over again.  It's about welcoming passersby who ask what we are about everytime we're there. The garden would host one kind of newcomers' activity one year, then try a new way to go about it the next year, continuing until we find what works. 

We've planned MLK events, kids parties for Halloween, yard makeovers for neighbors, workshops, tours and much more.  We have reached out to different groups of people at different times. All of it while continuing to reach out to at doorsteps in Bartlett Park for one on one conversations about what the resources are and what was needed.

Today, there are approximately a dozen local residents who contribute time working at the garden and also participate in organizing meetings, which is arguably where the real work of building the garden happens. We got here by investing deeply in communicating with the nieghbors, trying new strategies every time things started to slow down, and sharing the vision of a stronger community every chance we had over the years.  The garden was kept alive on a shoestring sometimes, but we never let up on our outreach.  And people always came out to plant at the start of each new season.

There was one neighbor who wouldn't open the door at all for the first two years when volunteers would stop by. Then over the next year she would speak to us through the closed door for a moment and thank us for our work. Then, after three years, she finally started opening the door and talking with us about the neighborhood and the garden.  Months later, she became an active volunteer.  

We believe that community gardens start with community.  As exciting as the startup process is at a new garden, the challenges of securing land, fielding your first volunteers and clearing your first field quickly fade in comparison with the task of building community.  It takes persistence and personal trust, but also vision. Putting seeds in the ground is just the thing this group does.  The group of people, their commitment to their community and their vision for the future is what we have spent the last seven years building.