I have the pleasure and honor of serving on the board of a new entity that very much exhibits the principles and practices of family-generated community building. We call our organization the Sugar Beet Cooperative. Started by Cheryl Munoz, Jenny Jocks Stelzer, Lisa Boone, and Maureen Spain (and their families), the co-op will bridge the original group of families who grow food in their own backyards to growers in the broader Chicago region. We will create a community store and a variety of related community education and development programs. The first membership-building party is to be held at Unity Temple in Oak Park on January 12, 2012. Individuals and families who want to become members can join at this event. (See the poster to the right of this blog).
We intend that this project will provide access to affordable, healthy food grown locally to people in Oak Park and surrounding communities, with a special outreach to our neighbors in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. Our goal is to have the store up and running in the second half of 2014. The community programs have already been underway, including an edible garden tour and other activities.
This project shows in an exciting way how productive families can collaborate with community organizations and local governments to make places like Oak Park and Austin good places to live!
The Sugar Beet website will soon be revised, but the current site is at: www.sugarbeetcoop.com
In my community development practice, I try to be very aware of when is the right time and the wrong time to engage in the debate about marriage's importance. Community development is supposed to empower the people who are there in the neighborhood or village. It works best when it responds to their situations, their expressions of interest, and when it works with the institutions and groups who have already formed.
If the community is populated by many unmarried households, if many residents have formed families that do not contain married parents, one works with them to help those families as they are to become more stable, more able to care for their children, and more involved productively in working with their neighbors to achieve goals like lowered crime rates, better education outcomes, or business development. That approach reflects good, generic community development philosophy.
On the other hand, one knows from common sense, and research shows consistently, that children raised by devoted married parents generally do better than children raised in almost any other type of household arrangement. Moreover, married households tend to be more stable and more rooted to their places, which enables them to contribute to community development. It's easier for families in which caring moms and dads are both present to be the co-producers with schools, the police, and clinics of education, safety, good health, and other good things that community development seeks to bring about. When there are groups or leaders - churches, fatherhood organizations, or others - who are interested in strengthening marriage through the community building process, then it's important for the practitioner to help them do so effectively.
Marriage is one of the most explosive issues out there. It's sometimes too sensitive a concern to push too hard. Doing so can derail the community building process. It's also too important to ignore when there is interest in addressing it.
We again approach the end of summer. As the season progressed, soil that was plain and black in April erupted in many shapes and colors. The garden again revealed in many shapes and sizes green, red, purple, white, orange, and brown faces.
We'll be eating from the fourteen quart bags of frozen beans for months to come. The carrots that grew next to the bush beans in our middle bed will also show up on our table for some time. Soon, we'll be harvesting beets from the same space. In our large bed, red and white onions flourished, as did pole beans and cucumbers. The acorn squash surged from its fenced enclosure and pushed into the same ground occupied by the cucumbers, creating a somewhat confusing intersection of leaves and vines. So many cucumbers! We tended the long Japanese variety as well as a stubby type for pickling. This week, we will overturn five black, burplap sacks situated next to the large bed. Potatoes that formed in them will tumble forth with the dirt.
Working in the garden calls up images of human faces as well. In our back bed arose the broccoli and radishes whose seeds our young friend from Beijing, Lussica, helped me sow. She's no longer living with us, but I still see her crouching in the soil as I look upon the green and red progeny of her careful seeding. And in my mind's eye appear friends and family around our dinner table who will partake of this summer's bounty, given up by our small place on the planet.
Community gardens have sprouted up in cities, suburbs, and towns throughout the United States. Some are managed by citizen volunteers. Some benefit from land, fencing, and water hookups bestowed by municipalities. There are those that operate under the auspices of social service agencies or community centers. Some are regularly celebrated in books about the urban food movement. These spaces for growing good food amidst residential, commercial, and industrial areas have erupted because of peoples' desires to eat better, to work together, to make better use of local lands, and to renew their places ecologically. They are justly congratulated for their achievements.
But, how can such bounded gardens, even when they might take up a good portion of a city block, reach beyond their own spaces and penetrate the neighborhoods, the villages, and the other kinds of small places in which they are situated? They lead to community building beyond themselves when they transform how people use their own spaces away from the central gardens for productive, sustainable, activities that multiply and diversify the food growing in them. In other words, community gardens best represent community building when they energize sustainable food production and all the good things socially, economically, and ecologically that emerge with it throughout the neighborhoods or villages in which they are hosted.
One passionate, talented group that has the potential and vision to effect this kind of community building is The Sugar Beet Co-op in Oak Park, Illinois. This network started with the small gardens tended by families and, while maintaining the home gardens, is now also moving toward the community level, with a focus on the eventual creation of a community food store. Starting with the families' own spaces and then moving to the commity scale will illustrate this positive, family/place dynamic that the community gardening movement more broadly needs to tap in order to ensure that more urban gardens energize community building in the places where they reside. Co-production of food at both the level of the family habitat and the community garden can inspire new hope for community transformation through the urban farming movement.
In our polarized political culture, liberals and conservatives see themselves and their ideas as either/or options. This polarization will become harder to watch and more painful to hear as the election season intensifies. The widening rhetorical gap is tragic, because in fact the two perspectives can temper and enrich one another, both in debate and in shaping real social conditions.
For example, let's consider the liberal and conservative views of the family. Many liberals I know actually live in traditional families as married moms and dads with kids, and even active extended family networks. They love their families and pour a lot of devoted effort into making them viable because they know, for one thing, that kids on average do best when raised in them. Still, their political sensitivities might make them uncomfortable with expressing strong, pro-family views toward policy because the term "family," especially the married kind, stirs up a squeamish sense that it now symbolizes conservatism. Their liberalism makes them more comfortable with defending the rights of individuals--such as women, the disabled, and gays--than with advocating for the married family.
On the other hand, conservatives freely support the traditional family, but they don't find it as natural an impulse to recognize campaigns against domestic violence, or for women's equality or dignity for the disabled. These values can actually renew the traditional family so that it can remain a viable and attractive institutional option for their daughters, for instance, who will expect to be treated as equals by men and will expect to live without fear of physical coercion by them. And there are other examples of liberal campaigns for individual rights that can lead to more tolerable and caring conservative institutions. There are also examples of conservative campaigns for the rights of individuals that can lead to more accountable liberal institutions. These rights, when enforced, can help such institutions as the family evolve into resilient and responsive forms that carry forward its most valued traits.
Despite the toxic rhetoric that will characterize so much of this political season, the reality remains that in communities where liberals and conservatives live - whether localities or the national polity - individual rights and cherished institutions can renew and protect one another. I hope that some political candidates will emerge to articulate this counterbalancing dynamic with solutions that will serve to their electoral advantage. This will occur if citizens in the middle find ways to reward candidates who can step up and argue for this healthy balance.