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Grow a-Way from Violence: Nurturing Community in the Heart of One of America’s Most Violent Cities


service learningElizabeth and Tim Collardey, are co-founders of Heirloom Peace Gardens, which recognizes that economic factors are often the fuel that fires violence. They have created school and community programs that teach kids ages 7-18 how to grow their own food, how to make peace with the Earth, and how to value their relationships with others. They emphasize the importance of understanding and valuing family history and the history of all ethnic groups, especially how this is reflected in cherished foods. Their efforts include assisting members of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Flint, Michigan with how to put a recipe book together based on family foods and plants grown in their community gardens.

“Is this a weed?” Margo, age 10, asked after pulling up a plant from our community garden. “No, Margo, that’s a stevia plant. Please don’t pull out a plant before checking with us first.” It was a defining moment in the midst of our efforts to teach inner-city kids embedded in one of the most violent cities in the country—Flint, Michigan—how to overcome ignorance, food insecurity, poor academic development, and a multitude of issues contrary to their well-being. We’re killing ourselves here and ignorance is the ammunition.

Flint, not Detroit, is the birthplace of General Motors. Our population topped 200,000 in the 1960s, the third largest city in the state at the time. Now we are about half that. Back then GM had about 80,000 employees here. Now there are around 7,000. As the population shrinks, the amount of vacant land expands. With an estimated 300-400 gardening or farming projects growing in the area, urban agriculture has become our boom industry. My wife and I set out on an ambitious community gardening project to help heal one of the most wounded cities in our country. This is our story…

service learningElizabeth is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan-Flint and I am a retired college educator, field of criminal justice. Along my career path I also got a fair amount of primary and secondary teaching experience. I love to teach. Flint is where I was born. I am also a trained Master Gardener. I teach people how to grow things. My prime objective as an educator, regardless of the age-group, has been consistent: more inspiration than information. Anyone who is taught to love learning can’t be stopped in finding all the information they need. The co-mingling of Elizabeth’s and my talents and experiences, fueled by our passion for social justice, drew us to a path to help our people through one of the most challenging times of our history. The way out of mutual self-destruction…

A Dream in Defiance
A round garden? The vision of one woke me up out of a dead sleep several years ago while we were living in Defiance, Ohio—three hours south of Flint. I couldn’t recall ever having seen one before and my insatiable curiosity kicked into overdrive. The vision led me to the discovery that traditional Native American farming was done by creating round growing areas. Within that space, they often created small mounds for seeds to grow. Having some Native American ancestry, I felt a force beyond my own guiding me toward my next mission in life: bring the community together in a large round garden. Teach them the ways of the ancestors.

It was a wonderful year of exploration and discovery. Generally, community garden space is a vacant lot subdivided into separate growing areas for whoever would like to plant a small garden. Tenants of the subdivisions usually pay a fee for access to water and often don’t get to know any of the other tenants. Where’s the community in that?

Elizabeth and I decided from the outset that this project would seek to GROW community—no subdivisions or “this is mine” or “that’s yours” dynamics. It would all be one common shared space. Water was free thanks to Kircher’s Flowers, a local florist with multiple greenhouses to accommodate our needs. Volunteers worked to varying degrees and harvested varying amounts and no one kept track of who was “entitled” to what. We made some wonderful friendships that year. What we dubbed “Heirloom Peace Gardens” was born. The experience paved the way for our next move—back home.

HPG 2.0
In Japanese culture, there is a centuries old tradition of folding 1,000 origami peace cranes in order for one’s wish to come true. A little girl named Sadako is credited with launching the tradition as an international phenomenon. At the age of two she was exposed to radiation when Americans dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.

Sadako became very ill with leukemia nine years later, so she set the goal of folding a thousand cranes, believing she would then be cured. Tragically, she died a few hundred cranes short of her goal. Family and friends were so moved by her plight, they finished the remaining cranes for her. The tradition went viral…

service learningPrior to moving back to Flint, my wife and I developed a class in Dubuque, Iowa, where we taught a group of kids at the Boys & Girls Club how to live more peacefully with others. Each week we folded paper cranes and taught lessons about how to live more peacefully with others. When 1,000 cranes were done, the kids proudly displayed them in the lobby of the club. Everyone’s wish came true that year.

After the experience in Defiance, Elizabeth and I developed a course curriculum that combined our community garden ideas with the peace cranes class. We approached the BGC in Flint with a proposal: provide us space and minimal resources and we’ll teach a weekly program to help kids learn collaboration skills, basic yoga and meditation, how to create an onsite community garden, and, of course, fold 1,000 peace cranes. Club leaders loved the idea. Heirloom Peace Gardens’ new program, Peace Cranes and Peace Gardens, was ready to grow.

Of Farms, Factories, and Mayhem
Before farming and building automobiles became Michigan’s top industries, the Flint/Saginaw area was prized for hunting and fishing. After Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indians migrated to the area, they coveted the land and its resources, which were being held by a previously-arriving tribe known as the Sauk or Sac (today, the Meskwaki). The Chippewa were driven to massacre a great many Sauk and possess the land. After the carnage, they believed the spirits of the Sauk possessed the land. They were so freaked out by what they’d done, the Chippewa would only hunt and fish and eventually settle into the area after performing atonement rituals. The ancestors recognized the need for reconciliation with past violence before reaping a more-peaceful future.

Perhaps that original bloodstain still exists in the soil. The Land of the Fire Stone (Flint) is often listed by the FBI as the most violent of all in the USA. Perhaps the primeval violence has not yet been atoned…


Past and Present Defeats and Successes
service learningMy maternal grandfather’s resume: soldier, farmer, bootlegger, factory worker. Born in Mid-Michigan in 1899, he figured out whatever means to raise a family of four kids and a wife. He was working for Buick when the Sit-Down Strike of ’36/’37 happened—the one State militia tried to shoot up but resulted in 40-hour work weeks and various other staples of today’s labor force.

Somehow Granpa came up with the down-payment for 10 acres of farm land just east of downtown Flint and added cows, chickens, fruit trees, and an organic veggie garden to his brood. Many of my fondest childhood memories spring from that sacred soil. My cousins and siblings loved especially playing in the chicken coop. Imagine.

One day I noticed quite a bit of egg shells in the garden soil, next to the coop. I ran in the house to tell Granpa, “Somebody threw eggs into our garden!!” It became my first lesson of how to make compost—throw egg shells back to the earth. I didn’t appreciate it until many years later…

Egg Shells in a Bucket
A couple times a week now I think of my Granpa as I toss egg shells into our kitchen’s compost pale. One of our goals with the Peace Cranes and Peace Gardens project at the Boys & Girls Club is to show them how to collect food scraps for compost. Every day, the kids get fed via school programs and the BGC. On Fridays they’re sent home with food for the weekend. What we observed, however, was that a lot of that food was being tossed into the trash by the kids. Maybe for good reason.

service learningThey’re given a lot of packaged, processed food: cereal, cookies, juice in a box, etc. Most of it is high in sugar content and sodium, and the kids have the overweight bodies to prove it. Maybe their yet-to-be-extinguished intuitive spirits are telling them to chuck what’s killing them. So, we taught them how to collect food scraps for composting. A compost station was set up in the cafeteria at the BGC with signs that showed what to and not to throw in the compost buckets.

Along the way on this journey, I’ve gained renewed appreciation for how a simple thing can become a powerful metaphor for learning. We see it in the reactions of kids to collecting “garbage in buckets.” Many of those who think it’s gross and don’t want to take part in it are also those who seem to be challenged by anything new we introduce, tend to be poor listeners, disrespectful, etc. Many of those who think “it’s cool,” are curious/hungry to learn details, show great respect, etc., do so in other ways besides.

Outside we have two compost sites. One is a simple black barrel where scraps are tossed in, stacked up, the worms do their thing, and after several weeks, voila, we have rich dark soil ready to use. We’re teaching the kids how to make very nutrient-rich soil—out of their thrown-away apples, cereal, etc. We’re able to show them how the process is a reminder that every living thing on this Earth is recycled. We’re all connected. You’d think we were magicians by their reactions at seeing food transformed into garden soil.

I think my Granpa would be proud knowing what he taught me 50 years ago is teaching so many children today. I love being able to teach that even castaways have something important to share with their community.

Let’s Get Serious
service learningThe first year that we moved Heirloom Peace Gardens to Flint brought extraordinary results. As the corn grew taller and the whole garden more lush, more and more people stopped by to ask questions. It helped that the garden site was located near the main entrance. I’d often come home and tell my wife that as much “people gardening” happened as tending of the plants that day. They were very impressed, full of questions, and we often had long conversations about the project. We were indeed growing community (and without using Miracle Grow!)

The Boys & Girls Club director approached me one day, having got an earful of feedback from such human encounters and asked about the possibility of expanding the gardening project. I said, “Sure,” with that fatalistic kind of optimism that somehow reassures, despite all trepidations, it’ll all work out. Wow, did it ever!

In May of 2012 we erected a 30’x75’ hoophouse—sort of a portable greenhouse covered in plastic instead of glass. It was a barn raising event that would have been the pride of any Amish community I’ve ever known. The local Coca-Cola distributer was there to give away 250 retro-fitted 55-gallon drums as rain barrels. Dozens of volunteers from throughout the community came together to begin erecting this thing: Habitat for Humanity, students and faculty from local universities, the BGC staff, and a host of otherwise interested members of our community.

It was July before we could plant our first seeds, but we reaped a harvest like few had ever seen. A new community was being born, or more accurately, a very old community was being healed. We were fostering the necessary atonement for the errors of the Ancestors through our lessons and our emphasis on building peaceful relationships with all around us.

service learningDiversity in Plants and People
All of our gardens, including the new hoophouse, are subdivided into ethnic areas representing all of the people who have ever called Flint home. The first year was the Medicine Wheel, honoring the efforts of the first farmers of Flint, the Native Americans, as well as Latinos, and all they passed on to succeeding generations. It featured the Three Sisters Crops—corn, beans, and squash—and provided the lesson of the importance of cooperation and community. The beans give nitrogen to the corn, which provides the means for the beans to climb. And the squash spreads out and shades the soil to keep weeds down and help her sisters thrive. Lesson taught: we each have something unique to give to others in the community that helps our community thrive. Thank you plants, and Native Ancestors!

After erecting the hoophouse, we subdivided that into African/Southern U.S. culture, European and Asian cultures. In the middle of it all was a large area called the Teaching Circle. Each subdivision featured plants valued for that culture’s heritage. So the African/Southern U.S. supported watermelon, cotton, peanuts, greens, and black-eyed peas. In the European garden, we grew lavender, potatoes (Irish Potato Famine), tomatoes, and onions. The Asian side hosted bamboo, daikon radishes, pak choy, soy beans, and Chinese parsley (aka, cilantro). At every step through the gardens we could teach a lesson about the plant, why it was important to the culture, etc.

Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!
service learningThis year we’re starting a new class targeting teens to learn about family history, especially tied to family recipes. We’ll learn what the ingredients are, how to grow them, recreate those dishes at the end of the season, and collect the recipes for a cookbook we can create and sell as a fundraiser this year. In the end, we’ll have discovered that by going back through our history, we’ve gone back to the future. We’re mining gold among the deposits left behind by our elders that will nurture our children toward a healthier and safer future, which is needed to ensure optimal learning. Ultimately, the kids—our future—and their adult overseers, are the winners.

We’re all learning that one way out of food insecurity is to learn how to grow it ourselves. We hope all appreciate how this helps diminish violence among us. We are also learning how this best happens by appreciating and respecting the ways of unlike others in our midst, and that ultimately, there are no “unlike others”—we all need to eat at the end of a day. And it helps if we know how to grow it ourselves!

Project and Orgnaizational Partners:
The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Flint; MSU Extension; Edible Flint; Keep Genesee County Beautiful; Betty Walker, Walker Farms; Coca-Cola; Salem Housing; Habitat for Humanity; The Genesee County Committee for Community Peace; The University of Michigan-Flint; Kettering University; Flint Farmers’ Market; The Flint Children’s Museum; Nartel Family Foundation; United Way of Genesee County; Seed Savers Exchange

Elizabeth’s article about the first peace cranes class in Dubuque, Iowa:
Collardey, E. (2011). "1000 peace cranes: Exploring children’s meanings of peace. Peace and Conflict"

Link to a collection of annotated photos of our first community garden in Defiance, Ohio (chronologically from the bottom up):

UM/MSU research on community gardening and storytelling in Flint:

Recent article in The Flint Journal about our project:

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