Sustaining Society

Growing Empowerment
by Stuart Iler -- January 9th, 2013

Welcome to my blog! I’m excited to have this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences with you, and I look forward to hearing some feedback as well. In writing this blog, I aim to explore some of the values, beliefs, and practices that impact our lives, and to generally reflect on what it means to ‘sustain society.’ I expect that my posts will range from the practical to the philosophical, but in all cases, I hope that they’ll be both interesting and thought provoking!



In this first post, I’d like to share with you a tangible experience I had with urban agriculture this past November. To me, growing food – and particularly growing food in cities – is a fascinating subject. Part of the reason for my fascination stems from urban agriculture’s potentially far-reaching and profound impacts, spanning human health, environmental protection, food access, the strength of communities, job creation, and perhaps even the structure of our economy. For this post, though, I’ll focus on a particular experience I had and the lessons I felt it offered me.


Let me introduce two organizations: the first is Growing Power, an accomplished urban agriculture nonprofit founded by Will Allen, MacArthur Genius Award winner and former professional basketball player. The second is Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (IFFS), a Raleigh-based nonprofit with a mission to pioneer ‘innovative, transformative solutions designed to end hunger in our community.’ In late 2011, IFFS partnered with Longview School to create the latest Regional Outreach Training Center for Growing Power, and on November 10 and 11, 2012, I traveled to the Training Center to attend the first annual Plant the Pavement! Workshop Series.


The goal of the workshop was simple: help people and the community to learn about – and gain experience with – Growing Power’s innovative urban farming methods. The event included a variety of hands-on sessions, such as hoop house (greenhouse) construction, aquaponics, and composting. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend all of the sessions in a single weekend, so I opted for the hoop house construction. In short, it was a wonderful experience: sawing planks, bending pipes, and fastening huge clouds of plastic sheets atop rows of semicircle-shaped support structures.


Bending pipe for the hoops.


But for me, a huge component of the learning in this experience was not contained in the drawings for the hoop house, nor in any of the other instructions we received: it was the realization that a group of strangers – with relatively limited experience – could achieve something so out-of-the-ordinary.


Let me say something about myself: I am not a farmer. In fact, I have not developed many (if any) of the skills that, perhaps not too long ago, were considered indispensable to the human condition: carpentry, canning, sewing, and a slew of others. Instead, I taught myself to program computers in the sixth grade and, in most respects, that development has remained a part of my professional journey ever since. But a desire to connect with the land and to work with my hands has been steadily with me. In an effort to continue to explore that, I enrolled in the workshop.


Nearly-completed hoop house.


All said, when I gathered with perhaps 20 others under a clear, sunny sky in the middle of a dirt plot in Raleigh, I was both intimidated and inspired by my lack of experience – the latter stemming from a desire to soak up as much knowledge as sunlight. But over the course of two days, my sense of intimidation lessened and a feeling of inspiration grew. We were strangers, and yet we worked together as a team – focused on a single task. We had limited experience, but with capable leadership, we accomplished something that most of us had never done before. We were of all ages and backgrounds, but I was as likely to see a grandmother and her grandson wielding a drill as I was a large man with a jackhammer; we brought the abilities we had, and fit them together like a puzzle. And as that weekend drew to a close, we left that dirt plot feeling more empowered than we were before – and that, I think, was perhaps the biggest lesson of all.


Since then, I’ve returned to my life as usual, though certainly a little changed. And I’m not sure when I’ll next build a hoop house, let alone begin to farm the space within it. But for a weekend, I felt a sense of self-sufficiency, community, and connection with the land that – in my experience – is not always easy to come by.

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