'Pockets of change:' Losing faith in institutions, Missourians look to themselves for solutions

Thursday, January 10, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:16 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 10, 2013
The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture began in 2008 when three MU graduates decided to do something involving urban agriculture. The organization now runs a 1.3-acre farm at Smith and Fay streets, sells produce to several high-end restaurants, provides landscaping services, organizes educational visits for middle school students, builds community gardens for low-income residents and organizations and attracts more and more volunteers and community affection.

Aidan’s red plush hat warms up his ears against the 32-degree, sunny November morning. It’s Saturday, and the 8-year-old woke up early to come to school together with his mother, April Ferrao, and older brother, Jordan. He’s going to plant his first apple tree.

At least that’s what the grown-ups think. About two years ago, Aidan took the seeds from an apple he had eaten and planted them in his family’s backyard. He kept checking on the seeds until one day something started growing. It was a red bud tree, his mother had tried to tell him. But Aidan wouldn’t hear it; he was overjoyed that his apple tree had taken root.

So on this Saturday, as he heaps soil around the apple sapling in the school yard, he tells teachers and parents around him in a soft voice: “You know what we did when we planted a seed? It turned into a tree.”

The Ferraos, along with about 15 other kids, parents, professors and volunteers, had gathered at Ridgeway Elementary School to plant fruit trees for future generations of students as part of Urban Orchards, a program of the Columbia Center of Urban Agriculture and other partners.

The center began in 2008 when three MU graduates decided to do something amazing involving urban agriculture. From an initial plan “to plant a lot and use students,” as co-founder Daniel Soetaert describes it, the organization now runs a 1.3-acre farm at Smith and Fay streets, sells produce to several high-end restaurants, provides landscaping services, organizes educational visits for middle school students, builds community gardens for low-income residents and organizations and attracts more and more volunteers and community affection.

The four 20-somethings in charge will talk a lot about their passion for growing food or their steep learning curve in dealing with finances and managing a business. But, most of all, they’ll talk about the many ways in which they’re trying to involve the community.

“This doesn’t exist about us at all,” says staff coordinator Billy Polanski. “We want this to be about everybody. When we’re dead or tired of doing this, someone else can come and do this.”

Amid a divisive election year and an extended economic mess, groups and organizations have begun or continued their years-long work of solving problems, getting things done and involving their communities — all outside the arc of regular politics.

A study published in October by the Maryland-based Harwood Institute for Public Innovation showed that Americans in a cross-section of ages, backgrounds and regions were desperate. They were concerned by the “broken moral compass” that was guiding the country down a wrong path. They recognized the triumph of consumerism and people’s dependency on instant gratifications. They lacked trust in leaders and organizations of any kind — including their families; people talked about friends or relatives who had lost their homes during the recession, moved in with them and were found stealing from their hosts. They lost faith in the American Dream.

Another survey, released by Time/Penn Schoen Berland in 2011, showed that 68 percent of Americans think the last decade marked a decline in American life.

The surprise in the Harwood study came with the solutions people saw. In a similar study in 1991, people wanted to reform the political system. In 2012, government had become irrelevant. Instead, people were talking about taking matters into their own hands, finding ways to work with one another in small “pockets of change,” setting and achieving goals and building a new, better trajectory for the country.

Researcher and Harwood Institute founder Rich Harwood says people are struggling with the impasse the country is in, marked by a lack of trust and values. Yet, there are these pockets of change that, combined, form another picture, which he chooses to see.

The pockets of change don’t have much meaning unless they are seen in a broader context, tied together in the unfolding narrative of a larger story, Harwood says.

“I think narratives are made up of stories over time that help people see where we were, where we are and where we’re going,” Harwood says. At any given time, there is a competition of narratives, and people actively choose which one to follow, depending on their previous experiences.

Carrie Hargrove from the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture says: “You know, when you learn about movements and things in school, whole decades you talk about in like a chapter of a book, and it takes 30 minutes to think about,” she says. “But living that day to day, it kind of feels like it’s crawling. It goes a lot slower than school ever led me to believe change can happen.”

More pockets, led by more young people

National data suggests there are more pockets of change each year. Volunteering in the U.S. reached a five-year high in 2011, according to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Roughly one in four adults volunteered through an organization, marking the highest rate since 2006.

There were more than 1.5 million nonprofits registered across the country in 2012, about 300,000 more than 10 years ago, according to data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

What these groups have in common is that they usually work on small and local projects; serve as connectors among the public, businesses and the government; create a space for people to work together; help build people’s confidence by putting them to work; promote an exclusively positive narrative; pursue small victories such as planting an apple tree rather than changing a complex law; create ripple effects; inspire others; restore hope.

They are often led by young people.

The importance of communities was a recurrent theme in the Missourian’s reporting project American Next, which explored the changing dreams and expectations of Millennials across the state. Young people talked less about professional and financial aspirations and more about building their lives close to their families and working with and for their communities — whether it was the man in Fulton who decided to buy the local shoe store to save it from closure or the young woman in Rocheport who relished her bakery and tight community.

Young people are in the right position to lead a change toward a more community-oriented society, Harwood says.

“This generation is more tolerant, has grown up amid diversity, so diversity is not an issue for them as it is for my generation — I’m at the very end of the Baby Boom,” Harwood says. “What I find with Millennials is there is a much greater desire to get together and take action in a practical way, in ways that make a difference.”

Starting small, starting local

Jessie Conner started looking for a job after she graduated from college in 2005 with a degree in social work. She couldn’t find one right away, so she enlisted in AmeriCorps for a year of service with Rebuilding Together St. Louis, an organization that helps elderly or disabled home owners with house repairs, adjustments and maintenance. A few months into her service, the organization offered her a permanent job as program director.

She oversees everything from volunteer recruitment and management to project logistics, homeowner selection and grants administration. And she seems to enjoy it a lot.

“Every day that I come into my office, my goal is to help somebody who needs it and to be able to make the link between what (elderly people) need, which is help with home repairs, with volunteers who have that knowledge and are willing to give back," she says. "Just that whole process is pretty rewarding.”

Andrea Englert, jobs development specialist with Community Options, an organization in Chillicothe, also talks about her role as a link between different parts of the community that come together to improve people’s lives.

The organization pairs disabled people with companies that offer them jobs and also assists with training — anything from what to wear to an interview to how to succeed at the new job — transportation and housing.

Englert does it “by getting to know them as best as I can and by getting to know the community as best as I can so that I can try to match people with the right boss, the right place.”

Aligning organizations with everyday people is one of the common features of the pockets of change described in the Harwood study. Another one is a focus on small and local actions.

When he was in college, Daniel Soetaert from the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture used to want to change the world and be a modern, nonviolent Che Guevara. He later realized he would get satisfaction from seeing change happen in his own backyard.

A few years ago, he saw a group of young people in Columbia organizing a march against the war in Iraq. He thought for a moment but then told himself: “I’m not going on your march today. I’m going to dig a garden.”

When farm manager Carrie Hargrove was in college, she was part of a student-run environmental group that was trying to implement a composting program at Columbia College. It worked for a semester, and then the school went back to its old ways.

“Trying to change the entrenched bureaucracy of the school taught me that, if something’s important to you and you think it should be different, you have to change it for yourself because it can be really hard to change any larger system that’s been in place way longer that you’ve been a part of it,” she says.

Success, one garden at a time

If they are not able — or even interested — to change complex systems, what these groups do is create a space where people can come together, work on common projects and celebrate their successes.

“The key to organizing is creating that space where people feel welcome, they feel valued, and they feel they’re rewarded for their work through the fruits of their labor — literally the fruits — but also the community that’s created around working together for the common good,” says Adam Saunders with the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture.

In the case of his organization, the space is often the urban farm at Smith and Fay. Saunders says hands-on work is important because people can see pretty quickly how they create value. This, in turn, helps people build confidence.

The people at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture see this most often with their Opportunity Gardens program, in which they build gardens for low-income residents and teach them how to maintain them. Since the program’s launch last year, the group has helped build about 50 gardens in Columbia.

“Even if it’s a small amount of confidence in this reality where they can’t, for whatever reason, seem to make ends meet, they can still take over this small corner of their life and grow 50 pounds of tomatoes for themselves,” Hargrove says. “Or they get to know their neighbor down the street because they both have gardens, and one has been gardening his whole life.”

Andrea Englert from Community Options in Chillicothe recalls a client whom she was trying to help find a job. The woman had depression and low self-esteem, so Englert decided she needed an ego boost. She organized an entire makeover: They went shopping for clothes, and a local Mary Kay consultant came in and did the woman’s make-up. They took her pictures and showed her how good she looked. Then, on the same day, Englert accompanied the woman to apply for jobs. She got a job and became successful at it. “She doesn’t even look like the same person,” Englert says.

Apart from self-confidence, these actions sometimes build people’s confidence in one another and in the good of society. When the homeowners whose houses had been repaired by Rebuilding Together St. Louis come to Jessie Conner, overwhelmed with emotion, she tells them: “This is the good stuff that St. Louis does. So when you’re feeling down and when you’re watching the news, just think about Rebuilding Together.”

In his research, Harwood discovered that people are trying to re-establish a sense of trust in society; they are trying to forge meaningful relationships and redevelop their confidence that people can work together. “Because most of the problems we face in society, we can’t address by ourselves,” he says.

A (small) place for government

Community Options started in 1991, when a small, government-funded group home in Chillicothe was closed down. The people with disabilities who lived there were about to be moved to another town. But they had lived in Chillicothe for a long time, and they were invested in the community. They worked there, and they went to church there. So a group of people in town decided to find a way for them to stay and opened three supported-living homes and an association, which at the time was called Concerned Citizens for the Development of the Disabled.

Eventually, the group got funding through Senate Bill 40. When it added a job placement component in 1993, it was funded by the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Those are the main sources of funding for Community Options today, along with the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

Rebuilding Together St. Louis gets some government funding through the city and the AmeriCorps program. But most of its funds come from corporations and people.

Jessie Conner says the most important thing is to continue to serve the people who need it, no matter where the money comes from.

“If a government grant gets cut, then that’s fine. We’ll try to get another corporation on board or another individual donor or something,” she says.

Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture also gets federal money for two AmeriCorps Vista volunteers and funding from the Missouri Department of Agriculture for its Opportunity Gardens program. The funding, especially through AmeriCorps, allowed it to be more competitive and write more grants. But the founders aren’t relying on it. Instead, they have multiple revenue streams, including landscaping services and the produce they sell to restaurants and at the farmers market.

“If we didn’t have government money, we wouldn’t be able to do all the things we’re doing, but we wouldn’t shut down,” Billy Polanski says.

He sees some similarities between his organization and the government in terms of providing education and welfare services.

“The government provides food stamps; we provide a garden,” he says. “People can choose to fund us or not. You can’t be upset with us because you don’t have to pay us.”

In a way, his and his colleagues’ work is supplementing what the government does. It provides a different kind of education and social support. “We don’t run the community,” he says. “We’re part of it.”

“Focus on something great”

In 1991, Harwood found people were more likely to blame the politicians, corporations and the media for pushing them out of the public square; in 2012, respondents were talking about their own shortcomings — and the inherent qualities that would help them move forward. The pockets of change are built on people’s aspirations rather than their frustrations.

Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s motto is “Food is good,” and one of the organization’s guidelines is that its members will avoid any type of negative discourse.

“We felt there was too much doom and gloom,” Soetaert says. “Why don’t we focus on something great, fundamental and awesome: good food.”

In the same way in which they change or improve little things, the members get their satisfaction in the same small doses.

It can be witnessing the joy of a child when he realizes the weed he pulled from the ground has a carrot in tow or that the new handrail installed in an older woman’s home will make it easier and safer for her to walk up and down the stairs. Or it could be seeing the pride in someone’s eyes because he or she is doing well at the new job after months of being homeless and fighting depression.

Another thing that gives these young people satisfaction is to see the ripple effects of their work.

Carrie Hargrove recalls enthusiastically that the woman who lives across the street from their farm was inspired to plant her own vegetable garden, even though when the urban farm first opened, the woman was disappointed it was taking over her children’s casual football field.

One of Jessie Conner’s dearest projects was expanding a house for a former war veteran, who turned it into a temporary shelter for other war veterans.

Andrea Englert, together with others in Chillicothe, are organizing a resource center that would more comprehensively connect people in need with organizations of any kind that might help them and put them to work.

And Adam Saunders is part of a group of people who are putting together a food policy council in Boone County that would bring together farmers, distributors, processors, government officials, school and nonprofit representatives to find ways to make the business better for everyone.

What connects these people is often a desire — past or present, expressed or kept a secret — to change the world, to leave their mark. They have learned to make the change in small, persistent steps.

“I wanted to change inequality, poverty, war, resources, abuse, hatred — all that freaking stuff,” Soetaert says one afternoon while filling holes in the urban farm’s chicken coop.

“One thing at a time,” Polanski says. “Let’s start with food.”

Supervising editor is Tom Warhover.

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