Nuestras Raíces: Working Together as a Community
Location: Holyoke, Massachusetts
Contact: Daniel Ross; 413.535.1789; firstname.lastname@example.org
The term "youth gardening" may be a misleading term in the Holyoke organization of Nuestras Raíces, where generations work and learn together as they aim to improve the environmental, economic, and social health of their community. Urban agriculture is the root and primary tool of this organization, which today is the leading environmental justice and sustainable development group working in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Youth working at Nuestras
Raíces farm stand
Holyoke, Massachusetts, like many New England towns, faces a series of environmental challenges that stem from its industrial past. Once known as the "Paper City," this former paper-making centre has begun to cope with its history through the clean-up of polluted air, water, and soils. One local group that has been very active in these efforts is Nuestras Raíces ("Our Roots"), an organization which has used urban agriculture as a tool to promote economic and community development in Holyoke. Founded in 1991 by a group of local community gardeners, this organization has expanded to include 10 gardens, a 30 acre farm, greenhouse, farm market, bakery, library, and restaurant. Holyoke has the largest percentage of Puerto Rican-born citizens of any U.S. city outside of Puerto Rico, and Nuestras Raíces provides a critical link to the agricultural landscapes of Puerto Rico in the industrial environment of Holyoke. Building community pride is an important role of Nuestras Raíces, and agriculture is a way for age groups to connect, as elders share their farming skills with a younger generation that is working for a healthier future in Holyoke.
History of Nuestras Raíces
In 1991, a group of gardeners began a community garden named La Finquita ("Little Farm"), which was created to provide local low income families with land to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. The garden had over 30 large family plots, but interest in the garden was so high that this number soon proved to be inadequate. The Puerto Rican community embraced the concept of the community garden, and the gardens provided a source of neighborhood pride and a sense of personal accomplishment. Community Garden Director William Aponte declares that the gardens are critical for community health: "people were so proud, so passionate about [their gardens]...this was a way for them to have ownership over the land again. This was just something that had to be done." La Finquita still exists today, and Nuestras Raíces now manages a total of eight community gardens and two youth gardens. The group has aimed to distribute these evenly throughout Holyoke in order to maximize their influence on the city.
Protectores de la Tierra designing trails
at Tierra de Opportunidades
The group not only increased their efforts with community gardens, but also extended their efforts to address local issues related to environmental and economic development, food security, and substance abuse. One of their first projects was to transform an abandoned building and vacant lot into the Centro Agrícola or "Agricultural Center," a community center that includes an outdoor plaza, restaurant, community kitchen, bilingual library, and meeting space. The youth of Nuestras Raíces worked with a local architect to design a plaza that includes a fountain, demonstration gardens, and tropical flower displays, and acts as a setting for outdoor events such as flower shows, concerts, and festivals.
The group has since worked to impact food and health issues on a city-wide scale, and has been instrumental in the formation of several activist groups. They helped form the Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Coalition, which helps people gain access to locally grown foods and exercise opportunities, as well as the Holyoke Youth Task Force and the Holyoke Environmental Health Coalition.
Environmental Justice in Holyoke
The involvement of youth in groups like the Holyoke Youth Task Force and the Holyoke Environmental Health Coalition is important to the goals of Nuestras Raíces, who has developed its own youth leadership team known as Protectores de la Tierra, or "Protectors of the Earth." The youth of this group work on a diverse set of projects related to farming, environmental stewardship, nutrition, entrepreneurship, and youth leadership, and visit local schools to share their knowledge and experience with younger kids. One example of this is a five year collaboration they have had with Williamsburg, a rural town which is a 45-minute drive from Holyoke. The Protectores have worked in a kindergarten there, and have helped the children design and install a school garden. In 2006 the youth helped design and build an underground irrigation system in the garden, aided by the skills of William Aponte. Aponte said that the installation day was a unique experience: "the kids were really excited about it–we are talking about 5 and 6 year old kids getting involved and helping out alongside our youth, learning about the connections and how the system worked. Everyone had a lot of fun."
Nuestras Raíces youth teaching gardening
skills to a Williamsburg kindergartener
In 2007, Nuestras Raíces changed the format of Protectores de la Tierra so that youth would no longer be "youth leaders", but would become "youth staff", formally employed by the organization. In 2007, the first year of the switch, 15 youth work 6 to 8 hours per week doing the school year, and 15 hours per week during the summer months. These youth are paired with adult program leaders in small groups, and supervise 25 other youth assigned from outside agencies to work on the farm and gardens during the summer on a variety of projects. Aponte feels that the new format has given youth "a new sense of responsibility and pride," and hopes that when they leave the program they will be better prepared to find employment. Aponte currently supervises two youth staff who work with him on an environmental justice project. The youth collaborate with Mt. Holyoke College students to address air pollution through mapping studies, historical research, and a bilingual educational campaign about a new Massachusetts anti-idling law.
Farming on the banks of the Connecticut River
Youth staff are also heavily involved in another recent project of Nuestras Raíces - Tierra de Oportunidades, or "Land of Opportunities", which is a 30 acre farm located on the banks of the Connecticut River. These 30 acres are primarily for training and supporting beginning farmers, community members who were farmers in Puerto Rico and who now want the opportunity to raise crops and livestock in Massachusetts. The site is also host to a variety of activities and projects which focus on community and youth development, economic development, environmental stewardship, culture, and education. The Protectores de la Tierra have worked with farm manager Eric Toensmeier to create a youth farm where they raise herbs, vegetables, berries, and flowers that they sell at an on-site farm store. The youth have been trained in agricultural techniques by older farmers, who volunteer their time to work at the farm and are happy to share the agricultural knowledge and traditions they have brought with them from Puerto Rico. The youth also helped build and design a petting zoo which they help manage, and they sometimes lead local school kids on tours of the zoo and farm.
Visitors also learn about environmental stewardship at Tierra de Oportunidades, where the youth of Protectores de la Tierra have created a series of educational trails. The trails feature bilingual signs that teach about the history and ecology of the site, which includes critical wildlife habitat and a unique riparian buffer zone.
Nuestras Raíces has been successful in Holyoke because its support from the many participants and volunteers who take pride in working to improve Holyoke's future. The gardens of Nuestras Raíces stand in contrast to the urban landscape which surrounds them, and they give people an opportunity to come together on equal terms. "Nuestras Raíces is about adults and youth working together to improve Holyoke," says executive director Daniel Ross, "these projects grow out of the cultural and social assets of our community." To learn more about Protectores de la Tierra, Tierra de Oportunidades, and other Nuestras Raíces projects, visit http://www.nuestras-raices.org, or contact executive director Daniel Ross at 413.535.1789; email@example.com.