“In the industrialized world, we think about things like machines, so the language we use, and I hear this all the time, is that we build gardens,” says Urban Roots founder Levi Gardner. “You don’t build gardens any more than you build a kid.”
In a place like Grand Rapids where the appeal of a modern metropolis is reflected in the exponential growth of its cityscape, Gardner notices the idealization of gardens sprinkled throughout the city in the form of raised garden beds and abandoned fields where gardens existed for short periods of time. This tendency to envision gardening as a cute, frivolous hobby, as opposed to a lifestyle that feeds into systems of ecology, is one that Gardner and his staff of five strive to reconceptualize.
Two years ago, Rapid Growth met with Gardner
, who was just getting acquainted with Urban Roots’ new space on Madison Avenue. There, the organization was able to put into motion some of the bigger projects they had long sought after. Now, after having had the opportunity to solidify their presence in the Grand Rapids community, the group has taken the initiative to, day-by-day, to adjust their ethical practices to fit the lifestyle of as many individuals as possible, despite various upbringings such as socioeconomic status or skin color.
Over the last five years, the non-profit organization’s mantra, “Grow, eat, learn” not only applies directly to the immediate community around them, but is also a change agent for the organization itself, and how the context of its mission to serve others has changed since its conception. The group has made room for “elevating our level of consciousness about the connectivity between all things in the world,” and ensuring that the space of their facility is an open invitation to everyone.
“Grow, eat, learn” is the history, metaphor, and beauty behind the quickly-expanding non-profit organization, Urban Roots—the thriving garden located just a couple blocks wayward from the corner of Madison and Hall.
In late April, Urban Roots hosted a workshop called Start Your First Garden; in attendance were individuals from the local Madison neighborhood, East Grand Rapids, Ada, Rockford, and neighborhoods in between.
“Where else in Grand Rapids are 50 people from those demographics sitting in the same place? Not many, unless they’re shouting at each other, unfortunately,” says Gardner. “So when I look at something like that, I go, ‘That’s a tiny bit of fruit. That’s tiny, but it’s real.’ There’s nothing about that that’s synthetically fertilized."
Similarly, during the second week of June, the organization hosted their first Supperclub dinner of the summer, where they were able to merge separate worlds underneath a single, community event.
“We had multi-millionaire white men over the age of 50, that are from power and privilege, and then we had 18-year old, transgender persons of color on a piece of property on the same day in a world that is as polarized as we are.”
The common denominator, weaving all of these people together? “Grow, eat, learn.”
In the last few years, the organization’s staff has grown from just Gardner, to now a staff of five people, with six interns working alongside them. This year alone, they will have an estimated 50 to 60 groups from different schools, faith communities, and other non-profit organizations visit their facility. In just the past six months, they have received grants from Herman Miller, Spectrum, and Amway to further develop their projects and ideas. And as of now, they are still piecing together their kitchen, because this year, their urban farm will serve approximately 2,000 meals to the local community.
Gardner recalls a visiting student who had never eaten a carrot in their life.
“Not only had they never had a carrot straight from the ground, but they never had a carrot in their life,” says Gardner. “...and they pulled the carrot from the ground and said it was pretty good.”
“Maybe that’s one degree of turning, one degree of I can do something that’s loving to my own body, which is a way of caring for the earth and caring for themselves,” says Gardner. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is trying to change the world. Easy stuff.”
Images courtesy of Urban Roots.