The following is an excerpt from a recent "Conversations with Al McFarlane" which aired on KFAI-FM.
Michael Chaney is leading Project Sweetie Pie.
When we spoke in the neighborhood a little while back he said something that just blew me away. Michael Chaney said he envisioned Plymouth Avenue as the Nile River of north Minneapolis. And the image of the Nile as a source of life and sustenance formed in my mind as he said it – syllable by syllable. It made perfect sense. Michael, thanks for being here today. But what did you mean by that statement, which I classify as a prophecy?
I just want to reiterate some of the things you and LaDonna (Redmond) are talking about. We're all transfixed in time. History is past, present and future. We're at the crossroads. As we talk about history let's talk about the history prior to slavery. Let's talk about the Nile and the development of civilization and culture. Fast forward to the turn of the last century. Corporate America started severing our ties to the land. Now when we talk about food deserts and the plight that we African-Americans are in, I would dare say that the whole planet is suffering from the same kind of dynamic and the same dichotomy – that we were systematically severed from the land, severed from our natural talents and gifts is all a process of formulating a monopoly. It's no surprise that there is no food in our community. It's been systematically created. It's no surprise that there is no economic development in our community. That's all been systematically perpetrated.
Three years ago when there was an attack on our education resource, North High (School, Minneapolis), and [they] were trying to close North High, I along with Sam Grant, Louis Alemayehu and others made a commitment to that school because we felt that to close a school is to kill a heart of the community. We started Project Sweetie Pie. I approached Rose McGee who was baking and marketing classic sweet potato pies, and asked her if we started growing sweet potatoes, would she be willing to buy them from the youth in North Minneapolis? And of course she concurred. Then we went to North High and a little known fact is there's actually a small greenhouse on the campus. North High was once a state-of-the-art magnet school that really had some very progressive, advanced programming. They had a greenhouse that had been fallow for a number of years. We approached Elizabeth Lasley who is the community ed person there and asked could we use this space to start growing sweet potatoes?
And just as I had done with Juneteenth twenty some years ago, I went knocking on doors and asking people, can we use this land to start growing produce? First year we did five gardens. Last year we did 10 gardens and this year we're working on over 20 gardens. When somebody tells me that urban youth don't want to farm, that we can't farm, I find that preposterous because just as you and LaDonna were saying, the history we all share ties us directly to the land.
Sweetie Pie became a vehicle for a public relations campaign; a media campaign to really try to restore that knowledge and to rekindle that love and stewardship for Mother Earth. We've been talking about it. We're being about it.
I lament the stories that suggest many of our kids seem to think fast food and processed foods originate at the fast food store. And we lament the fact that we experience this tremendous epidemic of food-derived obesity exacerbated by lack of exercise, lack of activity food injustice causes so many, many more problems for our physical and emotional health.
And I can't think of a better solution to see than all the gardens I'm noticing throughout the community. When my wife and I drive up and down Plymouth Avenue every day we drive by your garden on Plymouth and Knox. It makes us smile because we know that it's important, so now you've created 30 community gardens – urban farms – how do you organize that? And what are you doing with training, planting, tending and harvesting, and moving the produce to families, to stores? What's the big picture here?
Well the dynamics are as diverse as the number of gardens. We're working with churches. We're working with day care centers. We're working with young Black men and women who are starting to talk about cash crops. We can't make the corporate Fortune 500 Companies to North Minneapolis, but there are over 1,800 empty lots in North Minneapolis. And that's kind of our land base we want to develop as we began getting friends of friends to say, "Hey Michael, you can use my lot. Hey, I've got this piece of land you can use." Folks have been coming forward to help support the mission, help support the vision. We approach every one of them very differently based on the partnerships that we're able to germinate, and the resources we're able to secure. I like to frame it like that. We hear all this talk that it takes a village to raise a child. Let's do a national demonstration model and let's go online and get everybody regardless of whatever their skills or interests are. Is farming going to be something that's going to take over the lives of each and every one of these young people? I dare say not. But certainly again like in Sweetie Pie we like to say that it's a training program for youth and horticulture entrepreneurship, marketing and promotions.
We need to stop looking at our children as the problem and start looking to them for the answers and solutions. That's why we coined the project "Sweetie Pie." Every one of us has got a grandmother who called us "Sweetie Pie" and that's the kind of love, concern and TLC that we've got to bring to these gardens, that we've got to bring to these children, that we've got to bring to our families and our community. We have the resources within our midst. We've got the brain trust. It always amuses me that the larger the community thinks in terms of the "green movement" as a kind of a white hippie thing. But if that's the case then who is a Van Jones? Who is Marjora Carter? Who is Will Allen? And these are all preeminent world leaders, thought leaders who are guiding and directing this whole green movement. And we're blessed to have LaDonna Redmond and Nardele Stroud and other people here in this community who have been doing this gardening for a long time.
We've got more than we give ourselves credit for. We just have to have a common shared vision and line up and really put our ducks in a row and figure out how we can take this movement from just mixed gardening to how can we really become part of the food system. And that's the whole idea of the Nile on Plymouth Avenue. We're really trying to move beyond just this public relations campaign to really putting forth a vision that takes all of our talents, skills, kind of coalesces and create this notion of a destination that is front and center designed by of and for people of color, African-American in particular on Plymouth Avenue.