October 22, 2011: Teach-Out to Hilltop Urban Gardens, by Erin McLaughlin, CAGJ Intern
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I’ll begin with a confession: before the teach out, I had never set foot on an urban farm. I’ll follow that up with another confession: I was not looking forward to the new experience. Hearing my alarm ring at 8 AM on a Saturday, my first thoughts were about how I would rather be sleeping. I like to rest on Saturdays and even more importantly the experience was just too new for me. The upcoming adventure had unfamiliar written all over it. But I realized the importance of this trip to Tacoma, because finally, I was receiving the chance to experience first hand the local food system. As an intern at CAGJ, I had spent a great deal of time reading about our food system, food justice and food sovereignty, but I still felt like I did not know enough about it.
We began our time at Hilltop Urban Gardens with an introduction to our host, Dean Jackson, the founder of HUG. He shared with us the history and structure of HUG. Dean started HUG in 2009 as a community urban farm that focuses on social justice. The farm encourages the community to eat healthy and understand systems of oppression within society. HUG began because Dean saw a need for it. He knew the Hilltop as a community that experienced gang activity, a neighborhood that some people probably wouldn’t dare to drive through. Dean started by going door to door, visiting his neighbors. He asked if they too saw a need for communal farming and social justice awareness. Fortunately, he was not alone and HUG began.
Hilltop Urban Gardens has three main focuses: Community Development, Farm Networking, and Organizational Development. HUG’s community development program is called Lets Grow! and it focuses on educating the community. HUG teaches age appropriate gardening classes (for youth, high school students and adults). Each of these programs includes aspects of social justice, specifically focusing on the Hilltop and the food system. The next program is called the Farm Network. This aspect of HUG is the growing process. HUG works towards food independence. This means that the community members donate land and grow food for the community. The end products are shared with everyone. Lastly, a major focus of HUG is the agency’s organizational development. HUG has a lot of space for expansion, and Dean is working with the community to ensure that happens.
After our introduction to the farm, Dean showed us to the six farm locations. Five out of the six locations are part of community members’ yards. Each of the farm locations were overflowing with beautiful vegetables. Dean insisted we pick off whichever fruits and vegetables we wanted and eat it straight from the tree. I could not believe the delicious tomatoes, raspberries and green beans that HUG was growing. They were unbelievable! The sixth location is a spacious lot, which HUG has transformed into its main growing location.
Then, we got to work. Our job was to put gravel on one of the farm’s paths and dig up weeds. The work was fun, but the best part was interacting with Dean and listening to his stories about the formation of HUG. He told us about how a year ago, he envisioned HUG expanding and having its’ own land, but the community lacked the resources to buy a plot of land. During a conversation Dean had with his sister, he explained that in order to do the work he envisioned, HUG needed more land. Right then, she told him, she’d buy the land for HUG. The heartwarming story really showed me that HUG will continue to expand, because so many people believe in it. Dean also shared with us the changing dynamic of the Hilltop since HUG began. Previously, the community members kept to themselves. There was little interaction between anyone, mostly due to gang activity. Some blocks experienced more activity then others, but it kept people in their houses. Once HUG began, there became more of a reason for people to interact. Dean said that people often tell him how much more the Hilltop feels like a real community, as opposed to just people living in the same vicinity. The differences that HUG has made in the Hilltop community amazed me.
I had a great time visiting HUG, and I am definitely glad I overcame my fear of dealing with a new experience at such an early hour on a Saturday. In fact, I know I will be visiting many more urban farms in the future. Visiting Hilltop Urban Gardens was a transformative experience, because I learned so much first hand about our local food system. As Dean reminded us at the end of the trip, there is great work being done in Tacoma, something Seattleites easily forget. Additionally, HUG reinforced the power of community. Dean would not be able to make such powerful change happen without the community. Lastly, I learned that I had not experienced tomatoes until visiting Hilltop Urban Gardens. Because of the tomatoes from the HUG farm, I’m not sure that I’ll be happy with a grocery store tomato ever again. Most importantly, there are ways that you can support HUG! On Facebook, “like” Hilltop Urban Gardens; it’s a great way to spread the word about the important work HUG does in Tacoma. Also, if you visit the CAGJ Facebook page, you can check out pictures from the event.