A Message from Max Elliott: 10 Things from 14 Years
Urban Roots has reached the end of an era. Over the past 14 years, Urban Roots Executive Director Max Elliott has led the organization’s empowering and inspiring youth leadership development programs, ensured that community nourishment remained at the forefront of what we do, and helped Urban Roots become a valuable source of produce for local food access programs. As you may have heard, Max is stepping down from his leadership of Urban Roots at the end of July and is moving on to pursue the next stage of his career in clinical social work and farming. The organization would not be where it is today without his hard work, dedication, vision, and guidance. He leaves behind an amazing legacy, and we are so grateful for his service. We wish him the best in his future endeavors and look forward to seeing what he does next! Below is a message from Max himself, a reflection upon his time at Urban Roots. Farewell, Max! We will miss you!
10 Things from 14 Years by Max Elliott
Reflecting on my time at Urban Roots, I’ve been so fortunate to learn many things. Here is a sampling of my favorite lessons:
Farming is a long game. When you’re in the weeds, it’s easy to get stressed about one crop or even one season. We have had some beautifully abundant years, like this one, and in other years the farm has flooded – twice! Ah, 2015, I remember you well. But the farm has taught us that as long as we invest in the soil, the farm will abide.
Hunger cannot be solved with food alone. In the last 12 years, we have grown about 500,000 lbs of food, but we have not solved hunger in our community. My friend, Raj Patel, is always quick to point out that people experience hunger because of long-standing systems of inequality, including institutionalized racism, poverty, and inequitable education. Yes, food feeds people. But to solve hunger, we must work to uproot systems of oppression and inequity that contribute to it in the first place.
Young people are inspiring! I am always blown away by the courage, energy, and wisdom of the youth in our programs. We guide them and provide the tools and opportunities, but it’s the power of their vulnerability and resilience and eagerness that makes them leaders in the end. Daysy, a youth leader from 2010 thoughtfully reflected, “As the plants grow, you’re growing as a person, too. It’s like you’re growing with it.”
You never walk onto the same farm twice. Nature is constantly shifting and evolving – one day a newly sprouted seed pushes through the soil where just yesterday it was hidden, or a flower drops and is replaced by the fruit, or the tell-tale nibbles of a pest appear on leaf edges. Every day on the farm provides a new chance to explore and discover. The farm beckons you to browse its rows, and invites your senses to play and your heart to open with a sense of wonder and awe.
A farm can be a place of community healing.William Buster, from St. David’s Foundation, once shared a story about the power of farming. He said that while people have always had a connection to land and to farming, systems of oppression like slavery, capitalism, and white supremacy have manipulated and harmed that relationship for many people of color. Agriculture, on its own, did not create this harm. When we acknowledge this oppressive history, learn from the past, and uproot these oppressive systems, a farm can be a healing space to reconnect with food and the earth.
Teamwork is the Dreamwork.I am so fortunate to have worked alongside many incredibly committed, hard-working young people, staff members, community leaders, chefs, farmers, and volunteers. As a collaborative leader, I have always appreciated the opportunities to find creative and playful ways to develop the teamiest team. P.S. Karaoke and farm-fresh food helps!
Falling down is ok. At the very end of my job interview with YouthLaunch, the original parent organization of Urban Roots, I went to shake hands with my interviewers and as I went to stand up, I started to topple…my leg did not respond and I fell, in super-slow motion, onto the ground, looking up at them in horror. Apparently, my foot had fallen asleep during the interview. Three seconds later, I bounced back up on my feet and said, “Well, that was weird” to their shocked faces. Needless to say, I got the job. But first, I had to get back up on my feet.
Growing food has a powerful impact on people. When we first pitched the idea of Urban Roots at civic clubs and neighborhood meetings, often people would linger after the presentation. With a gleam in their eye, they would share stories about times growing food when they were a kid. Whether it was on their uncle’s farm or in their grandmother’s garden, they delighted in the memories of the early morning sun rising over the crops – experiences that have become part of who they are.
People can be awkward. Both youth and adults always seem nervous around each other – What to ask? What to say? Fortunately, we’ve learned that team-building games can lighten the mood and time working side-by-side in the field to grow food for the community has the power to not only break through social barriers but to create bonds.
Getting your hands dirty is good for you. Science has proven that being in nature contributes to overall well-being, but dig in further (pun intended!), and you’ll learn that the soil itself teems with bacteria that makes our bodies resilient to stress. So many people report that when they are on the farm, their blood pressure seems to lower. Pair that with the exercise and nutritious food farming produces, and who needs the gym?