A Topsy-Turvy Year In Review

By Urban Roots Executive Director Frances Deviney

I have a 2020 Planner that sits on the corner of the desk in my office. And by “desk” I mean a wobbly 1970s card table with my mom’s name written in all caps on the back, from her bridge-playing days. And by “office” I mean guest-room-turned-office, complete with the cat’s litter box – for a cat that has made many a Zoom debut in recent months. You get the picture. Anyway, I’m quite certain that this 2020 planner, with its cute cover and empty pages full of broken promises of dinners out with friends, summer vacations, and back to school event dates – is mocking me. Frankly, I’m not sure why I haven’t pitched it. Or, you know, set fire to it in a ritual burning. I could, quite literally, watch 2020 go up in flames. Some days it’s tempting, but

While it is painfully true that this year has wrought challenges both big and small, from the cancelled graduation ceremonies and birthday celebrations to the situations too excruciating to fathom – endless lines at food banks across the nation to families forced to say a final goodbye via Facetime due to this unrelenting virus. As positive cases in communities of color have skyrocketed, what has been so obvious to them all along has now been laid bare for the rest of us to reckon with. The muck at the bottom of our nation’s proverbial bucket has most certainly surfaced thanks to two intertwined pandemics – the Coronavirus and racial inequity. And some days it can feel like too much to take on, that it can never be repaired. But

As the sun rises over the Urban Roots farm and the dew on the leaves sparkles in the new day’s light, and I watch the monarchs flit from plant to plant as a dedicated crew of Fellows and community volunteers – masked and distanced – work alongside our fiercely committed staff to harvest hundreds of pounds of produce for our hungry neighbors, there’s something else I see – the glimmer of hope. No, you know what, it’s more than a glimmer. Some days the joy and hope are so abundant it breathes new life into us, reminding us that when we work together to feed one another – with food, yes, but also with connection and care, when we acknowledge injustice and do the painstaking, necessary work to right it, we can create a new normal. And I don’t mean the “new normal” splashed across headlines or an overly rosy view either. The new normal we envision is based on what has been proven out, on the ground, in the soil, and yes – online – month after month in this topsy-turvy, never-to-be-forgotten year.

In 2020 you helped us:
– Grow 40% more produce and donate 20,121 pounds of fresh produce to food access partners
– Pioneer a direct farm-to-family coalition with GAVA to feed hungry neighbors impacted by COVID-19
– Pay $66,220 directly to youth leaders for their hard work as they build leadership skills
– Sign a lease on a second farm site to serve South Austin youth and their families.

And through it all, while we kept putting one foot in front of the other, few of us embodied the resilience and vulnerability that this year has required more than Urban Roots youth. For many, not only did school move to remote learning, so did our programming – a whole new challenge for a program that relies on an in-person experience both on the farm and, for our South Austin Internship youth, in the community talking with neighbors. With the kind of isolation that lockdown required though, we knew that connecting with youth, helping them to feel less alone and to process everything happening, would be one of the most important things we could do.

So what did that look like? This summer youth from our Farm Internship Program each received a squash plant to grow at home, documenting and reporting back on their progress along the way. They received produce from the farm and videoed themselves cooking a recipe. They also Zoom-met with Urban Roots Farm Manager Montana Stovall to learn more about the farm, even if they couldn’t yet experience it in person. Unfortunately, virtual programming meant that youth missed opportunities to lead community farm tours, to practice public speaking, and to experience the magic of the farm itself. But they were safe, connected with others, and growing – and I don’t just mean squash.

No one explains the experience better than our youth though. Rodolfo, a 14 year old youth leader from our South Austin Internship program, grew in a way that he had struggled with prior to participating in the program. Rodolfo had experience volunteering in his community, but when he learned about Urban Roots, he was excited to work on the farm. Unfortunately, shortly after Rodolfo’s program was underway, the pandemic forced programming to be 100% virtual.

“I thought it wasn’t going to be as much fun because I was looking forward to going to the farm,” Rodolfo explains, “but I decided it was still a good opportunity to work in groups because I had struggled with that at school.” Rodolfo admits that sharing virtually was challenging in the beginning. But after weeks of support, guidance, and practice, he says, “I learned how to communicate ideas and how to build on others’ ideas. This year, I’ve been able to speak more confidently in front of other people and to work better in groups.” Rodolfo may not have been on the farm, but he did a different kind of hard work – growing his leadership skills, his ability to work with others, and his confidence. That’s a win that even a pandemic can’t diminish.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we’ve learned that a key quality of some of the best leaders is their willingness to be vulnerable. Rae, one of our Food and Leadership Fellows, has a powerful story about how the farm became a refuge for her during one of the most challenging times of her life.

As a self-professed “high strung” perfectionist, Rae tells about how a workshop on identity was “the first time [she] was exposed to a community that made it okay to be vulnerable.” She goes on to share that the impactful experience came at a perfect time, as the following fall she lost her brother. Rae shares how when she called in to share the news with her Program Leaders, she received “so much empathy and grace” and love. Most people that spend time on the farm have shared that it has a magical feel and can be a place of solace and reflection. Rae’s Program Leader designed a list of no-pressure tasks for her to complete in those especially tender first weeks after her brother’s death. Rae says those days on the farm gave her “a breather from grief.”

Rae shares that the experience taught her that she “has a community to support” her, and that “[she] was allowed to ask for help.” Those takeaways are perfect for the rest of this year – having a community to support us can make all the difference, and that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

So while my 2020 Planner may not be filled with special occasions, the year has offered something deeply meaningful – the opportunity to lead an organization with a purpose that has been made clearer than ever. Clarity to inspire the next generation of change-makers, clarity on our stance in the fight for food justice, and the clarity that food justice is racial justice. We have learned that when all feels lost, there is an opportunity to dig into what really matters and to see through a new lens – not the too-rosy kind – but the kind that allows us to see the sometimes harsh reality of what is and what can be if we are willing to do the work.

Our new normal is a place where every person regardless of zip code or native language or skin color has equal access to fresh, healthy food. It’s a place where youth are empowered to lead their communities to a more equitable future, and where no neighbor goes hungry. Our new normal is a place that includes you. To make this new normal happen we need you, too.

Help us build a new, better normal in 2021 by making a tax-deductible gift before the new year. With you in our community and your investment in our organization, we will continue to transform the lives of young people and feed our hungry neighbors.

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