How to Plant People Power

Soil Generation turns community gardens into community control

By Suzy Subways

What do you grow in your garden? A garden can grow a lot more than food and flowers. 

Soil Generation is a coalition of Black and Brown gardeners, farmers and community members who grow fresh produce in Philadelphia neighborhoods that often lack access to cheap and healthy food. Soil Generation is critical in a city where over 300,000 face hunger at least part of the year, according to a report released last November by Hunger Free America. Yet even more critical is the movement they are growing; turning land long neglected by the city into vibrant spaces of resistance and resilience. They hope to transform neighborhoods and place the land and its many bounties under community control. 

In 2015, Soil Generation member Kirtrina Baxter gave a presentation on all the ways community gardens make communities stronger and healthier. “In communities of color, there are exponentially more cases of asthma,” Baxter said. “What they’re finding out now is that that’s largely because we don’t have enough green space. There’s not enough trees, there’s not enough plants. We have disproportionately more obesity, high blood pressure and food-borne illnesses in our communities because of the foods we eat,” She said. “So first and foremost, for our health — that’s why a garden is important.”


Autonomy, Not Charity

If a community can grow its own healthy food, it can take control of access to nutrition and create better futures for its youth. And growing it yourself is key. If nonprofits from outside a neighborhood can help, that’s great — but it’s not the same as a community serving its own people.

For example, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society runs a program called City Harvest, through which more than 140 gardens and farms donate fresh vegetables to organizations serving families that have unmet needs for food. City Harvest produce donations help Broad Street Ministry serve chef-prepared meals to about 200 people experiencing food insecurity or homelessness every day. This is great, but it’s made possible by grants from wealthy donors, including funds linked to a pharmaceutical company and the Philadelphia Prison System, which are powerful players in systems that keep people poor. This is not food sovereignty. 

Charlyn Griffith of Soil Generation, in an interview with Edible Philly last summer, explained that food sovereignty is about whole communities challenging the ways racism and economic oppression structure the food system. “There’s a deep Philadelphia history of frontline communities working to address issues related to land access, social equity and food insecurity, in part through deep-rooted growing cultures,” she said. “I want to know what the world would look like if we kept creating solutions designed by the people that are most affected. The garden, the land, and the soil, has the capacity to hold those questions.”

Food sovereignty is about setting your own terms and making your own plans. 

Breaking Ground in the City

The coalition that became Soil Generation started in 2011 with a campaign to stop a proposed zoning amendment that would have threatened 20% of the gardens and farms in the city. After winning that campaign, the group worked on building relationships with individual gardeners in Black and Brown communities — instead of just networking with other organizations — so it could build a strong base. 

Soil Generation provides community education so people can figure out how to get a lease or deed to their garden’s land, which may involve targeting developers or city council in an activist campaign. In April, they held an event on how to start community land trusts, easements, and housing cooperatives as a way to fight gentrification and the displacement of Black and Brown people from their homes. And they even train community members to run their own trainings.

At one such community education event on the evening of April 11, Soil Generation member Soad Mana spoke to about 40 people in an outdoor space at One Art Community Center in West Philly, surrounded by colorful murals. “If your garden plot is owned by the city, you can go to community events and talk to your neighbors, so you can show council members that you have the community’s support,” she explained. Describing a protest last October at City Hall, where gardeners with wheelbarrows and pitchforks rallied to put pressure on the city’s Land Bank for transparency, she said, “It’s important that tactics are exciting and empowering for people to be involved.” 

The Philadelphia Land Bank

The Land Bank was established to make it easier to return vacant and tax-delinquent properties to productive use. It was created to help residents in poverty buy houses and garden lots. In reality, it has done more to help developers gentrify neighborhoods.

Soil Generation started the Threatened Gardens campaign to address gentrification, displacement, and the city’s attacks on gardens. As Philadelphia loses its community gardens to sheriff’s sales and development, the Threatened Gardens campaign demands the following in a petition to City Council and the Land Bank: 

  1. End the 10-year tax abatement that has worsened gentrification. Use the resulting tax funds to support gardens. 
  2. A temporary end to sheriff sales of active gardens. 
  3. Provide gardens with security and pathways to community ownership. 

The third demand can be met by:

  • Notifying communities of property lists that the Land Bank is acquiring 
  • Making clear to the public who gets access to city-owned land, especially through the Land Bank
  • Offering longer-term leases for gardens 
  • Offering leases with purchase options
  • Giving out leases to unincorporated organizations instead of just nonprofits

Growing Community Control

Folks at Soil Generation aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty lobbying politicians, but their primary goal is community control of the land. “It’s a radical act to say, ‘I’m going to take this land that may or may not belong to me, and I’m going to grow something on that,’” Kirtrina Baxter explained in the presentation. “There are certain steps you have to take as a community member to create a community garden. You have to engage your neighbors, tell them this is what you want to do. And once you get those neighbors together, you have to figure out what’s the skill set among those folks that you have in the room. Once you figure out who has what skills, you bring those skills together, and you teach each other. So through this process of organizing yourselves to build a garden, you learn to organize yourselves for any other thing you want to happen within your community. Those same steps you take to build that garden are the same steps you would take to rally against a large development that might be happening in your community. 

“So that’s why it’s community power,” Baxter continued. “Once you understand that leveraging the skill sets from the people that you have in your community to come together over something — just as small as it may seem, as a garden — you can use that small thing and catapult that to larger things. And the next thing you know, your whole community is empowered to make things happen.” 

For a long view of Philadelphia’s future, keep an eye on Soil Generation. Whether starting a garden, protecting an existing neighborhood farm, or organizing neighbors to fight developers, this work shows people don’t have to be experts or activists to take back control of the land we live on. In fact, each one of us is needed to grow a city where future generations can thrive.


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