Finding Hope in Tragedy

Authors: Alli Chagi-Starr

In the face of the multiple calamities that have occurred in the lives of New Orleanians, innovative and successful models for community sustainability have emerged over the past few years. All across the city, from the 9th Ward to the Tremé to Mid-City, enterprising residents have taken part in transforming vacant lots and reviving their neighborhoods' vitality by planting community gardens.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting Joe Brock of NOLA Green Roots, a web designer by trade, who started Mid-City Garden and Wise Words Garden. Born and raised in New Orleans, Joe is a modern day visionary and eco-entrepreneur who has taken it upon himself to create a peaceful oasis for neighbors to enjoy, a source for healthful vegetables, fruit and eggs for locals, an opportunity for youth to get team work experience and learn to grow food, and ultimately a catalyst for green job creation.

Mr. Brock shared with me all of the green jobs that are poised to emerge from his venture: bicycle delivery to the elderly, sales to local restaurants, manager positions for youth teams, vegetable sales to the community, greenhouse building, and more.

For workdays, Mr. Brock rounds up young people from local schools and churches, and works alongside them. They often don’t learn that he is the leader of the entire effort, until the end of the workday.

Mid-City Community GardensThough one of the more business savvy people I have met, Mr. Brock is a man of deep compassion. He is committed to keeping prices low for low-income people in the neighborhood. People can also rent a box to plant themselves for $10-$40 a month. In the garden, bright green beds of okra, collard greens and cucumbers are growing in brightly colored wooden beds painted by youth volunteers. Rain barrels collect water, which is combined with “compost tea” to make organic fertilizer - for free. His seemingly small greenhouse has room for 4,000 starts. The complexly engineered, raised chicken coop will collect droppings below, which then will be carried by water and gravity to the nearby planters.

Mid-City Community GardensWhen asked how he gets people interested in eating locally-grown vegetables, he said he started by anonymously leaving bags of fresh produce on people’s porches. He also allows people to drop by and pick up a bucket of just the things they like to eat. To avoid waste, If someone wants fresh herbs, mustard greens, tomatoes and apricots, they don’t have to also get items they won’t eat. Word of mouth has been the best recipe for marketing the garden, and people come from all over to get a taste.

Joe Brock’s story is one of resilience and dedication to a better future and a better way of life for his community. His is a story of the movement, of individual action that will cause a national shift. Stories like these will lead by example as the Gulf Coast braces itself for the impact of this most recent tragedy, and they will provide hope and a pathway forward.

Mid-City Community Garden/Wise Words Community Garden

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