Posted by Tom Boyden in Urban Agriculture on November 18, 2012
Venice (pronounced like Venus) Williams, wow, what a powerful woman. This is the first workshop I was able to attend due to having that commitment to higher education and whatnot. It began with something new to me, but also something welcoming and uplifting; libations. We invited past influential people, family members that influenced our gardening or farming life and moving notions to join us in the workshop. Out of all the workshops I attended, this one felt the most welcoming. Not to say the others weren’t welcoming, but Venice made us all feel right at home.
Venice is the manager and community director over at Alice’s Garden in Milwaukee. Before we began our discussion on the garden, she first shared the story of her connection to gardening. She spoke of one of her grandmother’s first memories, when her Venice’s great grandparents were fleeing from a sharecropping agreement gone awry. Out of all of the things they could have taken to their new home, they brought sweet potatoes and peanuts. Their deep connection to food remained strong, even in a time of crisis. Venice used this story to explain that many African-Americans have this type of connection to food resonating within themselves and their ancestors. She emphasized “Do NOT assume African American’s don’t know how to grow food; because they do.”
Alice’s Garden has a unique story behind it. It’s location on 21st and Garfield was the very place that Wisconsin’s section of the Underground Railroad was born. It provided another route to Midnight, Detroit, and finally to Canada. This location has also been a sorrowful one for that of area African-Americans. In the 1990s, after a vibrant community had been built up since the ‘70s, the city of Milwaukee announced a planned highway straight through Alice’s Garden. Many families were forced to vacate their homes and uproot themselves from the solidarity that was dwelling around the garden. Milwaukee was not the only city who forced African-American communities to rupture and disintegrate; this was a common trend, detailed in the movie Banished (check it out if you want to learn more about these many unfortunate occurrences). Oh, and the highway was never built, but it still fractured a community that was forced to build back up from ground-level.
Shattering of the community surrounding the garden brought a tough rebuilding period. The garden was populated for several years with a splintered black community and new Hmong contingent. Venice took over the garden around this time and really shook things up. She wanted to teach people to, “Not just feed themselves, but feed and sustain family.” Alice’s Garden was originally cultivated by an African-American population, the new Alice’s garden brought Burmese, Palestinians, Caucasians, Hmong, and people from four African countries into close proximity. Most wanted each nation or ethnicity separate from the others. They didn’t know that wasn’t going to happen when Venice Williams was managing the garden. Venice was not going to “Have the garden looking like the outside (the rest of Milwaukee), the inside was going to be different.” All the plot-holders were randomly distributed and chaos ensued.
Many attempted to trade plots to no avail; Venice was set on creating a multi-cultural community. She gave the ultimatum: take your plot or take your money back. Now, when many of the gardeners at Alice’s think back, they are thankful for Venice’s constant persistence to unite all the cultures under one community garden. Each culture had distinct and unique techniques in the garden; eventually, these techniques spread from plot to plot, permeating the thick cultural wall that many had once built around their garden. Giving the gardeners a means to share these ideas allowed them to continue their stories; stories that may have begun several generations ago. She stressed communication with the community; ask gardeners how far they have come, let them tell you their stories.
Venice delved into the rural-urban connection, but I’m sure the entirety of the workshop could have been on this subject. Rural people need to be very careful with outreach to urban people. You are not here to save them, but a helping hand is always much appreciated. Luis Alemayehu supported Venice’s focus on understanding the stories of the community, “Look for the authentic history, don’t assume you’ve been told the true history.” Resonating throughout the workshop was the emphasis on working with the community, listening to their stories, and retelling these stories through gardening and storytelling. Venice Williams iterated the ultimate goal of community gardening and urban agriculture, “Connect people with people and connect these people with the soil.” Once you’ve accomplished that, then you have a successful community garden.