Finding a Way to Help the Helpers

I. A Fight to Ignore

On a June morning this summer, a small group was working on a 16-by-16 plot of urban farm land in Southeast Raleigh when a fight broke out. Across the street two women were arguing over a cellphone. Shouting ensued, onlookers gathered, and the women began assaulting each other. The crowd grew, urging the fight on rather than breaking it up.

Akiba Byrd, a civic activist and entrepreneur, was supervising three youth and an intern on the farm that morning. He had been recently introduced to Nation Hahn, co-founder of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, who came to work with them on the project for the day. They watched intermittently as the fight persisted for what each says must have been half an hour. Nation mentions being disturbed and distracted by what he saw. It was so unfamiliar, and he couldn’t help but keep glancing up at it.

But each time he looked back at the youth on the farm, they remained heads down, completely absorbed in their work. They weren’t at all interested in the commotion across the street. For them, it was all too familiar.

As the fight raged, two little boys wandered up. They were holding ice cream cones. Rather than join the raucous, they wanted to know what all these big kids were doing. Why were they digging in the dirt? Farming was for the country, could they really do this in the city? Could they really do this in their neighborhood?

“They were completely fixated on this garden, this small garden,” Nation would tell me later, fascinated by the reaction. “And it was like they were entirely oblivious to this loud and violent fight just across the street. They just stood there eating ice cream and asking questions about the garden.”

II. Akiba’s Farming Epiphany

Akiba had enlisted his children in a year-long experiment to build urban farms in Southeast Raleigh, a section of town that has somehow remained immune to our city’s rapid economic ascent. Poverty, crime and substance abuse are endemic. Though it sits just blocks from a downtown whose own revival has been fueled by foodie enthusiasm, the neighborhood is also a food desert. Its residents don’t have easy access to grocery stores with fresh produce, and as a matter of convenience and habit are drawn to nearby corner stores to buy bread, milk, and all sorts of canned and shrinkwrapped foodstuff.

The experiment started in March of 2013 when Akiba, by his own description, had an epiphany. “I woke up one morning and wanted to be a farmer.” At the beginning of summer, he had secured a piece of land and conscripted his sons, then 14 and nine, to provide labor. The boys were not quick to share his enthusiasm for the project. “In the first month,” Akiba tells me, “it was hard work doing everything to get the land ready and then doing the planting. I had to make them come with me. They weren’t into it. By the end of the month, I didn’t force them any more. They offered to come. Then we got to the end of the second month, when we didn’t have to work the farm every day anymore. They’d actually come up and bug me now, ‘We need to go to the farm!’”

But Akiba’s epiphany was not only about being a farmer. Since 2012 he’s led a community development corporation called North Carolina Fair Share CDC (community development corporation) that has a long history of grassroots organizing for social causes, for developing community leaders, and for building programs to help neighborhoods help themselves. Being a farmer was an interesting project, but his real vision was to get the residents of Southeast Raleigh out there acquiring land to build more urban farms, working the earth with their own hands, and using the harvest to eat healthier food and support themselves financially. The real vision was to use farming as a catalyst for neighbors to help themselves out of the food desert problem and just maybe fix some other issues along the way.

Once his own children were hooked, Akiba started recruiting other area youth to help. “We’re playing a long game by investing in the youth,” he told me. “But they’re the ones that will transition it, eventually, to the rest of the community.” He leaned on his years of working with their families, and the trust that earned him, to gain access. He leaned on his years of mentoring young men and women to get them interested in this new vision he offered. Come work with me on these farms, he might say, and I’ll teach you how to acquire land. I’ll teach you to run a business. I’ll teach you to be independent.

Akiba is good at organizing programs at the grassroots level because he’s a trusted insider. Because of that trust, his farming experiment has yielded impressive results this summer. With seven students leading the charge, they’ve planted half an acre of outside lots. By next summer they hope it totals over eight acres.

He’s not so skilled, however, at raising money to help fund the experiment. He’s resourceful, having supported this summer’s work on $1,500 of donated materials (the rest, he says, has come from his own pockets). That might be okay when playing the long game, of trying to get the community to do this for itself with the youth leading the way. But if there’s an opportunity to grow faster and have more impact now, the helper is going to need some help.

III. Urban Farming

I met Akiba in the North Carolina Fair Share CDC offices on a blazing hot day in early-September. We speed through some pleasantries, and he immediately walks me to the window in his conference room where, perched atop two big rubbermaid tubs, sits a contraption cobbled together from plastic planters and spare aquarium parts. He’s using it to grow basil. He calls it his baby, an aquaponic farming system, and he imagines youth leaders putting them together in their homes, growing all sorts of food in their living rooms and kitchens.

The device gurgles like a zen waterfall while a pump recycles a trickle of water from a collection bin at its base up through a spout on the top. “It’s just a prototype,” he tells me as he fingers the basil leaves gently. He’s not happy that their green is giving way to brown splotches. “It’s going to get better as we figure it out.”

Akiba wears a billowing cap and baggy clothes. He carries himself like the athlete he has long been, the one-time football player for James Madison University in Virginia. He’s charismatic and engaging as he talks about his farming projects and the ways the work is helping create leaders among the youth of Southeast Raleigh. Leaders, he’s certain, who will help the community fix its problems from the inside.

For a moment we turn to the story of the women fighting over the cell phone. I vaguely remember Nation sharing it with me a few months ago, and I want to see how Akiba remembers it and what lessons he draws from it.

In some ways the story is a depressing commentary on these kids’ reality. Had I been there, I would have been fixated on the violence, even frightened by it. Street fighting is not something I see in my world. Ever. But the kids saw it as just another thing. The fight faded easily into their mental backgrounds because they’ve seen it all before, so much that they were desensitized to it. To them, digging in the dirt — producing something with their hands — was different. It was novel enough to keep their focus on the chore rather than the spectacle across the street.

But the story is also full of hope. There is something powerful about the act of urban farming. So powerful that Akiba’s own sons are begging him to go work the gardens. So powerful that boys walking by with ice cream choose to watch the workers in the dirt rather than join the raucous crowd. So powerful that neighbors, who once loitered across the garden’s path as a cut-through where they would dump spent pipes, emptied bottles, and used condoms, are now keeping it clear of trash. “They respect the space,” Akiba says. “They sense it’s something good.”

Who knows how far this power can take urban farming, but the hope of it being a solution for struggling communities has created a movement in Raleigh that shows no shortage of devotees. Other non-profits, restaurateurs, and creative citizens are coming into the neighborhood, getting access to land, and building gardens. The Raleigh Food Corridor, a project spearheaded by Community Food Lab (with backing from the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation), preaches that urban-grown food can create a common thread to stitch together all these downtown neighborhoods — whose residents often keep to themselves — into a continuous community. Through its monthly Second Saturday events, it brings hundreds of people out to see the gardens and pitch in to help.

This should be a good thing, right? When something works in little batches, we want to scale it into big production. That’s just how our collective societal brain seems to work. The more the merrier.

Akiba is not entirely convinced it’s the best thing for his Southeast Raleigh neighborhood. As we talk about the various groups building urban farms like his, he becomes agitated. He wants to step back from the conversation a bit and asks me what I view the dominant narrative to be for communities like Southeast Raleigh; for poor, black communities in general.

“The dominant narrative,” he says, “is that we folks are lazy and addicted. That there’s something wrong with us. And,” he adds with emphasis, “that we’re not able to help ourselves.”

“But I’m telling you the dominant narrative is wrong. There’s nothing wrong with us. We can do this for ourselves when we have the opportunity. We have to make that opportunity for ourselves. The problem with the corporate non-profits is that they come in when they have money, but when it dries up they just leave. They’re gone! They don’t have that commitment to neighborhood. They don’t have that commitment to my people.”

Akiba believes the power of urban farms comes less from the gardens and their harvests than it does the people using farming to empower themselves. It matters that the neighbors are taking the initiative to get the land, to work it with their own hands, and to eat and sell the bounty it produces. This is how we create new skills, Akiba tells me. This is a mechanism for creating leaders.

“Mama Lynice [Lynice Williams, the founder of North Carolina Fair Share CDC, now deceased] would have done it differently,” says Akiba sharing his impressions of how other non-profits have approached Southeast Raleigh. “Her thing was training leaders in the community. Our product has always been people. Leaders. Our capital stays invested in the community forever. It doesn’t leave because the money dries up.”

IV. Finding Ways to Help Akiba

The Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation’s mission is to help the helpers. It sounds so simple, but accomplishing that mission does not come without some real obstacles. Akiba’s helper story shines some light on those challenges.

First, helpers don’t always get along with other helpers. As we see with Akiba (and to be fair, plenty of the other groups in Raleigh), the power of urban farming to engage residents and unite communities is not always enough to overcome the legitimate differences in philosophy on who should do the work and who should reap the benefits of the publicity. The devil is in the details, and it’s big enough to create rivalries that can trump the larger, common goal.

Second, all helpers are not equal when it comes to getting money for their work. Some are better at asking for it than they are at doing the work, and others are good at the work but not skilled at the art of getting funded.

As Akiba tries to extend the reach of his work (think about putting those aquaponic contraptions in youth leaders’ rooms throughout Southeast Raleigh), money is a big part of his challenge. He can get youth out to the urban farms to grow food and learn new skills, but he hasn’t demonstrated much ability to get financial support through the foundation grant-making system as it exists today. This is frustrating to Akiba, to be sure, as I assume it must be to many other helpers like him who want to help, are ready to help, but can’t access funding.

Doing good does not come easy. The Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation has accomplished a lot in its first year. Part of the challenge to come, however, will be finding ways to help when doing it is complicated and maybe even controversial. When we find helpers like Akiba Byrd who are doing so many good things for the community, can we find the right ways to help them do their thing?

This piece is by Paul Dryden — an investor, community leader, talented writer, and supporter of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation.

To support Akiba Byrd’s work at NC Fair Share please go to http://ncfairsharecdc.org

To support the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation please go to http://www.jamiekirkhahnfoundation.org

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