Local Spotlight: Tilth Alliance

Educating gardeners, empowering eaters, and advocating for farmers in western Washington State since 1978.

By Ingrid Johnson

Seattle Tilth (now known as the Tilth Alliance) has been educating gardeners, empowering eaters, and advocating for farmers in western Washington State, USA since 1978. It remains one of the most recognized and effective local and sustainable food culture organizations in the region. A couple years ago, Tilth adopted and renovated an existing local program which is now called Seattle Youth Garden Works (SYGW). I had the privilege of volunteering with this program one afternoon a week and was greatly impressed by the experience.

SYGW serves homeless and at-risk youth ages 16 to 21, teaching teamwork, self-respect, and education- and employment-specific life skills through urban farming and farmers’ market work. Youth crew members are referred by schools or case workers, interviewed, and hired on a seasonal basis. They are asked agree to the terms of a contract developed collaboratively by SYGW staff and youth crew. The youth choose whether they wish to sign on and are paid an hourly wage for their participation.

The ‘mentor’ role, which is SYGW’s term for my volunteer position, is not a one-on-one relationship as in a big brother / big sister kind of program. Rather, mentors are present at the student work sessions to model good work ethic, respectful communication, balanced (not perfect) processing and expression of emotion, and healthy boundaries. The thorough volunteer mentor recruitment process included a ‘group interview’ discussion of our experiences, perceptions, and misgivings about interacting with people in vulnerable circumstances such as homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and history of abuse. Prior gardening and youth work experience were desirable but what mattered most to the SYGW staff was one’s willingness to learn and listen. Once chosen for participation, the volunteers attended a 3-hour training on homelessness-causes, street culture, and intervention. (This event was offered by another social service organization and attended by new volunteers of several different programs.)

In addition to garden maintenance, harvesting, and preparing the produce for market, afternoon work sessions often included presentations by guest speakers on topics including resume writing, starting a small business, how to prepare and apply for college, personal finances, and healthy cooking. Both the program and the crew members underwent round-table feedback at the end of each week. The youth demonstrated remarkable self-awareness, forthrightness, and dedication both to the integrity of the program and to the well-being of the other members of the crew. Veteran crew members (some were on their 3rd session, having started spring of 2011) were both hospitable and authoritative in introducing new mentors to the workings of the farm. When I visited the SYGW Saturday morning farmers’ market near the end of my volunteer session, I was delighted by the evident pride that the youth took in the fruits of their labor, their composure interacting with the public, and in the welcome they showed to me. As I was purchasing my vegetables, one of the youth graciously served me coffee (brewed fresh by the cup!) and declined to include it in my total, grinning shyly and saying, “We’re family!”

The most powerful moment for me of this 2-month experience was the afternoon that both youth and leaders were invited to draw a ‘life map’ and tell their stories in a framework of highs, lows, major identity factors, significant experiences, and hopes and fears for the future. Each of these young lives was marked by crisis and hardship that I find hard to imagine. Some had suffered in part due to their own choices, recognized this, and were determined to make a better go of it this time. All had been dealt a hand at some point in their life for which no one with a decent helping of empathy could blame them had they given up the game. Few were angry (though they had every right to be); many were sad but still able to celebrate memories; all had dreams. They listened to and encouraged one another, as they did for us. In cultures where appearances (be it a tough exterior, a tidy unreproachable track record, or moral superiority based in socioeconomic difference) are held at a premium, encounters like this are a rare and beautiful thing. Seattle Youth Garden Works does not merely keep kids out of trouble and prepare them for jobs. It is an education in humanity and community at its finest.

Originally published in May 2012 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI on our website.

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