“It’s great to see you! What are you up to this summer?”
“I’m working with Somali-Bantu refugee farmers and a group of volunteers to help start a community garden in Hartford.”
So went a recent exchange with an old friend. But how did I get to this point?
My name is Pablo Baeza. I’m a Project Leader for Summer of Solutions Hartford, one of sixteen local sustainability projects being undertaken this summer by a mixture of passionate youth, community members and locally-based community development organizations. Together, we are Grand Aspirations: an organization that believes that large-scale progress in the fight against climate change and poverty begins in one’s backyard. We believe in locally-based ventures that promote sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices, as well as community development practices that are rooted in pre-existing neighborhood assets and that create community economic empowerment from the basis of specific community identities and needs. It is a practice which I am only just beginning to internalize, as the start date of our program (June 20th) comes ever closer.
Funnily enough, I am not a resident of the state of Connecticut. I was born in Santiago, Chile, and spent much of my childhood in the Maryland suburbs. So far, I’ve attended school in New York City and Southern California. What brought me to a beautiful-but-ailing small, post-industrial city in one of the wealthiest states in America were the results of a brief conversation with a friend and some scattered resources. Two summers ago, I got my first experience with Grand Aspirations when I spent a few weeks with a friend and fellow organizer in Oregon, discussing the model and taking small actions to help fledgling programs in the small cities of Corvallis and Eugene. This year, recognizing that I had become increasingly disillusioned with years of strictly political climate organizing, I found myself wanting to start a program, to join the forces of Grand Aspirations “solutionaries” and be the change I wish to see in my adopted homeland. Problem was, I didn’t have anywhere to reasonably start one, as I had only recently moved to Southern California and did not feel able to work in a region that felt deeply unfamiliar to me. A school friend from the Hartford area described her interest in starting a similar program in Hartford, and we did a hypothetical brainstorm of what a future summer there would look like. A Summer of Solutions was born.
Yet, as I have quickly come to learn, “solutionary” work is quite difficult, especially when starting from scratch. After a semester of endless planning, fundraising, and sporadic on-the-ground support, I found myself, ironically, in a city I knew marginally. My friend and fellow program leader, Jennifer, having grown up in the area, had an advantage, yet though we were well aware on paper of the challenges that faced us, getting to know a neighborhood that neither of us knew particularly well would be a particular challenge.
Frog Hollow, an old Hartford neighborhood between Trinity College and the Connecticut State Capitol, has been noted for its main artery, the vibrant, diverse Park Street, known as “La Park” to its burgeoning Puerto Rican population. The neighborhood, which is ethnically diverse but predominantly Latino, is also, however, home to entrenched poverty. Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the country, has a median income of $65,521; the city of Hartford, the poorest in Connecticut, $27,051, and Frog Hollow, it is $17,333. At 16%, Frog Hollow also has Connecticut’s highest unemployment rate.
Fortunately, as we prepare to move to Frog Hollow and work with a group of volunteers from various parts of Connecticut, including Hartford itself, we have made some vital connections. With the assistance of HART, (Hartford Areas Rally Together) we have formed a partnership with Frog Hollow’s Somali-Bantu refugee farmer community. After resettling in urban Hartford from refugee camps they fled to during the Somali Civil War, they began to adapt their agricultural background to urban development by assisting several community gardens. Now, in their search for more land to farm, they have come into our lives, and we have come into theirs. The Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, comprised of neighboring Trinity College and two South Hartford medical institutions, donated vacant land on residential Zion Street to Summer of Solutions Hartford. Hence, our land and long-term vision for community job creation and access to fresh, healthy food and the Somali-Bantu community’s short-term plans to farm on city land have become interconnected: the process of creating and maintaining the garden has become intertwined with the process of developing the garden’s economic and cultural relationship to the Frog Hollow community as a whole. That, in a nutshell, is what Summer of Solutions Hartford is all about.
As we as a group prepare to move into our apartment from when the full-time program starts, on June 20th, to when it ends, on August 15th, we are continuing to recruit volunteers, outreach to community members, and, of course, continue to fundraise. If you’re interested in donating and/or applying, check us out at http://www.grandaspirations.org/hartford. And remember to watch this space for more updates!