Learning Beyond the Academic Sphere

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I recently finished my first week working at the Urban Tree Connection, a nonprofit organization in West Philadelphia. I will be working here for the remainder of the summer, and if all goes well with my work, I will continue into the Fall Semester. I missed the first few days of work as I was abroad last week, so I am still trying to determine the expectations the organization has for me as an intern, and what tasks I am expected to complete. I am eager to learn more about UTC, its history, and more broadly about the language and intricacies of social justice.

I was initially drawn to the internship at UTC for a few reasons, one being its relevance to environmental studies and urban studies (my major and minor). I recently took an urban studies course called Philanthropy and the City in which I was introduced to the ways that nonprofits function. I was taught about hierarchical structures, foundations and boards, and the grant writing and evaluation process. My group in that class focused on food insecurity organizations in Philadelphia; we were able to have site visits with Greensgrow Farms, Mill Creek Farm, The Coalition Against Hunger, and Food Moxie. It was a good experience to learn about the different types of nonprofits in Philadelphia. I think one of the primary reasons I wanted the opportunity to work with UTC was because of its specific social justice approach to food insecurity and community building within West Philadelphia. This seemed like a great way for me to take my learning outside the academic sphere and into a community-based sphere. Prior to coming to Penn, I had not ever really considered the impact that Penn was having on the surrounding community. Since then, I have learned about how Penn’s expansion has contributed toward rapid gentrification within West Philadelphia. I have learned that Penn, as a nonprofit, is not required to pay taxes, and that they have refused to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS) even though they use city services. I am learning that it is important for me, as a Penn student, to take the time to learn more about the West Philadelphia community outside of Penn. I think that my time at UTC will be beneficial in that aspect.

On my first day at UTC, the director was not able to meet with me in the morning because she had some meetings to attend, so she sent me some readings to go through. Some of the readings included an agroecology magazine, information about the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, information about grassroots global justice, and history on black agrarianism. The magazine on agroecology was one of my favorite readings. Agroecology is a term that I had heard in passing, but not one that I had ever taken the time to fully understand. The magazine talks about it in depth as being about more than just seeing agricultural land as ecosystems. The article discusses agroecology from different perspectives. Agroecology is about giving people access and control over local resources and about bringing people in a community together in order to create their own solutions. Agroecology emphasizes local and traditional knowledge that has been passed through generations. It is sustainable farming free from chemicals. It is about remembering the history of the disruption in the lives of People of Color and their connection to land. Agribusiness is agriculture without farmers with a primary goal of raking in profit. In contrast, agroecology is actually about feeding people and building community.

The afternoon of that first day, I sat with the executive director as she talked to me about the history of UTC. It was founded in 1989 to support greening and gardening projects in West Philadelphia. Since 1989, 29 abandoned lots of land have been transformed into farms, green spaces, and gardens. The organization has been going through a lot of changes recently. The founder left the organization over a year ago; the director explained to me that the story of UTC was strongly tied to him as an individual person, and that she thought it was important to have a strong narrative that speaks for itself without relying on a single person. Since she took over as director, UTC has been moving more toward a community-based approach as opposed to a charity-based approach. Previously, one of the organization’s main purposes was providing food to the neighbors; they had a top-down approach, and now they want to work from the bottom up. Instead of having a lot of outside volunteers (most of whom are white) come into a predominantly black community, they want the decisions to come from the community members. It is important that the residents have a sense of autonomy and self-determination. It is important that projects go beyond providing food in ways that build community and promote collective action. There have also been internal changes in that UTC focuses on hiring a staff of primarily people of color. A couple of years ago the board of directors was almost completely white, and now the majority of the board are persons of color. UTC has a clear vision for the neighborhood, but they have been struggling financially in recent years so much so that much of the children’s programming had to be cut. They are working toward creating a strong network of donors and grants to sustain them in the long run.

Much of the work that I will be doing with UTC is administrative. I will be working closely with the executive director on grants, creating a newsletter, and helping with social media. I think that I am currently the most apprehensive at the prospect of having quite a lot of control over the social media accounts. I would not consider myself well-versed in the world of social media, so this will be a learning process. This week I mainly read newsletter samples, solicitation letter samples, and example grant applications. I also created a spreadsheet and started organizing a list of potential funding opportunities. Once a week, I will be working on their farm, likely on Thursdays as that is their harvest day for the Friday and Saturday markets. I had my first experience on their farm this week. I was able to harvest collard greens, kale, and cress. I also washed, weighed, and packaged a variety of foods for the upcoming farmer’s markets. It was great to have the chance to meet some more of the UTC staff and to see where their interest in farming and UTC came from.

This about sums up my first week with UTC. Throughout this summer I hope to improve upon my social media, photography, and grant writing skills, and I hope to continue learning about social justice, farming, black agrarianism, and the history of UTC.

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