This article was written by Winston Cho.
“Ima keep it 100 with you,” Darius Jones says chuckling in response to a question regarding how he felt when he first started at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “At the very beginning of the course, it was the same mantra. I was like ‘f this. I don’t care.’ I only joined the program because my mother was like you have to do this.”
His mother had good reason to be worried. At only 17-years-old, Darius had already been incarcerated once. At risk of becoming another statistic in Chicago, she introduced him to the Chicago Botanic Garden upon his release, where the Roots of Success environmental literacy and work readiness curriculum was being used as part of a transitioning program. But environmental sustainability was the furthest thing from from Darius’s mind.
“I was in so many different other places at the time that I didn’t really care about Roots of Success or environmental literacy or sustainability or whatever,” Darius says. “I didn’t even care about gardening. It was just something to keep me out of trouble and out of jail. At that point, I didn’t really care for it at all.”
After all, as an 18-year-old trying to make it on his own in Chicago, why would Darius care about environmental literacy? He had bigger things to worry about: friends, money, surviving. But his perspective on sustainable agriculture changed after he went through the Roots of Success class and started his internship as the market manager for Windy City Harvest.
The Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship Program enrolls 15 to 20 students a year in a nine-month classroom and hands-on certificate course in sustainable urban agriculture that is accredited by the Illinois Community College Board for 31 continuing education credits. The Certificate includes a 14-week paid internship at Windy City Harvest farms or partnering urban-farming operations. The apprenticeship program utilizes Roots of Success to prepare participants to understand environmental problems and solutions and work in environmental fields.
As the market manager for Windy City Harvest’s gardening program, Darius was put in charge of sales and required to go to the farmers market. At the market, people would ask him all sorts of questions he didn’t know how to answer: How long are these beets good for for? Which is sweeter, the strawberries or the blueberries? What exactly is Swiss chard? So he started tasting and cooking the food so he would be better informed and positioned to increase sales at the market. Gradually he realized that he liked working at the farmers market — for many reasons.
“Oh my God, there were beautiful women everywhere,” Darius recollects. It was amazing. I was like ‘this is awesome.’ That’s when I started really getting into it.”
Outside of the beautiful women, Darius learned that he had a passion for growing food and started to invest in Windy City Harvest’s gardening program. He worked in sales from 2011 to 2013, and each year he doubled market sales, totaling $30,000 his first year, $60,000 his second, and $120,000 his third.
Six years removed from incarceration, Darius says he’s found his path, which is trying to get Chicago to practice sustainable agriculture at a large scale. He cites a book he’s reading about the connection between the economy, ecology, and use of resources. He compares how the author talks about what we can do to improve our world, to what he’s doing at Windy City Harvest: increasing efficiency, reducing water use, and making things more sustainable.
And Darius isn’t just talking. He sits on the Urban Pathways Committee, which works in partnership with the city of Chicago’s Neighbor Space, a local land trust organization. Urban Pathways is a nonprofit organization that governs for for-profit entities and is currently looking at a two-mile stretch in Inglewood to use for urban agriculture.
Darius’s vision includes large numbers of rooftop gardens where food is grown and sold in the local economy. He understands that for that to happen, more people have to care about and promote environmental literacy, social entrepreneurship and social enterprises. He sees his path as providing insight into how to make that happen. He didn’t care about environmental issues or food production when he was first introduced to these topics. He learned to care because he had the opportunity to take an engaging and empowering course and to work as a paid employee in the garden and the farmers market. He doesn’t expect people to care about these things right away, but he is determined to use his experience and new knowledge and skills to educate others and provide people with fresh, locally grown food that is good for the planet and people.