This year, we are happy to welcome three new Roots instructors from Windy City Harvest, an education and jobs-training initiative of the Chicago Botanic Garden that has been teaching Roots of Success for seven years.
Windy City Harvest (WCH) is located in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood. The program grows more than 180,000 pounds of produce each year on 15 farms, offers cooking and nutrition classes as well as produce to community health center patients with diet-related diseases, and supports a network of more than 60 family-run community garden plots. Their paid on-the-job training program has a more than 80% placement rate in food systems jobs, and they’ve helped grow 20 small farm businesses since 2013.
WCH began in 2003 as a youth program, and its original purpose lives on in their Youth Farm program, designed to engage, educate, and employ teens from underserved communities at three farms sites in Chicago and one in Lake County, Illinois from spring through fall. Youth Farm teaches urban agriculture and social emotional learning skills as participants advance through the program. Their Corps program, meanwhile, employs justice-involved individuals and veterans in full-time, paid transitional jobs and supports them in finding full-time, long-term employment. But what really makes WCH unique is the continuum they offer from entry-level to Apprenticeship. Graduates from either entry level program with a high school diploma or GED may be eligible to enroll in the WCH Apprenticeship program free of cost.
A longtime partner of Roots of Success, WCH teaches the curriculum in its Apprenticeship and Corps programs. Kate Gannon, Youth Farm manager, says Roots of Success is perfectly geared towards the wide range of individuals that come through their programs. “We’re very intentional about recruiting students from all across the city, all levels of experience, all different backgrounds,” Gannon told me. “We use Roots of Success as a way to open up the floor for students to share their own experiences with environmental justice, create a common dialogue, and help share experiences across the city.”
Gannon says she’s a big fan of the curriculum. “I love Roots of Success so much. One thing that is really impactful about Roots of Success is that it gives opportunities for students to learn about issues of environmental justice, and develop that common vocabulary and common framework. But it also gives them an opportunity to learn from one another.” Her favorite thing about being a Roots certified instructor? “Easily the most impactful part of each module is when a student will take us down a total tangent. When we’re covering a topic, and somebody says, ‘do you mean like this thing that happens in my neighborhood?’ and we spent a good 20 minutes really digging into that.” She says when students share a personal experience related to what they’re learning in class, the opportunity to engage with the material arises through a whole new set of questions, like “what is that experience like? Who’s already working on that problem? And what could be done about that?”
The new instructors are Robin Whaley Smith, Tony Peña, and Vincent Gomez. Whaley Smith is Corps manager at WCH. She says the great thing about the Corps program, which employs justice-involved individuals and veterans, “is that it’s paid! The people that we serve are in need of support. We are that platform that they need so much.” She started with Windy City Harvest only a few years ago, and was excited to finally get her Roots instructor training. Being a Roots instructor, says Whaley Smith, “allows me to incorporate some of the things that I’m already talking about with them. From the interviews, to how to connect with employers, this is just great added value.” She says the curriculum complements the other components of her program, which include hands-on technical training and a Friday jobs club.
“My goal is to make it interactive and fun. It really adds value to the job club services we offer, like mock interviews.” In training to become a Roots instructor, says Whaley Smith, much of the content was new information to her, “but those are things,” she says, “that now I’ll be able to talk about while I’m at the farm sites. I’m looking forward to seeing how I can intertwine it with what they do.”
WCH boasts an impressive job placement rate. In 2019, 22 of the 25 Corps participants were successful in finding employment, and in 2020, 10 of the 19 Corps participants successfully found employment. I asked Whaley Smith about this critical aspect of her program. “At the end of the program, they get certificates. The goal of the program is to get you worthy employment,” she says, “not just any old job.” Whaley Smith works closely with employers in the region to place her graduates, which makes it important to have consistent, demonstrable standards like the Roots of Success module certificates. “The tools we give people, like attitude, performance, attendance, are based on what’s important to the employers we work with. Graduates from our program can have a leg up over other candidates because they might know more about food production, for example. It shows that they’re teachable, they committed to something, and they finished it.”
Another of the new instructors trained is Vincent Gomez. As the Horticultural Therapy Services manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Gomez brings a background in urban agriculture and facilitating nature-based programs in a clinical setting for diverse learners. During the training, Gomez talked about how the Chicago Botanic Garden uses green space and plant science to advance wellness, learning, and community togetherness. “In particular, approaching Roots of Success through the lens of horticultural therapy, there is so much benefit to the workforce development programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden which take place in plant-rich environments.”
Gomez isn’t just referring to the scientific or medical benefits of getting in touch with the environment. “We need to talk about the sacred connection to nature that we have. In many ways we are suffering from a cultural amnesia in terms of remembering that connection, what it meant for our antepasados (ancestors).” Those relationships are profound, says Gomez, “and help us think beyond just the information we’re trying to help people access. It’s how we inspire deeper connections and relationships with the natural world that cause us to act differently, relate differently, and engage in different kinds of cultural behaviors that are healthy and sustainable for communities.”
The three new instructors were trained by Roots of Success founder and executive director, Dr. Raquel Pinderhughes. We are thrilled to continue working with WCH as they are an outstanding program with an outstanding staff; one of the best programs in the country doing the kind of work they do.
For more information about offering Roots of Success, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.