Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Internship at Growing Power

 The summer of 2014 was an extraordinary time in my life; not just because I am being here in the US, but for the wealth of experience and depth of knowledge when I was working at Growing Power surrounded by different people working in such an unique working environment. In fact my experience in the US is so far empowering, someone could say it is a life-changing experience when you are left alone to learn, to fail, and to succeed through challenges and difficulties.

Interning at an organization called Growing Power was one of my big successes in the US; I am proud and happy for the things I accomplished while I was working at this respected organization. I would like to share part of my experience with this organization and its work and the reasons for choosing this place for my internship.

Growing Power headquarters is located in northern Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is a community food center where its mission is to provide access to healthy food in the city of Milwaukee, especially in low-income communities and food deserts across the city. Its founder and CEO Will Allen is a former basketball player who holds a fellowship from the MacArthur Fellows Program for his innovative work in his field. His contributions are reflected in the integrated farming technique through planting crops in hoop houses to extend farming season during Wisconsin’s brutal winter and animal husbandry such as goats and chickens inside the city. The farm reflects sustainability in agriculture and the pioneering methods of producing food products through Allen’s visions and ideas. The organization attracts people from different places in the US because it provides training opportunities on low-cost projects, such as aquaponics and compost.

The internship was part of my Master’s program project as I intended to study the organization with an emphasis on a political dimension. My work in the organization will serve as a case study to analyze the non-governmental organization’s influence to empower communities. However, what I get from this work was much more as I met great people who welcomed me into their lives and provided me with what I needed to achieve my goals and finish my study. I should acknowledge Will Allen and his Director Karen Parker’s help and support as they accepted me directly -upon my request for the internship- and gave me lots of opportunities to experience new things other than my daily chores at the farm. I am more than fortunate to get to know them and share experiences and talk to them about my country.

During these three months I learned about farming, compost, and aquaponics. It also provided me with an in-depth understanding of the real meaning of hard work represented in agriculture. Hard work is needed to build communities and educate people in low income neighborhoods to plant their own food and become self-dependent. The skills needed to build such communities do not come easily; anyone should know that sacrifice and dedication are essential to accomplish any endeavor.

I was lucky to participate in many activities during this internship. I participated with other interns in planting gardens for the daycare center in Kohl’s Associate Center in Milwaukee. We transplanted different kinds of vegetables in raised beds such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and kale. This was my first experience as a farmer working outside the classroom and getting in touch with soil and plants. I worked after that on larger scale planting in a field called Jackson field with Will Allen. He supervised our work and taught us how to transplant seedlings from trays to the field. 

Planting at Jackson Field

My days were filled with lots of events that kept me in touch with people, plants, animals, and soil. My experience was not limited to the science behind farming, compost, and aquaponics. It gave me peace and satisfaction in my mind and soul and a new vision to the way that we should create change in our lives. As a Fulbright scholar and as a person I find that my study and my work in the US are complementary to the message that I want to deliver. The message is to never lose hope, and this hope will continue if we believe that hard work and dedication are the cornerstone to create a change that nurtures our soul and mind. This change should start from inside because if we cannot change our mentality, we cannot accomplish what we need to do. It is not about farming and aquaponics that you can read about in books, it’s about what you can add through your experience to create change.

I worked with volunteers, interns, and workers to plant fruit trees that will be planted in empty plots in Milwaukee. I worked also in multiple projects with volunteers and community members who came to the farm to learn and be part of their community. It was hard but rewarding work that gave a sense of accomplishment and success. During my internship, I was fortunate to visit many sites belonging to Growing Power such as the Forest Home Cemetery, the Mayor Office Garden, Discovery World, and Farmers Market. I worked in each place and participated with other staff members in watering, weeding, harvesting, and taking care of plants. 

At one of the farmers markets

Farmers market at Fox Point-Wisconsin was great opportunity to meet people from different countries, expand my knowledge, and collect data for my research. People that shop from the Growing Power stand ask me about my work with Growing Power and about my education, and they wished me good luck in achieving what I learned in the US in my country. I also attended a workshop at the organization were many people from different states and multiple disciplines came to increase their knowledge in urban farming. Some of them want to start their urban farm, some came to learn about aquaponics, and others were nutrition experts to teach America about a healthy diet.

During a TV show on the Oprah Winfrey channel about Will Allen and his farm, I worked with Will and other interns on feeding the animals and seeding pots and covering the seeds with compost. So, it is awesome! I will be on the Oprah Winfrey show during the coming season when they air the episode.

Furthermore, I went to the Jewish Community Center (JCC rainbow summer camp) with youths in a governmental program sponsored by Growing Power. Youth can enjoy their time playing, swimming, and singing. They also work on the JCC garden where they made raised beds, watered plants, and did weeding and harvesting. The aim of this program is to teach youth that hard work is needed along with having fun and playing. Growing Power focuses on youth education to provide them with skills to be better citizens in their communities. 

At the JCC Summer Camp

One of the wonderful events was when I gave a tour to 13 Iraqi students on the “World Learning Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program” who came to Growing Power to learn about sustainability in agriculture. This was the first time that Iraqi people visited the farm in Milwaukee and I was the first Iraqi intern. The director provided the students with free access to the farm and asked me to give them the tour. The experience was magnificent as I explained to them about micro-greens, the aquaponics system, composting, vermicomposting, and raising animals inside the city. After the tour I got to talk to the students as they were asking about the reasons that brought me to the US and to this farm and I was happy to answer their questions.

I talked to them about the environment because I believe in its vital role in creating resilient communities where people can live in harmony with nature. The environment does not exist to just serve our needs; nevertheless, it is part of our community and our lives. My country needs qualified practitioners from different disciplines, but it needs more environmentalists that understand nature and help in creating better projects that serve both humanity and nature.

The things that I want to take from my experience from both school and my internship is to have a practical experience that enabled me to serve my country and my people. Building urban farms in neighborhoods facing war and conflicts will spread the peaceful education. When people work in the farm near to their places and harvest the fruit of their labor they will understand how to love their land and how to be united in their ideas. For me, people should be different and I respect the differences but we need just to understand that in our differences is our strength and unity. What I touched from my experience might seem more of a dream but for me is a reality. With a Master’s degree on the way and with the skills I acquired during the last summer, my agenda is loaded with so many ideas and projects that intend to serve the people and land. 

Saja Al-Quzweeni is an Iraqi Fulbrighter pursuing an MS in Environmental Science and Policy at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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