As a new site coordinator of a new Grow Appalachia site, who had never even heard of Grow Appalachia until August of last year, I’m learning not only how to run a successful garden grant program but also how & why the program works. To me it sounded like this… buy stuff, give it away, do some paperwork, run some workshops and you’re done. There are a lot of groups out there giving away free stuff and educating people … what makes Grow Appalachia so successful? 

Truth is, I couldn’t see it at first and I’m a natural skeptic. Often, having resources does little to actually get things done or impact people’s lives. Resources go unrecognized, unclaimed or squandered all the time. The internet is an amazing resource for gardeners, most people have dirt just outside their backdoor. If we could supply every neighborhood in America with free gardening supplies and a master gardener to train everyone… life experience tells me only a few would take advantage of it.

I don’t believe it’s about need either. Fill in the blank(s)… how many people need to eat healthier, exercise, learn new skills, save money, etc…? The list is practically endless and simply educating people won’t change that.

Adding to my skepticism is the fact that I don’t work in this field. I help businesses outdo each other with the latest style in corporate office design. I don’t speak or understand all the lingo of those with decades of experience in social empowerment. For example, the word ‘resources’ means something entirely different to me. Since I’m not employed by an agency who appointed this assignment to me, how I feel about it matters a lot. I devote a certain amount of my time each week to social causes and I have to be able to see what I feel are real results. This is personal. How does coordinating a garden grant satisfy my personal agenda concerning food systems and the environment? Is this grant really going to empower people who have not been served well within our current food systems? Is that enough to empower people who want more choices than those available within current systems? Where is the part, the magic moment where resources and education equates to new attitudes that lead to effective action and life change?

Anyway, it sounded neat and made sense enough to give it a shot. Give away the stuff, do workshops, have fun and see if something meaningful develops. 

Here’s what is happening… These gardeners walked into the first workshop feeling a part of something exciting. Everyone’s all smiles and talking about what an amazing idea it was. Conversations developed about particular challenges each gardener might be facing with their location. Members with past experience are sharing their experience. Those with pickup trucks are offering to help those without. Those who have experimented with starting seeds indoors and are now successfully overrun with plants are offering first dibs to those in the program. These gardeners are proud to show off photos of their progress: seedlings emerging, garden rows being shaped, trellises in place. Neighbors are showing interest and asking, “what are you doing over there!?” New friendships are developing. Members are asking to invite friends and family to the workshops. Members have helped each other with technical issues regarding our online workshops. Something is growing.

It’s amazing and here’s how I’ve come to understand it all. The resources and workshops, regardless of the necessity, are secondary. In fact these are the bait. These are secondary and we’ve baited these families into joining an accountability group! They’ve inadvertently become part of a community with self sustaining momentum. The primary ‘thing’ we’re giving them is community. It can’t be bought. It has to be grown. The resources are what brings them to the party but the developing community keeps them engaged.

This light-bulb moment came after several conversations with garden members who were talking about the pressure they felt. They felt pressure to document and plan, meet deadlines, follow proven methods, attend workshops, ask for help when needed and most importantly to not give up. They say they know I’ll be calling. They’ll be seeing the other gardeners and will have to write a blog. They will have to weigh all their vegetables and say they just want to “do good.” This was surprising to me because I don’t run this program like an aggressive basketball coach. I’m not hounding people. I do know from my past involvement with sports and especially business related accountability groups, pressure gets things done. My good friend likes to say … it takes a lot of pressure to make diamonds. He’s right and it’s a powerful tool. Pressure and accountability are inherently built into all communities.

So there it is, my missing piece, community building! I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. The community that has developed and the natural pressure, accountability that comes with it is the real fuel driving this thing. That’s the fuel that turns resources and education into action, new life skills, new attitudes and real change. Yes, my focus needs to be on efficiently and cost effectively distributing resources. Yes, my focus needs to be on providing the best information and education. Nurturing a developing community, utilizing that pressure and maintaining the momentum to help members over the learning curve is where my real job lies. Community is the how and perhaps beyond the specifics of the mission statement, the why that I’ve not been able to realize until it actually developed.