Field Trip: Waite House

The Waite House is one of six community centers that make up Pillsbury United Communities. Their main mission is to foster resilient and self-sufficient individuals, families and communities by supporting otherwise underestimated populations. This may sound good on paper, but it's even better in practice. Not only does Waite House provide after school programs, employment, legal and crisis nursery assistance, they also focus on health and wellness through their Culinary Arts Training Program, Community Cafe, Food Shelf and several growing spaces on-site. 

We met up with Martin Brown (aka Farmer Brown), Health Equity Organizer for Waite House to pick his brain about their expanding growing program which includes indoor all season micro-greens, for use in the food shelf and community kitchen, as well their outdoor gardens which are planted and maintained by staff and community members. Not only were we blown away by the scope of what Waite House is accomplishing with limited resources, we were also moved by Martins personal story which resonated close to home and provides proof that you can always be the change you wish to see in the world, if you're willing and able to see and be it. 

Stay up to date with future Waite House Happenings here and if you're feeling inspired to help out, consider donating your extra seed trays and covers for the mirco-greens workshops, garden tools or excess produce from your gardens. Now over to Martin for some much appreciated living wisdom. 

Name: Martin Brown
Occupation: Health Equity Organizer, Waite House Community Center

Choice of unwinding beverage after a full day’s work: Keepsake Orchard Hard Cider -- my housemates are members of their Cider Club

How did you become involved with this work and why do you do it?

I've been working on farms and with food, in one way or another, since I was 12. The social piece and the political piece came later -- I was radicalized as a teenager by folks I knew who were involved with the "anti-globalization" movement, as we called it at the time. Now, we know that globalization has created a plethora of possibilities for social justice organizing across borders. Even as corporate wealth and control have increased, the infrastructure has been built for exposing injustice and working together in ways we could barely have imagined in the 90s.

The kind of activism I was involved in at that time and into my 20s was not very nourishing. We were "anti" this and "anti" that and very angry about the state of the world, but we didn't always have a vision for what we wanted instead. Working with the earth has been a very helpful outlet for the deep frustration of witnessing so much harm to the environment and people.

These days, I am driven in my work by an ecological understanding of the physical and social worlds around me. Everything is interconnected and, knowing this, I strive to optimize relationships -- between plants, people, institutions... This is the indigenous way and it can be difficult for me to access sometimes, because I was raised in a world of subjects and objects. But I believe in a deeper collective vision and my own vital connection to the earth and her many communities. I am sustained knowing that, every day, I am helping build something more healthy, more resilient, and more aligned with the natural world.  

How many people volunteer or work at Waite House?  

We have 30 employees and over 200 volunteers.

What is the mission of Waite House and which populations do you primarily serve?

Waite House is one of six community centers that comprise Pillsbury United Communities. Pillsbury's mission is to work with under-resourced populations across Minneapolis to foster the resilience and self-sufficiency of individuals, families, and the community as a whole. Waite House started as part of the Settlement House Movement, so there's always been a strong connection to immigrants. So, yes, a lot of our services are for them -- especially Latinos -- but we do serve the entire Phillips neighborhood.


How does food play an important role here? 

Food is important in peoples' lives. At the most basic level, it provides the sustenance that allows us to continue living, and this has been the level at which Waite House and other social service organizations have engaged people for a long time. But food does so much more than this -- it provides a sense of connection, it facilitates sharing across cultures, it creates the pathway to sovereignty. These are the levels I think we want to start engaging people on.

Where are your primary sources of food donation?

We have a food shelf that offers food to the community four days per week and a free meals program that feeds over 200 people every day. Those programs have been primarily using the emergency food system – Second Harvest Heartland and the Food Group – and they also receive donations from a handful of local farms.

Now, with the Urban Agriculture Program, they also receive food grown onsite on a weekly basis with the additional support of two PRI Apprentices in 2016. This is highly nutritious food grown where folks can see it, and it’s food that, in many cases, community members have chosen and planted themselves. That kind of connection is not very common for people using the emergency food system, and it gets at those deeper levels of meaning that food has.

How many growing spaces are on this site and how were they established?

We grow food indoors and outdoors at Waite House.

Inside, we have microgreens growing in the foodshelf and the café space. Those, we started last winter. It was our first foray into growing in the actual Waite House space, which is owned by the Minneapolis Park Board. The Park Board has never given us permission to grow here, despite repeated requests. So the microgreens were, in part, an experiment to see what would happen if we pushed the envelope a little bit. Ten months later and it’s the new normal. Now, the Park Board is getting ready to implement an Urban Ag plan citywide, and we are a part of that conversation. Hopefully, we are serving as a model of how you can grow food by the community for the community on public land.  

Outside, we have three apple trees and eight veggie beds – again, it’s a guerrilla garden. Three of them are for the youth in the youth program. One of them we use to grow herbs for the kitchen. And the other four are for the foodshelf.  

We established the onsite garden after a fatal shooting on our block this past spring. We really wanted to create more presence and a feeling of safety and care on the street in response to the violence. So, as you can see, there’s also solar lights and a peace pole there; one of these days, we’ll put a little free library out there, too.  

What are you most proud of this year? 

We’ve been trying a lot of cool stuff this year – bokashi compost, lasagna gardening, mushroom growing… But I think what I’m most proud of is that the kids in the youth program like the microgreens! If I walk down the hall with a tray of them, they crowd around me like I’m an ice cream truck. 

What unique challenges come with growing in the city? 

I’ve done most of my farming in rural areas, so for me, the number one challenge is SPACE! I like trees and animals and ecosystems in general; I hope we’ll be able to incorporate more of that into our growing systems as time goes on.

That said, we work with social ecologies in the city. What we lack in growing space, we make up for in people power. And, to shift the frame, the Phillips neighborhood is roughly 1,000 acres. It’s more diverse in plant, animal, and human life than most 1,000 acre farms are. And, if this community can get gardens growing on 2% of that land, they’ll be producing more food and providing more habitat than any farm I’ve ever worked on.

To make that level of change possible, we have to work at the policy level. Land access is the main area of policy the Urban Agriculture Program works with. I have a long list of families that want to garden but don’t have the space where they live, or don’t trust the soil where they live. We have a community garden about half a mile away, the Infinity Garden, which serves twelve families right now. The Infinity Garden is located on land that the City owns, which we lease for $1 a year. We’re trying to leverage that connection to get them to open more public land for gardens in the neighborhood, and we have some great partners in that effort.

What kind of resources could the community bring in to help foster this work?

We are hoping to open a second community garden in 2016, so we do have a lot of needs related to that. On the supplies end, we need clean soil, clean compost, raised beds, garden tools, a shed, a truck… But, like I said, people power is key, and once we have those things, we’re gonna need some folks to throw down and turn them into a garden.

We are working on a sales program for our microgreens right now, so I’m optimistic that that program is going to be self-sufficient in terms of supplies come winter. We can always use more volunteers for planting and harvesting – and folks come out of those workshops with the knowledge of how to grow and a nice bag of greens for themselves to boot.

There’s probably a thousand other ways we can plug folks in, too. GIS genius? We’ve got plans for you! Growing guru? Yeah, we need you to teach class on Wednesday night. Guerrilla gardener? Ha ha ha. Let’s talk about blanketing the ‘hood with wood chips and compost.


What has most surprised you about this work?

I had a big epiphany five years ago when I first started learning about permaculture. I had been a pretty serious environmentalist for a while then… I was biking everywhere, living in a crammed collective house, working at a food co-op, eating freegan… but I still believed that I was a “bad” organism. I was defining myself by my carbon footprint, and in that analysis, the best thing you can do is to throw yourself off of a bridge. And, living with that belief, I wasn’t very happy.

Learning about permaculture changed that for me. I came to understand that I am a beneficial organism on the planet: all of my natural behaviors benefit the environment. We, as humans, can act as stewards of the earth and her ecosystems. When you look at it a little deeper, we are actually inseparable from them, one with them. 

After that, I thought my head had popped and my paradigm had shifted, and it was a done deal. But, through my work with Waite House, I learned that I was wrong. I am not only in relationship with the environment. I am also in relationship with the earth’s people!

I feel like the last year has been a crash course in how to be a beneficial social organism. I’ve always been “nice” to other people – but that isn’t what I’m talking about. We live in systems that are every bit as damaging to us as the industrial food system is to the environment. We live in systems that commit genocide daily on the basis of race, class, gender, orientation… So, for me, being a beneficial social organism is about challenging those systems and building the new ones that will take their place over time. I was surprised to find that I am still living with a lot of “anti” sentiment in the social realm; maybe it took finding something sustaining to help me push through it. 

What qualities does it take to be a farmer?

Hard work and humility.

What are your sources of energy and inspiration?

It really comes down to the people, I think. I’ve had so many inspiring teachers over the last few years… Paula, Lindsay, and Sam at Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate, Starhawk, Pandora, and Charles at Earth Activist Training, Nat at the Draw Permaculture Sanctuary, Ben and Erin at Open Hands Farm. More recently: LaDonna Redmond, Louis Alemayehu, Nance Klehm, Christina Elias, Ernie Whiteman… I have been so blessed to study with and work alongside such amazing folks.

Closer to home, my housemates, Les and Els, and my partner, Sara, are sources of strength and energy for me. These three are people who do incredible work with incredible hearts every day; the world is a better place for their being here.