This month, Sam Koentopp and Marla Guggenheimer of Big Green Chicago interviewed Erika Allen, the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Operations for the Urban Growers Collective in Chicago, Illinois. The following is their interview
Big Green: Please tell us about your history of working with food/agriculture in Chicago and how that’s lead you to your current work at Urban Growers Collective?
Erika: I have been working in the urban agriculture sector since 2001. My background is in art psychotherapy and visual art. The intersection of justice and environment interested me, coupled with the stark reality that people my age did not know how to grow food and children I was teaching did not even know where a carrot came from.
This exploration led to the establishment of an office of Growing Power for Chicago, which developed a variety of urban farming projects, assisted other organizations and generally set the bar for productive food growing spaces.
Big Green: You have dedicated a significant part of your life, and a huge amount of time and energy to your work. Why is food the area you work in, and why is it so important, right now?
Erika: Everyone eats, and it seems that we should all have equal access to high quality food. I felt this was an area that wasn’t being addressed in Chicago and it is a tangible way to impact people’s lives and mental health. Without our basic needs being met, its difficult to progress and shift the dynamics of trauma. Healing is the precursor for so much in the communities we all work in here in Chicago. The historic impacts of structural racism and violence require a therapeutic approach that can manifest in the garden and urban farm environments we create. I also am driven as an African American woman to reclaim agriculture as a healing and nurturing force and not associating with enslavement.
Big Green: Can you share something in your work that you are most proud of?
Erika: I am proud of the growth and life changing experiences our youth and staff have had. Because I’ve done this so long, I occasionally run into past youth corp participants and when they share how much our programs meant to them and shaped their life trajectory, it really feels good. On the artistic front, the shear beauty of our sites at the height of the season brings me much joy.
Big Green: Reflecting on February being Black History Month, what does it mean to you to be involved in the food movement and urban agriculture?
Erika: It’s an act of both resistance and healing to grow food. Coming from a perspective of healing from trauma, introducing people who have negative connotations with agriculture is a kind of medicine that opens the door for a release and recognition of how much of this history we carry and need to reclaim.
Big Green: You are clearly a leader in your community and the food movement. At Big Green, we work with a national network of educators, and community leaders who are investing their time to grow food with students. What would you like to say to them?
Erika: I think it’s really important to connect culture and food. Having the opportunity to enchant children with the world of growing plants as part of a whole life can bring a lifetime of richness and obviously nourishment. Framing growing food as a life skill and something we can and should do to heal the environment is something I think we all need to be more direct about.
Big Green: Erika, thanks so much for your time, we will be sharing information for our readers about you and the work of Urban Growers Collective, but is there anything else you would like to close with?
Erika: Just to visit our website, to learn how to get involved in our work. We offer trainings, farmer incubation program and tours.