Community Partnerships Provide Opportunities

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February 17, 2023

Preface: During Black History Month, the Arboretum is collaborating with one of its local partners working in historically African American Chicago-area neighborhoods to highlight their important work supporting food education, fun in agriculture, and strengthening community.

By Natasha Nicholes, founder of We Sow We Grow

Sometimes, good things come from just being chatty. I’m not quite sure how my relationship with The Morton Arboretum began, but I know that an email from Brooke Pudar, adult learning programs specialist, in 2017 set a series of events into motion that one can only dream of getting through cold calling. 

Let me back up for a minute, though. My name is Natasha Nicholes and I’m the founder and executive director of the We Sow We Grow Project, an educational urban farm seeking to bridge the connection between people and their food all while helping to grow them as gardeners. We’re headquartered in West Pullman, a community on the far South Side of Chicago. 

Through Brooke, I was introduced to Aarón Siebert-Llera, the Arboretum’s director of inclusion. We formed a partnership based on a mutual interest: creating a welcoming space for folks from the city who often aren’t thought of as typical Arboretum visitors. 

Having visited several times for work and pleasure, I know that the Arboretum is a space for peace, tranquility, and education. It’s exactly what our urban farm and extended community strives to be. 

We first introduced our communities to each other when I taught my first class in a series of edible gardening workshops at the Arboretum before the pandemic—ah, how time flies. This workshop was co-taught by my daughter, Penelope, and we showed students how to create small ecosystems for their window sills using pop bottles. Our hope was to plant a seed of curiosity while also showing gardeners how to continue to harvest fresh basil until they could plant outdoors. There’s something about creating a growing space within the parameters of your ability, and our belief that everyone should be able to grow something held true that day. 

Through that program, I’ve gone on to teach at the Arboretum each year, and each year I’m always so humbled by the folks who choose to attend my class. The questions are always profound and the fun is always in full supply. We’ve planted actual seeds in each of these workshops, and it has allowed me to grow as both a teacher and forever student. I’m grateful that in my position I’m still lucky enough to be able to provide resources and ways to connect our neighborhoods horticulturally. 

The partnership doesn’t stop there! In 2021, we hosted our inaugural We Sow We Grow Community Day for Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum, and those who attended loved it. We’re still figuring out how to increase the number of folks who get to experience this yearly event. However, watching as the children took in the lights and the music, and the fact that we did this very likely past their bedtimes, puts the biggest smile on my face. 

Most often, the folks that we talk to have heard of the Arboretum, but don’t think that they will be able to get there. The nearest train connection from Chicago drops us off 1.5 miles away from the Arboretum, which wasn’t practical for our group. So we arranged for carpools and meetups to get everyone out, and the rest is history. We Sow We Grow is looking into options for involving more community members throughout the city this year so we can maximize this experience and take a large group photo for our third annual community gathering. 

While planning our 2023 programming, we were happy to know that we could add the Arboretum to our community partner list. Connecting the city to this gem we have in the western suburbs is one of my joys. Having been able to consistently visit since 2013 has only increased the connection that I have with horticulture, and I have respect for nature being a great resource for the health and well-being of everyone. It’s only natural that The Morton Arboretum becomes a facet of the We Sow We Grow project.

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