Erika Allen

A Woman with Growing Power

Photo by Loretta Mays

In 1987, Erika Allen, director of Chicago’s Growing Power Projects office and several national programs, thought the work of farming was behind her when she left her childhood home in Milwaukee to pursue her passion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). After a decade of community-based art programs and earning a Master of Arts degree in art psychotherapy from the University of Illinois, in Chicago, Allen, the daughter of Will Allen (founder of Growing Power) began working as a family resource and emergency services manager serving children and their families.

Through the expressive power of their artwork, several of Allen’s youngest clients may subtly have planted seeds for a future in the unusual art of urban farming when she learned that many of the youths could not concentrate on art or other activities because of a lack of food at home to eat. Eventually, the seed sprouted and Allen opened Growing Power’s Chicago office to pursue her urge to open a community food center to support urban agriculture projects.

Since 2001, Allen has expanded the Chicago branch of Growing Power’s urban farm site projects to include the Chicago Lights Urban Farm, in collaboration with the Fourth Presbyterian Church, in the Cabrini-Green community; the 20,000-square-foot grant park, Art on the Farm, an urban agriculture potager (French traditional kitchen garden), in partnership with the Chicago Park District and Moore Landscapes; the Tru Blooms fragrance farm, in Grant Park, growing lavender, roses and lilies as fragrance sources from locally grown flowers; the seven-acre Iron Street Urban Farm in the Bridgeport neighborhood that serves as the office’s community food center and office; and farms at Chicago Housing Authority’s  ABLA Homes and Roosevelt Square development in Altgeld Gardens, a 2.5-acre urban farm in one of Chicago’s most isolated and impoverished communities. They will soon break ground on a seven-acre urban farm site, in partnership with the Chicago Park District, on the southeast side of Chicago.

Although the goals of some of the first projects fell short of Allen’s food production expectations, it proved to be a valuable learning experience. “It wasn’t the kind of farming that I grew up with. However, the smaller scale spaces have provided important youth education opportunities. I learned about many of the essential components that I now look for: antiracism and how it manifests in communities of color, the significance of land tenure and why it’s important to get involved with policymaking, as well as the fact that urban farming in Chicago was still years away and there was plenty of groundwork to be done to prepare for it,” she explains.

Since the earliest days of the, “Eat fresh, eat local,” grassroots movement in 1971, community gardens have largely been spaces where people congregate and build community. However, according to Allen, “Post 9-11” raised the question of domestic food security and gave her the opportunity to introduce the city to community-operated urban agriculture—self-reliant urban farms and food centers and economic drivers that create jobs—where produce is grown and retailed to residents in surrounding neighborhoods and food security needs are met by a community which owns and operates the system that sustains it. This requires a great deal of initiative, expertise and passion, in addition to a politically oriented investment of time to affect zoning codes and policies that facilitate the growth of urban agriculture and community food-growing spaces such as city-owned land, privately owned empty lots and rooftops.

“When I started Growing Power here, there were no ordinances or zoning codes regarding urban agriculture,” recalls Allen. To develop a comprehensive approach for analyzing unexamined issues in our broken food system, employ decision-making at all levels and most importantly, have food recognized as a human right, Allen co-founded The Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council (CFPAC).

Getting involved in policy wasn’t part of Allen’s original plan. “I didn’t want to set up collaborations, initiate projects and create a new culture that was not supported by city policies that reflected the full value and benefits of using vacant lots for food production, not just as something nice to do until something better comes along,” remarks Allen, who, while commending the city’s last administration for its substantial amount of sustainable green work, does suggest that the broken food system has generated a sense of urgency. “More policies and program-related investments are needed that support urban farms and food centers as for-profit enterprises that are economic drivers.”

Growing Power’s workshops, which generate revenue to pay for projects, resemble a cross-section of the world. Participants from different countries, cultures and economic levels come together for three meals a day.

“We connect, share perspectives and learn from one another. Since 2007, participants have increasingly vocalized about the need for antiracism and the sexism and economic oppression, which are issues they regularly encounter because access to healthy food is not yet considered a social justice issue or a human right,” notes Allen, who uses serious words to define the core of her work.

“We’re not just bringing access to food in impoverished neighborhoods, we’re keeping kids alive and teaching them skills that help them make better decisions. The fact that kids have to live with an incredible amount of violence in their neighborhoods is what drives us to create economic opportunities,” declares Allen, who sites the example of how Chicago jobs have been created by Growing Power, a responsible, mission-driven business that meets 50 to 60 percent of its budget through revenue generated and donations received.

“One of my present projects has nine full-time, nine part-time folks and 10 interns. Our staff works in summer programs with 250 teens from across the city. In addition, we’ve created after-school programs with a science lens that employ 150 youths. Our goal is to continue to create jobs at Iron Street, where we could eventually hope to have as many as 100 full-time staff members in this site alone,” clarifies Allen.

Allen still considers herself an artist. “I wanted to just be a studio artist, and it didn’t seem like a responsible thing to do, only because I had skill sets that could help a lot of people. However, I’m an artist who, like other artists, looks at the world in a different way and communicates what I see visually. My medium is the urban landscape and creating socially just and equitable access to resources and opportunities. I use the art of urban farming to help illuminate a path for people to find their place in the world, like I did.”

Linda Sechrist is a senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings magazine.

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