Growing a Brighter Future in Austin

BUILD and Austin Grown Cohort of Students

By Tracie Bedell

August brought an end to another successful completion of Green Community Connection’s youth sustainability leadership program, formerly known as “I Can Fly.” This summer’s program, “Austin Grown,” was a collaboration between GCC and BUILD Chicago, an organization serving Chicago’s at-risk youth since 1969 through gang intervention, violence prevention, and youth development programs.

The 8-week “Austin Grown” program involved 10 students, hailing primarily from the Austin, Garfield Park, and North Lawndale communities of Chicago, including two who returned from GCC’s 2017 pilot cohort.

With guidance from GCC, BUILD, and local mentors from other area organizations, the students earned $8.25 per hour while planting and maintaining the Iris Farm, a 2,400-square-foot urban vegetable garden -- as well as the 25-foot radius Peace Garden, and a 90-foot area of native pollinator plants.

The vegetable garden included nearly 30 types of plants, from tomatillos and cherry tomatoes to cucumbers, kale, melons, lettuce, peppers, and zucchini. With the help and guidance of former teacher and engineer, and BUILD’s volunteer Farm Manager, Peter Todd, farm volunteer Steve Mrkvicka, and BUILD program staffer Rick Miranda, students also began construction on a large chicken coop and covered picnic pavilion on the garden grounds.

Growth Beyond the Garden

Through the program’s holistic approach, students learned more than how to plant, maintain, and harvest an urban farm. Chefs, including Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel (Majani Food Emporium and Majani Catering), Cheryl Munoz (Sugar Beet Schoolhouse), Jolie Henrickson (Sugar Beet Food Coop Catering), and Qia Carswell (Chicago Style Vegan), shared seed-to-plate and food justice lessons, and taught students how to cook easy, healthful vegan meals using harvested produce. Some of the in-garden meals included tacos, pasta, veggie fried rice, and bicycle-powered smoothies.

Mentors -- including Ylanda Wilhite (The Field Museum), Laura Derks (Flybird Experience), Stephanie Walquist (Wild Ones West Cook), Cassandra West (One Earth Film Fest), Laurie Casey (One Earth Film Fest), Lisa Files (One Earth Film Fest), Michael Strautmanis (The Obama Foundation), Burrell Poe (The Goldin Institute), Alex Poltorak (The Urban Canopy), and Billy Che Brooks (former member, Black Panther Party) -- also showed students how their efforts on the urban farm translate into self-care, improved food quality and availability, sustainability, and resilience.

After learning about civic engagement, all eligible youth were given the opportunity -- through the Chicago League of Women Voters -- to register to vote. During a field trip to Sweet Water Foundation in Englewood, the youth learned about regenerative farming as well as regenerative community-building. While visiting The Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, the cohort planted take-home container gardens and marveled at the sight of hundreds of colorful, beautiful butterflies in the butterfly house.

On August 20, the students, led by Chefs Cheryl Munoz and Jolie Henrickson, cooked and hosted a farm to fork luncheon, where they presented their final projects, in the form of podcasts, artwork, speeches, videos, and photo essays. The projects were used to summarize their experience and share how they intend to leverage their knowledge and power as they grow their own futures.

Winter is Coming

Interested in lending a hand on the farm before winter hits? There’s plenty of work yet to be done, from winterizing the garden to finishing the chicken coop and pavilion. For more information on how you can help, email

Tray makes his final presentation about the summer and its impact.

Tray makes his final presentation about the summer and its impact.