By: Dan Rosen
Nuestras Raices, Spanish for “Our Roots” is “a grassroots organization that promotes human, economic, and community development in Holyoke, MA, through projects related to food, culture, and the environment.” Centered on Holyoke’s Puerto Rican population, they are a leader in “agri-cultural” development, in that they advocate an urban agricultural movement in their city within the realm of their cultural backgrounds. Although principally a gardening program, Nuestras Raices is multifaceted and addresses a diverse array of food systems issues. In addition to a vast network of community gardens, the organization also operates a 30 acre inner-city farm, funds environmental policy initiatives, holds a youth organization, and acts as a community gathering place to exchange ideas and celebrate Latino culture.
An old New England mill-town in picturesque Western Massachusetts, the city of Holyoke has a history similar to many formerly industrial American communities. Throughout the twentieth century, as opportunities in the city were expanding, people were moving to this community to work in paper factories and nearby tobacco farms. Simultaneously, in rural Puerto Rico, agricultural livelihoods were becoming less economically feasible for many families, which sparked mass migration throughout the US, including to the city of Holyoke. Unfortunately, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, both the paper industry and the tobacco industry plummeted, resulting in rampant unemployment. Even in the current era, Holyoke’s economic decline never fully recovered and is currently one of the state’s poorest cities
From the onset of Puerto Rican migration, community gardening was a strong part of the city’s culture to both sustain their cultural upbringings and, perhaps more importantly, to survive on a limited income. This movement became even more vital as the economy was in decline, but with a lack of a central organizing unit, gardens were small-scale and did not generally last that long. However, Nuestras Raices has brought Holyoke’s gardening movement to an entirely different scale and has instilled hope in an economically depressed community.
As may be expected in the Five-Colleges region, Nuestras Raices was founded with the help of Hampshire College student, Seth Williams. In 1991, Williams was working on a community gardening thesis and partnered with interested members in the Holyoke community. He worked with gardeners and community members to find land, water, and tools to replace gardens that were lost due to city development. Inspired by Williams, community garden members founded Nuestras Raices in 1992 to help keep the gardening movement alive. Today, the organization has expanded to include 10 community gardens, over 100 member families, and a 30 acre inner-city farm. Additionally, the nonprofit has initiated community organizing initiatives that have worked to address a number of social and environmental issues in the city and even operates a homeless shelter. As of 2008, Nuestras Raices was operating on an $800,000 budget, a tribute to its success and influence.
Nuestras Raices’s first project was the conversion of an abandoned lot in South Holyoke. Initially, the space was filled with trash and was a common place for both drug trade and drug activity, clearly evident by the disposal of used needles on the lot’s grounds. However, a small group of social-environmental activists transformed this lot into a vibrant community garden, which sparked interest throughout the city. As more gardens were being established, they joined the Nuestras Raices network. Having access to a centrally unified group allows Holyoke community members use the Nuestras Raices network to form connections with one another and discuss pertinent social, political, environmental, and economic issues that the city and its residents face. Nuestras Raices responds to these discussions with action, and has been able to initiate and aid many projects, some of which are completely unrelated to their gardening project. Furthermore, Nuestras Raices’s projects have made Holyoke a more desirable place to live, evidenced by a higher sense of Holyoke pride, an increase in property values, an increase in air quality, and an increased sense of community.
The design of Nuestras Raices encourages community connections in Holyoke in several ways. For example, Nuestras Raices takes on an intergenerational model of development. They believe that “intergenerational connections are strengthened when children, teenagers, adults, and elders are able to partake in a common project and learn from one another.” As stated earlier, most of Holyoke’s elder population migrated from rural farming communities in Puerto Rico, so the elders are teachers to the youth on how to farm, as well as how to use fresh produce to cook Puerto Rican delicacies. Puerto Rican youth in Holyoke have been incredibly moved by the program, and many high schoolers report the desire to go into the agricultural or culinary industries after they graduate.
The design of the gardens themselves also encourage family and community involvement. Each garden is unique and has its own amenities and activities to promote these values. Almost all the gardens have parks and playgrounds to entertain children as their parents and older siblings garden, and a few gardens hold annual festivals to engage the community. These festivals serve free roasted pork and chicken and offer entertainment opportunities for all ages, such as live music and activities for children.
To promote youth involvement, Nuestras Raices has innovated two unique programs for passionate young activists, which work with the Holyoke Public School System. One of these programs is the Farm Apprenticeship Program. Teens in this program are paid and employed through the New England Farm Workers Council to gain experience working on and maintaining a farm. The program also offers skill building workshops and one-on-one counseling to help youth find jobs both while in high school and after they graduate.
The other youth program through Nuestras Raices is the Youth Organizing Committee. This is an educational after-school program with the mission of teaching high school students about the environment, history, agriculture, and policy. Projects are diverse and engage students in both research and activism, addressing concepts such as water and air quality issues, farm-to-school initiatives, and healthier school food. The youth gather together for a monthly event, “FEEST,” to cook healthy foods together from their community gardens and discuss food systems issues. The application process for this program is competitive. Youth need to apply and undergo a probation period of twelve sessions before gaining membership.
Nuestras Raices is heavily egalitarian and gives the youth in their community a high degree of trust and autonomy. Daniel Ross, the current executive director of Nuestras Raices, took on this job in 1995 at the young age of 22. He was a social activist all throughout his childhood and spent a year traveling the East Coast, working to better the lives of migrant farm workers. Due to his personal journey, empowering youth is a central value of Ross. Testament to this value, Atlantic reporter, Colby Kummer, actually received his tour of the community gardens and much information for his report about the organization by two 15-year-old boys, rather than an adult member.
Nuestras Raices also has initiatives to not only feed its community and gather its community together, but also to expand economic opportunities for its community members. For example, the organization operates a 30 acre inner-city farm, La Finca. La Finca was born out of a community planning process in which community members expressed a desire to not only grow their own food to sustain themselves nutritionally, but also to make a profit and sustain themselves economically. With assistance through a state grant, the City of Holyoke, and Nuestras Raices’s operating budget, an urban farm was established in 2002.
Central to La Finca is a farmer training program, Land of Opportunities. The mission of Land of Opportunities is to provide its participants with the necessary capital, knowledge, and connections to own their own small farm. Participants in the program rent small plots of land, between 1/8 and 1 acre, and are provided with access to an array of resources, such as connections to acquire small loans, an extensive training program, shared resources among the community, and market assistance.
La Finca serves other community benefits as well. It’s a central gathering point to celebrate Latino culture and hosts numerous festivals. When older residents visit, they report, “It feels like Puerto Rico!” The farm is also home to an extensive array of small businesses, which accommodates both area residents and visitors to the region with a slew of options to enjoy their day visiting the farm. These businesses include The Paso Fino (Fine Step) Horse Barn, The Petting Zoo, The Farm Store, The Lechonera (Pig Roast), and many greenhouses.
In addition to the gardening program, the farm, and the youth program, Nuestras Raices is also heavily focused on environmental justice and facilitates projects to make Holyoke a more sustainable community. Beginning in 2007, members of Nuestras Raices, including many youth, spent two years researching and identifying environmental risks to community health. After this extensive process, they decided to focus on three main issues: indoor and outdoor air quality, asthma, and community health; land use and garbage disposal; and water quality and fishing in the Connecticut River. In 2009, they sent a proposal to the EPA CARE Program (Community Action for a Renewed Environment) and received a level 1 grant to fund their initiatives. They use this grant to fund sustainable practices and offer regular environmental workshops, free to the public, to educate community members on how they can lower their carbon footprint and live more sustainably.
Nuestras Raices is a highly successful non-profit organization addressing environmental, social, and economic issues in its community. Huertas is fortunate to have a similar initiative so close to home, and would greatly benefit by reaching out to Nuestras Raices in its quest to expand upon its small and underfunded program. Just like Huertas is moving forward through the help of UVM extension, Nuestras Raices initiated through an academic connection as well. Although the population Huertas addresses is arguably in a more marginalized position due to citizenship status and isolation in rural locales, I am confident that Huertas can learn something from Nuestras Raices and possibly even use them as a resource in moving forward.
Nuestras Raices Home. Network Solutions, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <http://www.nuestras-raices.org/>.
Kummer, Corby. “A Papaya Grows in Holyoke.” The Atlantic 1 Apr. 2008: 1-2. The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/04/a-papaya-grows-in-holyoke/306702/>.