Awesome Project: Art in the Garden

For the past three summers, every day that it looks like it might rain on a day that she teaches at Borland Garden in Pittsburgh, Emily Carlson talks to the weather and asks for it hold back the rain until two o’clock. That’s when the kids at Art in the Garden, a youth summer program in the garden, go home for the day. Without any shelter in the garden, programming has been at the whim of the weather, though they’ve been lucky. “Every single day for the past three summers it has worked except for one day,” Emily says. “But that feels like a lot to ask the weather, and it feels stressful to me, so we’d really like to have a structure built.”

So she and her community are kicking off their third ioby campaign to raise funds to build a shelter in Borland Garden for all weather–and extended season–learning, after previously having successfully nearly $8,000 with ioby to fund programming in the summer of 2017 and 2018.

Borland Garden used to be a vacant plot of land, full of toxic chemicals in the soil. After the soil was remediated, Borland Garden emerged as an urban green space in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, offering respite and fresh produce to the intentional community that lived around it. Seeing that kids would come into the garden to pick at plants and dig holes as part of their play, Scilla Wahrhaftig, then head of the American Friends Service Committee in Pittsburgh, saw the potential for play to strengthen kids’ learning. It might work a bit better if, for instance, kids could dig holes that they could then fill with seedlings. They could then watch the plants grow and learn about their life cycle, and enjoy a bounty of fruits and vegetables that they would have grown themselves. And perhaps most importantly, this might also create moments to teach critical life skills. So, with OMA Pittsburgh, she founded Art in the Garden, to teach young people the skills to navigate life understanding their feelings and emotions, and be able to respond to their environment constructively.

Art in the Garden, Pittsburgh

Not long after Emily moved into the intentional community that the garden is in, she became intrigued by further possibilities for learning in the garden, piqued by her background in education and poetry. “I really became interested in social and emotional development, and part of that was around the birth of my child and my own inner personal growth,” recalls Emily. “All children are at risk of facing trauma; trauma includes neglect, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, substance abuse and mental health challenges in the home, divorce, the incarceration of a family member, homelessness, neighborhood violence, the roots of historical slavery, discrimination, being an immigrant. When experienced in childhood, these types of trauma fall under the category of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES. The Effects of ACES are far-reaching: social and mental health issues, alcoholism, drug use, diabetes, depression, suicide attempts, heart disease, violence and being a victim of violence. A young man was shot and killed by a police officer across from my house, when my son was very small…There’s a lot of trauma that kids were facing and I wanted to try to understand how to serve kids who face a lot of trauma.”

Meshing art and learning, as Emily and her team have at Art in the Garden, is a particularly powerful way to teach young people to recognize their feelings, move to a place of empowerment, and heal from trauma.

“We had the Clay Workshop come in and one of the big things was thinking about, when we fire a piece of pottery that we’ve made, how do we make it strong so that it can endure the fire? How do we make ourselves strong so that we can endure the struggles and challenges that we face? … Just connecting the social, emotional piece with the artistic piece is really crucial to us.”

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The garden itself also plays an active role in their learning. Learning about mushrooms and the plants in Borland Garden, children explore what it means to be in community, and how to sit with tension between one another. “The mushrooms’ [roots] are like little telephone wires that are shuttling nutrients back and forth between plants and saying, ‘Here’s what I need. What do you need?’ How can we make sure that we work in community and collaboration in order to create a really healthy ecosystem in our lives?” Emily says.

Parents have noticed how well the program works, and often noticed that their kids were now able to self-regulate and calm down when they were upset, and better able to handle conflict. “A lot of the feedback is, ‘We want this program to be every day of the week and during the school year, as well,’” Emily says, something they’d love to do but haven’t been able to do because of limited resources–and for the simple reason that it might rain on them in the garden come fall.

But having grown over the years, Emily and her team think now might be the time to invest in an all-season shelter for the garden to have more certainty about summer, and hopefully spring and fall, programming. To do so they’ll need resources, and the traditional route of applying to grants has been a challenge for the Garden.

Art in the Garden

“It wasn’t working for us getting grants at first,” says Emily. That led them to explore crowdfunding, which initially just seemed like a last resort. “Then, that kind of flipped around and I started seeing the positive, and crowdfunding was actually building community for us. It was really spreading the word about our project in ways that just getting a grant wouldn’t have. So all sorts of people felt invested and involved; it was a way to build more community, which was really amazing. Then, the crowdfunding became a way for us to get grants. So The Heinz Endowments called us because they saw our crowdfunding campaign and they were able to support us last summer too, which was huge. It’s brought us community and it’s also brought us more funding from other sources.”

Continuing to find new ways to develop young people’s social emotional skills is a critical piece that they want to hold onto as they move forward, and hopefully grow. As kids age out of programming, many find themselves coming back to work as youth leaders, learning the importance of reliability and accountability when others lean on you for support.

Soon enough, Emily hopes that they’ll raise enough money through ioby to put in that shelter and have almost all-season programming, and that they’ll have the space to develop new programming that suits all the young people that come through the garden. And, not for nothing, that she won’t have to ask the weather to hold back rain clouds anymore.