Raising Teens Among the Beans

From a distance, Greg Gale looks a little like a scarecrow.

Standing among cucumbers and beans in a 21-acre field here, his tall, spare frame is topped by a straw hat angled back on a scramble of black hair. But up close, his unwavering gaze says this is no hayseed.

Back at the office, his co-director of The Food Project, Pat Gray rises from her computer. Quick talking and energetic, Mrs. Gray could be a self-effacing, liberal arts college president, well attuned to the role her small world plays in addressing larger issues, such as feeding the hungry.

She slides behind the wheel of a battered Mercedes and minutes later Mr. Gale and Mrs. Gray are locked in a bean-patch parley.

The two stand on familiar ground. For the past seven years, these dissimilar friends have met in gardens, offices, and homes to shape a nonprofit teen-farming group that is now a national model. In the process of growing 180,000 pounds of organic produce, they have changed the lives of some 200 inner-city and suburban teenagers, and fed thousands of needy individuals.

Gale and Gray have "built a successful system that addresses youth development and sustainable food systems," says Oran Hesterman of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich. Two months ago, the foundation gave the project a whopping $615,000 vote of confidence. The five-year grant will be used to help spread their model to other communities.

While Gale and Gray did not give birth to the organization, they have raised it to maturity. Since 1992, they've taken a promising but underfunded pilot project and built a focused organization that now has an annual budget of $724,000 and a staff of 11.

The project's accomplishments now include: a 21-acre plot leased in suburban Lincoln, two acres in urban Roxbury, a board of trustees that includes teens, an inner-city farmers' market, an academic-year program for selected youths from the summer program, community partnerships with other organizations such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Roxbury, an intern program, and Harvest for Hunger, a September program where hundreds of volunteers harvest some 15,000 pounds of produce for local shelters.

Gale and Gray came to The Food Project with no previous experience in running this kind of community group. The "dynamic key" to the project's success so far, they say, is an inclusive, open-management style. Unlike the top-down management of some community organizations, the guiding values, decisions, and directions of the project come out of regular discussions with staff.

"If we are a model of anything," says Gray, "we are a model of inclusion with rigorous standards.... We hire staff to be committed as we are, and we expect input. This is not a passenger ship. We are all rowing so we all determine where boat is going."

Discussions are held every Friday during the winter months for as long as three hours. In the summer months, they are less regular. But in spring the office shuts down for several days for an off-site planning session. Recently the project included donors, parents, teens, and staff in marathon meetings that set goals and values into 2003.

The result of this inclusion is a level of commitment that many big corporations only dream about. And the project's files contain dozens of testimonies from teens and parents about lives transformed.

The Food Project started as the idea of Ward Cheney, an experienced farmer in Lincoln. He wanted to bring young people of all races together in a vegetable-growing enterprise, to create thoughtful producers and leaders, not just consumers. Office space and land was initially leased from the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Magnetic with his vision, Mr. Cheney attracted $140,000 in funding the first year from local foundations and individuals. He also tapped the best consultants he could find in motivating youths. From the beginning he saw the value of the hallmark internal discussions.

When Gray, then the mother of two young teens, was hired in l991 and worked side by side with Cheney on the project, she told her husband, "I"m going to stay three years, no matter what, because this is an absolutely amazing project." She adds today, "I haven't lost that feeling."

Gale, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, was married and teaching English in l992 when he joined the project as a summer intern. Later. he became a staff member. He apprenticed himself for two summers to consultant Stanley Pollack, who directs the Teen Empowerment program in Boston.

"With Stanley we saw how to create a sense of purpose with young people," says Gale, "and how you protect that purpose through a written contract followed by feedback so kids are learning about character while they experience the consequences of a contract."

For Gray, the indigenous discussion approach was a revelation. "I came to The Food Project as an authoritarian," says the former school teacher and grass-roots organizer. "You know the attitude," she says. "If you want something done, you do it yourself. But after being part of the process here, I am fully committed because I have seen all the discussions improve the final version of just about everything."

Ironically, it was vigorous discussions with Cheney over the need for tighter management - particularly strategies to ensure funding - that ended Cheney's leadership.

"In those early years, Ward was trying to do so much and funding was erratic," says Gray, "There were times when people weren't paid for six months. Fortunately, we had some staff who could afford to keep working without needing to feed their families off this project."

Gale and Gray became co-directors of the project as it entered its third year. The cornerstone summer program - with as many as 24 inner-city and suburban teens hired to plant, grow, and harvest produce - was well under way including a stipend of $125 a week for each teen.

While juggling many new management duties, Gray became an able fund-raiser. She relied on on advice from consultants and "how to" books. "The upside of living through months with no money," Gray says, "is that we've raised 120 percent of our budget over the last three years, and we've tucked the 20 percent away."

Gray's thriftiness and tenacity fuses well with Gale's ability to praise and push teens, and keep the field programs innovative, challenging, and fun. "Both Pat and Greg are full-steam-ahead people," says Martha Boyd, the project's urban grower at the Roxbury garden. "They get the fullest credit for holding together a sense of group sharing. Pat is an intrepid reader, anything and everything, and she brings it to the table."

The need among teens continues to grow. Each year the project has to turn down 4 out of 5 youths who apply for the summer program. But Gale and Gray are leery of expanding too far.

" 'Every kid in America should be in the program,' " a teen once told Gale. "And then he said, 'you should never jeopardize the intimate nature of the organization.' Pat and I feel that if we start to jeopardize our values ... we will cap the growth to save the program."

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