Sowing peace, science knowledge, and empowerment with seeds and a trowel

Heather Oakley Rippy founded Global Gardens in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in order to nurture children – to teach them about cooperation, critical thinking, confidence, and hope. Episode 3 of the “People Making a Difference” podcast. 

Global Gardens: Sowing science and peace

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Courtesy of Global Gardens, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Global Gardens educator Jennifer Yoder (left) and founder Heather Oakley Rippy.

Planting radishes is really a means to learning self-control and critical thinking. That’s how Heather Oakley Rippy sees it. 

The founder of Global Gardens started a program in 2007 that now reaches children in pre-K to sixth grade at 15 schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It also operates three community gardens. But what’s compelling about the Global Gardens approach is that its facilitators are sowing critical life skills in today’s racially and politically polarized world. The three core values underlying their efforts are science, peace, and empowerment.

Whenever kids are working on a project together, “you’re going to have some conflict,” says Ms. Rippy. But she adds that if you are “teaching critical thinking, asking questions, working together in a peaceful way, working out conflicts, kids are going to be naturally empowered.”

This story was sparked by a Monitor story about U.S. summer school programs that included a quote from Jenni Yoder with Global Gardens in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Episode transcript

 [Music]

Heather Rippy: When you get a group of kids working on anything together, it can go in many different directions. And I think you have to know that you’re going to likely have some conflict. And every classroom has a peace table and they put like a globe on the table. So I just brought that concept to Global Gardens. And it’s just the idea that we can work out conflicts by speaking to each other respectfully and working together.

Dave Scott: That’s Heather Oakley Rippy, founder of Global Gardens. From the outside, Global Gardens [simply] teaches pre-K through 6th grade kids about gardening at 15 schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And they run three family food farms, or community gardens. But what drew my attention is the Global Gardens approach to teaching how to deal with conflict – arguably a critical life skill in today’s racially and politically polarized world. And it’s one of three core values behind their work: science, peace, and empowerment.

Welcome to People Making a Difference. A podcast about people who are, step-by-step, making a better world.

I’m Dave Scott. 

Heather started this effort working with low-income students in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City while she was getting a masters degree at Columbia University in science and peace education. Then, she moved back home to Tulsa, and started Global Gardens in 2007. I asked her how she got started. 

Heather Rippy: I just became really passionate about educating through experiences and allowing children to have voice in what they were participating in, and curate their own experience, driven by their curiosity. And so that’s what I started to see little peeks of as a science teacher, getting kids out of the classroom, taking them to Central Park, working on just planting seeds in little pots.

Dave Scott: And, I understand how any science teacher would turn to maybe botany or gardening as a way of teaching science – that gets them out of the classroom and gets them hands-on. But the idea of teaching peace and empowerment seems a little bit different to me. And yet those are core concepts. So help me understand how those three relate to each other.

Heather Rippy: Yes. I’d love to. So really quickly, too, I want to touch on the science piece because yes, it is botany and it is like a physical science, but also I feel like Global Gardens is really good at teaching scientific thinking, which is in essence, really critical thinking and learning to ask really good questions and identify curiosities that we want to learn more about, which in my opinion drives all learning. How does a scientist think? And how can we be more like scientists in our thinking? I think [that] is a really exciting skill to teach children.

And then the peace and empowerment part. When you get a group of kids working on anything together, it can go in many different directions. And I think you have to know that you’re going to have some conflict when we’re all working in the same space and sharing materials and supplies and even ideas. And how do we do that peacefully and how do we cooperate with each other in a way that we can have a desired outcome or just [be] a positive experience.

And then the empowerment piece: If you do those ... things really well, teaching critical thinking, asking questions, working together in a peaceful way, working out conflicts, kids are going to be naturally empowered.

Dave Scott: Can you give me an example of what you’ve learned from your students about how to teach peace and empowerment?

Heather Rippy: So there are things that happen in a global gardens after-school program that I think are really critical to the student’s success. One example is [the] community circle. And I had never thought to do a community circle to start out the program, but the students would come into my after-school program so wired and exhausted and beat down by their day that we’d have to do something to refocus these kids and get everyone on the same page and get them to a calm place and erase the day. 

So I came up with this idea of sitting around in a circle and so we’re breathing in the parts of our day that we want to hold on to, and we’re breathing out the parts of our day that we want to let go of and start fresh. And I would say that’s something that the students just showed me that they needed and then it worked really well and it was really effective.

Dave Scott: At this point Global Gardens educator Jenni Yoder Yoder joins our conversation. She’s been teaching mostly low-income elementary school kids in Tulsa for the past four years.

Jenni Yoder: I think, everything Heather said, 100%. In Global Gardens, and especially in our after-school program, we have students determine a theme for their garden that expresses something about themselves to the world and to their community. And they’re creating decorations, collecting materials that they add to their garden.

Dave Scott: Can you give me an example? So the second graders file in and you start a community circle and then what happens? How are they deciding on what their theme is for their garden or what they’re going to call it or whatever?

Jenni Yoder: We call it dreaming and theming. So students are really encouraged to reflect about themselves and dream a little bit. Sometimes kids will say, “I want a cupcake garden”, or “I want a unicorn garden,” which is really cool. But I want to know what that says about you as a person because this garden is one way that we can share our thoughts and express ourselves to our community.

Heather Rippy: Oh, I was going to say too, some of our students might have a home culture that might be different from the dominant culture in the school. And maybe talking a little bit, bringing that out and working so that the student is proud of their culture and can maybe use the garden as a way to learn more about where their parents came from.

Jenni Yoder: I had one student who had a fire garden because his heritage is Chuukese. So Chuuk is an island nation in Micronesia. And his dad loves a certain spicy pepper that it’s hard to find here, but they ate it all the time in Chuuk. And so he wanted to grow lots of spicy foods and actually, looked through a seed catalog with rare seeds and found a similar pepper to the one that his dad liked in Chuuk. And so he grew that as part of his fire garden and he stacked bricks around the outside to make it look like a fire pit. He made flames out of wood that he placed around his garden. And really was creative with the way that he expressed that. Maybe a student wants to grow a pizza garden. And so you could grow the ingredients or toppings for pizza, a pollinator garden, you could research different pollinator plants.

Dave Scott: I think I would enjoy a pizza garden. But I want to go back to some of the other concepts of peace and empowerment a little bit more here. I think I read on your site that you have the process of establishing group expectations with the kids and then using a peace table to resolve conflicts. Can you explain those ideas and how they work?

Heather Rippy: I tended to believe that if students come up with the expectations that they have for their group, they have a lot more buy-in on following those expectations, as opposed to if a teacher comes in with his or her ideas of the way things should go and it just starts with a discussion of what do we want our time together to look like? And teaching for 10 years, [I found] students really always agree that they want to be respected and they want to be heard and they want to be kind to each other. We come up with a fairly simple list of what do we expect from each other, and what do we expect from ourselves so that can guide our time and our experience and how we speak to each other and how we interact with each other. 

Dave Scott: And once you’ve got those expectations, you write those down. Do you review them regularly? Or how do they remember what those expectations are?

Heather Rippy: In my classroom, it was like a big poster that we put on the wall. So sometimes we would paint it on plywood and put it on the wall or on poster board. If we have an issue, even just coming in and getting settled for community circle, or when someone’s talking, a teacher might just point to the expectations and say, “Remember what we agreed on? They’re not my rules for you. They’re your rules for yourself. So let’s stay true to what we decided.” It’s giving the students a little bit more power And a little bit more responsibility over themselves.

Dave Scott: You also referenced a peace table to resolve conflicts. Can you address that idea?

Heather Rippy: I did not invent that. When I was in New York City … so I did teach for three years in Harlem. And then my last year in New York, I taught at the United Nations International School. I was a third-grade teacher. And one thing that school does is they have a peace table. Every classroom has a peace table and they put like a globe on the table and so I just brought that concept to Global Gardens. And it’s just the idea that we can work out conflicts by speaking to each other respectfully and working together. And that’s really such a focus of Global Gardens and teaching them that skill so they could take it home or take it into their other relationships outside of Global Gardens of just learning how to communicate through a conflict or a disagreement or anything.

Jenni Yoder: So one of our garden educators, Mary, shared that she had two students in her program who tended to yell when they got upset. Tamara and Javianna got into lots of arguments where they would escalate really quickly into yelling. So they visited the peace table with Mary, their facilitator, and they were sharing why they were upset. Mary’s asking follow-up questions to dig a little bit deeper with them. And then eventually, everyone realized that Tamara and Javianna were upset about the same thing, which was feeling disrespected and fear of being unheard. And so it was like a light bulb moment for both of them. And they made an agreement that they would really try to listen to one another, so they didn’t feel they had to yell.
So you know, the rest of the program wasn’t perfect for the rest of the year they were together. But whenever things would get tense, then Mary could remind them and ask “can we trust each other to really listen?” And that would help them remember that they can really talk things through because they had that connection at the peace table.

I have found that if you give kids the space to really explore their feelings and express them safely they’re 100% capable of reflecting and identifying that route. Whatever is really going on. And often it’s the things that are the root of adults, feelings too: feeling unheard, feeling disrespected, feeling rejected. And if you provide them that safe place to work through that, kids will use it.

Dave Scott: Are the challenges facing Tulsa kids today, different from say 2007, when you, when you started the program, Heather?

Heather Rippy: The real challenge for the students that I was working with was keeping them in school. Where we started, Eugene Field [Elementary School], I remember there were four apartment complexes that fed into the school, and at one point someone in the neighborhood just was looking for a student who was going to finish high school, and there were none. And so I really wanted to connect with kids in a way that would get them excited about learning and excited about staying in school and excited about thinking about their future. 

There were gangs and drugs and all of that but we never talked about “don’t be in a gang” but we talked [about] “What do you want for yourself?” and then “How do you make the decisions to like, make those things happen?” And that’s so connected with what do you want for your garden. And what steps are you going to take to create this garden that you want? What do you want for yourself next year?

Dave Scott: Jenni, when you hear that, do you think that the context for these kids has changed much?

Jenni Yoder: I do feel like there is this undercurrent of awareness about global issues and maybe that is because of social media and everyone has access to all of the news all of the time from around the world. Kids do bring these worries and awareness of, whether it be racial violence or, environmental collapse, or politics, just different, stressful things that are going on in our world. So it does sometimes come up in the program. I feel like our approach is really to make space for them to express their worries and fears and to not have a quick answer or to placate, but to empathize. We’re all experiencing this difficult place that we all live [in], but also to use imagination and that hope that Heather was talking about, because kids have amazing imaginations and you have to have imagination to have hope. You’re imagining how the world could be different.

And so I feel like we encourage kids to think about the power they do have to positively impact their friends, their school, their community. For example, a few summers ago, one afterschool program was really concerned about people experiencing homelessness and planned an event to raise money for homeless youth. They, so they got food donated and had a local musician come play and invited the community. And they raised several hundred dollars to provide toiletry kits for youth in the area experiencing homelessness. And that was their way of putting what they wanted, which was that no youth would be on the street, into action.

Dave Scott: So Jenni, you told a Monitor reporter that gardening is a metaphor for life. But you also said the garden can be disappointing. Can you tell me about that metaphor?

Jenni Yoder: We certainly treat gardening as an experiment because it’s not all in our control. There are so many factors and we just do our best. But sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t. But especially with the disappointment, you have to decide whether, if your radishes didn’t grow, am I gonna give up? And yeah, just what do I do with that disappointment? Do I stick at it? Do I ask for help? Do I maybe take a moment to be sad, but then try again? And of course things go wrong in life. Many of our students have already experienced really difficult things. And that resilience, even in something small, like a seed, can really help you in life.

Dave Scott: So I want to ask you this question – and Jenni, you hinted at that just now. How has working for Global Gardens transformed each of you?

Heather Rippy: I’ll say, for me, it’s so personal. This is Heather. How Global Gardens transformed me? For me, Global Gardens was my life dream to create a program like Global Gardens. And the fact that the concept resonated so well with students. It empowered me incredibly.

Dave Scott: I should note that, today, Heather is a consultant to Global Gardens. She stepped away from day-to-day management five years ago. But under the new executive director, Marianne Donahue, the program continues to grow with annual funding of $1 million and a staff of 22 people.

Dave Scott: And how about you, Jenni, how has working at Global Gardens changed you? 

Heather Rippy: I’m just so thankful. I just have so much gratitude to everyone involved. So yes, I’m blown away by this and the people who are invested and continue to work on the mission and just, all of the students who are a part of it and are open to this brand new experience of growing gardens. It’s incredible.

Jenni Yoder: I feel like being involved with Global Gardens has made me a more hopeful person. I think I’m more willing to try things, take risks. Sometimes we feel – with whatever cause we’re passionate about – that we’re fighting against everyone else a little bit. But I don’t know if that’s really true. I think a lot of people want the world to be a better, more peaceful, more equitable place and we just don’t always know how to make it happen.

And so working with kids and then reaching out to adults to help amplify their voices and make their dreams happen has shown me that adults also want the same things. We’ve just got bogged down by all the bureaucracy and the bigger picture, whereas kids still know that we can do anything, which is pretty cool.

[Music]

Dave Scott: That’s great. You’ll notice we didn’t talk much about gardening or botany or pollination. That’s because at its core Global Gardens isn’t about creating little gardeners. It’s a program about raising children to think for themselves. To learn how to resolve their differences, manage their emotions. Develop confidence. And as Jenni said, “that’s pretty cool.”

So, Is there a peace table in your home? The next time someone gets angry,  try sitting down (after they cool off) and seeing if really listening makes a difference. Call me and tell me how it goes. Call me at (617) 450-2410 and leave me a voice message about it. That’s (617) 450-2410. 

I’d like to thank Global Gardens executive director, Maryann Donahue, for making today’s podcast possible. 

Thanks for listening to People Making a Difference, a podcast about people who are, step-by-step, making a better world.
Copyright by The Christian Science Monitor, 2021.
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