Cooperative Extension Brings Inclusion and Diversity to Master Gardener Projects

Each year the project team volunteers at the East Farm Demonstration Garden create a theme for the season and incorporate activities that support that theme.  For example, last year it was all about pollinators, focusing on including plants that draw pollinators into the garden, building bee hotels, and other strategies to enhance our learning and, with hands on practice, embed those learnings and strategies into our weekly gardening tasks.

This season the team focused on examining ways to draw into the garden more diverse populations and, in a supported environment, offer them opportunities to learn more about where fresh food comes from, how fresh food grows, the value of adding nutritious vegetables to their diet, and becoming a volunteer.  As the team began exploring, we found many diverse groups anxious to learn about gardening and volunteering and area agencies with goals related to our theme.

Diversity is the respect for and appreciation of many differences in ethnicity, gender, age, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, education and religion. Inclusion is the state of being valued, respected and supported in a space where every individual is welcome and given the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential. Basically, diversity is the mix of people we bring together and inclusion is how we all work together.  It doesn’t matter if it’s welcoming and working with diverse groups in a work space, on a yoga mat or in a garden, the benefits are huge including expanded creativity as individuals bring with them their experiences, culture, new information, and different perspectives.  Taking all these benefits and embedding them as part of how a project operates makes everyone feel included all the time and helps projects themselves reach their fullest potential and thrive in the community.

This season, the team was involved in three activities to draw diverse groups to East Farm.  A summer camp from a church in Johnston brought their campers ranging in age from 3 years old to 16 years old and several adults to East Farm to visit the Demonstration Garden, the Vertical Garden with Kathy Jenal and the Apple Orchard with Susan Axelrod.  Campers were assigned to team members who took them through the two vegetable gardens explaining how the plants and herbs grew, and the campers touched, smelled and tasted the vegetables.  The campers watched pollinators at work and picked apples in the orchard.

In September the team held a special program that was an idea of team member Claire Dalidowitz, an expert dietitian.  Titled Color Me Healthy the East Farm projects worked with the Johnny Cake Center, Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies and Thundermist to conduct a program focusing on families in South County with food insecurity issues.  The agencies were instrumental in recruiting residents to attend the program through one-on-one meetings, mailings, phone calls, and using their social workers and food access coordinators in the community who worked with residents daily to spread the word. Claire did a fun informative talk on nutrition, a scavenger hunt was held to find the vegetables and taste them, lots of “veggie art” was made and after a visit to the Vertical Garden with Kathy the families picked apples with Susan.  Local vendors provided free healthy snacks.   Information flowed, lots of vegetables were found to be tasty by children to the surprise of some parents, stories were told, and there was laughter and hugs all around.

In early November a group of Veterans enrolled in a special life skills program at the Vets Center in Providence visited the garden to learn about volunteer opportunities.  Many had fond memories of gardening in their youth and shared their stories.  Many expressed an interest to do work that involved being outdoors and working with their hands.  Rudi Hempe talked about East Farm and the work his volunteer Rangers did to help maintain East Farm.  The Vets helped harvest turnip, were given information about the training program and invited to come back in the spring or summer of next year to see more of the garden growing.

Practicing diversity and inclusion in our MG projects enables everyone in our surrounding communities to feel included but it is not a one-time activity.   It takes a lot of collaborative partnering with multiple community groups to keep it going, thriving and embedded in our project operations.  We only touched the tip of the iceberg in the East Farm theme we explored this summer. By inviting in diverse populations who may one day become MG volunteers we learned a great deal about ourselves and came to appreciate the life, culture and experiences of others and what they can teach us.  Having a more diverse membership of volunteers who are similar to their surrounding community populations enables the MG program to create a stronger environment for learning and creativity in our projects and helps create stronger social, human and cultural ties for the MG program.  Happy to talk with anyone about this continuing journey.