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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Green

For the Culture: Philadelphia Urban Farm Empowers its Community Through Produce and Art



HERCULES, Ca. — Childhood friends Rob Smith, Rodney Turner and Chuck Walker spend their Wednesday afternoons running the Urban Creators’ winter market. The North Philadelphia urban farm provides fresh produce, hot meals, as well as hygiene products and winter clothes to the immediate community. While Urban Creators is able to provide 1500 meals a week to the neighbors it serves, these weekly markets are only one part of the farm’s greater mission.



Pictured left to right: Rob Smith, Chuck Walker and Rodney Turner. Photo Courtesy of urbancreators.org



Created in 2010, Urban Creators and its farm, known as the Life Do Grow farm, strive to educate and empower the North Philadelphia community through food, arts, education and several other tools that intend to nurture resilience and self-determination. Walker, the son of an Urban Creators co-founder, along with his friends Smith and Turner have been part of the farm since it’s beginning, and now they all serve as community leaders while they continue to expand on the Urban Creators outreach.


“Just being around some of the organizers, creators and artists at that young impressionable age really helped us to build, develop and grow our own ideas for what we want out of life,” Smith said. “Along with that, we’ve been able to reunite with Urban Creators and the farm after taking some time to grow on our own and now we are back as leaders here and it's beautiful.”

While Urban Creators began with a passionate group of people and two acres of vacant land, it has evolved into a sustainable ecosystem of driven individuals who continue to create tangible change in the country’s poorest urban city. Not only does Urban Creators provide fresh produce and hot meals in the middle of a food desert, it serves as an incubator for local artists and an outdoor classroom and safe-space for kids and adults alike. Most importantly, through surveys the team is able to gain insight on the community’s specific needs and in-turn try to provide necessary resources. This close attention to the wishes of the neighborhood have led Urban Creators to decrease Part I violent crimes in their immediate area by 40%. The tremendous success of the farm is not only attributed to the skills of those who tend the land, but the very structure of the organization itself because according to The Philadelphia Citizen, “violent areas are hungry areas.”


The Life Do Grow farm and community space. Photo Courtesy of urbancreators.org



Smith, Walker, and Turner all attribute Urban Creators success to their commitment to stay in tune with the neighbors around them as well as their collective leadership style.


Urban Creators Discuss Their Leadership Style


(Audio)

“We can’t lose touch with our community because it’s who we really are,” Smith said. “Chuck’s Dad still lives across the street from the farm so this isn’t just a place to us. When we talk about solving the problems in the community, we are successful because we are the people who are victims of these problems. We are solving problems for our Moms, and Grandmas, and Aunts, and ourselves. We are successful because no one else is doing it for us and we have to be successful or we won’t survive.”


“Where a lot of big businesses and non-profits fail is the money,” Turner adds. “When money comes into play it starts turning into lining your own pockets and securing yourself first and while that isn’t completely wrong, that’s not our mission. Our mission is to make sure that we all have things….We come down on each other about that. Chuck’s Pop talks to us about it all the time. We hold ourselves to a high standard and that’s what stops us from falling into those holes and it keeps us focused on what’s necessary.”


“One of our ways of making decisions is a collective leadership style,” Walker said. “That directly speaks to our value of community here. We don’t make a decision with one person, a decision literally has to go through every person and we come to a collective choice before we move on anything. Even simple things like that keep us close to our values.”


Courtesy of “Urban Creators Mobile Food Market” by NewmansOwnFDN


As part of their commitment to being a community first platform, Urban Creators is making a transition from the traditional non-profit to a more cooperative model. They strive to be an incubator for creatives while providing access to co-work spaces as well as physical and financial tools. Through this model, Smith, Walker and Turner, created the Free Spirit Cloud Company (FSCC), an arts and entertainment collective with the same mission as the farm; however, they emphasize the importance of creating change through highlighting the voices of North Philly artists.


Rob Smith and Rodney Turner. Photo courtesy of Free Spirit Cloud Company


“The artists are the people who see things in their minds before they exist,” said Smith. “So when we talk about creating a new world and creating a new normal where everyone feels safe and protected, we have to do it through the people who have the vision.”


So far, all three gentlemen have been surprised and motivated by the ways that they have been able to encourage local artists while affirming their talents. The confidence that their platform has given to numerous performers serves as an inspiration to them as they continue to highlight the overlooked talent in North Philadelphia. Smith tells the story of a poet he met who was panhandling outside of a gas station. After striking up a conversation about art, the poet, sixty-year-old Lonzo, recited a powerful three minute poem that he wrote while incarcerated.


Struck by his story and his talent, Smith explained that while a great magnitude of art and culture comes out of Philadelphia, a lot of the elders in the community are still literally and figuratively being, “left out in the cold.” With the FSCC, artists are encouraged to wear their community like a badge of honor rather than trying to escape it. By instilling this pride through amplifying artists in the Urban Creators space, the FSCC intends to guide Philly residents into pouring their successes back into the community instead of elsewhere.


Although the farm has continued to do important work, it has not been without obstacles. Like it has for most, COVID-19 has halted a lot of the farm’s usual gatherings; however, Urban Creators has been able to adapt to their community’s needs through the mobile winter markets that provide hot, catered meals in addition to personal hygiene tools and produce. In an area already affected by food and economic insecurity, the pandemic has been destructive with the Philadelphia Office of the Controller reporting that as of June 2020, 167,000 new unemployment claims had been filed since March of that year and unfortunately, the economic burden of the crisis has fallen disproportionately on low-wage workers, so when Urban Creators leadership sees their neighboors eating their free meal before they get to the next block, they know that they are providing something paramount.


Urban Creators Winter Market flyer


“The farm itself was built out of guerilla farming,” Turner said. “Any way the community can align with us, or we can align with the community's needs, we try to do it so we can all grow together. The underlying mission behind all of what we do is just understanding how strong a community is, how strong ownership of the place that you live is, and that goes beyond being able to pay your rent but how invested are you into your community? And how invested is your community in you?”

To learn more about Urban Creators, click here!

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