In Dialogue: Visiting a Community Garden

In Dialogue: Visiting a Community Garden

A conversation with Team Generosity founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.

Jeff:  One of the most powerful tools for turning people into actively engaged partners is to take people away from their everyday norms, to put them in another setting where a different mindset predominates, to introduce them to a new group of people with fresh perspectives to offer, and then give them time to connect to each other.  As they socialize and absorb knowledge from one another, they bond.  And then amazing and unpredictable stuff may start to happen.

Trips and joint activities are one great way to create that sense of bonding.  It’s happened with me many times, like when a group of us went to Africa together, or when we took people on a trip out west to recreate Lewis & Clark’s historic expedition, or when we traveled to France to see Thomas Jefferson’s Paris.  Those are extreme examples of trips that take an investment of time and money, but the same thing can happen on a simpler scale, like when we took our board members from the Big Apple Circus to visit with the clowns and watch how they got ready for a performance.  Those connective opportunities can really work wonders.

Karl:  Talk about your trip to Africa.

Jeff:  That was a trip with Jeff Sachs and Ray Chambers that I brought my high-school-aged son on.

Karl:  Who organized that trip?

Jeff:  Millennium Promise did.  We went to Kenya and Malawi, visiting the villages and having U.N.-sanctioned visits with the president of Kenya and some members of his economic development team.

Karl:  And that’s when you met Tracey Durning, who later became a part of your band?

Jeff:  Yeah.  Tracey was there, working on a documentary related to Sachs’s work.  She had already started working with Sachs to help bring in her friend Roger Waters to do an event—as I mentioned before, he’s an English musician who used to be with the band Pink Floyd.  She brought along another guy, Ben Goldhirsch, on the trip with us, hoping to tempt him to come support our village projects as well.  We all lived together for a week or ten days.  All told, there were around forty people on the trip.

We traveled around Kenya and Malawi in a caravan of white four-by-fours with the UN insignia on the side, met a lot of really interesting people, and toured villages where the work of Millennium Promise was in full swing.  These were villages that had received early investments from the country of Japan, so the projects had been jump-started quickly as the first phase of what became the Millennium Villages project.  Jeff Sachs gave speeches in each of the villages, explaining to the villagers what they could do and pumping them up as well as his own people that were there on the ground.

Karl:  Can you talk about two or three of the most interesting memories of that trip?

Jeff:  Some of the things we saw were heart-rending.  My son and I visited a World Food Program feeding station in Malawi where people were starving.  You’d walk through a ward one time and a see a starving infant lying on a cot, halfway awake.  Then the next time you passed through, that same infant was dead.  Those images had a permanent impact on us all.

Other experiences were deeply joyful.  For example, my son had the amazing opportunity to become friends with some of these kids from Africa.  While the rest of us were meeting with the village elders, he’d be playing soccer with the kids and taking pictures of them.  It was the first time most of them had seen a camera, and he was taking pictures with his digital camera and showing them the pictures instantly, leading to a lot of laughter and sharing.  This trip turned out to be a turning point in my son’s life—a couple of years later, he was working for a summer in Uganda in the Millennium Villages project.

Another amazing experience was the village group meetings.  First the village elders, the men, would stand up and speak, followed by a speech by Jeff Sachs.  But when Sachs opened up the meeting for questions, it became apparent who the real decision-makers in the villages were, because that’s when the women would stand up, asking practical questions, reporting the facts about the progress being made, and explaining what was needed to push the program to the next level.  The men would just stand in the back and listen.  It was obvious that the women were the key drivers—the leaders of the informal networks as opposed to the formal networks that the men directed.

Karl:  Does the structure of the Millennium Promise program account for that?  Are they taking specific steps to make sure that the women play an important decision-making role at the village level?

Jeff:  Yeah.  They set up committees in each village—a water committee, a health committee, an education committee, and so on—and often the women dominate these activities.  Based on what we witnessed, the men in Africa tend to perform jobs outside the village, like truck driving, while the women do the jobs needed inside the village. They plant the gardens, raise the kids, take them to school, and do all the other stuff that really makes the village come together.

We were also profoundly impacted by the conversations we had with our fellow travelers while touring the country in the four-by-fours.  One of the group had participated in the civil rights movement and was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Listening to his stories about the March on Washington and other turning points in our own nation’s history was very moving and enlightening.

Karl:  And then there was a subsequent trip to Africa in 2010.  What was different about that trip?

Jeff:  That was a smaller donor trip that Jennifer came on, and we had Darla Moore with us as well.  Darla had long been a powerful member of our band.  She  originally connected us to Richard Rainwater, Ray Chambers, and others.

Karl:  Jennifer, what did you take away from that trip?

Jennifer:  The main thing about fieldwork visits, whether you’re going to a school in the Bronx, a community garden in Chicago, or spending a week in Africa, is the ability to see firsthand what’s really happening.  And, of course, when you travel with people, your defenses get lowered and you can connect on a much deeper level.

There are very few experiences in life that can fundamentally shift our perspective.  One of them is facing your mortality—for example, when you experience the death of a loved one, or when you get diagnosed with heart disease.  It makes you wonder, “What am I doing with my life?  I’ve got to evaluate my priorities.”

But another one of these perspective-changing experiences can be travel.  And not just travel to Africa, but travel to any place where you can see things that you haven’t been exposed to before.  Travel of that kind can have a very profound impact on your world view.

Jeff:  It’s about getting to a place where people drop their walls, where they become a little more relaxed and prepared to have honest, true conversations.  That’s where people change their minds.  That’s where people are most affected.  They’re not presenting to each other. There’s no pitching, no salesmanship going on. And in response, people are not putting up barriers against being persuaded.  No one is thinking, “Oh, my God, they’re going to pitch me!  How can I resist the pressure?!”  At some point, maybe after ten or twelve days on the road, you stop resisting.  You give up.  You’re tired and you’ve left behind your everyday mindset.  You find yourself just hanging out, being your unguarded self, sharing your experiences in an open and vulnerable way.  And those shared experiences, I think, are really helpful to bonding—and to becoming committed to something new in your life.

Jennifer:  Yes, it’s about sharing and bonding, but it’s also about seeing something that’s completely discordant with how you live your life—the kind of eye-opening experience that you don’t get when you go to Europe and you’re sitting in Tuscany drinking a nice glass of wine on a terrace somewhere.  It’s nice, it’s beautiful, it’s relaxing to go sit in Tuscany, but it’s not going to change your world view.   But visiting Africa—or the South Bronx—can be a whole other thing.

Jeff:  I have some pictures on the wall in my office that capture a few of those eye-opening moments.  A group of fisherman in Ghana, and with them is a little three-year-old in a torn shirt and shorts that are falling off, and he’s just got these amazing eyes.  Or a woman holding out her henna-ed hand and saying, “My hands are now healthy because I have a new water well and no longer have to carry water from the river for three hours a day.”  Times like those are unforgettable and life-changing.

Jennifer:  These are moments that jar you awake and lead you to say, “I can make a difference.”  And then you can revisit the magic of those moments in your reflections or when you’re having a really authentic conversation with somebody about why this work matters to you.  I think the reason resources stay so inactive and people get burned out is because they don’t practice active reflection on why this stuff matters.  Having that well of stories to go back to is great.

Jeff:  Over the years, I’ve built up quite a collection of stories like that. There was the time we toured the onion fields in Senegal, and we saw how important the new irrigation system we were supporting was.  Being there on the ground showed us how, instead of having five people standing at bore holes with buckets pulling water up all day to water the crops, an inexpensive device brought in from Israel could be operated by one person and enable the village to quadruple its farm production.  The result is a village that can export crops as opposed to barely get by.  And so you start understanding the micro-impact that can add up to a macro-impact, and that makes the meaning of the work so much more real.

On the same trip, we were talking to a farmer who had no formal education but had been trained by the village staff to crossbreed local cows with other cows that had been brought in from South Africa.  The new crossbred cows are much bigger, they live longer, and they produce three times as much milk.  “Now I’m able to make a go of it,” this farmer told us.

The last example I’ll give you is from Mali, where instead of women having separate gardens in the back of their huts, they decided to all get together.  We saw how fifty women created one combined garden.  They brought in an irrigation pump to support the garden, and instead of each woman walking once a week to the market to sell her tiny amount of vegetables, they could hire a pickup truck to take a large supply to the market and earn more money for everyone.

The impact of experiences like this is amazing.  You realize that you’re having an effect together.  And then you think about scaling.  What if every village in Africa had a community garden?  What if every farmer had access to irrigation?  How do we do that?  So then you start figuring out what you can do.  And little projects start adding up into big, world-changing projects.

No wonder people like Jennifer and me—and my son, and Tracey Durning, and Darla Moore, and so many others—find that trips like these renew and strengthen our passion for the cause like nothing else can.