By Dwight Hobbes
It’s a tough call as to whether Project Sweetie Pie (www.projectsweetie.org) is the proverbial idea whose time has come or if its founder/director, irresistible force Michael Chaney, has brought his tireless tenacity and innovative industry to bear on the immovable object of social inertia.
In October of 2014, Chaney told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, on being honored by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, “Urban farming is a means to an end. It creates economics [as well as] a value system and work ethic within our community.
“This serves as an antidote to the poison that we [experience] as African Americans, the mythology that the larger, dominant community tries to spread upon us of self-defeat, of low self-esteem. That we’re not capable.”
Project Sweetie Pie (PSP) encourages youngsters to literally get their hands dirty by learning how to plant gardens and grow food, in the process acquainting them with exercise out in the fresh air as well in entrepreneurship. They get a practical, very useful lesson in living off the land. “We want young people to become food producers.”
Recently, Chaney again was singled out for this enterprising endeavor, an investment in youth investing in their own autonomy. He received NBC-TV affiliate KARE 11’s “Eleven Who Care” Award, the station’s annual tribute to individuals who make a significant contribution to their communities.
Asked what it means to him, he responded, “First of all, this is an opportunity to show that as African American people, we have — just like in the Civil Rights Movement — those of us who give and care and love and who work for their children, to try to make a better life for [them], build community.” Indeed, a historically telling characteristic of rural, farming life among Black folk is that working together, albeit on a larger scale — for instance harvesting and “handing” tobacco — called for communal cooperation and, accordingly, sustaining a strong connection between people.
“So,” Chaney continued, “11 Who Care legitimizes [in the public eye] what Project Sweetie Pie (PSP) is doing. It’s symbolic, the cultural reference, that all of us had a grandmother who tweaked our cheeks. All of us had some kind of [parental] love, selfless in the commitment to do for their children. [This is] a recognition of such things in African American communities and communities of color that often do not get recognized.”
He says of PSP, which was launched in 2010, “I am trying to turn the tide of public opinion that gardening is more than just a cute past time. It makes the argument that we are paving the way for economic development, jobs training, career development. Can we lay the foundation for retooling our communities’ vision of the future? Agriculture, aquaponics, culinary arts, solar are all progressive and futuristic economies.
“We are creating a food corridor, an industry cluster. Glen Ford, Lawford Baxter, Collie Graddick, Catherine Fleming are just a few of the food entrepreneurs who are food champions in our community. Project Sweetie Pie is paving the way, raising the public awareness of the community as a whole about the significance of the urban farm movement and food justice.
“This news story will help inform, infuse, inspire, instruct. We hope to showcase some of those champions and some of the youth who will carry the work forward.”
An AfroEco and PSP Innovations Lab in March of last year drew 175 participants to empower a vision that entails gardens at upwards of 20 sites, working with churches, schools and community organizations. PSP has support from Myron Green of the E. J. Henderson Foundation and Ed Erwin of Youthrive among others.
Along with recognition by KARE 11’s Eleven Who Care Award and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation honor, PSP had a presence at 2013’s Minnesota State Fair. “I’ve had a number of organizations see value [in the project],” said Chaney.
Not all the news is good news. In February, PSP was part of a consortium that joined with the Council on Black Minnesotans at the state capitol to create legislation that would aid urban farmland on which to initiate pilot projects and funds to run them. The idea was to purchase a greenhouse at Lowry and Humboldt in North Minneapolis as a training and production facility to train youth, ex-offenders and women trying to get back into the job market.
Chaney related in an email to the MSR, “The bills were not heard. There was considerable pushback from rural farm lobbyists.”
Still, PSP is one of five projects selected across the country to partner with Miracle Gro and the National Council of Mayors. “We will be awarded funding extended over the next three years. The CEO of Miracle Gro is flying in [June 3] to join Mayor Hodges, volunteers from Miracle Gro and Hands On and a host of other community partners in a ribbon-cutting celebration we are coining ‘Miracles Can Happen’.
“We are building a municipal community Giving Garden on Plymouth Ave and James at the Karamu Garden. It will become in effect our town square. The produce from the garden will go to support the food shelf at NorthPoint [Health and Wellness Center].”
There’s more on the horizon at what couldn’t be a more timely juncture. Once the warm weather arrives, youngsters inevitably find themselves outdoors with a world of time on their hands. Chaney has a way to keep those idle hands from doing, as the saying goes, the devil’s work, and to keep them off the radar of patrolling police cars.
“We are creating a summer series of events and activities entitled A Clean Bill Of Health. Examples might be the Yoga Hotline at lunchtime as well as a walking club, the Walk Squad, that is part of a marathon march into spring, Walk It Off.”
Project Sweetie Pie may well be an idea whose time has come. Without question, Michael Chaney is determined to have it succeed.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses toP.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.