Teens Building Assets in Their Own Communities

A Case Study of School Gardens

Mary Glenn | Jun 2, 2014

Photo by Ciaran Cuffe.

As Jesse looked around at his community, he saw both problems and potential.

Like many communities, there were concerns rising about issues like teen depression and potential gang activity. And like most communities, there were less opportunities for mentoring and support than there were kids who needed them.

The faith community, school district, and local nonprofits for the most part remained siloed in their separate approaches to address kids’ needs.

There must be a better way, Jesse thought. The solution that emerged out of his own passion was Community gardens.

As the Executive Director of Kingdom Causes Alhambra/Monterey Park, a local community-mobilizing ministry focused on capacity building, Jesse Chang began to partner with others to plant community gardens on school properties in neighborhoods within his city. In close connection with the school district (about half of whose students qualify for free or reduced lunches), local leaders were matched with students in order to build collaborative gardening projects that would support both students and their neighborhoods.

There’s a Chinese Proverb that suggests, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.” Jesse discovered that community gardens can be one powerful way to invest in growing students and to give them opportunities to be asset builders.

The Goal: Building Assets

Under Jesse’s leadership, four gardens have been planted in the local Alhambra Unified School District, with plans to begin two more sites in the next school year. These school gardens are a model of the impact of community gardens on asset building. Asset building is a process that focuses on the strengths of individuals and communities (rather than just looking at deficits) and builds upon those. This positive model flips the typical “glass half-full” way our society tends to look at teenagers and their situations. Rather than see more problems, an asset-building approach sees more potential.

Based on research with over three million kids, Search Institute has identified forty building blocks of healthy development known as Developmental Assets that help children and young people grow up to be healthy, caring, responsible, and engaged. Assets are grouped into “external” assets (support, empowerment, boundaries, and use of time) and “internal” assets (commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity). Through their research, Search has determined that teenagers are more likely to become healthy and engaged adults when they have an average of 27 of the 40 developmental assets in their lives as teenagers.[[For a few additional free FYI resources on asset-based ministry, see “Turning Towards Holistic Ministry,” “Unearthing the Whole Truth about Holistic Ministry,” and “Asset-Based Teaching.”]]

Jesse and his team of leaders focus on building the empowerment assets through the gardening project, including “community values youth,” “youth as resources,” and “service to others.” According to Jesse, the core group of engaged students has begun to demonstrate not only these outcomes, but also increased responsibility and positive identity. The vision is for the youth program to grow into an entrepreneurial business class within each school.

Planting the Seeds

There are several indicators that the students’ involvement in school gardens has increased their developmental assets. One student shared how involvement with the school gardens grew his commitment to learning. This student said, “Before the gardening class happened, my grades were sliding. But now with the garden, I am more connected to the school and my grades have improved.” Jesse reports that this particular student has grown in his self-esteem. He even agreed to speak in public forums about how involvement in the gardening project has impacted him.

Civic engagement such as service to people, the community, and the environment builds the health and well-being of students and makes communities stronger. Community gardens have been proven to serve as an onramp to this kind of service.[[The Search Institute and the University of Rochester, 2013 for the Roots of Engagement Citizenship study http://www.search-institute.org/sites/default/files/b/Roots_of_Engaged_Citizenship_Initial_Findings_Report.pdf . The purpose of this 2013 study was to understand how youth become good citizens by identifying the developmental roots of active participation in communities and society. The study asserted that civic engagement is good for young people's well-being and functioning in other areas of life, and that youth civic participation makes communities and societies stronger.]]

In the gardening process, students are involved in the initial planning and design, preparation of the land, planting the seedlings, and cultivating the gardens. This includes designing the space and choosing what’s planted. Through sweat and determination, students are able to literally see the fruit of their labor. Students have been surprised to see how much they actually care for the garden, and how invested they are in its success. The gardens connected them to each other as they cared for the land together.

The process of preparing, planting, and sustaining the gardens and relationships requires a long-term commitment and investment. For the school gardens planted in Alhambra and Monterey Park, the school principal has served as the gatekeeper who commissions the garden and identifies the champions in the school who will sustain the longevity of the garden as an educational and asset tool.

Jesse serves as the project coordinator. He has developed a local network of resources (of materials, funds and volunteers) in this multiethnic community that ensures the creation and maintenance of the gardens. For example, Jesse was able to contact a local tree trimming company and secure wood chips for free mulch as a gift-in-kind. It was a win-win: the garden needed the mulch and the company needed a place to donate their wood chips.

School-based models of community gardens are not the only ways to partner. For example, churches can work collaboratively to plant a garden in their neighborhood, perhaps in an underused space or even on a church campus. The key is to identify champions and committed partners.

Places to Grow

Like any collaborative project, community gardens are not without their challenges. For this particular school garden project in Alhambra, the challenges included determining how to integrate the school garden more deeply into the teaching and curriculum. Jesse notes, “While there is an intrinsic value of having a place of beauty (for example, one of the elementary schools’ classes insisted on moving their picnic bench right next to the garden), the garden still needs to be valued by the whole school community to succeed.”

In addition to school gardens, neighborhood outreach and local park community garden projects can be challenged by the determination of who will make the decisions and lead, who will be partners, and who will actually do the regular work (not to mention how the fruit of their labor is shared!). The start up phase requires commitment and investment of time by partnered leaders. There may be cultural and language barriers, as well as socioeconomic differences that create potential for misunderstanding. The initial buy-in of the various entities can be a challenging hurdle, especially securing consistent adult leadership for garden projects that depend on kids.

In addition, sustainability is a challenge, considering budgets are tight and both students and teachers move on from one year to the next. Students may find others areas of interest or feel the demands of keeping up with schoolwork. The process of determining ongoing funding sources can cause tension. There are a number of grant opportunities available for community garden projects, but someone must be committed to seeking these out.

Benefits of Community Gardens

The benefits, however, tend to far outweigh the challenges. School staff and students take pride and joy in telling the story of “their” garden. The garden also gives them an opportunity to know where their food comes from and understand the creation process.

The outcomes from community gardening include:

  • Provision of locally-grown food
  • Increasing care for the land and civic engagement
  • People coming together around common goals and shared work
  • Students empowered by the tending and cultivation process
  • Creating places of beauty, often in spots that have been local eyesores

California poppies and stalks of Kulli Black Incan Corn have replaced barren dirt patches. Unused plots on the school grounds have become sources of sustenance and beauty. Students and teachers have been inspired to spend more time in their outdoor classroom space. They have been surprised by how the fruit of their labor is in demand by local chefs and restaurateurs.

One meta-study found that community gardens tend to boost the overall health and financial growth of a community.[[Lindsey Jones, “Improving Health, Building Community: Exploring the Asset Building Potential of Community Gardens” (Evans School Review Vol. 2, Num. 1, Spring 2012).]] The study concluded, “Community gardens appear to lead to increased community development, especially increased social capital. Gardens provide a space for neighbors to get to know one another and organize in support of other important neighborhood issues.” Benefits extend beyond increased neighborhood connectedness and empowerment. These gardens can actually infuse new life into the local economy. This is accomplished through job creation, on-the-job training, and development of skills and knowledge.

Participants in these studies listed “helping others” and “improved neighborhoods” as a benefit of the community garden. Other benefits included decreased racial discrimination, increase in neighborhood engagement, and lowered crime rates. Relationships in the community were strengthened as well as a sense of ownership, belonging, connectedness, and safety.

Through the work of their hands and care of the garden, teenagers can produce food for themselves and their community while learning the fundamentals of social enterprise as they sell the produce and plants they grow. They are more connected to their schools and communities, understand their value and contribution, and increase their own skill sets and experience.

God Planted a Garden

“God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed, it is the purest of human pleasure” (Francis Bacon). Gardening is a profound activity with spiritual rhythms in which we can participate. Through the original garden (Genesis 2), God created a rhythm of life. Jesus illustrated this rhythm in the parables of the vineyard and of the farmer sowing seeds. The story of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32) teaches us about the growth process and the impact of one small seed.

The act of gardening is about process as much as the end result, requiring both time and commitment. Caring for the land is a deeply spiritual exercise, with theological implications rooted in the power of place. God teaches us commitment to place by creating in a location. God’s act of creation was done on the earth, in a garden. We are reminded in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” God redeems both place and people, and he calls us to the same kind of commitment.

We plant seeds with students through investment of time and mentoring. God grows the seeds in them and brings them to full harvest. As it turns out for Jesse’s neighborhood and maybe for yours, gardening provides one more way for students to build assets and engage with their communities.

Action Points

  1. Find out where and how you (and your youth group) might get involved in existing school and community gardens in your city/neighborhood. Check out these community gardens as examples:
  2. Find out how to start and manage a community garden. Here are a few resources:
  3. Engage students in the process of planting a church, neighborhood, or school garden. Involve them in the collaborative process of determining the objectives and outcomes as well as strategies.
  4. Check out Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets for great research and practical ideas on how to build assets in teens and also ways to help them to be asset builders in their schools and communities.
Mary Glenn

Dr. Mary Glenn is an Urban Youth Ministry professor with the Fuller Youth Institute, affiliate professor with Fuller's School of Intercultural Studies, is the Co-President of Cities Together (a faith-based nonprofit seeking God’s peace in cities), and has served as a law enforcement chaplain since 2001 with two agencies. She is passionate about youth, cities and police.

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