Earlier this year I had the pleasure to sit down (on the phone) with my friend Susannah Fotopulos who has spent the past three years growing, Plant the Seed, a wonderful edible education non-profit in Nashville, TN. She and her colleagues work with the youth of Nashville to grow gardens, cultivate community, and improve their overall health and well-being. In the time before and after her seven year old’s mindfulness lessons with me this spring, Susannah and I realized that the work we each loved had more in common than we initially thought, so I wanted to find out more about what she does and how she sees a connection between mindfulness and her heart's work at Plant the Seed.
What follows is an abbreviated version of our conversation. You'll have to insert your own version of her soothing southern cadence and pronunciation.
Leslie: Will you tell us a little bit about Plant the Seed and what you guys do?
Susannah: Sure. We're a small non-profit based in Nashville TN, that does edible education, garden-based learning in school and community gardens. The idea is more than just what we produce in the way of fruits, vegetables and herbs, and a whole lot more about growing food aware civically engaged young people.
We do that by intentional recruitment from really diverse communities within Nashville. So a lot of emphasis on new immigrant and refugee youth groups and then just various socio-economic backgrounds because we kind of see the garden and food specifically as a way for people from different backgrounds to come together and see their similarities, and hopefully create a safe space to talk about the differences.
Leslie: And what prompted you to start it?
Susannah: Well, honestly, it was out of disappointment…
[After the birth of my son, I thought] … I'm growing this young'un who I want to eat a certain way, but there are kiddos all around us in the same zip code who can't, and it just seemed like such an injustice that because of the family you were born into, subsidized housing, or this cycle of poverty that you weren’t able to eat as well as my kiddos were…
…I'm really disappointed that our conversation kind of stops at 'oh, organic, that’s expensive.' And it has, even in Nashville taken on a real artisanal, trendy bohemian kind of thing here, and that's great, because there have to be all different entries into food awareness into local and sustainable and knowing your farmer. But for most of the young people with whom I work that’s just not a relevant conversation. They've never been to a vegetarian restaurant. They have no idea what farm to table means in their world. They're like, "We don’t see anything on the table."
It just kind of ignited a fire in me. I was like, wait a minute, we had all this self-empowerment when we grew our own food. And we're not that far removed from being an agricultural nation, but man, we walked away from that. And we lost our memory of that. And in the South here too, there's an awful lot of really hard and hurtful baggage around agriculture, with slavery, with being tied to the land against your will scenarios. And a lot of the young people with whom I work are young, urban, African American kiddos who have taken on the hurt and the anger, but they're missing the part about how when you grew your own food there was self-sufficiency in that and a power in that.
I'm kind of trying to give that back to the young people with whom I work—the opportunity to make food choices that are good for your body, good for your family, good for your community. There's a lot of empowerment that comes in that.
Leslie: Awesome. Empowerment is one of the areas where I see an overlap with mindfulness and Plant the Seed. Because I feel like mindfulness really empowers kids and adults to be aware of and in turn take responsibility for what’s going on in their insides, in their minds and hearts. But I want to know, where do you see an overlap?
Susannah: …I've been doing this since I was little bitty, and it never ceases to amaze me, the miracle in planting a seed. Like every time a seed germinates I'm like, "Oh yay look!" It’s like, you can’t see a shooting star without going "Oooh," I can't plant a seed and see it germinate without it overwhelming me. Take that connection with something bigger than yourself and then, take it a step further and tend it, water it, weed it, and then harvest and eat it.
We do a great math lesson in the generosity of nature. Where you planted this one seed, like black beans, and you harvest all these dried pods, and you see all these purple-black beans in these amazing unique geometric shapes, and you see that from this one bean seed you have hundreds of beans. You plant all of those and the multiplicity of that; there's the connection with something bigger than yourself, but then kind of just your smallness in it all is a really powerful lesson for young people. So there's the smallness and kind of insignificance in it all, but there's also the "Wow, I did that. I took my hands, I put that in the ground. I took care of it for a few months. And then look! We're eating this black bean soup from something that I grew!"
So all of that, that connection with something bigger than yourself, that feeling a little small in the grandiosity of the natural world which does it's own thing and you're just kind of a witness to it. Yeah, I don't know if that speaks to the mindfulness that you're looking for, but it's kind of what I feel in it, just these comparisons of scale and these comparisons of ability and significance.
Leslie: Well, totally. I think our perspective broadens with mindfulness training. And what you describe sounds like an excellent way of looking at where we are and what our individual impact is, and how something so small can turn into something so vast.
Susannah: Absolutely… by design the best youth empowerment is shared power and shared knowledge. You don’t have to disseminate information to them, you just have to awaken it in them.
[I'm like,] "Just for a little while, come outside with me. Feel your insignificance, and get to learn a different way to be in the world."
Because when we go out, we talk about, if we're going to observe wildlife how do we have to be? You have to be completely different than you are normally as a 10 year-old—flailing about, loud, whatever. Well, you can do that, but you're not going to see much! Nature has a different pace and a different volume. So the more I do this work, the more I understand that part of the value for these young people, and for me, in doing this work (and I hope for the larger community as it grows) are these sort of different perspectives and this opportunity to be a different way in the world. Our culture's not very good at just being. There's all this doing and accomplishing, and needing, and achieving, and it starts at a very young age for kiddos in school.
Leslie: I hear you. How do you see kids responding to your programs?
Susannah: Well, there's a process there. Because initially, and for very good reason, there's an intimidation, at the very least, if not an outright fear, of nature and dirt and insects. Because there's just an unfamiliarity with it, particularly in these urban environments and in these lower income urban environments where even the grass doesn't grow well, you know? So you're inviting them into this space, and we're asking them through this experiential education to be a little uncomfortable. That's the point. The range where you kind of push your comfort level, is where real learning happens, where real behavioral change is possible.
… I feel like so much of schooling these days that happens in these four cinder block walls is about learning to a test, is so very abstract for young people. But like this, where yep, they have donned goggles, they have handled a power drill, and they have put together a raised garden bed. They did it. Their class can see that rectangle right there, filled with new soil. It's like, that's right, I did that. And there's a swagger and it's absolutely deserved.
… I had a fifth grade Kurdish student say, "I feel like I'm back home in my country when my hands are in the soil." I can never say that without tears coming to my eyes and goosebumps coming up on my arms because, that's the power of it. And how do you measure that? How do you quantify that?
Leslie: Nice, that's beautiful. Ok, last question, how can my readers help you? What can we do?
Susannah: Oh, that's a great question! I wasn't expecting that one! Well, definitely connect with us. We're kind of on the cusp of a re-launch of who we are. So as that happens, to connect with your readers would be great, because we are all about building relationships and building community here. And that's very real and very tangible when you're working in the dirt together, but we're in a world now where there can be meaningful virtual communities too. And so, the "Like" on Facebook does make a difference, because there are different pieces of these conversations happening all over the world that can be relevant to what we're doing here, and particularly in a very powerful way because we do so much work with new immigrants and refugee students. ...
And I would love an opportunity for the sort of knowledge and experience that you guys are more in tune with from the mindfulness perspective to be interwoven into what we do in a more meaningful way. [I'm always] looking for ways to introduce these little ways of being into things that we're doing in the garden, to have those little seeds [of mindfulness] scattered into what we're doing. It really connects all of these things very naturally. The mindfulness needs to be there in order for that to be done in a real intentional way.
And then always, donations are welcome.
But I think most importantly, I'd love to have people with different backgrounds from different parts of the world to be a part of the conversation.