Andrew Van Gorp 31 July, 2017.

Andrew Van Gorp was born and raised in Glen Ellyn IL. He is a community organizer, activist, artist, and Founder of Sustain DuPage.

*Video at bottom of this page.

(987 words)

Content Note: indigenous oppression

Many people are often curious about our Victory Garden Mission Project. You could say the Victory Garden is…unique.

“The goal is to empower DuPagers with the ability to grow and cook their own food as well as to strengthen community bonds around local foodways” we tell eager listeners. In a sustainability mindset, the thinking goes: what’s the point of being able to grow your own food if you can’t cook it- and vice versa? In nerd language, we’re trying to increase the agricultural and nutritional literacy of DuPage County as well as the richness of social trust that exists here.

“How does it work?” many people ask. We tell them that volunteers show up and we sometimes do one-on-one mentorships in the garden, but mostly we practice group learning.

“Group learning? You mean there’s not just one teacher?” I was first introduced to this teaching/learning style in Northern Wisconsin. At first, most people find it antithetical to how we’re used to being taught. After all, in most classrooms across the country- there’s just one teacher. In group learning, anyone who has something to contribute to the group can feel empowered to share their knowledge and take pride when their community members genuinely thank them for what knowledge they are able to give. Pack mentality- we all rise together!

“Well, who gets all the produce?” is usually the next question. Most people’s eyes are a little interrogative when they ask that, which is understandable. I think when we say that 1/3 of the Victory Garden’s mission is to improve the nutritional literacy of DuPage, and another 1/3 is to strengthen community bonds around local food ways- it just doesn’t click for most people. So we happily rephrase in a shorter answer, “we plant the food together, we water the food together, we weed the food together, we harvest the food together, we cook the food together, and we eat the food together!”

In more than a handful of interactions we have had a few people who tsk tsk our eating that which we have grown. Some people have even said, “you really should be donating that to the food pantry.” My stomach clenches when this happens. I always find it very assuming for someone to assert that I myself am not potentially a recipient of emergency nutrition assistance. After all, I’m currently living in my mother’s house, making less than a living wage- so the food that comes out of the garden is a god-send for me in addition to all of our volunteers. In fact, many of our volunteers are working multiple jobs, paying off debilitating student loan debt, and making less than a living wage. They work incredibly hard to grow food at the Victory Garden and we are incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as volunteers. In addition, we applaud community groups who volunteer their time to grow food for local food pantries, providing a crucially needed service! I usually try to explain when faced with this statement of disapproval that Sustain DuPage volunteers can witness to how our work strengthens DuPage’s struggling community- creating a more secure future for us all. We find our work in the garden to be critical, valuable, and rewarding!

In future years, we also hope to demonstrate to the community the feasibility of having an enjoyable professional life as an organic farmer in DuPage County. We are currently researching the potential for starting a CSA program, providing crucial job skills for volunteers and interns as well as a direly needed stream of capital for Sustain DuPage, which operates solely from community donations and volunteer hours. Perhaps we might even be able to hire staff this way at some point in the future, creating long-term sustainability jobs.

A few weeks ago, one of our volunteers asked if a local group could take a small portion of the Victory Garden for their own use. Sometimes questions have a unique ability of exposing beliefs, perspectives, and deep truths. I understood from this question that I was not doing as good of a job as I thought I was in communicating how our Victory Garden works. After all, we’d been calling it our “community garden” for about a year now. I realized that when most people hear the term “community garden” they think of a piece of land that has been divided up into plots, where the food grown is not shared freely- but kept from being shared.  So, by that understanding, our Victory Garden is not a community garden at all! Our garden is undivided and unplotted- it’s wholly shared. Allow me to explain why.

In school, within my major I had a focus on Native American Studies. In one of our classes we read William Cronin’s Changes in the Land. This book explores how Colonial European models of land ownership decimated the cultures and people of Native America. The Colonial model of land ownership operates from a scarcity mindset- that there won’t be enough for everyone and thus, land must be divided and protected from the other. One of the highest priorities of the United States Government during the original period of conquest in North America was to destroy the pillar of Native identity that was communal land ownership. (Some communities were literally starved until they acquiesced to the concession of communal land ownership rights). Communal land ownership is a threat to colonial rule (and neo-colonial rule), because it allows for self-sustenance, the efficient use of resources, and a gift economy- protecting citizens from exploitation. All of these are threats to Colonialism/Capitalism which relies on corporate-dependence, inefficiency/redundancy/waste, and privatization/self-priority. 

The Sustain DuPage Victory Garden is undivided. It is truly communally operated and communally shared. The best way to describe the garden in one word is Usufruct, since in deed we do not own rights to the property, but rather it was gifted to us by the Theosophical Society for our use. Usufruct is an old term which boils to a definition of: a property owner allowing people to use the land and reap the benefits, without the food growers actually owning the land on paper.

I hope that clears up a few mysteries about our Victory Garden. However, we at Sustain DuPage have learned that current trends show that less and less people in society like to read. The truth is, we as a society are transitioning to visual mediums of communication. That’s just what we prefer. But this message from Sustain DuPage is too crucially important to be lost to the internet- so, in addition to this article, I decided to create a video in an attempt to explain our garden’s unique operation. If you have read this, thank you! I hope you enjoy the video below!

 

Sustain DuPage can’t operate without your support. Find out here all the ways you can involve yourself!

 

 

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Sustain DuPage volunteer Beth Weiner in our Victory Garden for a short interview! Beth shares her unique intersectional experience being a woman and environmental activist in DuPage County. We’re so thankful that she donates her time, passion, and skills to our nonprofit! (7:06 min) Check it out! 

Transcript

Hi, I’m Beth Weiner, and the thing that I want people to know about this garden is, it is a wonderful community of people who care about their community and about this planet. You will gain amazing friendships, community connections, skills, and a place to just go and be away from the chaos of life and just feel boosted and supported. Whether you’re looking for gardening skills, whether you’re looking for friendships, you’ll find it here.

Andrew: WooooOOOooo! Ok, so like, what got you into eco stuff?

Beth: So, it’s actually a funny story because it started out when I was a Girl Scout, wayyyyy back when. Um, all the other girls in my troop were very interested in like, going camping and everything too, but they all wanted to like cabin-camp, and like still have like- NOT go outside. They’d be like very into the girly-girl aspects of the sewing and all that and I was the girl like, JUMPING into the river and like getting all of them muddy and disgusting and dirty and they would get angry. And I just really loved being in the outdoors um, and as I got older, and as I got into school, um, I pursued other interests and I kind of forgot about it because the Girl Scout troop disbanded and there weren’t a lot of outlets for young women who were interested in the outdoors. Um, and when I went off to college, I was interested in studying biology, um, it didn’t work out because I was really bad at chemistry, so I thought there were other ways and other skills and volunteering that I could do to still make an impact.

Andrew: Mm. What does it mean to you to be a part of agriculture as an American?

Beth: So I never really connected those two words in my brain before now, which is probably part of the problem. So, I think we live very much in a post-industrial world where people are not connected to the land. They don’t posses the same Land Ethic that they used to have because on a large scale, things like this garden and places like this garden don’t exist to empower people with skills to, you know, work the land and reap- and the benefits of the land and feel that sense of place. So I think that’s part of the problem, is that um, we don’t think of the word “American” as being tied to the land, um,  and I think that’s a huge disconnect that I’m only beginning to address by learning some of these gardening skills.

Andrew: Are you a farmer?

Beth: I am here!

Andrew: OooOOOoooh! Good Answerrrr! What do you believe our role as Millennials is in the Food Justice Movement?

Beth: So I think a lot of people in our generation are very passionate, um, and are kind of waking up to the idea that we are inheriting a world that is not just. And, it rightfully makes us upset. And I think it is our job to channel that frustration into a constructive and educational movement which will empower people to fight for what they believe in, instead of feeling like there is nothing that they can do.

Andrew: Mm. Is your Womanhood important to you?

Beth: Mhm.

Andrew: Do you find, um, special significance in a garden setting, as like, specifically speaking to like, your Womanhood?

Beth: Sure. So, I think of the Earth as, um, Mother. Um, and I think that the way the Earth gives life is very tied to the way that the Feminine gives life. So for me, a lot of it resonates in what I think about as the Divine Feminine and the Life-giving powers of the World. Um, and those- that wisdom that I think in a very Patriarchal-led society we’ve gotten very far away from, and so it’s incredibly empowering to make that connection, here in the garden.

Andrew: Aaaaaand, right now, literally the ‘gahden’ is filled with ladies. Does that mean a lot to you?

Beth: Absolutely.

Andrew: I think it’s really cool that our garden has, naturally like, just kind of magnetized like all these strong female leaders.

Beth: Yeah! Lindsayyyyy looking at you! Strong female leader! In one of my classes in college, it was an independent study with, um, a female professor, and it focused on um, ties in literature between the environment and the [sic] Feminism, and also relating that to post-colonialism [sic] and the othering of, um,  minorities and women and the way that, um, Patriarchal society demonizes that and is that tied to the way that we treat the Planet? Is the way that we treat the Planet, like a garbage can basically, tied to the way that we treat women in our society?

Andrew: Would you say it is?

Beth: I think so. Because of the feminizing- the way that we use female words to describe the Planet, um, I think it kind of gives society an ‘in’ to kind of abuse it [sic].

Andrew: Brutal.

Beth: Yeah.

Andrew: How do we change that?

Beth: We have to build connections like this. You know, we have to connect people and realize that this is important on a very personal level, because unless it affects you, and your experience, you’re not going to change it- or someone you love. I think there’s a lot of psychology- and I think a psychologist would have a really good answer for that- and I would love to see, um, psychologists getting involved in the environmental movement, and helping work towards changing people’s attitudes. Because we grow up with pre-conceived notions about the world, and I think it takes- really on a fundamental, like *brainstem* level, changing the way we think.

 Sustain DuPage can’t operate without your support. Find out here all the ways you can involve yourself!

Benjamin Calvert III with gardening gloves.

By Andrew Van Gorp on 1 June, 2015

We’re joined today by Villa Park activist Benjamin F. Calvert III, who grew up in Naperville near the Greene Valley Overlook. Benjamin, now a resident of Villa Park, has been a long time member in many regional community organizations including the Men’s Garden Club of Villa Park, the Naperville Community Gardeners, the Morton Arboretum, and the Elmhurst Artists’ Guild. Benjamin, welcome.

Hi Andrew, good to see you again.  Another growing season has passed since we first met at your talk for Earth Day 2014 at the Villa Park Library. Seems like yesterday on some accounts.

Benjamin, you’re quite the busy man, earning recognition as a successful naturalist and promulgator of Sustainable Community Development by many community organizations. Can you tell us a little bit about why you participate in some of these groups?

Well, my father was a founding member of the organization that is now the Naperville Community Gardeners. I found it appropriate to become an active member in the group to keep his name on the membership list. My grandmother, my mother, and I have all been members of the Morton Arboretum, too.  My grandmother sold her prints in the Ginko Shop. Since I became a member of the Naperville Community Gardeners, I felt obliged to join the Men’s Garden Club of Villa Park. I have been a resident for over a decade. They welcomed me into the club, and the next year put my yard on their annual garden walk!  It was a great experience in being able to show what a working person can accomplish within a suburban setting.  Of course friends and family have aided in getting my backyard to how it looks today.

Now, for the readers who aren’t aware, Benjamin’s been fighting a citation from Villa Park, (ironically known as “The Garden Village”) for transitioning his yard from lawn into a native garden. Benjamin, can you give us a brief overview or timeline of your efforts to improve the property you own in Villa Park?

Brief? So much to say.  I have been gardening in my yard for fifteen years. The back yard was fence-to-fence lawn when I moved in, and it now has flowers blooming throughout the growing season. I decided to transition my front lawn to a native garden. I thought it important to act now for many reasons.

Reading my Village’s code before beginning, I was concerned about how the Village would react to my native plantings. Specifically, the code singles out Milkweed as a nuisance plant. This sends the homeowner a very conflicted message, since the state of Illinois is actively encouraging Villagers to plant more milkweed to provide food for the threatened Monarch Butterfly, our state insect.

It was important to me that I not use chemicals to kill the lawn and to instead use local resources to accomplish the transition. I used cardboard for the base layer and I contacted a local tree trimming service to deliver a load of wood chips to my home. I started this step in July 2014, and I was excited to show everyone pictures of the first leg of my transformation. My excitement took a step backwards when I received a citation from the Village a month later. I assumed something like this might happen long in the future after “uncommon” plants started growing in my yard, but not so near the beginning of the project.

The citation had two parts: that covering the entire lawn with mulch was prohibited and that mulch was going to cause erosion. Reading the part on erosion, I thought there must be a mistake. It caused me a lot of stress. The remedy demanded by the Village was to remove the mulch, reseed or install sod- at my own expense.  My deadline to comply before fees was September 21st, 2014. 

I wrote a one page letter to the Village the very next day.  My goal was to educate them about what I was doing with my property, show the error of their statement on the citation, and get the violation repealed.  The village code does limit the scope of mulch applications, but excludes single family dwellings such as mine. Little did I know, this would begin a long back and forth between the Village and myself to amend the code. I’ve attended 18+ hours of board meetings, not including the time I’ve dedicated to preparation and research.

To be frank, I was given the run-around. The Village staff contended I had misinterpreted the code. However, I had a lawyer review the code, and they confirmed that the Village Inspector had made a mistake. I had been patient up until that point. In the late fall of 2015, I began to assist the Village in amending the code involving native plantings.

Wow. Do you find it troubling that Villa Park seems to show so little knowledge about sustainable landscaping? Do they understand what will be accomplished on your land once the project is completed?

First, I would like to say, Villa Park has bike trails, close proximity to many amenities, and is a quiet neighborhood. I love living here. My grandparents lived here before me. However, it’s embarrassing that the Village has little knowledge of such an important issue. Everyone who listens to my story is amazed and says that more education is needed. There are many reasons I am transitioning my yard into a native planting.

  1. The natives I will have in my garden will be accustomed to our local environment- needing less chemicals. 
  2. Their tolerance of our weather, means I will have to use less water this summer.
  3. Native plants provide food for pollinators.
  4. Converting my lawn will benefit my neighbors by reducing noise and air pollution from mowers.
  5. My native plants will have deeper roots- helping to reduce stress on Villa Park’s sewer systems during storm events by allowing water to permeate deep into the soil.
  6. Hopefully, with proper planning, my yard will have something beautiful blooming most of the growing season.

To answer your question, I am troubled by Villa Park’s mistreatment of its Villagers. Villa Park should be leading the way in encouraging its Villagers to plant native plants to alleviate the ever-present environmental crises that face us.

Villa Park should be following the county’s lead. Currently, the DuPage County Stormwater Management office is offering to plant natives on residential parkways in Villa Park- at no cost- to alleviate flooding. In my eyes, the world is marching onward and Villa Park didn’t get the memo.

Is it true that the Village proposed a mandatory registration for any family who would like a native garden in their yard, a registry that would be made public online- similar to the Sex Offender Registry?

This is one of the hurdles that the Village staff proposed. However, the Village Board very quickly walked back that suggestion in an effort to protect Villager privacy.

Do you feel that these Village ordinances need to be reformed for the sake of homeowners who wish to make environmentally-friendly decisions with their property based upon their moral or religious convictions?

Yes there definitely needs to be reform, and I have had a couple interchanges with the Village about that.  As I researched, I found that each municipality has various restrictions on gardening freedoms. The Villa Park code implies that you’re allowed to plant anything, until you get to the nuisance clause which states, “all noxious weeds, and any other weeds, grass or plants, other than ornamental shrubbery, growing to a height exceeding six inches, which are found growing on any lot or tract of land in the village are hereby declared a nuisance.” Is that nebulous, or what!? We need clearer laws in order to protect Villagers from unwarranted citations.

Has Villa Park withdrawn the citation? Are you planning to organize around this issue? What are the next steps for this project?

To my knowledge, the citation has not as of now been withdrawn by the Village. I hope someone picks up where I’ve left of with the Village on changing the code. As for me, I’ve decided to leave the Village boardroom to tend to my garden. I would like to see Villa Park adopt a code like Warrenville’s code. Warenville very recently refined their nuisance clause to distinctly clarify between weeds and native plants (as put forward by Gerould Wilhelm & Floyd Swink’s Plants of the Chicago Region, a book widely recognized and respected as an authority on native plant taxa throughout the Midwest). Furthermore, I would like to see the Village take a more active role in educating and promoting native planting within Villa Park. The parkway project with the county is a great first step. I’d like to see that expanded upon.

What would your advice be to other home owners that may not share your bravery in making the decision to transition to Sustainable Landscaping despite perceived or substantiated suppression from their local government?

I would say, start now.  It does not have to be a transformation of your lawn.  Plant a native plant within your garden. Then add more. You will appreciate each one, and hopefully local pollinators, birds, and your neighbors will appreciate your efforts, too.

Also, go to your Village Board meetings.  Even if the subject isn’t about sustainability, you will gain a comfort for the atmosphere. Then when you do have something to voice, you will not be jumping into the arena blind.  Educate yourself. You will find that the knowledge you gain will be the foundation upon which you can grow- right alongside your garden!

It’s a strange world when planting a flower is an act of civil disobedience. Benjamin, thank you so much for being here today, and we will post all your updates on our facebook page.

Thanks Andrew.  I will send you pictures as the project progresses.

Sustain DuPage can’t operate without your support. Find out here all the ways you can involve yourself!