In the summer of 1999, Elsie Churchill, who had recently relocated to Minneapolis from Chicago, noticed a group of neighborhood youth working in a garden right below her 16th floor window in the Charles Horn Towers. As a seasoned community organizer, it was a natural instinct for her to investigate – after all, she was eager to connect to her new South Minneapolis home.
With the help of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Shanna, Elsie discovered that these youth were part of a program called Youth Farm. Every day throughout the summer they would tend to the Charles Horn Towers’ garden and then, when their produce was ready to harvest, they would sell it at neighborhood markets. Elsie and Shanna hadn’t seen anything like this before, and Shanna begged her grandma to get involved. At the time, neither of them knew what impact this neighborhood garden program would have on Shanna’s life.
From eight to 24, Shanna made her way through every stage of Youth Farm’s program, eventually also serving as an interim program director and board member. After 21 years, her passion for the program has never faded.
“During my time at Youth Farm I felt so at home,” Shanna said. “I had grown up eating collard greens and sweet potatoes and, when I entered the gardens, I saw those things growing. At program we would cook them together and, in the same respect, we would cook and explore the culinary experiences of other cultures. In a time before diversity, equity, and inclusion were buzz words, Youth Farm was already doing those things. As a young black girl, I felt represented and heard. I felt like my culture mattered and I became responsive to the cultures of others as well. By growing in this way together, the people at Youth Farm quickly became my family.”
Not only did Shanna begin to connect with the people in her neighborhood, she also began to connect with her abilities as a leader.
“Year after year I kept coming back to Youth Farm because it truly made me feel important,” Shanna said. “When I was younger I struggled with self-confidence. I never thought I would be a leader and I would often doubt my ability to accomplish big tasks, but everyone at Youth Farm pushed me and never let me give up. At the age of 15 I was sitting with companies working on budgets, evaluating farm management systems, and putting what I had learned in the garden into real world decisions.”
Like many children, Shanna was upset when her family had to uproot her life in the Lyndale neighborhood and move to Brooklyn Center. At first, Shanna was resentful of the move. She had found something in Lyndale that she thought she couldn’t find anywhere else. Soon enough though, her resentment turned into motivation.
“My move to Brooklyn Center didn’t cut my time at Youth Farm short,” Shanna said. “I was still just as involved as I was before, but eventually I knew that I had to connect to my new neighborhood as well. Youth Farm taught me that there are unique opportunities in every area, but oftentimes you have to seek them out. I became involved with Friends of the Library and Earth Fest in Brooklyn Center and eventually gained a fresh perspective on my new home.”
Now in her late 20s, Shanna recently graduated from Metropolitan State University with a degree in social science with an emphasis in political science. She has taken her experience and education into her career and currently works as an employment coach at Lifetrack in St. Paul.
“Throughout the years, Youth Farm has impacted many of my decisions. I have maintained jobs in the nonprofit sector, continued to use the outdoors as a space for reflection and connection, and taken on many community organizing and sustainability opportunities,” Shanna said. “I, like many others, have stayed connected to Youth Farm because this organization refuses to sell out. No opportunities will ever be pursued that don’t benefit youth - programs are personalized, responsive, and effective.”
Shanna has been an integral part of the Youth Farm family and it is clear to see how the organization has shaped her life. However, one special person deserves an outpouring of credit for her success. Elsie Churchill was much more than Shanna’s grandmother, she was a shining example of a strong black woman who connected her community and led the way for others, like Shanna, to follow in her footsteps.