Groundwork Somerville may be part of a national organization, but the work it does is hyper-local. From farming in empty parking lots and hiring local kids to maintain those farms to planting gardens at the city’s schools and stocking the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market with fresh produce, evidence of Groundwork’s endeavors is everywhere.
Groundwork focuses on “getting people in the cities connected to the land by reclaiming empty lots and creating green space,” said Executive Director Chris Mancini.
In addition to a focus on the environment, Groundwork has a big emphasis on youth. Locally that manifests as the Green Team, a group of 20 or so youth who maintain the South Street Farm, the school gardens, including a hydroponic garden, and park projects. “The Green Team really embodies the whole thing,” Mancini said.
The kids on the Green Team get paid for their work and ride their bikes all over the city weeding, planting and harvesting at Groundwork’s growing sites. In addition to learning all about urban agriculture, the youth learn leadership skills and gain work experience.
“It’s an interesting first job,” Mancini said. “We’re offering the tools to become leaders. We make choices that help [the Green Team] do whatever they want. Our goal is that all these youth become leaders of Somerville.”
Groundwork and the city work closely together, both monetarily and on policy issues like the urban agriculture ordinance that was passed in 2012. Groundwork also links up with local businesses like Wheelworks, which helped get the Green Team’s bikes ready to ride this summer.
In addition to the South Street Farm, which quadrupled in size this year, the Green Team helps to maintain 10 school gardens. They work with the Farm to School Program and parents, principals and teachers from each school to integrate the gardens into the curriculum.
“The Farm to School Program program brings together anyone doing gardening during the day to use the garden classroom as a beneficial tool. We’ve had tons of successes,” Mancini said. “The East Somerville Community School is the biggest one now. It’s really thriving.”
In the 15 years that Groundwork has been operating in Somerville more than 200 youth have gone through its programs, which also include helping older youth get jobs through the National Park Service.
All of Groundwork’s programs seek to engage the local community, especially those that ordinarily might be left out of the process. When new projects come about, like the North Street Playground, Chuckie Harris Park and the upcoming Green Line extension/Union Square development, Groundwork seeks to ensure that everyone can get involved.
“We live in a diverse city and we’re making sure everyone is being engaged,” Mancini said. To that end, Groundwork incorporates environmental justice, health equity and racial equity into its work. “We’re looking to preserve the needs of the community.”
Mancini originally got involved in Groundwork as a grad student at Tufts through the group’s Maple Syrup Project. Each year, sap is collected from maple trees in Somerville and boiled down into syrup in a day-long festival at the Community Growing Center. Groundwork then sells the syrup at the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market as well as the Union Square Farmers Market and Sherman Market when available.
After a stint working for an ocean conservation organization, Mancini got the itch to do work with more immediately tangible results. “We’re saving the environment for ourselves, but this has an immediate effect on young people,” Mancini said. He noted that many of the youth who go through the Green Team program get into colleges and get jobs directly because of their experience.
As with any nonprofit, Groundwork is always seeking donations, both monetary and of items like seeds or seedlings, garden tools and computers.
“You can do a lot with a little bit of money,” Mancini said. “If you give us $100, that hires a kid for a week this school year.”
Groundwork also seeks volunteers who can help weed and water the organization’s growing sites. In fact, Groundwork is rolling out a new volunteer and outreach coordinator position this fall to help manage the many groups and individuals who want to pitch in.
If people are interested in getting involved in Groundwork, Mancini urges groups to come to the organization with a location that needs attention in mind. “We can help facilitate that clean-up,” he said.
In addition to its urban farming and youth programs, Groundwork hosts several events each year. The organization honors local businesses and nonprofits who work toward Groundwork’s mission and goals at its annual Gala in April, which also serves as a big fundraiser.
This fall, Groundwork is putting on a bike tour of its Somerville farms and gardens. The event takes place on Saturday, September 27 from 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. with a leisurely ride to four or five Groundwork sites with a stop at the Mobile Farmers Market, which is where you can purchase food grown by Groundwork. Children and bike carriers are welcome, but furry friends must be left at home.
As Groundwork continues to expand and approaches its 15th anniversary, Mancini has big hopes for the future of the organization.
“We want to create more green and growing space, make more accessible food and get the youth coming back,” Mancini said.