Guerrilla Gardener

Graduate student Clemon Dabney helps people grow their own food

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Clemon Dabney

Photo by Lisa Persson, The Minnesota Daily

Vacant lots in North Minneapolis still tell the tale of the 2011 tornadoes that devastated the area, but less noticeable is the lack of grocery stores and supermarkets. The USDA has defined areas of low income with low access to supermarkets or large grocery stores as "food deserts." Clemon Dabney III, a graduate student in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, not only noticed the problem but set out to make a difference.

As a psychology undergraduate, Dabney became hooked on horticulture while working at the Biology Learning Center at Normandale Community College. Now Dabney can often be found checking on his Koeleria macrantha (junegrass plants) in the greenhouse/fields or in the lab working on microscopy or metagenomics projects. But, over the past few summers, you could also find him in North Minneapolis working to develop community gardens with a focus on edible plants.

A self-described "guerrilla gardener," Dabney has had a keen interest in community gardens since childhood when he saw John Deere giving out small plots of land to people experiencing economic hardship.

"As a youth, I grew up in a low-income, single-parent environment," says Dabney. "The experiences of having days without food stuck with me and made me want to make sure people have access to land and free food if they need it."

community gardeningIn the summer of 2012, Dabney partnered with Selam Yosief at the local non-profit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change to take action. A guerrilla gardening project developed from the partnership that transitioned publicly owned and vacant land into community gardens. They then used the gardens to host free classes on gardening topics for community members.

Inspired to do more, Dabney next applied for the Buckman Fellowship and became one of the 2013-14 Buckman fellows. The fellowship is offered through the College of Design and encourages the study and practice of philanthropy, leadership and personal community improvement. Fellowships are awarded yearly to faculty, students and alumni associated with CED, CEHD and CFANS.

While it wasn't his first foray into philanthropy and community development, the Buckman Fellowship offered Dabney an opportunity to delve deeper into city planning and non-profit outreach and tie his philanthropic work more directly to his university life.

"The Buckman Fellowship attracted me as a legitimate means to learn how to work in a non-profit environment and utilize this idea of converting marginal lands in blighted urban areas into beautiful spaces that bring people together to learn, share and network," says Dabney.

community garden

Eleven of the 16 communal gardens are on land leased from Minneapolis Homegrown. This government agency allows you to lease land for $1 after an application fee and a $2 million insurance policy. Before choosing a plot, Dabney surveyed the available properties by taking soil tests, calculating sun exposure and surveying neighbors for interest and proximity of water sources.

Dabney's initial goal was to transform three vacant lots into gardens and provide community education on gardening, nutrition and physical fitness. But, thanks to tools and guidance he received from Buckman and community partners like Yosief, this expanded to 16 communal gardens and a variety of education efforts including partnering with local youth groups. Of the 16 sites, 11 were leased from Minneapolis Homegrown, three were donated by community members or business owners and two were guerrilla projects.

Overall, the community members were elated with Dabney's work and were amazed they could harvest for free from the gardens.

"I will never forget one woman's story," says Dabney. "She had just had surgery and said working in the garden helped her rehab from eating all the fresh fruit and vegetables and getting exercise."

While most of the day-to-day lifting has been handed off to non-profit partners and members of the community, Dabney looks forward to getting his hands dirty a few times again this summer.

—Shelly Gustafson