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CommunitiesGrowing change in our communities

If there’s one thing that Mr. Willie King is passionate about, it’s his garden. “If I could, I’d be out there 24 hours, seven days a week,” he said. “Sometimes during the day, that’s all I think about—what can I do to make it better? How can I pull more people in?”

As the Lyon Street Community Garden Manager and now the Lyon Street Community Vice President, Mr. King will be the first to say that the garden isn’t his—it’s the community’s. And all he wants to see, besides a great crop, is more community involvement.

The Community Garden is an important part of a research project spearheaded by Dr. Ronald Pitner and Dr. Darcy Freedman. The project, “Creating Healthy Environments through Community Engagement,” began with a question of what these two researchers could do to facilitate community engagement and, ultimately, reduce perceptions of crime. With community engagement at the heart of their research, Dr. Pitner and Dr. Freedman quickly turned to community partners and members to see if they had equal concerns about crime and connectedness—and the community-centered project has only grown from there.

“My approach to research is that the people who are the intended beneficiaries ought to be central to any kind of change process,” Dr. Freedman said. “It’s not my project, it’s our project. We each bring in different assets, and then together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

One key part of the development and sustainability of their work is the Community Empowerment Center (CEC) (http://ceccolumbia.cosw.sc.edu/), which provides technical assistance to community members as they develop projects to improve the neighborhood. A collaboration between the USC College of Social Work and the Columbia Housing Authority, the CEC is “a center for capacity-building for community change,” according to Dr. Pitner.

The CEC’s work has included the provision of mini-grants for projects that are proposed by community members to help the community thrive and grow. Examples of such grants include one for the expansion of a soup kitchen and exercise classes held in the community, and another to a local food pantry to increase food security for Gonzales Gardens and Lyon Street residents.

“Part of making change happen is understanding what the community wants to change and how they want to make that change,” Dr. Pitner said. “I think that effective, sustainable community interventions have to come from the bottom-up.”

This bottom-up approach can also be seen in the Lyon Street Community Garden. Community members of Gonzales Gardens and Lyon Street came up with the idea of creating a garden, but it wasn’t until Friendship Baptist Church gave them a piece of land to get started that the project took flight. They soon expanded with the help of a grant from the Eat Smart Move More Campaign and the city of Columbia, the latter of which also gave them more land and resources to develop the garden. Currently, the garden also receives in-kind support from Square Foot Gardening Foundation.

The CEC’s capacity-building extends its reach to the Lyon Street Community Garden as well, providing both funds and support to the garden and the project’s participants. Indeed, Mr. King credits the CEC’s presence with helping him get more people involved and giving the garden and its volunteers more direction. Now Mr. King wants to keep expanding the garden itself and also the garden’s reach beyond its wood and wire fences.

“When the community sees what you’ve done, they’ll come out and they’ll want to do it, too,” he said. According to Mr. King, this growing participation not only brings fresh food to people’s tables, but also fellowship and a sense of ownership among community members. “Everyone gets to know everyone, and they can take pride in their work.”

Dr. Pitner also thinks that such connectedness does much more than simply bringing community members together. “Areas become safer when people feel safe in their communities, when they have a sense of ownership over that community. That takes place when residents define what the issues are and when they collectively come together to work on those issues,” he said. “If people feel that they can rely on one another and can band together to address concerns, then they will feel safer.”

Dr. Freedman wants to expand the reach of the project as a whole as well. She said she hopes to continue exploring community engagement in the Gonzales Gardens and Lyon Street communities while watching this research model take root elsewhere.

As for Mr. King, he wants the Lyon Street Community Garden to be the best garden in South Carolina—and beyond—so that other communities can see what’s possible. He wants to inspire communities of all kinds to come together through this kind of project, knowing that “if we can do it, other communities can do it, too.”

Note: Additional support for the Lyon Street Community Garden is provided by several partners including Earth Fare, Homeless Helping Homeless, Sustainable Carolina, and students from Benedict College.

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