Working with young people through the Community Conferencing Center, which is a court diversion program for juveniles, Jennifer Will-Thapa heard many recurring themes about how they got into trouble in the first place: there wasn’t enough to do, no rec centers, no jobs, no opportunity. And successful mentoring programs, like the ones at the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, had long waitlists.
As she saw Baltimore’s urban farming community begin to flourish, Will-Thapa had a thought: maybe farmers could solve both problems, providing on-the-job training and mentorship. This was the inspiration behind the Common Ground Youth Farm Project.
Her interest in young people involved in the juvenile justice system goes back to her time in college. Her first job was as a house parent at a transitional home for young women who were leaving the juvenile detention center. After a stint in the Peace Corps in Nepal, Will-Thapa moved to Baltimore to attend the University of Maryland School of Social Work, where she obtained her masters.
After she completed her degrees, she started working with Community Conferencing Center because of its alignment with her own approach to youth and community development: empowering people to resolve their own conflicts. Will-Thapa has always loved gardening, so she has found ways to incorporate it into her work. She wants to reconnect young people in the city to the outdoors and to the idea that they can provide for themselves.
“Baltimore is rich with urban farming opportunities right now,” Will-Thapa says. “There is a real movement, especially among black farmers, and young people could get in on it if they are interested.”
For the Farm Project, Will-Thapa will work with Walker Marsh at Tha Flower Factory, an urban farm in East Baltimore, to provide farm training, mentorship and personal development to young people who are involved with the juvenile courts system. During the 20-week growing season, participants will be expected to adhere to standards of professionalism, dependability, cooperation and integrity.
She ran a pilot program with Marsh last year, working with about five young people at a time during two 10-week sessions. “Walker is a great mentor,” she says. “He is able to show them this is his business and explain why he’s doing it; that this is the ultimate freedom.” She also is looking into a second location on the Westside as well.
In addition to learning the in’s and out’s of farming, youth growers also will participate in weekly dialogue circles where they can talk about whatever they want; things that have come up on the farm, things in their own lives and communities or team building. Even if they decide they don’t like farming, Will-Thapa feels the job and personal skills the young people will learn will help them in any job or future endeavor.
“I’m big on accountability,” says Will-Thapa. “I’m not going to chase the young people down if they don’t show up. But they know that I think that they are worth it, that I think they are capable. They know what I expect of them.”
Listen to Will-Thapa talk about Common Ground Youth Farm Project on WYPR’s On the Record.