Updated: Jan 25, 2022
by David Inglis, September 2021
Who isn’t concerned about the institutional racism that carved Rochester into neighborhoods where some people could obtain mortgages and others couldn’t? Who isn’t concerned about the cycles of poverty that keep some people trapped in neighborhoods with few options or resources? Who isn’t concerned about the eco-injustice that concentrates poor people in the areas with the most polluted air, soil, and water and the least green spaces?
And if you think of how deeply these problems are woven into the fabric of our society, how intractable they appear, who wouldn’t feel powerless to change them?
But on the corner of First St. and Pennsylvania Ave. in the City of Rochester, there is a place where those intractable problems are being met with real-life solutions. The place is First Market Farm, the first major project of the Taproot Collective. This urban farm is a testament to the truth that change doesn’t always come from fighting the old - it comes from creating the new.
First Market Farm embodies Taproot Collective’s vision of “a city filled with thriving neighborhoods where all people have equitable access to critical resources.” In something under a city block, the farm has launched a mission “to design and build holistic systems for healthy local food, dignified housing, and educational opportunities with youth and families.” Its operating values are “stewardship, integrity, justice, cultural humility, equity, and excellence.”
Like each of Taproot’s projects, it is designed to unlock the potential of the neighborhood, through food sovereignty, youth employment, environmental justice, community building, and racial equity.
Just as a healthy garden’s diversity of plants and pollinators synergistically help each other thrive, Taproot’s unique combination of urban gardens, affordable housing, and community learning and office spaces “creates a regenerative space where all of the individual elements benefit from and support the other.” Let’s call it the intersectionality of hope.
How did this come about? Taproot wasn’t started by a governmental program, a not-for-profit organization, or a religious institution. It was conceived in 2016 by a group of women who were intent on addressing issues of food inequality, environmental degradation, and neighborhood deterioration with a model that engaged multiple community players and could scale up to address the complex challenges of our city.
With little money in the bank, the first project was funded through the donations of one of the founders, Amber Powers, and her husband Greg Shear. After moving into Greg's house together, the couple turned Amber's old house in the South Wedge into an airbnb and used the income to fund the purchase and renovation of 20 First Street in late 2017. The 1872 house on that lot had been slated for demolition, but two years of steady work and hundreds of hours of effort transformed the house into an attractive residence, office, and meeting and learning space.
Meanwhile, after testing the soil and gaining buy-in from the neighborhood, Taproot brought people together to establish a garden on the property. The now thriving garden produces fresh organic food for the community, as well as for Foodlink, shelters, and Taproot’s “tasting tours”. Taproot now shares seeds and teaches people about nutrition and how to grow, cook and preserve fresh vegetables from First Market Farm and their own gardens.
Taproot Collective provides educational programs, job readiness training, and internships in food growing and environmental justice for students from grade school through college. Members offer fiduciary and grant-writing services and help with curriculum and program design. Not surprisingly, the group has become a model and teaching center for other urban community gardens.
The Taproot vision doesn’t end with this parcel of land. Members are actively working with City Roots Community Land Trust, the City of Rochester, and St. Mark’s & St. John’s Episcopal Churches to enhance the environmental sustainability and resilience of critical urban garden sites in the Beechwood neighborhood. As Taproot board chair Leslie Knox says, “We aren’t the only solution to the problems around us. But we’re part of the solution to part of the problem.”
It’s a model that illustrates where anyone, or any group, can start: not by trying to take on the whole problem at once, but by seeing what is within their reach and doing that, while building community around it.
When Seeds of Hope held its monthly gathering on-site at First Market Farm on September 12, we experienced another gift Taproot Collective offers the world, even beyond its food, educational programs, and community-building. As we heard Taproot founder Amber Powers and board chair Leslie Knox admiringly introduce one another, as they shared their deep commitment to mutuality, equity, collaboration, power-sharing, and community building, as we tasted beans and nasturtiums nurtured by the time and care of a neighborhood, we found our hearts opening, our spirits lifting, and our vision expanding.
A magical place had been created from a decrepit piece of property, by people no different from us. People who had the audacity to see beyond what existed there and create what could be: an intersectionality of hope capable of untangling seemingly intractable problems. Being there fundamentally shifted the definition of what is and isn’t “realistic”, what can and can’t be done.
The visit closed with this quote from Howard Zinn, author of A People’s HIstory of the United States:
If we see only the worst [in our history or in our world], it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future.The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
- Howard Zinn, “The Optimism of Uncertainty” (2004)
To live now as we think human beings should live. A visit to First Market Farm is an opportunity to witness that kind of “marvelous victory”, to take a small step into a collective future where human beings live together without racism, poverty, and environmental degradation. It’s a powerful reminder that whenever you courageously create something beautiful and good “in defiance of all the bad” around you, you give others the energy to act on their visions as well.
What “intersectionality of hope” will you help create, where you are?
Enjoy photos of Seeds of Hope’s 9/12/21 visit to Taproot-First Market Farm below.
Board Chair Leslie Knox and co-founder Amber Powers share the story of Taproot Collective to Seeds of Hope participants.
The grounds between the house and the garden provide ample meeting and learning space when weather permits.
Amber talks about Taproot’s ongoing experiments to widen the diversity of plants and foster symbiotic relationships that allow for high density planting.
Leslie invites people to experience the variety of tastes and smells produced by the garden.