Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Morgan Barry and the Green Visions Program

by janem on September 6, 2014

Morgan Barry and the Green Visions Program

By Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com)

Photos by Walter Colley (waltercolleyimages.com)

This is a story about young Rochesterians learning critical work skills via a horticultural enterprise called Green Visions. It’s also about Morgan Barry, who coordinates Green Visions, which is a program of Greentopia, which is a project of Friends of the GardenAerial (see sidebar for more about each.)

Morgan Barry is a native Rochesterian raised on Maplewood Avenue. He attended city schools, including alternative high school at the district’s School Without Walls (SWW), which had a community service emphasis; Barry volunteered at Foodlink and as a coach at the neighborhood YMCA.

Even though he attended an excellent school and maintained a great first job at Wegmans, in retrospect Barry says he was following the expected college track, without adequate reflection on what he really wanted to do. He went to SUNY Oswego and got his BA in English. He says, “When I graduated in 2003, I said, ‘Wait, what’s the plan here?’”

Thus began the building of what he affectionately terms his “meandering résumé.” Barry worked in construction for several years, and then made a foray into corporate America in New York City. Unsatisfied there, he started emailing the writers whose online work he enjoyed the most—and talked his way into an internship at Gawker.

Barry says, “I learned the ropes of how a website is run, how social media works, and from that point on I was hustling. I was getting work experience in film and commercial production, sponsored events, and marketing work. I even had a small photography business with a friend at one point. It was a grind, but I would never take back those experiences.”

As Barry approached seven years working in NYC, he felt on the fence about whether to stay. He says, “I was sitting on our back deck in Astoria, Queens, watching rain pouring down. When I went back in the apartment, I found that water had leaked through the roof into my room, drowning most everything I owned at the time. I took this as a very obvious sign that it really was time for me to leave the city.” Barry had also been missing Rochester and ruminating on a random scene from the TV show Parks and Recreation, when Ron Swanson says to Leslie Knope, “You’ll get a lot of job offers in your life, but you only have one hometown.”

When he moved back to Rochester, Barry heard a lot from his family and friends about the new GardenAerial project and the fall Greentopia Festival about to take place for the second year. His mother saw a natural connection, and the GardenAerial cofounders coincidentally lived next door to his brother and his brother’s girlfriend. Barry says, “I always tell the Green Visions youth, ‘The best way to find work, is to work.’” So he volunteered for the full two weeks of the Greentopia Festival in September of 2012 and after that, GardenAerial cofounders Michael Philipson and Lewis Stess told Barry they wanted to hire him.

Barry started out doing anything and everything—copywriting, managing their social media and public events, hauling boxes—and still wears many hats. He’s now Special Projects Director and a member of a small staff (four or five people at any one time) and likes how ideas for the organization are discussed and developed through communal brainstorming and strategy sessions.

When landscape designer Marci Muller, former director of Greentopia, the Rochester Landscape Technicians Program and GreenWorks employment training, pitched the idea for Green Visions, Barry got to be in on the visioning. When Muller left Greentopia to be a designer for Ted Collins Tree and Landscape, Barry took over Green Visions because he saw the program as a true chance to make a positive difference in his city and neighborhood.

Muller still advises him on a regular basis, for which he is deeply grateful, because he had no gardening experience before this position. And of course, she brings her years of workforce development knowledge to share as well. Of Barry, Muller says, “To see how Morgan has grown over the past two years, it shows that he was meant for this type of work. His commitment to the young adults in the program is so strong that it can be overwhelming sometimes. I am so proud to work alongside of him.”

Green Visions is a 22-week-long workforce development program for 17- to 21-year-olds in the JOSANA (Jay-Orchard Street Area Neighborhood Association) neighborhood in northwest Rochester that has taken over three vacant lots for flower production.  Bouquets of cut flowers from the gardens are sold at the Rochester Public Market and throughout the city. The program teaches participants work skills, builds their résumés, and teaches them about small business management and horticulture. There is also a phytoremediation component to the program as envisioned by Muller. (Phytoremediation is using plants to extract or neutralize contaminants in the soil.)

Currently the City of Rochester’s policy prohibits growing and selling food from vacant lots, due to the potential presence of lead and other harmful toxins in the soil, but the Friends of the GardenAerial’s hypothesis is that phytoremediation could lead to a soil fit for food production. The soils on the three lots are being tested by Cornell Cooperative Extension and Paradigm Environmental Services, as are the tissues of some trial tomato and cucumber plants. This fall, Green Visions will have some data points to share with the community about the phytoremediation experiment to date. Barry says the City is very interested in the research findings and has been a very supportive partner to Green Visions.

In the first year, 2013, the program was geared toward young women only, with spaces for eight participants and one large city lot. In the second year, the program took on twice as many participants, co-ed this time, and two more lots in the same neighborhood, where neighbors are pleased to see the program expansion. Many of the second-year youth are friends or relatives of the first year’s graduates. One of the first-year women, Tiani Jennings, returned the following year as Barry’s assistant manager. Her position was formed thanks to the dynamic skills of Maranne McDade Clay, Director of Grants. Barry calls Tiani “a superstar at what she does. I see all the potential in the world in Tiani.”

Jennings is thrilled to be back in this leadership role, as site coordinator for the gardens. “This experience has been great for me,” she says. “Morgan is awesome; he has taught me so much through the trainings he does for us.” Jennings also supervises youth in the City of Rochester’s Summer of Opportunity Program. She hopes to study horticulture in college.

Tiani and the Green Visions participants are encouraged to run much of the small business on their own, with Barry in a coaching capacity. Participants give input into the small business plan for the season, grow the plants and sell the bouquets at the Public Market, handle the customer service, and run the Facebook page and other social media to promote Green Visions. He says, “I try to be as hands-off as possible. My biggest goal for the program is for the participants to gain work experience—some of them for the first time—and build a résumé that they can use to go out in the world and feel confident applying for other jobs in Rochester.”

Barry says there’s a lot of momentum building for Green Visions, and he’s very grateful for the in-kind and monetary donations that have come in. Foundation support is never assured from year to year; community support is needed to ensure the program’s continuation. Please see their website where you can easily donate via PayPal or credit card to Friends of the GardenAerial, which administers Green Visions. Go to the Green Visions Facebook page for photo diaries and videos; you will be inspired!

About the GardenAerial

From the Friends of the GardenAerial (FoGA) (gardenaerial.org) website: FoGA has worked to preserve and steward the High Falls Heritage Area and Genesee River gorge through education, promotion, preservation and development of sustainable communities. It is dedicated to green education, advocacy and sustainable development in downtown Rochester, New York.

The GardenAerial project will completely transform the immediate area of the rim of the Genesee Gorge at High Falls, creating an exciting new public greenspace and trail destination at the very birthplace of Rochester. You can see concept drawings at http://gardenaerial.org/fullscreen/gardenaerial-gallery.

About Greentopia Fall Festival

This year, Greentopia Fall Festival celebrates four years of educating and entertaining the public in all things sustainable. Originally conceived as a two-day street festival, Greentopia has grown into a series of events held throughout the year. The 2014 EcoFest and celebration of art, music, and design will take place September 12 from 6 to 9 pm and September 13 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. around Brown’s Race and the Centers at High Falls. Greentopiafest.com.

Thank you, Partner

Advantage Federal Credit Union

Alstom Signaling Inc.

Batavia Turf

BioWorks

Charles Settlement House

City of Rochester

Coca-Cola

Cornell Cooperative Extension

Doug Buckley, Blackbird Son Film Production

Habitat for Humanity

Kathleen Holt and Steve Lurie

M&T Bank

Marci Muller

OSHA and EPA

Paradigm Environmental Services

Randy Martel/The Garden Factory

Ted Collins Tree and Landscape

The Captain Planet Foundation

The Charles House Neighbors in Action

The Community Foundation

The Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation

The Housing Council at Pathstone

The Max and Marian Farash Foundation

The Rochester Public Market

The Wilson Foundation

Thomson Reuters

Worm Power

Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, writer, and editor living in New Paltz, NY.

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