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Stephen Greene: Well, we’re in Stamford, Vermont, and we’ve been residents here for, let’s see, about 15 years, I guess. Moved here first from Lanesboro, but before that we were about ten years in Pennsylvania. We moved into the community and started teaching. And if you know any teachers, you know they don’t have a lot of time. So for a long time, we didn’t know the town that well, because for a lot of people it’s kind of a bedroom community. If you’re not a long-term resident, you buy a house and you work somewhere else. But we retired a couple years ago and have since started getting to know the community really well.
Grassroots Fund: That’s Stephen Greene and Helen Fields, members of the Stamford Vermont Seed Savers.The purpose of the Stamford Seed Savers is to build a stronger and more resilient community by organizing around the issues of local food security and sustainable living. I ask about the start of the Seed Savers, and a number of names bubble up…
HF: Oh, what was the seed of this project...
GF: The list goes on...
HF: So I think we kind of said two years ago, let’s start saving seeds...
GF: But then we turn the conversation to the project Helen and Stephen have been spearheading.
HF: We’ve both always said, let’s retire so we can live in our own town for a change, and really be members here. So I said, let’s turn our sights to Stamford, and start being more active in Stamford. So after we started saving seeds, I said to the Seed Savers how do you feel about Stephen and me going into the schools and maybe starting a little garden project with the kids here under the direction of the Seed Savers, and people thought that was a pretty good idea.
GF: The goal of the garden went beyond planting the seeds of food security or sustainable living in their town. The seed savers came to see the garden as an intervention in the divided and struggling sense of community in Stamford, Vermont.
The Grange, which used to be a big part of the community, and held dances and was central to the community was put down maybe about 50 years ago or so. And the economics of being a small farmer has also made it pretty much impossible to sustain. The families that have been here, a lot of them are older, and a lot of the people who have come in are younger. And there’s kind of like two factions in some ways: the more progressive and the more conservative. And the town meetings would often be very, sort of, contentious. And there was a feeling of “us” vs. “them.”
We’re part of the newcomers, I guess. So the challenge of Stamford really is how to rebuild the community and how to restore some of those communities ties so that everybody feels comfortable with each other and feels like we’re part of the same social network. So we saw seed savers as really more than just a way to teach kids how to grow things, it was a way to start a conversation between these different factions. You know, like, what do you want to see in the garden? What are your interests? How can you help? And we’ve been getting help from all over, from everywhere. It’s like everybody just started climbing on board with this project.
GF: The Seed Savers have a laundry list of donations and support they’ve gotten from local businesses and services to make the garden happen.
HF: Part of the beauty of Stamford still is that there are these families that are traditional that have known each other for generations. And so they still have the ties, so if you need something, you only have to tell one or two people, and if they like you, it will show up, and if they don’t like you, you’re never going to see it.
I wound up having surgery on my hip a year ago, and Steve couldn’t be around to help me, and it was a turning point for me because I called up people that I knew somewhat and asked for help. And that created a core of people that I knew, and then they knew me. So we have been proactively building relationships. Some of the people are very conservative religious, some are religious Protestants, some are very very conservative religious Catholics. Some are non-denominational community church people, and some are not religious, and some are against all things government, and some are against all things that aren’t environmentally clean and healthy and progressive. So we’ve got all of this hodgepodge which is almost a mirror image of what our nation now looks like.
So, if you want to change the world, change the world you’re in, first, because that’s the easiest thing to change, it’s right where you are, and it’s the most important one to change, and that’s my philosophy anyway.
SG: Yeah, I think a lot of the divisiveness that we see in communities like ours is because everybody is getting different information from different media sources, and we’re not talking to each other. And I think that sort of hit a crisis point over the last couple years. And people have sort of started to go well, maybe we need to stop listening to the news, and start listening to each other, more. And not everybody is doing that, but I think that there is more of an incentive and more of a concern within the community to motivate people to look for other avenues for getting information and for spending their time, rather than watching the latest tragedy on the news. What can we do here, what can we do locally, that’s going to make our lives better?
Plus, I think there’s a big concern, there’s this 800 lbs gorilla of climate change in the back of everyone's mind. So everyone’s starting to go like, maybe we should start building our networks now and start thinking about how we can take care of ourselves if there is a crisis. If a Typhoon moves up the coast and wipes out New York City, what are we going to do?
HF: I’ve learned as a teacher, and all teachers know this: when you make a change in somebody’s life, you might not know that you changed that person’s life. We don’t know what effect we’ve had. All we can do is be true to the mission or to the intention or do what we think is the best practice. So when we do have these small projects here and here and here, they aren’t small projects. They’re only small by definition. They are not small by result. Because we cannot measure the results of these projects. They’re immeasurable. They’re generational.
I know that if I have 100 children that we helped plant something last year, we went in, 100 children planted 4-6 seeds, we came back a month later and they put them in the ground, some of them insisted on taking them home. When they took them home, their parents went, we don’t have a place to put that. So then they said, ok, well then let’s make a garden. And I don’t know how many people that happened to, except the several people who came up to me and said, thanks a lot you guys, now we have to have a garden.
And now this year, those kids are coming to camp, because their parents want to pay for them to have that experience. They realized the value of it because when they made their own little garden at home, they got the experience. And then we don’t know what grandparents were looking outside and watching, for the first time, their children and their grandchildren planting flowers in the yard, or planting vegetables in the yard, or eating what we grew. We don’t know that, but we can feel it in the community.
GF: We drove to the school, to look at the seed library and the school garden. As we approached, Helen and Steve ran into some young seed savers:
“Yellow pepper, and a red pepper, and cabbage, and some tomatoes.”
“Are they growing?”
“Are you watering them?”
GF: The seed savers have a brief meeting about their progress.
HF: And I think that you guys are signed up for garden camp, aren’t you? Oh good, what are you going to look forward to?
GF: Helen and Steve have worked with every student in their town's K-8 school to start seeds that will eventually be planted in the gardens behind the school, or at home in their family gardens.
HF: This is our seed library, in these three milk cartons. So people can come in here, and each type of seed, like beets, or broccoli, or brussels sprouts, or carrots, it’s alphabetical, and they pull up what they want, and they pick their seeds. And then they take an envelope from here, and fill out the envelope with what they have, and identify it, and then they fill out a form that says what they took so that we can track what people are taking, not just for data collection but also so we know what to replenish, what’s popular and not popular. And I tell people, oh, there are a million seeds here, you can help yourself, and anyone that wants to can come and take them. And all of the kids know about this, we trained the whole school in this.
SG: We had them in the library for a while, but this is more accessible because the library isn’t always open.
GF: So it’s just in the front entrance of the school?
HF: And this is also the entrance to the entire town. Because the town is here and the school is here, so anyone that has any town business -
GF: This is the town office? This is the school? Wow, ok.
HF: And it’s the bathroom, it’s the only public bathroom in town. So everybody gets to see the seed library.
GF: The seed savers library in the very front of their town says a lot about the kind of support they’ve seen with this project. But they’ve also faced challenges, especially from those who have seen an immense change in their community, and are afraid that more change will continue to hurt. Just before I came to visit, the town had been considering whether or not they should formally oversee community groups, such as the Seed Savers, that were seeking to reignite civic life. Helen retold some of the meeting for me:
HF: Oh, you know, maybe we should take this responsibility on. And then there were a couple of people who were saying, we don’t need to do that, we don’t need bigger government. You know that phrase, big government. And I said, this isn’t big government, this is a democratic process of civic cooperation that defines the American people, and this is why our town is together. And what you are yearning for from the old days, is what we are now rebuilding tonight.
And so they said yes. And so we are an official - and they're going to appoint three people to oversee any groups that want to start a new group in town.
S: It’s big, it was a big step.
HF: I just saw one of the walkers - there was a group of walkers as I was coming home to meet you -and one of the walkers is the head of the other group, and she saw me and went “yay!” and got this big smile on her face and was beaming. We know that that was a hurdle that was very difficult for them to jump. And they jumped it. I’m so grateful that the people are so willing to take a chance on all of us.
SG: You know I feel like, in the 80s, one of the big concerns was the rainforest, or clear-cutting forests, and extinction. And there were groups who were very oppositional, to whatever the larger culture was doing in terms of its exploitation of the environment. They were very confrontational, and they would do things like spike trees. Greenpeace would get in the way of the whaling boats and interfere with what people are trying to do. It was very like, me against you, two sides against each other.
I think there has been a gradual transition to trying to do this is a more collaborative, cooperative way, rather than making enemies. I think that’s one of the reasons I end up putting my energies into gardening more. It’s a collaborative endeavor. You get kids out there and they’re all working together towards a common goal. It’s really great when you complete that circle by having them plant it and then take care of it and then harvest it and then prepare it and then eat it. They could get the whole shebang by their participation. It’s a metaphor, in a way, for the way we need to think about change. It’s like: how do we get people involved, taking those little steps, planting those seeds, so that eventually we all get to sit down together and have a harvest?
This interview was a part of the Grassroots Fund Guiding Practice Community Stories. To learn more and listen to other stories, visit grassrootsfund.org.