Learning to Love the Worms

An Interview with Groundwork Somerville Garden Coordinator Tai Dinnan
By Carmen Robinson

Groundwork Somerville is a community based non-profit organization dedicated to community revitalization and urban agriculture within the city of Somerville, Massachusetts. Its educational programming has reached nearly every student within city limits from elementary school age children to college-aged adults. With an arsenal of innovative outreach programs, Groundwork Somerville seeks to provide the residents of Somerville with opportunities to participate in community gardens, green job training, and access to healthy food options. Recently, the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association sat down with Groundwork Somerville’s Garden Coordinator Tai Dinnan to discuss maple syrup, compost, and why she measures success by how much her students have learned to love the worms.

Groundwork SomervilleGroundwork Somerville has been engaging the Somerville community in urban agriculture for almost ten years. In 2008, Groundwork Somerville, along with its sister organization: Groundwork Lawrence, and the National Park Service won the prestigious “Conservationists of the Year” award from the Trustees of Reservations. Recently, the SAEA sat down with Gardens Coordinator, Tai Dinnan, to learn more about the award winning initiatives happening at Groundwork Somerville.

SAEA: Tell me a little bit about your job as a Gardens Coordinator.

Tai Dinnan: I oversee everything that has to do with our gardens programming. A lot of our programs focus on our gardens and others touch the gardens in some way. I partner with our other staff to involve gardens in their programs and I run programming myself. Currently, I supervise all of the elementary and middle school programs.

SAEA: What type of work happens in the gardens?

Tai Dinnan: Right now, we are active in seven schoolyard gardens and we manage the vegetable plots at the [Somerville Community Growing Center]. We are responsible for maintaining them, keeping them watered, keeping them planted and weeded. We get involved in each school garden at least once a week during the school year by leading after school garden clubs.

SAEA: Besides the garden clubs, what other programming does Groundwork Somerville run?

Tai Dinnan: We have a middle school program [that is] basically an internship type of a model where students work 4-6 hours a week in the summer. They help maintain the garden, create value added products, and get a stipend to recognize their work.

Groundwork SomervilleOur high school employment program is called the Green Team. One of the Green Teams is focused entirely on urban agriculture and they do a lot of work in the gardens. We also have a compost pick up program that we are starting. We pick up people’s compost on bike and bring it to a site where we turn it into soil with the help of worms and bugs.

In February and March, Groundwork Somerville does a maple syrup project. With the help of volunteers, we collect sap from trees in Somerville and run an educational series in the schools. Then, we do a big boil down in Somerville and make maple syrup.

And, we run a spring break vacation camp, which is focused on environmental education and urban agriculture with kids who are in Somerville.

SAEA: Groundwork Somerville is definitely leaving its imprint on the Somerville. How do you think your programs are positively impacting your community?

Tai Dinnan: I think having a very basic understanding of where food comes from, how plants grow, and how [plants] make food is something that needs to happen before we can improve our diets and our lifestyle. I think that telling people that they need to eat vegetables is not going to make a big difference, but giving people the knowledge that they need to grow their own vegetables and having people build relationships with those plants and taste them [will]. Having a relationship with the plants and being comfortable around nature are really important things that will help us not only improve our own health but respect our community’s health.

SAEA: How did you get involved with Groundwork Somerville?

Tai Dinnan: I have been full time with Groundwork [Somerville] since June. I started as a summer intern in 2008 because I was interested in education and small scale organic agriculture.

SAEA: What was your summer internship like?

Tai Dinnan: My summer internship was to assist with the [summer] camp and lead some of the garden programs. I thought it was really neat because it was an opportunity to involve over 100 kids every week in the garden space. [The students] really built a relationship with the garden and felt comfortable in it. It’s a big deal for city kids to feel comfortable around plants, bugs and whatever else they encounter in the garden. [Eventually] they start to learn to love the worms.

SAEA: What motivated you to pursue agriculture education as a career?

Tai Dinnan: I come from a more rural area. I grew up with a huge garden with a river, a forest, a big yard, and chickens. There were so many resources around me that I always assumed would be there. When I came to college [in Somerville], I realized that the learning experiences that I had growing up were ones that not many people get. Giving more kids the opportunities that I had while growing up is really motivating to me.

SAEA: How can people get involved with Groundwork Somerville?

Tai Dinnan: We are grounded in being in Somerville and meeting the needs of community members in Somerville.

At each school garden there is an assistant that works with [Groundwork] who can be an adult volunteer from the community, intern, or staff from Groundwork. The Somerville Maple Syrup Project depends on volunteer sap collectors and educators. One of my personal goals is to get more community members involved in the direct maintenance and programming in the gardens. We are also seeing a lot of people who now come to us and say “we want to start a garden.” We have had churches and preschools, housing authorities, and residents come to us. We are really focused on trying to support community members in [their efforts] to improve their environmental and community health.

Groundwork SomervilleAlso, there are opportunities for a spectrum of ages of students to be involved in our youth programs. For residents that are interested and motivated to volunteer, we try to find opportunities where they can grow and take advantage of their skills while helping Groundwork Somerville.

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Thanks again to Groundwork Somerville. If you would like to get involved, please visit their Web site.

January 2010