In densely populated areas, urban gardens have historically been a way to preserve green space and contribute to environmentally friendly goals like reducing the carbon footprints of food production and distribution. But for a program in highly-segregated Milwaukee, a nonprofit urban garden is growing careers and life skills.
Former high school teacher Charles Uihlein taught history but says it wasn’t providing what students needed in the present and future.
“The things that I thought were important to success later on in life and the skills that students should be learning outside of the formal school environment weren’t taught that well in school. I thought that a garden and the act of growing food, cooking, and eating food were a wonderful connector and a wonderful experiential education piece,” Uihlein says.
So, in 2013 he created Teens Grow Greens (TGG), an urban agriculture nonprofit skills-building employment program. In addition to the tangible work of planting, growing, harvesting and selling plants, herbs and vegetables, participants also learn interpersonal skills like communication and teamwork. Uihlein calls them “life skills.”
“Like showing up early if you’re going to miss something, you contact somebody. How to shake someone’s hand. Look them in the eye. How to deal with conflict at work. These are skills developed through educating and being with other students to learn them together,” he says.
Earning While Learning
There are two opportunities for students. The first: ninth and tenth graders can apply for a paid internship. While every applicant reviews an interview (this year, 115 students applied), only 60 are accepted.
TGG recommends students with scheduling conflicts, such as after-school sports, apply when they don’t have to worry about practices and games. During the school year, interns can work up to 12 hours a week. In the summer, they can take on additional hours. Just as they would with any job, students go through an interview, complete paperwork, and an onboarding once they’re accepted.
The internship is broken up in three parts based on seasons. This spring, the internship’s theme is “Leading My Life” and addresses healthy brains, healthy bodies, and healthy bank accounts.
In the summer, “Leading for Justice” will focus on food sovereignty and an urban gardening mentorship program. The fall will highlight “Leading Through Innovation.”
Interns start at $8.50 an hour and earn up to $10.50 an hour by the third phase of the program.
Once the internship is completed, students can apply for an apprenticeship, which can last two years. Twenty to 30 students are accepted, and can follow one of three tracks: education, entrepreneurship and agriculture through hands-on experience in the gardens and a retail location called Webers Greenhouses.
“It’s our tag line: ‘We grow more than plants.’ You can see it in the way people shop at Webers,” Uihlein says. “We’ll have certain events and people will come out and…they’ll buy products from the teams, to make sure to support them. I think, one, they remember what it’s like to be a teenager. Two, they all recognize that when the teenagers of Milwaukee do well, we all do well.”
Apprentices start at $12 an hour the first year; the second year increases to $15 an hour. Any high school student in Milwaukee can apply, although Uihlein says the program targets mostly students on the north side (predominately African American) and south side (Hispanic and immigrant population). Historically, the program has had more female applicants and participants.
In addition to workplace skills, TGG also brings in nonprofit partners like Secure Futures to provide financial literacy coaching. Companies in industries such as hydroponic farming technology, banking and healthcare have indicated interest in hiring apprentices. These opportunities are still being explored, Uihlein says.
Funding mostly comes from grants and foundations and individual donations. Revenue from Weber’s Greenhouse contributes about 10%; TGG is in the midst of a capital campaign to completely rebuild it. Uihlein says he’s seeing increased support.
“Our mission is always guiding us,” he says. “That mission is having healthy and healed humans leading change in their community. Once we can see that everybody in Milwaukee is a healthy and healed human leading change in community, that’s when I can say, ’alright, you don’t need us anymore.’”
The program results are accomplishing what Uihlein set out to do. A recent survey of interns shows more than 90% feel more comfortable with their communication skills, they’re more likely to succeed, and they’ll keep their long-term commitments. Compared to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics’ national average of 33%, more than three-quarters of TGG graduates (73%) have found jobs.
Perhaps most impressive: the high school graduation rate. Milwaukee Public School system’s graduation rate for Black students is 55%, and for Hispanic students is 59%. Currently, 100% of TGG graduates have graduated from high school or are on track to do so.
“We’ve got growth mindsets,” Uihlein says. “I think with working or in life you always open a door and succeed at something, and then realize there’s something else in front of you. To me, that’s one of most exciting things to me. There’s no ceiling. We’re not limited to what we can do.”