Regrouping Expectations

Every day is different at Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, and that’s one of the many things that I really love about it.  Some days, we start at our main site at 15th and 28th in Phillips, and then bike over to Dale and Lafond in Frogtown to check up on our kale and potatoes that are growing strong over there.  Some days, we weed beets for hours and hours, and other days, we build a fence and work on fixing the Big White Truck that we bought with the funds we raised with our Kickstarter. 

When Anna and I are not helping the 6 partners keep up with the day to day tasks of keeping up 16 urban farm plots, feeding 71 CSA shareholders, and supplying a bountiful spread at two farmers markets, we work on camp.  It is here that reality has profoundly deviated, even diverted, from our original plan.  We had a community partnership with the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood Freedom School, a federally funded program to help a struggling school (based on income and test scores) through afterschool and summer programming.  Our plan was to house Stone’s Throw Youth Grow in their summer programming as enrichment for their summer camp.  Unfortunately, not enough kids signed up for their camp, and they told us the day of Orientation for their program, that there was no longer space for us.

We were super disappointed.  We were excited to work with this population of kids, teaching them about sustainable agriculture in their own neighborhood.  We were excited to learn about their neighborhood, where we are only guests, from people who have grown up there.  We had planned a 7 week curriculum with long and short term projects, to fit the needs of this group, and so it was disorienting, at least for me, to imagine camp without it.

That very day, we started calling the Rec centers, the library, and neighborhood groups in the area to find a new group of kids.  We are so, so excited to say that camp is finally starting this Wednesday with the Minnehaha Rec center, only a short walk from our sites on Dale and Lafond, right off of University.

We’ve taught a class at a pre-school in Richfield, and this Thursday, students from Skyline Towers are coming to volunteer.  A few weeks ago, some exchange students from Iraq came to help out on the farm, and we learned so much from working with people our own age, who had such different life experiences! 

We’ve had to regroup some of our expectations, widen our goals to think about including more people, instead of a more long-term, holisitic education experience for a smaller group.  It was easy to think, going into the summer, that we had absolutely everything perfectly in line, but that could never have been true, because there are so many variables when dealing with schools, rec centers, and of course, the small business Stone’s Throw.  

Space and Land

Throughout this summer working on the farm, there have been countless experiences that remind me of the importance of connection. Whether it is through reading and researching farming techniques that people around the world have used and developed over centuries, or through a simple head nod and smile to an elderly Hmong man passing by as I weed beets, I cannot help but be mindful of the simplicity and beauty of the shared human experience. It has been such an awesome opportunity to be a part of a food cultivation operation that is unlike any other in the Twin Cities, yet takes advantage of some age old farming techniques that seek to improve soil quality and yield from year to year while maintaining a diverse agro-ecosystem. This summer has certainly made me consider deeply the way we treat land, and I cannot help but think that there exists a parallel for the way we treat people. we must maintain a respect and reverence in the way we treat both and seek out connections in order to form healthy, thriving communities. 


95% Humidity, or: Swimming on a Bike

Here we are approaching the last three weeks of Learn to Ride, and Hannah and I can hardly believe it. Instead of winding down, it seems that things are picking up as we prepare for classes open to the public; a “Train the Trainers” session to teach others how to teach someone to ride a bike; and a final report to inform how Cycles for Change might continue a Learn to Ride program in the future.

Another warm night descends over the Mississippi.

Our initial plan was to aim for 5 series of classes at different organizations, with 3 classes at each of those organizations. As scheduling chaos – turns out it’s tricky to coordinate so many busy schedules! – and multiple heat warnings  ensued and threw a wrench into some of our plans, we’ve revised them, doing what we can to make classes available to everyone who had expressed interest. This has taken the form of individual lessons, a second series at the same organization for those who couldn’t come to the first, and now classes open to the general public. (more information on those at!)

Minnehaha Falls

Some of the highlights of the last couple weeks have made the heat worth it, though. We took a group ride with one of our classes to Minnehaha Falls one morning, despite 100-degree weather. One of the women started out this summer still trying to find her balance; four weeks later, we rode 7 1/2 miles to Minnehaha Falls! It was really exciting. What a difference between pedaling around in the parking lot and soaring along the bike path and crossing the Mississippi.

The Data Drive and Draw (Part One)

Input values, output values, heuristics, and dashboards—I might as well be trying to understand how to fix a car.  Evaluation.  Results.  Impact.  It is no longer enough, as it should be, that charities can simply do good work or have good intentions.  Everything must be documented in order to prove successes to donors.  In business, documenting successes to investors is relatively straightforward.  The business either gains profits or loses money and the correlation between investment and output values is more clearly visible.  However, in development, measuring social impact often presents a unique challenge of its own.

For example, how do I document growth in confidence?  How do I document the fact that before, 6 year old Vanessa from Panyebar, insisted that she was incapable of drawing a dog and now she is scribbling out the figures of an entire barnyard of animals?  Perhaps I can show her drawings from before and after participation in our youth program.  I question whether this would capture the essence of her progression.  Previously, the kids (especially the girls) could only say “no puedo” (I can’t) when asked to draw, count, write, or read.  The challenge is not teaching them how to draw; it is giving them the confidence so that they can realize their potential.  For example, Vanessa knew how to draw flowers and houses; therefore I knew that she was capable of drawing a dog, she just didn’t believe it.

Vanessa’s first drawing in the Youth Leadership Program. Vanessa believed that she could only draw flowers and houses. The star in the top left hand corner was drawn by a volunteer for her.

In addition to flowers and houses, Vanessa drew a few animals including a pig, cat, dog, and chicken. All of the pictures on this drawing Vanessa drew herself.

he residue of both a machismo (male-dominated) culture and a consistent lack of opportunities are evident in the communities where we work such as Panyebar.  I took Vanessa through drawing a dog step-by-step.  “What does a dog have?  Does it have a face?”  Vanessa drew a circle.  “What does a dog have on its face?”  Vanessa drew two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  Pretty soon a dog was realized in the embodiment of Vanessa’s purple crayon scrawl.  Where previously every kid had insisted that we draw everything for them, they now could produce their own drawings.  “See Vanessa, you are so incredibly talented!  Look at what you drew!  I knew that you could draw a dog!  What other animals can you draw?”  In response, Vanessa gave me a shy smile and soon after, with the quick dance of a crayon she formed a small chicken.  These are the moments that are hard to quantify.  But these are the moments that I count my days by.

Kids from the Youth Leadership Program in Panyebar

Building from Basura (Trash)

Becoming the Indiana Jones of the Santa Clara trash dump had not previously been in my job description.  However, I found myself weeding through the soggy disposed layers of a city in search of used tires.  We scavenged through pig pens, the Santa Clara dump and local pinchazos (auto shops) for neglected tires that will be used in the construction of a sustainable playground in Panyebar.

Scavenging for unloved tires in the Santa Clara dump

Rising Minds’ Sustainable Construction initiatives exemplify the mission and community development work of Rising Minds. Working with community partners such as in Panyebar, we employ creative strategies to address environmental degradation and building needs, all while strengthening the voice and involvement of program members. Anyone can build a school, a playground, or a community center; it’s not about what we are doing, but rather how we are doing it. Our partners identify the need, and together we work to address it.  In Panyebar for example, the mothers requested a sandbox for the children in the youth program.  We provided the design of a turtle made from 22 tires complete with a sandbox within the body.

Bolting the head together with co-worker Fiona

Rising Minds’ sustainable construction program utilizes alternative building materials, such as old tires and/or trash-stuffed bottles, to lessen costs and keep trash out of the waterways. The lower cost of building materials and the low-tech means of building assure that the techniques we use could be replicated by members of our partner programs without our further involvement, thereby decreasing foreign dependence.

Normally our partners provide many of the free and low-cost raw materials for the building.  However Panyebar is an isolated community with no auto-shops.  (Hence the excursion into the Santa Clara city dumps). In this case, the mothers were able to provide the sand for the sandbox as well as the costales (plastic bags) for the perimeter of the playground.

11 mothers and 3 babies on their backs helping to clear the land for the tire playground


What remains constant is that our community partners help to provide hands-on labor. Rising Minds provides the technical assistance and a team of volunteers to work side by side with our partner program until the construction is complete.  Eleven mothers (with three babies strapped to backs) helped to hatch a turtle from soggy dump tire to a playground in Panyebar over the course of two days.  The tire turtle will serve as a much needed play space for 53 children in a village where previously there were none.


Completed Turtle Tire Playground

Pedaling New(s)

I don’t remember learning how to ride a bike.  I don’t remember what it feels like to balance on a bike for the first time or to pedal for the first time in a straight line.  In these last few weeks at our Learn to Ride classes I’m starting to get an idea of what that must be like.  I find myself biking around the Twin Cities and thinking about each step that goes into riding a bike.  I pay attention to when I lean to turn and how far in front of a stop sign I start to slow down.  It’s exciting to break down something that has always felt so natural to me into all of the little pieces that actually make it happen.  I have also found myself trying to imagine the sensations that come along with riding a bike as new and foreign as well.  While zipping down a hill towards the Mississippi river I imagine that I am feeling this rush for the first time.  Putting myself in the shoes of a new cyclists makes me realize how exciting it must be to learn to ride a bicycle as an adult.  It’s not everyday that adults learn a new skill that has the potential to completely transform the way that they move through and interact with the world around them.

Since the last blog post Essie and I have been very busy teaching Learn to Ride classes.  We have held classes or series of classes at five different organizations (Sarah’s Oasis for women, Minnesota Karen Organization, Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services, and Seward Neighborhood Group) and had a total of 28 students.  Its exciting to see groups of adults determined to learn a new skill together.  At some of our classes bike library participants who already know how to ride have attended the classes to encourage their friends who are trying it out for the first time.  At other classes neighbors who don’t have bikes have come outside and asked their friends who are learning what they are doing, some of these people have joined in on classes and later signed up to get bike library bikes.  A common theme at all of our classes is laughter.  Encouraging laughter as fellow classmates fall over, and joyful laughter as people balance for the first time.

In the coming weeks we have a few more classes at the organizations listed above and then we start two series of classes that are open to the public.  One of these series will be held in Minneapolis and the other in Saint Paul.  Another piece of our project that we have coming up is a seminar to teach people how to teach people how to ride bikes!   More about the open classes and the seminar in the next post!

Rights, Wrongs, and ID

One of the things I’ve learned at Peace House over the years (and reinforced thus far this summer) is that homelessness often involves the art of surviving in very punitive public space. Folks who come to Peace House have very few rights as citizens in the eyes of the city/state. For example, one participant was ticketed for jaywalking across Franklin Avenue with no cars in sight. Homelessness often falls at the intersection of policing and racial profiling, as incidents such as this mount in the hot summer days.

Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about rights: do we have any? This has understandably involved many conversations about over-policing, but we’ve also used this as a jumping-off point to the voter ID conversation. Another ticketable offense in Minneapolis is, incredibly enough, not having ID on your person when in public space. Conversations in the community have definitely led to a consensus that this regulation disproportionately affects people experiencing homelessness, as the address on the ID must be current to avoid a ticket.

Hence, voter ID can be seen as an extension of surveillance that over-polices homelessness in Minnesota; as mentioned previously in many places, people who move around a lot or have no fixed residence will be disenfranchised should this referendum pass in November. A couple of ideas on addressing this so far have come out of Peace House conversations. One approach, which I’d call a harm-reduction approach, calls for doing our level best to make sure that all Peace House members have IDs, regardless of the outcome in November. Another approach is more political in nature and focuses on mobilizing our “constituency” to get out and vote in November, while agitating that others do the same. My role at this point is bringing these approaches together; to this end, I’ll be bringing an educator from the MN secretary of state’s office to PH in late July to participate in a meditation on the nitty-gritty of voting while homeless and how to best fight the amendment.

Next week, I’ll be off to the east coast for a trip that will hopefully involve visiting some like-minded organizations in New York and Philadelphia, and will conclude with the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in DC, where I hope voter ID will be a hot topic (and if it isn’t I’ll make it one!). I hate to end this post on a grim note, but it’s important to remember how much voter ID is part of a national attempt to disenfranchise people experiencing homelessness, poverty, and transitions in general, which includes college students. See it and weep!



Happy 4th of July, and remember how far we have to go!

Certificates, Village Visits & of course… more Maps!

The course is finally over and we are graduating a class of 18 with certificates from the Universidad Mayor de San Simon. Though the final flurry of grading and testing was stressful, the sight of the students proudly claiming their certificates and the enthusiasm of our partners in the emergency flight service was well worth the long hours. After several weeks of 12 to 14 hour days putting together the course, I am pleased to have a little more time to dedicate to the other elements of the project.

The other pieces of the puzzle are falling into place as well, as we make plans for another course in August, and finalize many parts of the documentation system and maps. Meeting with a local cartographer who works with SAR Bolivia opens new doors for collaborations in the future. After several weeks of work with the pilots, we have finished a flight planning system that incorporates all of their flight strip data into Google Earth and allow changes to sync between the various pilots and myself. They are really pleased with the system, and excited to learn more about ArcGIS, a demo version of which is installed in the computer in the hangar that was purchased with Live It funds. I have also finished mapping government data on health centers and population centers, which in combination with the Mano a Mano landing strips is allowing the pilots to find the most rapid and efficient way to reach their patients. As the data from the service is collected using the new flight record system, I will continue to help produce maps that allow for retrospective analysis of the service and epidemiology of the region, hopefully continuing my work with Mano a Mano and A Tu Lado into the future.

Before take off, flying to the San Lorenzo with a toddler, his mother, and the Catholic sister who runs the alternative health center in town.

Finally, I also had the opportunity to ride along on a flight to see one of the communities in the Amazon region. San Lorenzo is one of the largest towns the flight service visits regularly, since it actually has a government health center with a doctor, making it a primary referral point. Patients from surrounding communities often come in with critical health issues which are recognized by the medical staff, and a branch of a Cochabamba Catholic sisterhood works with Mano a Mano to fund flights and find free health care for the patients who are almost universally uninsured and impoverished. On the hour long flight I am sharing the back of the tiny plane with a woman whose toddler just had a tumor on his cervical spine removed, a missionary who is paying for the flight, and several large sacks of onions. The town is 5 hours by road from the nearest city during the dry season, but after the rainy season is takes approximately 4 days on horseback to reach the next nearest town. We touchdown on a muddy grass runway, skidding for a few seconds in the tropical heat.

I had hoped to talk with members of the community who might be interested in attending a first responder course in the future. However as things worked out I fell into conversation with one of the Catholic sisters who has worked with the community for 8 years. They have started an alternative healing center (including traditional Amazon healing practices from the region). After a brief conversation about her work, I shared A Tu Lado’s vision for the Emergency Medical System in the region. As well as having paramedics on the flight service, we hope to create a network of local responders, a type of community health worker trained in basic emergency medicine who would act as the first link in the chain of survival. As well as providing basic health care, these community members would be the designated link with Mano a Mano Aviation, checking on the state of the runway, reporting on weather, and identifying emergencies and developing health issues. Although we had originally planned to teach the first responder course at the same time as the paramedic course, the resources were not available to realize this vision this summer. A silver lining in the delaying of the course is that I was able to go and actually see some of the situation on the ground and speak with local health workers, deepening our knowledge of the reason and allowing us to plan a more pertinent first responder course in the future.

From speaking to the nurses at the clinic, it became apparent that some local efforts were already underway that A Tu Lado and Mano a Mano might be able to collaborate with. Nurses have been training community health workers, albeit in a sporadic fashion, for the past several years, although efforts have died off in the last year. The health workers were enthusiastic about the idea of equipping community members in the remote villages with health knowledge and resources in order to provide grassroots medical care where currently no organized system exists. They also proposed various innovative ideas of how to manage logistical elements of the course, and indicated their strong interest in receiving further training themselves, as well as collaborating in any classes for community members. Informal conversations with a few community members at the runway indicated that there is a high level of interest in emergency medicine, which is perceived as a real need in an area where trauma from animals and machinery, as well as medical and obstetric emergencies are common occurrences. With hordes of new ideas and potential collaborations swimming inside my head, I climb back into the plane headed for Cochabamba. Reflecting on our new knowledge with the pilots and my team members, it looks like there is a lot of work left to be done in the area, but a lot of potential as well. My time here in Bolivia is almost done however, so I will be dedicating my last few days primarily to wrapping up the loose ends of this project and making plans for the future.