Malcolm McDowell Woods

Growing Hope, Growing Change, Growing Power

By - Jul 1st, 2009 12:01 am

gp36Change is on the wind. Literally. America has just ushered in a new president dedicated to empowering the country through grassroots efforts and winning his campaign with the tag words, “Hope and Change.” Renewable energy is at the forefront of the nation’s mind as we battle a devastated economy and begin to rebuild global relationships. The biggest hope for the new climate in the way Americans will do things, both as consumers and entrepreneurs, is to be found in the green sector. Milwaukee, believe it or not, is not just leading the nation in change but also is quickly becoming a global green capital.

Our future leaders will not be folks in suits, but farmers. Change is not taking place in the boardroom, but on the land… where the food movement is empowering people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Some speak English as a second language, are Hmong or Latino. Others live well under the radar as Mennonites and Amish.


Will Allen

Much of Milwaukee’s claim to green glory is because of the efforts of urban farmer, Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power. Allen has spent the last 16 years developing his business as an organic farmer, dedicated to growing and providing healthy food to low income areas. He passionately teaches and encourages sustainability to communities all around the world, and in so doing is fighting economic racism.

Watching Allen move around his urban farm at 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive, you can see how he is able to accomplish this mighty feat, everyone is important to him: every visitor, staff member, or small child. All are addressed and included. Though he is on a hectic schedule of national and international travel, he pauses and takes the time to engage everyone in a meaningful way. His philosophy is simple, yet profound and contagious: people matter most.

At, the vision statement reads: “inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.” In the past six or seven years, Allen estimates they have touched at least 1000 organizations, both local and abroad. Allen has consulted on an international platform; in Kenya with the NGOs, for Heifer Project International and for The Institute of Sustainable Communities in Ukraine. Allen is in Europe again this summer, where he frequently consults with the State Department. This time, he will address the Hague World Urban Agriculture Symposium, and lend his muscle to the movement for farming in London’s Hyde Park. In Rotterdam, Allen will look at new greenhouse technology with underground heating systems which draw hot air into storage during the summer and release it during the winter.

Last September, Allen received a $500,000 “genius grant” award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In May of this year, he received a $400,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to create sustainable farming jobs in the Detroit area for destitute urban communities hit the worst by the recession. Allen explains that factory farming and the big machinery/technology mentality destroyed more than a million farming jobs in just a few short decades. He says:

“The new agriculture creates thousands of jobs with a standard that is above excellent. We call our food “beyond organic” because it is way better than the USDA standards. Many of the farmers in my organization aren’t even USDA certified because they believe the system is too watered-down. This is a huge movement, grown from the ground up. It is multi-cultural and multi-generational. We are launching an attack on the current food system and restructuring it. By growing food in our own communities we reduce our carbon footprint. But a big part of what we do is educating people to think differently.”


Activity inside one of Growing Power’s greenhouses.

One of the biggest challenges Growing Power faces is converting contaminated soil in available urban land plots into healthy soil. Allen explained they solicit compost donations from the community and combine them with worm boxes, or vermicomposting practices to produce rich and fertile soil. Operations have expanded into Chicago with Allen’s daughter Erika at the helm. Growing Power has a garden in Caprini Green and urban farms in Grant and Jackson Park. A 40-acre Boys and Girls farm/camp in Merton helps train their Youth Corps.

Growing Power also started Rainbow Farmers Cooperative which includes 300 small family farmers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida. The RFC members receive cash on delivery for their products so they can immediately reinvest in their businesses, enjoy marketing through the Growing Power web site, have access to restaurants and wholesalers and are provided with cooler storage space. And of course, Growing Power is there for these farmers in many educational capacities, leading workshops and training seminars, assisting with grant-writing, project-planning, transportation and composting.

Not stopping there, Growing Power also hosts the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative which works to dismantle racism by bringing change agents together to affect social changes through these practices. Their mission states:

The GFJAI is a new initiative aimed at dismantling racism and empowering low-income and communities of color through sustainable and local agriculture. This comprehensive network views dismantling racism as a core principal which brings together social change agents from diverse sectors working to bring about new, healthy and sustainable food systems and supporting and building multicultural leadership in impoverished communities throughout the world.

The group’s 2nd annual conference is this October at State Fair Park. Go to for info.

These implications are exciting when one thinks about what Allen calls the ground-up changes which are coming in urban areas. First Nations people are also very driven to be a crucial part of the growing green industry from reservations.

In 2008, Executive Director of Honor the Earth, Winona LaDuke, authored a …’food sovereignty” handbook called Launching a Green Economy for Brown People. She makes a good case for developing wind and solar power on Native lands, which happen to be predominantly located in the country’s windiest states. LaDuke says national studies estimate that reservations could produce one-fourth to one third of the presently installed electric demand. This means about 400,000 domestic manufacturing jobs in wind power alone. In 2006, the American Solar Energy Society projected that renewable energy and energy efficiency projects saw about $970 billion in revenues and 8.5 million jobs, and these numbers will only grow. This would create a job market which could bring the security and self-sufficiency these sovereign nations have been hoping for, for so long.

Sustainability isn’t the only reason to return to traditional farming. These practices will also reverse the epidemic of rampant diabetes that plagues Indian populations. Recent studies have linked reservation diets of processed foods to this disease and the highest mortality rates in the nation. La Duke writes:

“In the upcoming years, we hope to facilitate the creation of Green Jobs for Brown People Initiative… that will prepare our communities to participate in a central way in the next economy. This strategy will include job training, funding for efficiency and retrofitting and support for renewable energy and local agriculture. It will involve reservation, urban Indigenous communities and communities of color working in partnership with businesses, unions, institutions and the general public.” Visit for more information.

Government gets onboard

Milwaukee city government is also trying to take action in much the same way. In 2008, the US Department of Energy designated Milwaukee as one of the 25 cities in the country to become a solar city. Under the City Office of Environmental Sustainability, Milwaukee Shines has launched an education campaign to bring about awareness and to train electricians to install solar power. Project Manager Andrea Luecke says we are already in the process of converting to renewable energy. Steps are being made to retrofit many of our old, inefficient buildings with new windows, equipment, boilers, and even light bulbs. Currently, a project to outfit the downtown Milwaukee County Library with a green roof and solar power is underway. Luecke says Milwaukee Shines is committed to training installers as well as providing hands-on experience. In so doing, they are hoping to create a market and demand for solar energy.

Green Alderman, Tony Zielinski, of district 14, is spearheading the future growth of the city. Zielinski is working to get an ordinance through where all new construction would be required to feature solar water systems. He says it is crucial for us to become independent of fossil fuels and this dependency is what has caused this economic recession. He is trying to create in Bay View a “New Urbanism” where everyone is within walking distance to retail and recreation, where one can live in a community and not need a car. He hopes the light rail train system will be installed in the city in the next few years.

Most excitingly, plans are in process to build a green residential community on the corner of Lincoln and Bay streets, an abandoned US army base. The project is called Eco-Bay and Zielinski is confident it can break ground next year.

The development is to be energy sustainable, only using energy it creates itself. It will be the first community of its kind in the state. Zielinski believes once people get word of its fiscal feasibility, Eco-Bay can act as a great marketing strategy for future green building. The alderman gets excited when he speaks about this.

“People can convert their homes old or new to solar power and more than pay for themselves,” he says. “They can get paid to do it. The faster we promote renewable energy the better the economy will grow.”

We Energies offers workshops in how consumers can convert their homes. And can send a consultant to your home for $99 to help you make greener choices. Milwaukee is part of the green revolution. Be proud and proactive about who you are.

–by Shannon Sloan-Spice

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