Ask Michael Chaney about his work, and he has the answer in a poem.
North Minneapolis is going green / Give us a call and learn what we mean
Where once lie urban blight / Now sits luscious garden sites
Gardens without borders / Classrooms without walls
Architects of our own destinies Access to food, Justice for all.
He’s the father of Project Sweetie Pie, a nonprofit devoted to “seed community agricultural businesses,” as its website puts it, “and ultimately a Food Corridor with 500+ livable wage jobs within walking distance from home.” They turn empty lots into gardens where good stuff grows — including sweet potatoes, of course. How did this start?
A former TV news cameraman (he lugged the big equipment out to remotes and piloted floor cameras around the Fox 29 studio), Chaney says he traces his community activism back to his Milwaukee uncle, an NAACP president and banker. “ ‘Sure, you have a profession,’ he said. ‘But the civic work you do is every bit as important. To invest in the community is to invest in yourself.’ ”
While a member of a group called Afro Eco, he gave a North High educator a provocative opportunity: “If I could get the kids of north Minneapolis to grow sweet potatoes, could you buy them?”
Yes, she said. “In 2010 we started growing vegetables and sweet potatoes in the green room at North High.” Sweet potatoes are cultural icons in the African-American community, which is one of the reasons for the name. It also brings back memories, he said, of the old relative who “tweaked our cheeks and called us sweetie, and we got embarrassed and tried to sink into the ground.”
Now the things he sinks in the ground sprout up, and spread. The first year of Project Sweetie Pie they had five gardens, and now there are 10, with dozens of corporate partners like seed behemoth Burpee. “They’ve given us 10,000 packets of seeds,” said Chaney.
There are the usual challenges — money, personnel and preconceptions. “When I started, people said urban youth didn’t want to get their hands dirty.” But Chaney lays the blame squarely on the adults around them, not the kids themselves.
“We haven’t created on-ramps of opportunity for them to learn these skills,” he said.
Chaney envisions a food corridor, which he calls the Nile of the North, that has its roots in the city’s history, a Minneapolis that gave citizens the great open spaces we enjoy today.
“When they created the Grand Rounds, they made the same argument that I make now: If it hadn’t been for the vision and wisdom and courage and compassion, we, as the city of Minneapolis, would not be the envy of the nation.”
Just as the early fathers of the park system reserved the lakes for all, Chaney looks ahead to a city whose amenities serve all.
“Leadership isn’t one year or five of grant funding,” Chaney says. “If you want to make life equitable, you have to be thinking 100 years down the road.”
There’s a reason he’s known as the Johnny Appleseed of north Minneapolis. But unlike his namesake, he doesn’t plant and move on. He sticks around to tend what’s coming up.