Jim Guckert is bending over a patch of dirt on the 700 block of Eighth St. SE. Two young men are kneeling close by, watching and taking instruction.
“Keep it even with the ground,“ instructs Guckert, as he deftly slides a rose bush into a prepared hole. “But if you can’t do that,” he continues, “it’s better to plant higher than lower.”
They pack soil and manure around the roses, and as one of the young men stands, he grows reflective. “In the future, people are going to walk by and I’m going to think, I planted that,” says 24-year-old Whyte Dawles.
The planting is a collaboration between volunteer-based organization Guerrilla Gardeners and Sasha Bruce Youthworks (SBY, 741 Eighth St. SE), a nonprofit working to prevent and end youth homelessness in the DC Region.
The arrangement is part of a continuing effort to beautify the southern end of Barracks Row, but both Guerrilla Gardeners and the volunteers are hoping the work experience can provide them with so much more. They’re looking for the experience they need to make a fresh start.
Taking a Chance
That’s the whole goal, said Guckert, the founder of Guerrilla Gardeners of Washington DC, which improves public spaces, particularly neglected parcels in underserved communities. He reached out to organizations along Barracks Row to see if there was interest in purchasing rose bushes, mulch, soil and manure and having the roses planted in the tree boxes that line the street.
When Guckert and his team knocked on the door of SBY they found a partner instead of a client. In addition to taking Guerrilla Gardeners up on the offer to beautify the space in front of the building, SBY Program Manager Pam Lieber also suggested that the two organizations partner together to do the work.
“I thought it would just be a great opportunity for some of our young people to learn and be a part of the community, so I approached Jim,” she said. Young people interested in getting involved with the project could take the opportunity to build experience, learn some new skills, build a resume and also invest in their neighborhood, she thought.
So many of the youth Sasha Bruce works with are looking for jobs. They don’t always have the strongest work histories, but they really want to work, Liebert said. Sasha Bruce prepares young people to get them work ready, but the organization is always looking for more employment opportunities for youth.
“We really just need somebody who’s going to take a chance with someone they might not ordinarily take a chance with,” said Lieber.
Guerrilla Gardeners is taking that chance, and 24-year-old Makeem McNair is seizing the opportunity. When he learned of the opportunity through SBY, he immediately volunteered.
Realizing he was dealing with some difficult times, he said, he had come to Sasha Bruce because he heard they had a good program.
“They help you get back where you need to be, so I took that chance, and came,” he said. “And ever since then, they’ve helped me.”
A father of two children aged 5 and 2, McNair wants to try to better himself, and he sees gardening as a potential career. He learned the basics through a program at school, he said, and he’s ready to learn more. “It could be a great career and I want to try new things,” he explains. “I don’t mind trying new things out.”
Participants will plant roses along the street, but also help Guerrilla Gardeners maintain the boxes, which Guckert says will require significant upkeep. The young people will take ownership of not only the garden boxes, but of the street, Guckert said, “and really become a stronger part of this community.”
The partnership with SBY is similar to an internship project Guerrilla Gardeners ran with Potomac Gardens Apartments. The two banded together to improve the nearby parks, and then used a grant from DC Awesome Foundation to engage youth to help improve and maintain the parks. Youth were offered a stipend to keep furniture clean and do yard work. Aquarius Vann-Charsi, then president of the Potomac Gardens Tenant Council, helped Guckert mobilize volunteers and has since taken on the responsibility of programming the park, hosting story times, DJs and a Kwanza celebration.
Guckert said the response was overwhelmingly positive. “Everyone who came said, ‘We just couldn’t imagine that you would do that here,’ because we changed the spaces and activated them with some positive programs. So we’re planting seeds. You never know what the upside is going to be.”
At Potomac Gardens, Guckert said, the partnership was able to bring attention to the community, its youth and the job they were doing. It also brought positive attention to some of the interns working in the park.
“First District Commission Tasha Bryan fell in love with one of our kids,” Guckert remembers, “and [she] said, ‘I want him for the academy.’ He’s only going into ninth grade! She’s like ‘Ya, but I’ve got my eye on him.’”
The project resulted in a good interaction with police that could affect the young man’s future path, Guckert explained. “These are all part of the process of building a community and we’re hoping that these young people blossom into leaders of their community,” he said.
Now, Sasha Bruce and Guerrilla Gardeners are hoping that young men like Dawles will spread that same spirit of growth and leadership.
Guckert hopes the Barracks Row beautification project can attract financial support so that Guerrilla Gardeners and Sasha Bruce can offer an internship along with a stipend.
“There is opportunity for young people to get some job experience, practical real-world experience,” Guckert said.
Getting Their Hands Dirty
That’s what Whyte Dawles is hoping for. He likes the idea of a career in construction or landscaping.
Dawles first came to Sasha Bruce as a 13-year-old kid, after he “got in trouble a little bit.” He was sent to Sasha Bruce. A lot has happened in the 11 years since then, he said, some of it not-so-great.
“I’ve had a lot of stuff happen in my life; I like, got stuck,” he said. “But thanks to Sasha Bruce it’s helping me move on and keep going.”
Through Sasha Bruce, he got some work with Dreaming Out Loud, which creates economic opportunities within marginalized communities by building a healthy, equitable food system. When Guerrilla Gardeners offered Dawles a chance, he thought that since he had some experience in a garden, he wouldn’t be starting from nothing..
Dawles acknowledges that there is symbolism in that he is using his knowledge acquired through the efforts of Sasha Bruce to plant a growing thing at the entrance. But he also just likes getting his hands dirty. “I like getting my hands dirty. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he explained. “I just like the earth. I don’t know what it is, I just love the earth.”
You can help!
If you have employment opportunities or donations in kind or of funding, reach out to Sasha Bruce online at www.sashabruce.org or call 202.675.9340. Do you want to provide financial support for the internship? Reach out to Guerrilla Gardeners (guerrillagardenersdc.org) online.