Melissa Harris-Perry: It's TheTakeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. No matter what time you're listening to me you can be sure that I have been up for hours because I have chickens. Good morning ladies. Oh, nobody's up. Too dark. Here we go. Come on. When my family and I moved to North Carolina in 2014 I got the bug for backyard farming chickens, ducks and yes, I've been eyeing bees and geese as well. Bees don't tell James perhaps it's because agriculture is the leading industry in North Carolina.
I'm sure it's because of growing a little of my family's food and sourcing our own eggs is a small step toward sustainability. It turns out that having and sharing fresh eggs is also a great way to build community with your neighbors. Of course, I was excited to learn about a new social justice and sustainability initiative right here in North Carolina. Growing Change uses sustainable practices to produce vegetables and raise livestock and the land where they do it is a closed and abandoned prison site in Scotland County. Now rather than being a place where the community is locked away, Growing Change has transformed the land into a place to grow food and develop young leaders. I spoke with Noran Sanford.
Noran Sanford: I'm Executive Director and founder of Growing Change.
Melissa: And with Jaheim McRae.
Jaheim McRae: The third class youth leader of Growing Change.
Noran: Growing Change began as a pilot program working with young people in Scotland, Robeson County, Hoke County, region in North Carolina. We're a rural section of North Carolina on the North-South Carolina border. We began working with young men who were kicked out of home, kicked out of school, and put on probation at age 14 or below starting in 2011. We combined a program using community gardening as a service-learning component combined with a cognitive-behavioral approach. We worked with those young folks for five years, tracking the program in an effort to keep folks out of our adult prison system.
That's how we began back in 2011 with the intention of moving on to a closed prison here in Scotland county in an effort to not only see how we could reuse this old work camp prison but also advance national solution of what to do with the 300 closed prisons in the US.
Melissa: Jaheim, do you think of yourself as a farmer or a gardener?
Jaheim: It is funny that you asked that. When I first joined the Growing Change I had no idea about anything related to agriculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, keeping of cattle. I had no idea about any of it. To your question in short, no I do not consider myself a farmer however I do enjoy learning about new things and taking on different challenges. I definitely would say this is a challenge that I took on that I grew very fond of.
Melissa: Those words agriculture and hydroponics rolled right off your tongue like, oh, maybe I didn't use to be an expert in them but I suspect you know a lot more now. Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Growing Change? How'd you get engaged and involved with it?
Jaheim: Actually it's a pretty funny story. As Noran said when Growing Change first started it was a program that helped youth who were troubled to find a positive place to take those negativities and flip them into something positive. The way that I got involved back in 2016 I was actually a victim to gun violence. That was my troubled factor that led me to getting into Growing Change. The very first thing that I did with Growing Change was I was a zombie actor in a haunted prison tour. That was pretty amazing to partake in.
Melissa: I have so many questions. Noran, maybe [unintelligible 00:04:57] to come to you on this. A zombie actor in a haunted prison tour. What are y'all doing over there Growing Change?
Noran: Here's the short answer. Our grand opening we worked with the county sheriff, EMS, and county leadership and we opened up a haunted prison tour on the site and we had about 2,500 folks come through that we were able to educate about the closed prisons and history of work camp prisons in North Carolina.
Melissa: Noran, you seem to have a real capacity for-- We're going to call it outside the box even as much as I no longer like that phrase but certainly outside the box thinking. Tell me about the box that is old prison sites and how you're thinking about those and then Jaheim I am coming back around to you.
Noran: We probably don't think about this in the US very often the idea of closed prisons but as I said there are literally 300 closed prisons if you look at Jared William's work out of University of Michigan. Closed prisons, decommissioned prisons, nobody on them. Properties that are just wasting at this point. In North Carolina it is easy for us not to think about this history but if you've driven anywhere today in our state of North Carolina you've been part of this history because North Carolina used more forced prison labor than any other state in the nation to build its road system.
By the '70s we had more prisons than any other state and we locked up more of our population per ratio than any other state in the nation. That's a history that really hasn't been talked about or unpacked in North Carolina. We decided that we need to answer the new question of what to do with old prisons. The only way to do that respectfully is to build a leadership team of people who were directly impacted. We began working with young people who were deep in the system and then by Jaheim's class after our clinical pilot five-year program was over, the youth had to come in from one point in the struggle.
They are the leadership team that helps us make the decisions of what properly to do with this site and how to lift it up as a national example.
Melissa: Jaheim it sounds here like you're actually part of a group that is making decisions. How have you all been thinking about the kinds of decisions to make about these former sites?
Jaheim: We get our ideas from things that happen in our community, in our surrounding counties. A lot of the things that we do we make sure we try to keep in mind the youth that are around us that will be locally impacted on the different things that we do. For example, we are actually working to start our first college chapter. I'm currently a freshman here at North Carolina Agricultural Technical State University.
Melissa: Yes, Aggie pride.
Jaheim: Yes ma'am. We are actually working to get a college chapter of Growing Change started here at the university. This would be just one of the first of many chapters on universities that we plan to open up. That's just something that I'm able to start helping to construct personally here on campus. Just different things like that trying to get Growing Change spread across the nation through this global pandemic that we are having challenges. Getting our name across through.
Melissa: Noran, let me ask a real basic question when you say a former prison site and then you say we're going to grow some food, I want to know did you test the soil? I'm a little worried about the tomato that comes from a space that may have been built on land that after all was likely land that may have had toxic chemicals or there may have been lead paint. I'm just wondering how you all think about the realities of environmental injustice in prisons and how that then translates to environmental-- The attempt to go sustainable on the other side with what you're doing now.
Noran: Absolutely. That's a great question. As we work to put together the modules that we will be giving away the prison flip toolkit actually working with North Carolina and [unintelligible 00:09:54] university. Our first chapter is about assessment and remediation and so before we had any [unintelligible 00:10:05] on the ground at the farm, we wrote and secured EPA grants to do a full assessment of the site.
There are sections of that site that we will never be growing food in because of the concerns that you've raised, that we've been able to identify to the EPA on the evaluation.
Now, those sites can become nature trails, they can become adventure courses, but they cannot be used for food. One of the first opportunities is to understand the remediation plan as we turn these brownfields into green fields. What we mean by that is out of an act of environmental justice, we're reclaiming these spaces to be able to turn them into environmental assets for the community.
Melissa: Noran, my last question for you is, for you, what constitutes success? How do you measure it? Maybe one way to ask is in 10 years, Noran how will you know if you have succeeded in this effort?
Noran: I'd say there's three phases. It was before, so that five-year longitudinal program, we were 92% effective in preventing young people from ending up in a terminal incarceration or death by [unintelligible 00:11:33] That was then, now it is how do we properly empower our youth leaders in our community, we receive support, not only from North Carolina NC but also from North Carolina state, and MIT's design program as well. How do we properly deploy, and then in the future, we're resisting the idea of scaling but instead, we want this to be a replicable model.
What we mean by that is putting together that prison flip toolkit, we're going to send it out through our National Cooperative Extension Program. We're working with Cooperative Extension faculty like Dr. Michelle Ely at North Carolina A&T State University, in order to make that the toolkit that will be then be made available to every county and parish through the extension program in the country.
Melissa: Jaheim, I do want to end with you. I asked Noran, how he will know in five years if the program is a success but when I asked this Jaheim for you clearly, you had this experience, which I'm so sorry about of trauma around gun violence, but I hear your enthusiasm, your excitement, your intellect, your capacity and so I'm wondering for you in five years Jaheim what's going to feel like success in your life?
Jaheim: To answer that question, in five years, I would just have been a graduate of North Carolina A&T so honestly, as I said earlier we're working to start a college chapter of Growing Change here on campus. To me that there will be a very successful moment for me being able to be a part of the foundation of that chapter and being able to see, how well, the chapter here on campus will be able to grow, as well as seeing different chapters at other universities. We also have a third-class youth leader who attends North Carolina State University so maybe we could even possibly start a chapter there.
North Carolina state is also one of the partnering universities that we work with so being able to start chapters with universities or other partners who helped us from the beginning and allow them to continue to work alongside all of the great things that Growing Change plan on doing in the future.
Melissa: Jaheim McRae and Noran Sanford, the only homework I have for the two of you is make sure when the weather warms up a little bit, give me a call I'm going to drive down from Winston-Salem. I have got to see this place.
Noran: You will be welcome at any time.
Melissa: Absolutely. Thank you so much, both of you for joining The Takeaway.
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