August 20, 2018|By Kelsi Eccles
A notable characteristic of Atlanta—and one that I know first-hand—is the presence of a thriving African-American population and middle class. I grew up in Southwest Atlanta with generational roots in Fourth Ward, two inner-city neighborhoods near downtown Atlanta. As a young black girl with a passion for the environment, I was raised with the awareness that many people in my community aren’t connected in the same way to their environment. Even in a city where black mayors have been in office since 1974, people from my community are still disproportionally affected by the lingering legacy of racism and inequality that is evident in the environmental and social vulnerabilities we experience.  

8 20 18 BPW RainPhotos 2016 11 30 Erik FyfeChronic flooding can be an issue in many disadvantaged neighborhoods. Here at the future home of Boone Park West,  natural greenspace will be utilized as a way to reduce polluted stormwater flooding that greatly impacts these communities. Photo by Eric Fyfe.

I joined The Conservation Fund because I wanted to help promote environmental benefits to minority communities and build the capacity of community groups through the Parks with Purpose program. This work is important to me because it intertwines two ideologies that traditionally have not been placed under the same umbrella; environmentalism and urban development. I’ve learned about green infrastructure and equitable development, primarily from community members who have been invited to a traditionally non-inclusive table. 

There are many benefits to the inclusive, community-centric model The Conservation Fund has adopted. Thanks to support from The JPB Foundation, the Parks with Purpose program has expanded a model where we work with the local community to identify, protect and restore parkland that creates safer places for children to play and families to gather. We also demonstrate how these natural areas can support the revitalization of their neighborhoods by filtering and absorbing storm water, providing access to healthy food, and creating green jobs.

8 20 18 BPW Labeled RenderingsLabeled renderings of the plan for Boone Park West. 

The Parks with Purpose projects in Atlanta have leveraged a partnership with Greening Youth Foundation’s (GYF) Urban Youth Corp program to train and employ local residents of color during the construction phase. This program focuses on people who have dealt with the challenges of growing up in these marginalized communities, and the training they receive helps Youth Corps members to expand their skill sets and increases their employment opportunities. 

Our partnership with GYF ensures an open door for all who want to enter the environmental field and provides a lasting impact for the community post-construction. The importance of building parks in marginalized neighborhoods begins with community input to identify a problem prior to development, and ends with ensuring that community members receive the job training needed to build better futures once the park is open.

I recently had the privilege of meeting two former Urban Youth Corp members (and fellow Atlanta natives) who worked on projects with the Fund’s Parks with Purpose program. Ashley Hicks, a 29-year-old from the Thomasville Heights neighborhood, was the only woman to work on the Browns Mill Food Forest team. Roderick Wadell, a 28-year-old who grew up on Oliver Street, was part of the team that helped build Lindsay Street Park. I wanted to find out about their experience with GYF and how it has helped shape their perspectives and communities.

How did you hear about this opportunity and what made you decide to try it out?

Ashley: I was doing work through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and HABESHA, Inc., and my supervisor introduced me to Atiba Jones with GYF when my job was ending. While building the Food Forest, our Youth Corps team became a little family. We all cared about each other and what we were building for our community. I was the only woman working on this team, and sometimes the guys would joke around, but I never took them seriously because I could do everything better than them… and they knew it! 

8 20 18 Ashley and crewAshley (left) and the other Greening Youth Foundation crew members who helped build the Browns Mill Food Forest. Photo by Khari Diop.

Roderick: I was in a program called Integrity, with Westside Works. But when I heard about the Lindsay Street Park project, I decided I wanted to be involved because it was right in my neighborhood. It’s the first youth-built playground and we did well. 
8 20 18 LindsayStreet Atlanta Georgia WhitneyFlanagan080Roderick Wadell on site during construction of Lindsay Street Park. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

What are your future goals?

Ashley: Ever since I started this type of work, I don’t see myself doing anything else. I know I want my own urban sustainable farm. I want to find a way to spread the word and help people understand healthy living, especially in the black community. I met so many people from working with HABESHA and GYF and it helped put me in a better place. 

I like working on green infrastructure projects and I’m looking for work in that field. I also would be open to going into tree care, which offers good money and long-term options. Since I’ve been here, I’ve received numerous certifications in different fields so if I ever was to leave GYF, I could get a job in pretty much any field from masonry to landscaping, construction, urban conservation, or green infrastructure. I know that by staying in this field and working hard, I’m building a better future for myself.

8 20 18 LindsayStreet Atlanta Georgia WhitneyFlanagan110Roderick Wadell working to clear the ground during construction of Lindsay Street Park. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.
How do your family and friends view your experience with GYF?

They’re proud of me. They see the purpose in this work because it’s necessary to know how to grow your own food, to recycle; to have clean air. Our environment is important, and this work has helped us all appreciate it more.

I teach my family everything I learn and that’s the biggest thing. Now my kids know about using their hands and growing their own food, so they want to eat healthy too. My son loves it and is a hard worker, so he’ll grab a shovel and get it done. My oldest daughter is 8 years old and she loves to plant and grow food. Even my mom says if her job doesn’t work out, she’s coming to work with me!

8 20 18 AshleyandkidsAshley Hicks and her two daughters on site at the Browns Mill Food Forest. Just four miles south of Atlanta’s city center, the 7.1-acre Food Forest property was once a small family farm that helped nourish the local community, but had been abandoned and neglected for many years. Working with residents and a variety of stakeholders, we have developed a community-driven concept plan that includes building community garden beds, planting a fruit and nut orchard, herb gardens, walking trails, and gathering spaces.

 What’s been the most rewarding thing to come from this?

Ashley: I gained so much knowledge! We went to conferences and learned different things and met different people. Before the program was finished, I already had another job based on what I had learned with GYF. And I’m involved with my community now in a way I wasn’t before.

Roderick: Even now when I walk by Lindsay Street Park and see little children playing on the playground, it is such a good feeling. We didn’t grow up with parks and playgrounds in our community, and I’m glad I helped build one for the kids who live there now.

Uhaul blog 3Local children enjoying the playground during Lindsay Street Park’s official opening on October 21, 2015. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

Find Out More

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Lindsay Street Park Is A Park With Purpose by Shannon Lee
Improving Human Lives One Move at a Time, One Park at a Time by Michelle Sullivan
The Power of Partnerships and Parks by Michael Halicki and Shannon Lee