2020 was a landmark year for Urban Seeds in many ways. Like the rest of the world, we were pained beyond words to see the effects of COVID-19 and systemic inequality in so many facets of our lives. Specifically, Urban Seeds saw an opportunity to answer the call in addressing inequalities in local food systems, with encouraging results. As our name recognition and community impact grew during this challenging year, we considered how we might continue to expand our reach to new individuals and groups. While we’ve been fortunate to see a diverse cross section of Evansville residents volunteer in a variety of ways, we wanted to specifically strive to hear from younger voices in our community – high school age individuals whose fresh perspectives have thus far been absent not only from our board of directors but from the Food Justice conversation in general. We envisioned a mutual benefit in which we and the teens would learn equally valuable perspectives from one another.
Our board brainstormed ways to attract a youth demographic, and a scholarship challenge seemed an obvious incentive. We tried to avoid the word “contest,” as Urban Seeds values collaboration above competition in all things; but we hoped that the scholarship offer would grab the attention of young people as a jumping-off point from which to build. How would we create a pool of applicants who shared Urban Seeds’ values? As with most decisions, we arrived at our answer after lively, dynamic board discussion. (How fortunate to be on a board where one feels energized and more enlightened after every meeting!) Community is of utmost importance to Urban Seeds – dating back to pre-civilization, food has offered not only physical nourishment, but the opportunity to gather and share. And what else was incremental to our ancestors’ mealtimes bonding around tables or campfires, through to the present day? Storytelling – the handing down of experiences, tales, and perspectives to bring generations together. Thus, the inaugural Urban Seeds Story Challenge was born.
Participants were challenged to respond to their choice of prompts – each pertaining to the effects of food/food access on individuals and communities – with an essay, video, poem, or song. Additionally, they were asked to provide two strategies that they might implement to promote awareness of food access amongst their high school peers.
Behind the scenes, Urban Seeds gathered a diverse committee to review the entries: Robin Mallery, Urban Seeds director; three board members: Serah Theuri, Associate Professor of Nutrition in the Food and Nutrition Program at USI; Jahmel Fowler, a recent Master’s of Health Administration graduate at USI; and Blythe Battram, a freelance digital storyteller specializing in videos and written materials. Rounding out our committee were Charles Sutton, Social Impact Research Manager at EVPL; and Xavia Harrington, Instructor in Teacher Education at USI.
By the submission deadline, we had six entries covering a fascinating mix of topics, experiences and ideas – just the rich variety of fresh voices for which we’d hoped! Ms. Harrington was instrumental in providing a rubric for fairly judging each of the entries on the three merits of “focus & details,” “organization,” and the author’s “voice.” We avoided judging based on spelling and grammatical rules, with the understanding that especially at a high school level, these skills are still developing and often reflect the level of support students are receiving from family and educators, rather than a true reflection of the student’s potential. Instead we wanted to see evidence of students’ ability to connect research and experiences with a connection to the community in which they live and aspire to serve. Students’ understanding of the Urban Seeds mission and vision was also considered.
Lively discussions ensued as we gave feedback on each of the entries. In the end, we had a clear winner based on the rubric scoring, but we remained impressed with all the students and many of their strategies for promoting awareness. While only one student could receive the scholarship, the decision was unanimous to extend an invitation to each of the six participants to attend board meetings and become involved in Urban Seeds in a broader way, with the support of our Board of Directors.
We look forward to announcing our scholarship recipient and publishing the essay in our newsletter on February 5th. We also plan to recognize each applicant within their school, and publicly, as we invite them to explore whether they wish to continue to grow with Urban Seeds. We are so grateful to these young people, our committee and board members, and all in the community who supported this first of our Annual Story Challenge. Look forward to seeing more of these future leaders and their ideas soon! We can’t wait to see what they bring to the Urban Seeds table – and of course we can’t wait for our second Story Challenge next year!