Open Doors


He greeted us at the back entrance of the shabby, nondescript brick warehouse. It was a gray winter day.

Thirteen graduate level students began to funnel into the old space on Chicago’s Southside. None of us knew what to expect. We were nervous. We were excited.

Experience Institute was beginning a 2-day project with a group of people working in a field that none of us were well versed in: Urban Agriculture.

The man who greeted us was Derek – a tall, confident, lean man with graying hair just long enough to tie behind his head. He wasn’t very emotive; but there was enough kindness in his voice to know he was glad to see us.

The interior of the warehouse didn’t resemble its rough exterior. It was filled with bright lights, handmade wooden furniture and containers, interesting technological contraptions, and rows of luscious plants tucked into every corner.

We had been transported into another world, into Sweet Water Foundation.

Just a few weeks earlier, my colleague Aaron and I were considering how to best help Experience Institute’s year-long Fellows deepen their skills in the Design Thinking process. They’d already received an introduction at the beginning of their year in September, but now it was time to take it up a notch and source a project from a community organization during our second of four “Meetups.”

Our theme for the meetup was Community and Food, so we sent emails to our friends to find a relevant organization that could use a group of ‘consultants’ for a few days while two instructors taught the skills necessary to make an impact.

When Emmanuel Pratt replied with the information about Sweet Water, we had a good feeling. Meeting him and hearing his passion for the people and work confirmed that we found a great match.

Sweet Water Foundation teaches sustainable farming, woodworking, and agriculture, but its true mission is to build community and redevelop neighborhoods from the ground up. It brings young people and local residents in, lets them find places where they can connect, and then supports them in taking increasing responsibility and leadership. But SWF is so busy with its many projects that it hasn’t established rhythms for consistently capturing and sharing those stories.

So, we got to work.

The next two days were packed with interviews with the amazing staff, young people, and community members who surround the foundation. With each conversation, our Fellows grew more inspired by SWF and humbled by their grit and resolve. Lots of organizations talk about the importance of community building. SWF walks the walk. The staff, whether their trade is carpentry, agriculture, or cooking, spoke first of their relationship with the kids who come to Sweet Water.

The kids talk about what they’ve learned about plants and fish and nutrients. But what they all come back to is how Sweet Water feels like a family–how the adults have wrapped their arms around them (figuratively and literally).

And the neighborhoods SWF works in are far from simple. We studied the history of legalized segregation and disinvestment in communities of color and how the ongoing legacy of those political forces can still be found in everything from unemployment and underemployment, high rates of foreclosed homes from the subprime mortgage scandals, struggling schools, and heavy crime. It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of those challenges.

But Sweet Water leverages urban gardens, aquaponics and home renovation as a means to build hope and camaraderie on a daily basis.

After few days of interviews, research, and brainstorming, our fellows presented their ideas for helping Sweet Water more effectively tell these stories. Ideas ranged from a portable “Stories To Go” box that staff and youth leaders could use to interview and capture stories from visitors, to a simple method for measuring immediate impact of educational programs, to a system for engaging philanthropists, to a redesign of their website.

SWF is working on bringing some of these ideas to life. But, as is normally the case in these situations, I think the time with SWF was even more beneficial for us than it was for them. Their open door to Ei nourished us and taught us, once again, that learning and collaboration happens best when doors remain open.

Thanks to Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom for helping to write and edit this piece and the EXP4 Fellows for their thoughtfulness and hard work. And special thanks to Emmanuel Pratt, Roman Titus, and the team behind Sweet Water Foundation. We are in your corner.