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Photo by John Klyce Minervini

It's a sunny day in Frayser, and 16-year-old Zia Higgins is about to take her first bite of raw okra.

"It's weird," she says, rolling it around in her hand. "It's kind of furry."

She's not wrong. The okra has a funny shape, and the fuzzy texture does not immediately scream "food." But Higgins takes a bite anyway, and pretty soon the other girls follow suit. It's crunchy and surprisingly sweet — and disappearing fast.

"Y'all better stop now," Higgins warns through a mouth full of okra, "or we won't have any left to sell."

Higgins is one of six high school students employed at the Girls Inc. Youth Farm. Over the next year, she will be paid $7.25 per hour to build and run a sustainable food business. Naturally, that means planting, thinning, fertilizing, weeding, and trellising. But it also involves financial planning, marketing to restaurants, and selling produce at the farmers market.

The point, director Miles Tamboli says, is to raise up a generation of social entrepreneurs in North Memphis.

"Opportunities for young, black women in this city have been limited," Tamboli observes. "I want to show them that they have the civic experience, the critical thinking skills, and the discipline they need to do whatever they want with their lives."

Each day begins at 8 a.m., when the girls warm up with a series of yoga stretches. From there, they go on a "farm walk": a trek around the 9.5-acre campus to see what needs doing. Today that means harvesting tomatoes, zucchini, and okra. It also means locating a treacherous hornworm that has been terrorizing the tomato plants.

While they search for the offending caterpillar, the girls sing "My Way" by rapper Fetty Wap.

They're an inspiring bunch: energetic, hard-working, and whip-smart. But Tamboli is right. Many have not been given the opportunities they need to succeed.

"At school, they don't care about us," says Nikeishia Davis, a rising senior at MLK College Preparatory School. "But Mister Miles [Tamboli] cares about us. I learned more here in two months than I learn in a whole semester at school."

The Girls Inc. Youth Farm came into being through a series of happy accidents. The first is the land, which was gifted to Girls, Inc. by the Assisi Foundation in 2003. The plan was to build a new headquarters, but the funding fell through.

The second happenstance is Tamboli himself. He graduated from Tulane with a degree in public health, then interned at an organic youth farm in New Orleans. The experience, he says, was transformative, and he dreamed of recreating it in Memphis, his hometown.

"I saw a creative solution to so many social ills," remembers Tamboli. "It was not about pamphlets or awareness campaigns. It was about producing something real. Growing food with young people has an impact on so many different parts of their lives."

Back in Frayser, Destiny Woody has spotted the hornworm. It's three inches long and plump, about the size of a middle finger, but it's nearly impossible to spot, on account of being the exact same shade of green as the tomato plants. At Tamboli's urging, Woody snips it in half with a pair of garden shears, and a bunch of green goop squirts out. "Ew!" the farmers scream.

Over the next five years, Tamboli says he wants to make Girls Inc. Youth Farm self-sustaining. In the long run, he'd also like to sell 80 percent of his produce within Frayser.

"We want to feed everybody," he says. "Not just 20,000 Midtowners who will pay $5 for a pound of tomatoes."

It isn't going to be easy. Transforming this land, which lay fallow for 20 years, will involve countless hours of hard work in scorching heat. It also means working side-by-side with millions of insects, including 500,000 honeybees from the farm's nine hives.

But the biggest transformation here isn't agricultural — it's in the lives of these young women. Having been planted and watered, they are now beginning to bloom.

"I'm out there at the farmers market, stocking, doing inventory," Nikeishia Davis says. "And I'm thinking, one day, I'm gonna be my own boss."

Source: http://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/okrapreneurs/Content?oid=4025064

You can call it girls versus Goliath. The nonprofit group Girls Inc. wants to stop an expansion of a landfill near the group's organic farm located in North Memphis.

Teenage girls who work the farm are afraid the landfill will hurt their crops, which are grown without chemicals and pesticides.

"That's harmful (and) all of our plants would probably die,” the girls told FOX13.

Girls Inc. farm manager Miles Tamboli echoed the sentiment and added further concerns.

"This is in the middle of a neighborhood,” Tamboli said. “There is an organic farm right here. There is an elementary school across the street.”

Brenda Solomito Basar represents the Memphis Wrecking Company, who are the owners of the landfill. She tells us they need to expand because the company has an important client with construction waste to dump.

"They have a contract with the city of Memphis for construction debris,” Basar said. “The city and others have a battle on their hands with blight."

FOX 13 examined the documents the company submitted to the County Land Control Board. Memphis Wrecking promised to include environmental safeguards, improved security and changes to landscaping at the site after hearing about criticism from people in the neighborhood.

"Give them assurances it will not pollute their ground water. It will not affect their quality of life. It is a temporary use, although necessary, and we hope to accommodate them in every way,” Basar said.

It will be a tough sell, because Girls Inc. says organic and a landfill can't coexist.

"I don't think there is anything they can do to offset (the fact that) there will be a landfill across the street,” Tamboli said.

FOX13 went to City Councilman Berlin Boyd, who represents Frayser, to get his thoughts on the situation. He told us he agrees with Girls Inc., and 500 constituents have told him to put a stop to the landfill expansion because it is near homes, within 455 feet of an elementary school and would hurt their property values.

"I am going to fight it left and right on at council and go to the land use control board to speak against it,” Boyd said.

And regarding the Memphis Wrecking Company's claim of needing to expand their site because they've nearly run out of dumping space, Boyd voiced a strong opinion.

"I propose we take that contract away and find another company who can haul our debris.”

Source: http://www.myfoxmemphis.com/story/29346085/memphis-organic-group-looks-to-compact-landfill-expansion

You can call it girls versus Goliath. The nonprofit group Girls Inc. wants to stop an expansion of a landfill near the group's organic farm located in North Memphis.

Teenage girls who work the farm are afraid the landfill will hurt their crops, which are grown without chemicals and pesticides.

"That's harmful (and) all of our plants would probably die,” the girls told FOX13.

Girls Inc. farm manager Miles Tamboli echoed the sentiment and added further concerns.

"This is in the middle of a neighborhood,” Tamboli said. “There is an organic farm right here. There is an elementary school across the street.”  

Brenda Solomito Basar represents the Memphis Wrecking Company, who are the owners of the landfill.  She tells us they need to expand because the company has an important client with construction waste to dump.

"They have a contract with the city of Memphis for construction debris,” Basar said. “The city and others have a battle on their hands with blight."

FOX 13 examined the documents the company submitted to the County Land Control Board. Memphis Wrecking promised to include environmental safeguards, improved security and changes to landscaping at the site after hearing about criticism from people in the neighborhood.

"Give them assurances it will not pollute their ground water. It will not affect their quality of life. It is a temporary use, although necessary, and we hope to accommodate them in every way,” Basar said.

It will be a tough sell, because Girls Inc. says organic and a landfill can't coexist.

"I don't think there is anything they can do to offset (the fact that) there will be a landfill across the street,” Tamboli said.

FOX13 went to City Councilman Berlin Boyd, who represents Frayser, to get his thoughts on the situation. He told us he agrees with Girls Inc., and 500 constituents have told him to put a stop to the landfill expansion because it is near homes, within 455 feet of an elementary school and would hurt their property values.

"I am going to fight it left and right on at council and go to the land use control board to speak against it,” Boyd said.

And regarding the Memphis Wrecking Company's claim of needing to expand their site because they've nearly run out of dumping space, Boyd voiced a strong opinion.

"I propose we take that contract away and find another company who can haul our debris.”

 

Source: http://www.myfoxmemphis.com/story/29346085/memphis-organic-group-looks-to-compact-landfill-expansion

Several weeks ago I was asked to help facilitate a Girls University workshop at the Brooks Museum of Art. This was my first time volunteering with the Girls, Inc. organization and like so often happens when we give of ourselves, we get much more in return.

The two-part workshop was centered around the temporary exhibition "Looking at Women." The exhibition explored some of the ways women have been represented in art (including the role of goddess, mother, femme fatale, etc.) By looking at a wide range of examples we were able to examine differing and evolving viewpoints. During the two sessions participants explored the role of women in art, society, and culture. Using examples from the exhibition and museum's permanent collection, they communicated their reactions and reflections through discussions, journaling and sketching. It was especially interesting for me to see and hear how young women (with no art background) interpreted the work.

This has been part of a larger journey for me to find meaning, to contribute in some way to the greater good and my community. Admittedly, my first instinct is to promote, volunteer, and donate to animal shelters and charities but was a cause deserving of an exception.

The Girls, Inc. organization "aims to empower all girls to be strong, smart, and bold". . . a worthy goal if I've ever heard one. Through a wide variety of programing (ranging from Google's Made with Code to workshops in visual and performing arts to an introduction to organic farming and local chefs using the "farm to table" concept) Girls University works to promote the Girls, Inc organization's mission to empower all girls. If you're interested in Girls, Inc or the Girls University Program, I encourage you to learn more and become involved in whatever way works for you.

Source: http://www.samanthasherry.com/blog/2015/3/19/looking-at-women-with-girls-inc

Testimonials

I was very shy and didn’t speak to anyone or interact with others much. I love to read, have natural hair, have been called weird. I came to Girls Inc. and because I was accepted the way I am, I came out of my shell. I tried new things, I have found my voice. - Rahni


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