During the initial shutdown due to the pandemic, the peer volunteers were helping women stay connected to the Women’s Centre through connections phone calls, but the Centre itself was very quiet. On a particularly slow day, some volunteers wandered into the Centre’s side yard and became inspired to create a community garden. Since then they have been spending many hours transforming the space into a vibrant oasis full of life after the long winter. We caught up with Joanna, one of the volunteers leading this project, to discuss what this initiative means for women and volunteers, and why it is such an ideal fit for the Women’s Centre.
Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you came to be connected with the Women’s Centre:
My name is Joanna and I am a peer support volunteer at the Women’s Centre. I began volunteering at the Women’s Centre of Calgary late last fall as part of the Christmas Toy Room program. I shifted to peer support early this year and loved the work we do, and the connections we make with one another.
Previously, I was living in Victoria for 10 years, where you really cannot beat the climate for year-round gardening, the rental prices became prohibitive, so I came back to Calgary in 2019. I am now living in a wonderful community on a corner with a lot of green space.
Tell us how this garden project at the Centre came about
All of this began when I spoke to the Centre’s social connections coordinator, Mickey, who asked me a bit about my story. I told her about my background academically as an eco-critic (broadly
speaking, someone who looks at constructions of nature and the environment in art and culture), and my background as a professional gardener in B.C. I had a knack for gardening and enjoyed the work and connections it provided.
When Mickey showed me the Women’s Centre side yard and proposed we get growing with our amazing volunteer force, I signed up on the spot! We have secured generous donations of seeds as well as some plants, soil, compost, lumber, and even a professional carpenter’s time and labour to build our beautifully constructed veggie bed. The dedication and community solidarity at the Centre is really inspiring and extraordinary.
Why do you think this project is a good fit at the Centre
Gardens are important spaces for personal connections, and working alongside one another to sustain ourselves and our community in a variety of ways is what the Centre is all about. We also have dedicated staff to help us distribute our produce to our community through our basic needs program.
I have been thinking about how to develop and structure a gardening program for a community of women and girls for awhile, but it is very hard to set one up without a stable and secure location and infrastructure to support it. Gardening alone can be a barrier for some women, but our lovely and safe women’s only space at the Centre is ideal.
Our areas of work at the Centre are so well suited to horticultural work. Connect with Others, Work for Change, and Get Assistance, are all intuitive, natural areas that gardening targets. I have a special interest in incorporating our Indigenous Reconciliation work into the work we are doing in the space because I believe this is a rich, important initiative for our community. Then there is the Girls Program, and of course our learning program — there is no shortage of ways we can green our community, our organization, and the spaces we call home and the relationships we foster there.
What do you hope to see for the future of gardening at the Centre?
We have big plans for this area of development at the Centre so that all women are included if they wish to join us. Gardening can be, but does not have to be, dependant on access to land, which is influenced by a variety of factors, including class and economics. I have not always had access to gardening space (even some community gardens have wait lists that can be years long!), but a model like this one allows participation that is independent of where you live and whether or not you rent or own property. I know my access to a garden drastically changed my quality of life when I moved back to Calgary and my mental health and connection to the people and places that make up our community dramatically shifted in the short time I have been back.
I would love to see us incorporate dedicated bed space for our girls programs and would love to learn from them, and also to share the knowledge we have
with them. Also widening our offerings to include various vegetables and herbs that may not be widely grown or available in Alberta, but are part of the cultural food-ways of our amazing community would be incredible!
Other areas of development may include using our harvest to make some of our personal care items, perhaps in a workshop setting. Cleaning supplies, teas, tinctures, salves, face, and body care products are important parts of a good life, and need not be expensive to be beautiful and effective. If we can get our hands on a distiller, we could try making our own essential oils! Since we have access to a spacious kitchen at the Women’s Centre, it would be great to cook what we have grown together.
There are announcements that will come once we have finalized details. It’s safe to say that this is only the beginning and we are well set up for this project to continue for next season already. Stay tuned for more announcements as we go green here at the Centre.