Seitu’s mark is all over Minneapolis and St. Paul in the form of murals, sculpture, and street furniture, but also in a legacy of partnerships and teaching. For decades he ran a boat building operation for urban youth and launched the results on the Mississippi River. He was an artist in residence at the Minneapolis Department of Public Works and won the commission to create installations along the new light rail line, with poems written by Soyini. He mentors young artists, like Roger Cummings ‘09, who has become a collaborator. In this essay, adapted from the keynote address, Seitu will tell you himself about the Half Mile Long Table.
When Sally Young introduced Seitu Jones '02 and Soyini Guyton for their keynote lecture to the Loeb 50th Reunion audience, she called them a living example of working in community, collaborating, and doing work that brings joy to oneself and others. Their devotion is for treasuring, nurturing, and stewarding the natural environment as well as the arts and culture environment.
We don’t spend enough time using that four letter word love.
This is about our love story and the passion that comes with it—mine and Soyini Guyton’s, my wife and collaborative partner. My work has always been grounded in community, from early mural projects, working with emerging artists, and in the schools, helping children discover a way to describe the world. I built pocket parks in underserved communities and worked closely with neighborhoods to develop a vision to best represent our history and aspirations.
I have a longstanding passion for collard greens, which shows up over and over in my work: I’m struck by their three-dimensional sculptural shapes, and I’ve used them as an entry point to discuss African American cuisine and culture. I’ve created shrines in Houston, Lewiston, Grand Rapids, and Omaha. This interest in greens has helped guide me, Soyini, and our neighbors to design a hyper-local food system in the form of an urban farm.
Frogtown Farm is meant to enrich the world by cultivating soil and community. We chose the word cultivating because of its many meanings: cultivating the land, obviously, but also cultivating relationships. We didn’t call ourselves community activists, but we had lived jointly in Frogtown for some 200 years, and we recognized the general lack of amenities and decided to do something about it.
Frogtown is rich in the heritage of its residents, with Cambodian, Thai, Laotian, Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese, African, and Mexican roots. It’s also one of the most under-resourced neighborhoods in Saint Paul, with the least amount of green space and tree canopy coverage. It was a food desert. We felt, why shouldn’t inhabitants of Frogtown have what other neighborhoods have?
The farm is located on the third highest site in Saint Paul with a spectacular view of the domes of the Capitol and the Cathedral. This choice property was owned by a foundation that had moved its headquarters and left it vacant for about 8 years. Developers wanted to build condominiums, and the Salvation Army wanted to build something there, but the community always pushed back. We wanted to preserve those precious 12 acres for something different.
Fortunately for us, the 2008 real estate crash played into what we needed to do. We went to meet with the foundation president, which took some audacity—we had no money; all we had were dreams. Things really started moving when we partnered with the Trust for Public Land, and through funding from the state, the city, and many local funders, we were able to purchase that land. After that came five years of planning, including lots and lots of community conversations. We really wanted that robust conversation with the community. If you have been involved in community efforts you know that sometimes the conversations are overly robust. Nevertheless, we learned a lot.
The design was framed through the eyes of artists.
It’s a five-acre farm in the middle of a park on a hill, a place of sanctuary that offers peace, solace, and beauty. There are no straight lines at all. We had to implement stormwater management techniques to hold on to the water, because the first season the soil just went straight down. As we were standing on the sidewalk with soil washing across our feet, that’s when I really felt like a farmer, watching money go down the drain.
To contain the erosion, we designed a Berman’s well. We approached this as if we were sculpting the earth, and using permaculture techniques, we placed fruit-bearing plants on top of those rows. Now we have cherries, plums, peaches, and apples, and we grow aronia berries that we sell to a local restaurant for some earned income.
We distribute food to the community, typically about a ton of fruits and vegetables each season, but one season we had 5 tons of produce, 85 percent of which was given away.
The beauty of Frogtown Farm is it’s really open, and as with the soil erosion, that shows how naive and idealistic we were. We wanted to be welcoming and not have barriers, but that is a real challenge. At farms all over the country, all over the world, we hear that people are taking the produce, sometimes to eat, but sometimes it’s just vandalism. We have to design some kind of barrier—we’re not going to call them fences—but something artistic and beautiful, because that’s what the community deserves.
There are other ways things have evolved and changed since we began. We were deliberate when we decided it would be a communal farm and not a place where the plots were assigned to individuals, again so everyone could feel welcome. However, this past year we have designated one field of raised beds for individual plots.
We are also very much aware of our responsibility for land stewardship and regeneration, and we talk about the farm in a broader way that includes climate change, which we know most adversely impacts communities of color. Initially, when we thought about growing all this food and feeding the community, our internal calculations said we can’t get to that scale, but we can teach people how to do it.
Not everyone wants to come to a community farm. I like my own little garden in the back with nobody there but me. Because of the importance of knowing how to grow our own food, we are at people’s homes teaching them how to put in their own garden, from seed selection on. Nothing is more disempowering than not to have enough food, to be hungry and not know what to do. We can teach people what to do about that with love.
A food study done about a decade ago showed that many people don’t know how to cook, shop, or grow food. Our resident chef, Michelle Cunningham, leads nutrition conversations and classes in food preparation, where she shows how to cook whole ingredients. We received a grant from the National Football League—believe it or not—during the Super Bowl year to build an outdoor kitchen and train folks to use it. We use this as a tool for organizing. There’s nothing more tantalizing than the smell of fresh bread to drag folks up the hill.
There are other activities, and the sliding hill. I mentioned the hours upon hours of community meetings to help shape this, and one of the things that neighbors said over and over (and over) was, “Don’t mess with the sliding hill.” It’s a Minnesota thing. We’ve had a drum group in residency, yoga classes, and even have tool sharpening; all these are to get folks thinking about how we can begin to control our local food system.
We want to put the culture back in agriculture.
The Half Mile Long Table
A while back we came up with another initiative to feed Frogtown, which we called Create the Community Meal. We liked the word Create because it had EAT, ATE, and ACT in it. We spent two years organizing the community for a half mile long table along Victoria Street. The idea was to get people together and break down unconscious barriers. We went to people’s backyards and their kitchens to explain it and get them on board. We saw the culminating Community Meal as a chance to begin an over-the-table conversation about our local food system.
We worked with local farmers and we commissioned artists. Our neighbor Mary Hark, an internationally recognized paper maker, used the invasive local weed burdock and the help of neighborhood kids to create 2000 placemats.
The Meal was not overtly about equity, but everyone was at the same level—there were no early ticket sales, no VIP sections. People really treasured the homemade mats and took them home. When we made all the ceramic bowls for another Meal we did in Grand Rapids, it was the same. It’s another part of our ethos, wanting to give a gift as well as an experience.
I’ve been cooking all over. When I was a Loeb Fellow, I hadn’t completed my bachelor’s. I went back, got the credits I needed, got my master’s degree, and taught for 10 years in an MFA program. When I retired, I thought about going to design school for a PhD, but I ended up enrolling in a local community college culinary arts program to get a baking certificate. I have been baking using that little wood fired oven at the farm and doing food events like those in Nashville, Indianapolis, and Omaha.
We’re getting to the end and I want to talk about love again and where all this comes from. When I was a boy, my aunt used to call me Little George Washington Carver, and I bristled: I wasn’t like that old, baldheaded man. Yet here I am, that old, bald-headed man. She recognized my interest in nature. I look at photos of my grandmother’s house in Saint Paul, and there’s me in the backyard farm. A lot of folks don’t know that George Washington Carver was studying to be an artist when one of his art teachers said, “All you do is paint plants; you should study botany.” The rest is history: one of our greatest agronomists and scientists blended art and nature.
The impetus for the work we do also comes from the philosophy of the 10 Point Program of the Black Panther Party. Every city with a Black Panthers chapter had a free meal program, and at one time, they were serving 10,000 kids across the country. That kind of love embarrassed the Nixon administration to begin a free breakfast program.
In her last will and testament. Mary McLeod Bethune, an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and the only African American woman in the US delegation to the UN charter committee, said, “I leave you love.” And that’s where we leave you.
Martin Luther King talked about love, but love with power. He said love without power is anemic, and power without love is painful and destructive, so you have to have them both. And while I probably won’t be here when we celebrate the Loeb’s 100thanniversary, some of you will be, and that’s the thing that we want you all to remember as we go on for the next 50 years to restore what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.