In Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge, 10C Shared Space’s Urban Sustainability Activator Vicky Huang shares the incredible initiatives led by local champions of urban agriculture and funded through Harvest Impact, a project of 10C and Our Food Future’s Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge.
For our sixth installment, Vicky chats with Christine Clarke, founder of Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education Program, to learn about their groundbreaking educational program.
It was a late afternoon in mid-November when I opened Google Meet. I remember feeling excited and humbled at the same time, because wow - I was meeting the founder of Freedom Dreams! I spoke with Christine Clarke for over an hour, learning about how her vision started and where it's taken her. I'm honoured to share her story below.
The story of the Freedom Dreams Co-operative:
“After my first season farming, I realized that I didn’t want to farm alone. I wanted to farm within community, and farm with that sense of community.” - Christine Clarke, founder of the Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education Program
The Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education Program was born from Christine’s own experience as a new farmer. She is incredibly passionate about farming, and as she finished her third season, she felt that she would love it even more if her work involved more community - and she set out to build it.
Adding to her agricultural experience and expertise, Christine dove into research on community farming and read many books on the concept. One of the books was titled “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land” by Leah Penniman, a book that showed Christine that there was more to the co-operative story than she first thought. Penniman’s book takes a look at the history of Black American farmers in the United States - a crucial, but undertold story. The book shares the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who started a farm called the Freedom Farm Co-operative. This farm resonated with Christine because Fannie’s goal too was to farm within community, and she had realized that using the co-operative model.
“I thought, oh wow, co-operative farming! It holds this potential to meet some of the goals that I had - not only to farm within community, but also to empower community and to do so on the foundation of fighting for social justice.” - Christine Clarke
Co-operative farms, businesses, or organizations are "people-centred enterprises owned, controlled and run by and for their members to realise their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations." (International Co-operative Alliance) This organizational model is democratically-controlled, where each member has a voice, and where the goods and services of the co-operative benefit their members.
Indeed, to Christine, farming within community was not just farming with others, but farming in a way that empowers community. It means coming together to work the land, not only to produce food for the community to eat, but also for social justice and social change. Farming and connecting to the land in this way enables more social, economic and political power and freedom for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in a white supremacist society, in which they face systemic oppression.
So, there began the dream.
Christine had a vision to start an urban agriculture project in the form of a market garden that would teach newcomer Women of Colour how to run such a market garden founded on co-operative principles.
Driven by this vision, she got to work. After a year of planning, the lockdown happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic and her project was threatened. Her original plan of providing in-person, educational workshops couldn’t happen, and while she didn’t want to abandon the idea, it simply wasn’t feasible at that time
This was when she had heard about the GWUAC, and possibility came back to her project. She could still bring her transformative project to life - just in a different way.
“So I adapted the idea to be an online workshop series that shared knowledge about the co-operative business model from this Indigenous, Black and People of Colour perspective, which is this untold perspective. It was my goal with Freedom Dreams to tell that story, and by telling that story, connect with new farmers that might want to use the co-operative model to realize their farming dreams - particularly if they wanted to farm in community, particularly if they had social justice principles attached to why they want to grow food.” - Christine Clarke
Indeed, Christine adapted her original idea to what has now become the Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education Program, an educational space that respects COVID-19 protocols while still having the foundations of a land-based, urban agriculture project that is about co-operative farming.
“This research…didn’t end with Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m finding all these examples in the US and Canada of all the rich ways that Indigenous folks, Black folks, Asian folks, Latin folks, Latinx folks, South-East Asian folks, were contributing and building and in many ways, originating this co-operative movement - yet, that story didn’t get told. The story that gets told here is that co-ops came from Europe. And it doesn’t reflect the fact that globally, co-operatives are incredibly diverse. You find the co-op model and the related solidarity economy really ingrained in the many cultures of the Global South. Yet here in Canada, despite the diversity, it doesn’t translate.” - Christine Clarke
Christine really wanted to empower and shed light on this concept and story of BIPOC-led co-operatives. Her mother immigrated to Canada from Trinidad so the community of newcomer Women of Colour meant a lot to Christine. She knew that by sharing her learnings and expertise with a community in which much of the interest, tools, knowledge and skills already exist, incredible farms and community farming initiatives could be sprouted.
Freedom Dreams & GWUAC
Christine leveraged the funding from GWUAC to activate her project plans. It had been something she had been thinking about, in different iterations, for the past three years. It was so moving to hear that this $2000 award helped to bring her vision into reality
Below are two main purposes of the funding:
1. Honoraria to Compensate Guest Speakers
“The funding allowed me to offer honorariums to guest speakers - these are folks who have extensive and rich experience in co-operation, that come from the BIPOC community, who have so much rich insight to share, and whose time deserves to be compensated.” - Christine Clarke
To Christine, supporting the speakers and educators that she brings to her workshops is of top importance. “They’re out here doing this work, and the honorariums are important to help them continue doing this work.” Christine remarked on how many facilitators, unknowing of the grant, told her that they didn’t need an honorarium. She always insisted, saying that it was supported by the GWUAC, and her pleasure to contribute it to them to put toward whatever purpose they wanted.
“It’s the whole principle of supporting our community animators, our activists, our artists - and not just going ‘hey, could you do this for free?’” - Christine Clarke
This principle alludes to one of the 7 Co-operative Principles, “cooperation amongst co-operatives”. Christine explained that these honoraria were an example of such cooperation, because most of the speakers in turn used the honorarium not for themselves but also for their own work
2. Dynamic and Engaging Graphic Design
Another main area that the GWUAC funding went to was Freedom Dreams’ graphic design work. This was important to Christine, because having integrated, cohesive and expressive graphic design allowed her to give Freedom Dreams a visual language, upon which co-operation and an active learning community can be fostered.
“When I do the workshops…I want this to be an active learning community. One that encourages your participation, it’s not a lecture series where me and the facilitators are just talking about the topic. Because of the nature of the topic, it requires all voices to come to the table. I found that having that visual language through the graphic design does help to pull people into this idea that this is a dynamic and colourful and open space, not just text on a white screen. So it really has created that atmosphere.” - Christine Clarke
The graphic design and aesthetic that Freedom Dreams procured received a lot of great feedback. It has helped to communicate the message in a dynamic way, allowing the information to pop and the illustrations and colours to communicate her project’s values. It added visibility and attracted more people and attention to her work, and Christine is very glad about the positive reception of the graphics
The Impact of Freedom Dreams
“It actually exceeded the goal. I’ve been able to impact folks in Guelph and beyond Guelph.” - Christine Clarke
Freedom Dreams has spread from a local, Guelph-based project to one with provincial, national, and even international reach. Because the workshops have been offered online instead of in-person, it has meant that anyone can join. Christine explained that her participants have been not only local to the Guelph-Wellington area, but many are from the Greater Toronto area and even from Nova Scotia. These workshops have been attended by over 100 people, and Christine is not stopping anytime soon.
Her workshops can be found on the Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education YouTube channel. Above is the recording of her third workshop, "Nourishing Belonging".
“The reach of the project really went beyond my expectations. I’ve had some provincial and, actually, national co-operative organizations reach out and ask to use some of the content from the workshops in their educational resources.” - Christine Clarke
In addition to the direct participation within the Freedom Dreams workshops, Christine was also amazed at how many other organizations reached out to her
One example is CoopZone, a Canadian-based organization that runs a co-operative development training program and whose student body extends internationally to Peru, Madagascar, Poland, and other regions. Christine herself is a participant of their program, but she hadn’t expected the organization to reach out themselves.
“They reached out and said, “we loved your workshop, can we use some of the elements in our educational tools and resources while accrediting you?”” - Christine Clarke
Another example is the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation, who has a national network of worker co-operatives. In addition to their resources, events and network, they also run a free annual conference each year. Christine was thrilled to share with me that they featured her work at their annual national conference.
Because provincial and national organizations are sharing her work, and various of them have international reach, it’s not an understatement to say that over 500 people have either directly or indirectly engaged with Christine and her work - and there is immense and growing interest.
“That really got me excited because - that was the goal!” - Christine Clarke
Putting the “cooperative” into co-operatives
When Christine started Freedom Dreams, she had always built it on the value of cooperation, whether it meant working with other passionate folks to join and help her; working with other co-operatives to advance the co-op movement; or working with other organizations to spread the word.
“I work with other folks who are passionate about spreading the word about co-operatives, and now it’s ‘us’ instead of ‘me’.” - Christine Clarke
Cooperation also looks like working with other groups to widen her impact, and Christine works with local, provincial and national organizations to do just that. For example, she has collaborated with St. James Town Community Co-op, a resident owned-coop committed to engaging underrepresented voices within Toronto's St. James Town neighbourhood in an agriculture context bridging urban and rural agriculture; with Immigrant-Services Guelph-Wellington, another GWUAC recipient, to facilitate some workshops within their Youth Leadership Program around community gardening titled “Growing a Garden with Purpose”; and with her Freedom Dreams partner Susanna Redekop, a community animator and co-operator in Toronto who co-founded the West End Food Co-op and is the communications co-ordinator of Local Food and Farm Co-ops.
“We’ve grown a lot just through our community connections.” - Christine Clarke
Building on the collaboration that has been central to this project, Christine also shared that they are planning a visioning session for anyone who has engaged with Freedom Dreams. Community is deeply-rooted in each decision and fundamentally involved in their decision-making process.
Next Steps for the Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education Program
Expanding from above, Christine has various ideas on the future of Freedom Dreams.
“We want to grow in 2022 - and that means bringing on more collaborators and inviting folks who’ve engaged with us to give us inputs on how we can grow in ways that meet their needs. So we’re planning a visioning session in February, where we’re inviting folks who've engaged with us to just brainstorm with us. And this goes for the next steps of Freedom Dreams, we don’t just want to be a workshop series that spreads knowledge, we actually want to get into co-operative development and co-operative incubating. This isn’t a one-off project.” - Chrstine Clarke
In order to do so, Christine is actively looking for funding opportunities. Freedom Dreams has the interest, audience, engagement, reach, and planning to achieve their goals, meaning that financial support is what they need most now. The GWUAC has provided a great launching pad for them.
Additionally, Christine is hoping for the coming year's COVID-related restrictions to ease up such that she can conduct in-person workshops in addition to online ones. A hybrid model is ideal for her, so that she can build and strengthen in-person and community relationships that are fundamental to Freedom Dreams' work while offering more widely accessible online programs.
With such a passionate, motivated and connected team and mission, I am very excited to see where Christine takes Freedom Dreams and what 2022 brings for them.
Speaking to Christine Clarke and learning about the story of the Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education Program was such an empowering experience for me. I was able to understand fully what ‘working within community’ meant - not only working with them after the service or product has been developed, but inviting them into the decision-making processes as well. I learned how the Eurocentric story of co-operatives omits a globally-diverse perspective, and saw how the leadership of BIPOC communities within the co-operatives movement has so, so much to offer.
I have since attended Christine and Freedom Dreams’ third workshop titled “Nourishing Belonging: Forging Co-operation in Food and Farming” with special guest Anan Lololi, founder of the Afri-Can FoodBasket. Her and Anan’s facilitation, speaking, communication and knowledge-sharing was inspirational, well-executed and full of valuable, research and experience-backed knowledge and insight. I’m so happy that an organization like Freedom Dreams exists, because as Christine has put it, “the co-operative world needs it.”
Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series of Guelph’s newly-innovated urban agriculture projects! (Spoiler: next week, I share the story of the empowering Youth Leadership Project, "Putting Down Shoots" by Immigrant Services Guelph-Wellington!)
This is the sixth installment within the "Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge" series. All installments of this series can be found here. The fifth installment was on the Compost System Rebuild by Karen Houle and the Compost Queens of the Royal City.