Birgitte’s book beautifully weaves together the elements of a visionary and how those elements are more and more interconnected with everything else the deeper you look. I grew up on the Upper East Side and stood in many revolving doors watching the stark diaspora of people from every different income level pass by, completely detached from one another as if traversing different dimensions. Through these experiences I have come to believe that the real task of a visionary is to find ways to bridge these gaps, to break down social barriers and enable everyone to understand how interconnected we all truly are, and how much more powerful we are together. This book shows how deeply connected we are on a biological, chemical, spiritual, and social level, and the stories within the narrative provide a small spotlight on some of us who have found ways to step outside of our comfort zones to create visions larger than than ourselves.
“Our Story of Now”
We were born out of the social unrest of North Philly’s blighted landscapes and the rip tides that segregate Temple University from its surrounding communities. Despite coming from so many different backgrounds, our core leaders were unified by a vision to bridge this gap, and to bring food and social justice to our neighborhood at the grassroots level.
In 2009, our original founders came together through a series of service-learning trips to New Orleans that included students from both Temple and North Philly schools. This odd assortment of agitated youth spent two weeks living, breathing, cooking, crying, laughing, growing, and working together, alongside residents of the Lower 9th Ward to convert vacant land into urban farms. We were inspired by the faith and resilience of these survivors, and by their gritty bottom-up approach to community building. We decided to take this model back home and apply what we had learned to Philadelphia.
As individuals became a team, and our team grew into a family, we created the Urban Creators with the mission of pooling together a diverse network of change agents to address issues of blight, cyclical poverty, food insecurity, and inequality from the ground up.
We spent our first year organizing door-to-door in our local community to identify the issues and needs of our neighbors, and gauge their interest and ideas for change. From those conversations came the concept to transform a vacant lot into a farm in order to remediate blight, create food security, and give kids a safe space to spend their extracurricular time. In 2011, we gained access to a two-acre plot of land to begin laying the foundation for our vision. We called this land “Life Do Grow,” and spent the next two years clearing away the trash from this garbage dump and sowing the first seeds of our movement to remediate the polluted soils of injustice in North Philadelphia.
We soon realized that our emerging model was having a real impact on the people around us, and that more people needed to learn these skills and frameworks to apply to their own communities. So, we created an educational program.
Then, we realized that people needed infrastructure to grow their own food and sustain themselves. So, we created an infrastructure development program.
And finally, we realized that a core component to healthy and cohesive communities is housing. So, we have crated an intentional housing program designed to integrate socially driven tenants into our communities to build social cohesion, capital, and connectivity.
Today, we provide dozens of local families with access to fresh, affordable produce, and operate a produce and value-added distribution business to financially sustain our operation. We engage hundreds of students every year in hands-on training in our farms and gardens, empowering them with skills, resources, analysis, and networks to cultivate their own visions for social change and become leaders of urban innovation in their own communities. We have been contracted to develop six gardens and three greenhouses in Philly and New York. And now, we are beginning to experiment with replicating our model in other cities across the nation.
As Milllenials, we spend our days in urban communities teaching youth about sustainability, healthy living, and entrepreneurship, and are growing a generation of young community organizers, farmers, storytellers, and creators from the ground up.
Because we all come from such different backgrounds, we are able to tackle problems by drawing from a wide range of perspectives and vantage points. Our differences compliment one another and enhance our collective ability to envision holistic solutions the issues we encounter.
It is this innate diversity of our team that makes us who we are. The Urban Creators exists as the manifested intersection of our individual “Stories of Self,”
a culmination of the wide diaspora of backgrounds, experiences, skills, networks, ideas, quarks, scars, and passions that we each bring to the collective as our interwoven social fabric makes up the tapestry of our unified identity.
We are dream catchers and change makers; storytellers and dot connectors; urban explorers and farmers; movement builders and innovators. We cultivate knowledge, skills, and local resources to take the health of our communities into our own hands while igniting a unified generation of passionate change agents to actualize their visions in their own communities. We are not only forward in our thinking, but proactive in our pursuits of life, happiness, health, and creativity. We are not here merely for ourselves. We extend our safety nets from as far away as our origins all the way to our horizons, as a group and as individuals. We know how to positively change lives and communities, and have fun while doing it.
~ Alex, Denzel, Devon, Golden, Jeaninne, and Troi
, Outreach & Resource Coordinator
aka "The Social Justice Hustler"
Alex Epstein is the social justice hustler and visionary that has made it possible for thousands of middle class white kids to integrate with low income communities of color in New York, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, and build diversified movements for justice. Born on the border between New York's Upper East Side and East Harlem, Alex grew up witnessing the pervasive nature and adaptability of racism and segregation in America. After participating in a service-learning trip to New Orleans in 2006 and working with community organizers in the Lower Ninth Ward, Alex became determined to build bridges between segregated communities and fight systemic inequalities of all kinds. In 2008, he and many of his friends co-founded the New York 2 New Orleans coalition in order to bring New York City high school students to New Orleans to support the initiatives of local organizers, and return home ready to address racism in their own city.
In 2009, he moved to North Philadelphia to attend Temple University, but was warned never to leave the campus because the surrounding neighborhoods were “too dirty and dangerous.” Alex found this disconnect extremely disturbing and ventured out into the community to discover the truth for himself. Along the way, he met Denzel, Devon, Jeaninne at a poetry show, and so many incredible local people who, despite coming from drastically different backgrounds, shared many values and visions for social change. Together this group decided to co-found the Philadelphia Urban Creators.
Alex is also classically and “jazzically” trained in piano, and "played the sh!^ out of a cello in Carnegie hall" when he was 8 years old.
, Site Manager
aka "Mr. Charisma"
Denzel Thompson is the community youth ambassador of the Philly Urban Creators. Born and raised by his mother and grandmother on the corner of Franklyn and Susquahanna in the heart of North Central Philly, Denzel grew up surrounded by the systemic markers of cyclical inner city American poverty. Despite being surrounded by abandoned homes, vacant lots, drug dealing, and gang violence all his life, Denzel was able to keep himself away from the gravitational pull of the street. He did, however, grow up suffering from extreme depression, anxiety, and as a young teen weighed over 300 lbs. When he was 13, he felt lost; unaccepted at home, an outcast at school, and alone in his neighborhood. This led to a nervous breakdown at the age of 13, and Denzel dropped out of school.
In 2009, however, while attending an after-school program, he met some of the future co-founders of Urban Creators and decided to sign up for the trip to New Orleans. This trip got Denzel out of his neighborhood for the first time, exposed him to new ways of thinking, eating, and communicating, and provided him with a framework to express himself and his concerns about his community. It was during that trip that Denzel took his last anti-depressant medication, and has never looked back.
Denzel has since returned to Philly as a natural leader. He has devoted the past five years of his life to building Urban Creators and managing the Life Do Grow Farm. He serves as a role model and mentor to many of his peers, and has lost over 120 lbs along the way. Because of his unique character and charisma, Denzel has been recognized nationally for his work with Urban Creators as a Teen Nickelodeon HALO Award Winner, and was honored during the 2014 BET Awards… and he’s still only 19!
In his spare time, Denzel also works as a life guard at a community pool, and is completing his GED so he can go to Temple University. The self-proclaimed “clumsy comedian” of the Urban Creator clan, he ensures that no struggle we endure goes without at least a brief moment of humor and fun.
, Site & Development Manager
aka "The Mad Scientist"
Devon is the muscle, the engine, and the foundation of our Urban Creator clan. A life -long resident of North Philly, he is a master carpenter who can do “everything under the sun except for electric," and has integrated his skills and networks within the community into Urban Creators' evolving operations. His grandfather, Ike, owned an auto body shop on the corner of 11th & Dakota where Dev spent much of his childhood learning the “old fashioned ways of fixing and building things” under Ike’s wing.
On a brisk February evening in 2011, Devon encountered two odd characters dropping what seemed to be trash on the lot across the street from his home. He had seen these two (Alex & Jeaninne) there once or twice before, and had taken some of the lumber that they left behind to add into Ike’s wood burning stove to heat the shop. One day, he decided to confront the two, questioning whether they were “dumping in his neighborhood.” The two complaind that they were just dropping off supplies and scrap wood to “build a farm in the hood,” but that some guy had been stealing all their stuff. Devon admitted that he was the one who had been taking their supplies, and warned them to be aware of how they carry themselves in his community.
For the next several months, Devon and his grandfather sat outside the building watching as this weird group of kids started cleaning up the lot piece by piece, silently mocking them, confident that they would eventually run out of energy and quit their project like “every other non profit or city program had done that comes in and out of the neighborhood tryin’ to change the way things are.” One day, he saw the group attempting to build a raised bed, but had no idea how to use their power drill. Devon decided to lend a hand, and showed them how to build the bed the right way.
From then on, Devon continued to pitch in, gradually becoming more and more involved with the group, its mission, and its daily operations. Today, Devon is our Site & Development Manager. He is the mad scientist behind all of our designs, our guardian in the “hood.” When Devon first encountered the group, he was suffering from the loss of his wife, and was deeply embedded in the street culture and selling drugs as a way of coping and surviving. “PUC saved me,” he sais. “I had asked God to send me a new group of friends, and he gave me more than I ever asked for. He gave me a new family. And this family gave me a new purpose.”
Today, Ike is sadly no longer with us, but Devon has inherited his shop which now serves as his home and the Urban Creators office/workshop, and on just about any morning at 8am you can catch Devon sitting out front of the shop right where his grandfather used to sit, proudly proclaiming “I'm an Urban Farmer. This property has been in my family for 40 years, and I plan to keep it for at least another 40 until I pass this all down to my son. I’ve seen this thing turn from absolutely nothing into what it is now. Every community should have one of these.”
aka "The Bodhisattva Trailblazer"
Golden has been the spirit that has grounded Urban Creators. Defending the principles of health, wellness & self-development, particularly amongst marginalized populations, is one of her primary interests. As a student of Temple University's Recreation Therapy program, she has devoted years to working with various underserved and segregated individuals from children with disabilities and conduct disorders to adults with mental health ailments and elders with dementias. Her belief is that each person should be granted the autonomy to fulfill their divine purpose during their lifetime on earth.
Throughout her career, Golden has utilized the method of healing through nature by outdoor experiential learning and activities. She is certified in low and high ropes course facilitation and instills self-awareness, confidence, healthy decisionmaking and risk taking, social interaction and feeling of community within her participants through adventure-based modalities. She is committed to restoring each person's quality of life through integration and involvement of each individual within their community, passionately combating the norm of alternative placements and prescription dependencies employed by traditional "health" models and systems.
Golden has developed Warrior Healing Grounds in partnership with our Holistic Education program and Birthing Warriors to aid in the healing of our communities. Birthing Warriors is Golden's own initiative into birth work as a Doula trained by DONA (Doulas of North America) and DTI (Doula Trainings International). Golden is known for her commitment to nurturing and empowering the repressed and those stuck in institutionalized medical services, so that they may learn to heal themselves as well as the planet, and receive recognition for their accomplishments.
, Education & Marketing Manager
aka "The Professional Dream Catcher"
Jeaninne Betu Kayembe is a dynamic visual artist, poet, revolutionary, and professional Dream Catcher. Born in South Central Los Angeles, Jeaninne’s journey began in 2006 on the eve of a massive riot at her high school, when she signed up for the Brave New Voices Youth Poetry festival in New York City. She spent several months traveling across the country to represent her hometown as a youth slam poet, an experience that shifted her whole world as she broke down walls of insecurity and unknown purpose in search of her dreams. North Philadelphia eventually became the rooting ground for those dreams as Jeaninne co-founded a community where her talents and creativity could change the world. That community eventually blossomed into the Urban Creators.
Most recently, Jeaninne brought together her poetry, art, and movement building to successfully curate the first annual Hoodstock festival with Brave New Voices at PUC’s farm on July 19, 2014, which has now brought Urban Creators into the forefront of the national youth development and sustainability movement.
, Movement Specialist & Value Added Product Manager
aka "The Mover & Shaker"
Troi Lauren is our Mover and Shaker. Born in North Philly and a graduate of Rutgers University, Troi is a professional dancer, movement specialist, and 2013's US cultural ambassador for dance. Singer, dancer, model, farmer, she lives her life striving for self love because she knows the only way we can help others is by helping ourselves. She focuses on intentional creativity, the therapy of movement, and the medicine of song as our Movement Specialist and Value Added Product Manager.
Troi’s passion for movement is contagious. As her love for horticulture has grown, Troi has begun to develop a strikingly intimate relationship with our crops. Her vibrancy fills the air whenever she is around, and the people and plants around her take notice. Her impact on our flora and community are unmistakable. Whether she's on the farm singing and dancing with the plants, or on stage with the spotlight on her, Troi moves with grace and intention, and moves everything around her.