Will Allen embarked on a journey to establish a sustainable, urban farm on Milwaukee’s north side in 1993. Twenty-five years later, the legacy of his now closed nonprofit, Growing Power, will find a home at the UWM Libraries.
Growing Power’s relationship with UWM started years ago with Fred Binkowski in the School of Freshwater Sciences and Growing Power’s aquaponics program. But, it took an important step forward in 2011 when Allen pitched an idea for a collaborative partnership to the university – a partnership that came to fruition as the Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition.
Growing Power, the Milwaukee Food Council, the City of Milwaukee and six universities, including UWM, united to form the institute. Using an interdisciplinary approach to agriculture, incorporating aspects of health, economics, biochemistry and social justice, the institute sought to establish Milwaukee as a national leader in sustainable food system technology, nutrition promotion and urban agriculture practices. UWM remained a driving force behind the institute until budget issues left the university unable to contribute funding.
“Sadly, once that happened, our other university partners indicated that they couldn’t provide the heavy lifting that UWM had been doing,’” said Bonnie Halvorsen, the founding executive director of the institute and current manager of UWM’s intercampus farm partnerships. As a result, the institute closed less than a year after it opened.
Picking up the reins
In the wake of both the institute and Growing Power closing, UWM and the Milwaukee School of Engineering have picked up the reins. Along with Halvorsen, MSOE Associate Professor Mike Carriere – a member of the institute’s board of directors – organized volunteers to maintain the institute’s vision. Part of that vision includes archiving Growing Power’s history.
“Nonprofit organizations, because they are usually caught up in of-the-moment concerns, often pay little heed to institutional memory,” said Carriere, an urban historian. “The main push with this project has been to make sure (Growing Power’s) history does not disappear.”
The archives will not hold any financial or legal records, but the sheer volume of intellectual capital that could be archived is staggering. Boxed documents filled a semitrailer on the Growing Power lot. Carriere and MSOE students sifted through them all, sending everything worth saving to UWM for online cataloging and permanent storage at the Golda Meir Library.
The materials uncovered in the process included congratulatory letters for Allen’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” documentary films and programming and agriculture records. There are also records of correspondence with former first lady Michelle Obama about her food and health initiatives such as Let’s Move. Allen was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2010; a boxful of copies of that magazine was unearthed in the trailer as well.
Exhibition in January 2019
The first exhibition of archived material will take place in January 2019. Carriere and the MSOE students worked on archiving the materials this time around, but Halvorsen hopes UWM students will be able to become involved with an archiving experience of their own in the future.
When the archives are cataloged online through Golda Meir Library, Growing Power’s legacy will have found a home that makes its history available to students and academics, not just in Milwaukee but around the world.
“People are going to be wondering about this Growing Power that was here for 25 years,” Halvorsen said of the archives’ potential value. “This amazing former pro basketball player turned corporateturned farmer who worked in poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee. I think people are going to be wanting to research (Allen’s) work for a long time.”
Meanwhile, Allen has since opened a new venture at the former Growing Power site on Silver Spring Drive. The endeavor continues Allen’s vision of urban agriculture and revives Growing Power’s original name – Will Allen’s Roadside Farms & Markets.