This Grower’s Spotlight features our long-time colleague and friend, Rayden Sorock.  Last month, Rayden wrapped up 12 years of working for Grow Pittsburgh, most recently as our Director of Community Projects.  Over these many years, he’s been a vital part of the community garden movement in Pittsburgh and is a wealth of knowledge.  We asked him to reflect on his time working with community gardens. Read on to learn more about Rayden and his experience working with residents across Allegheny County to bolster food sovereignty and people power.

GP: Tell us about yourself. How did you get started gardening?

Rayden: I am 37 and I didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh, but now I’ve been in Pittsburgh longer than anywhere else I’ve been so it feels like home. I was born in New Jersey and grew up mostly in Massachusetts, so I’m coming from a colder climate and I miss the snow in Massachusetts. I think we always had a little bit of a garden in the places where I lived. Mostly I just really liked being outside and climbing trees and riding bikes and exploring. That’s mostly where you could find me as a kid.

I came to Pittsburgh right after graduating college and I was looking for work on farms. I found Blackberry Meadows farm in Natrona Heights. That was my first time doing really intensive growing. Living and working there and eating with all of them was really special. Then because they were so plugged into the community around here, that’s how it led to every other job that I got here. A lot of people asked me whether I went to school to do this stuff, and I have a Literature degree. So kind of no, but it opened my mind up to be able to do a lot of other things that led to starting at Grow Pittsburgh back in 2012 at the community garden coordinator level doing on-the-ground stuff.. 

GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?

Rayden: I love growing okra for the flowers and how it seems like it’s growing slowly for a long time and then all of a sudden it’s taller than me. Over the years, I’ve grown less and less different kinds of vegetables, because I just want to eat cherry tomatoes and kale and maybe some peppers, everything else is kind of extra. But I’ve been interested more in trees and shrubs and other kinds of edible things like that, that are more perennial lately. It’s been really fun.

GP: How have you seen community gardens change in Pittsburgh since you started in 2012?

Rayden: My experience with gardens then was so focused on the day-to-day of the gardens themselves. In a lot of ways, I don’t think that they’ve changed that much. The actual sites still feel like these locations in a neighborhood where people are trying to make their communities as best as they can be with what they have. It’s so rare to have public space in communities where the neighbors themselves are taking care of it. That stands out for a lot of these community garden spaces, and I feel like they’re still doing that. 

I think what’s really changed is that they were kind of seen as maybe frivolous or kind of not a huge deal. The understanding of what they can do over time has changed a lot. People are now seeing them as part of the fabric of a larger urban agriculture community and food network. So that’s been cool to see over time. Also how community gardens and green spaces are connected to larger conversations around land use, housing, green space, access to land property, that kind of stuff. 

GP: What has been your favorite initiative at GP that you have been a part of? 

Rayden: We had this community garden guide on the website that was pretty basic on how to start a garden and it was only five pages. We took that and turned it into our How to Start a Community Garden class in 2015 and tried to pack in all the different aspects of it in this one full-day thing. Then it evolved over a few years, I presented it at a conference, and it started to change and get a little bit more in-depth with more people involved. Once Claire and Russ and other members of the team started to take on presenting it it went to a whole other level in terms of the skills they were able to convey to people. Now it’s a real cornerstone of the program, in that it’s training the trainers. It’s developing this leadership opportunity for gardeners, and helping them navigate a lot of the hardest parts of community garden life, which is the people organizing stuff. So that in particular has been special, to start this from thinking this would be a workshop, and then realizing it was so much bigger than that. And seeing how many iterations it’s had, now it feels really solid. 

GP: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from working with community gardens you’d like to share with others?

Rayden: The success of community projects is really about relationships. It’s about the relationships and the programming that you create around your garden that can be so much more impactful. I used to be convinced that the focus should be on elaborate space. But I learned that what it’s really about is how can you throw events? How can you make sure all your neighbors are engaged? How can you do outreach to partners and develop programming around spaces? That’s what people are gonna get excited about and from that energy, things can be developed. I kind of understood this idea of building it, and they will come, but I think you have to bring people in, build it, then more people will come. It’s more of an ongoing process and a cyclical process rather than something more linear.

GP: Any advice for people interested in getting involved with gardening in their community?

Rayden: Find out what’s already around you. Every garden I’ve ever met needs help in some way or another, and some of the ways they need help is by communicating with people who want to get involved. So be persistent. With a volunteer project, sometimes email isn’t the best way to get in touch, but dropping by and interacting with someone might be. So that’s one key thing.

I think the other thing is that it can be easy for a space to feel like everyone is ships passing in the night, especially for allotment style gardens. They’re working on their own plot, but they’re not interacting with other folks around.There’s something just so special about the community garden space. How can you design the space so that it feels like a place where people want to come to just hang out, outside of the time that they’re just working on their plot? And how do you build the community part around it, so that people really feel like they’re meeting their neighbors and building relationships in the way that they want to be there and hang out with other people?

 GP: Any last reflections on your time at Grow Pittsburgh?

Rayden: It’s been a really special thing to be asked what kind of work I do and share what I do [and get such a positive reaction]. I think that a lot of people don’t realize that this kind of work, it can be a job and you can build a career in this. When I started, I didn’t think I was building a career. I mean, I was working part-time, temporary, seasonal. That was really hard and took a lot of evening and weekend time. So I honor and recognize the hard work that’s put in on all levels at our department because of having done that. So the long time that I’ve been here, going through all the different steps of the department has been special, to put my mark on all the levels of it and to have an understanding for what it means to work at all the levels in our department. 

Also, seeing an organization grow and change over more than 10 years has been so eye-opening. Before I only saw organizations from this one fixed point or just from my perspective on the outside. It’s been special to get to see how decisions are made, and then what impacts they have years later. Also how you can build programming up, and how long that really takes to get it to work really well. 

 When I started there were nine staff and we didn’t have the systems set up and didn’t have a lot of the employee benefits that now are so much a part of why it’s great to work at Grow Pittsburgh. And the leadership development that I’ve seen in the staff over the time has been really cool to see, like seeing Denele come in and then become a director and then become Executive Director, and how special that journey has been. And to see people come and go and go on to do really awesome stuff, to start families, buy houses, and grow up. That’s been a real, real special thing to be able to see.