This post is part five in a monthly series called Living our Values: first-hand accounts written by Grow Pittsburgh staff members illustrating the centrality of our organizational values in guiding our daily work.

In February, we’re highlighting our value of social justice, which dictates that we are “understanding systems of privilege, oppression, and racism, and using this knowledge to drive our work.”

Read more from Director of Community Projects, Rayden Sorock, on how he sees this value carried out in Grow Pittsburgh’s work and stay tuned in the coming months as we continue to feature how we’re #LivingOurValues:

Social justice can mean a lot of different things to different people. In my seven years at Grow Pittsburgh, I have seen major changes in how we talk to each other and our constituents about social justice.

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “did you go to school for this?” meaning, do I have a degree in horticulture or something like that. I studied literature in college. I did come to Grow Pittsburgh after two seasons on farms and some construction work, but most of my experience has been as an educator on LGBT issues. Most recently I had served as a fellow with the Initiative for Transgender Leadership working on LGBT workplace issues and making strong connections with nonprofits in Pittsburgh. It was really important for me to work for an organization where I could be my whole self and do work that engages with social justice.

In my first year in 2012, we had just changed our mission through a strategic planning process to put the focus on people. “We teach people how to grow food and promote the benefits gardens bring to our neighborhoods.” This change confirmed the need to put people first, meet people where they are at and understand how each person’s unique experiences and circumstances may open access to healthy foods or prevent access. Further, if we as an organization can better understand the systemic barriers that prevent people from accessing healthy food (i.e., lack of transportation, housing, and neighborhood investment) then we can better fulfill our mission. This is social justice.

Rayden, far right, with growers from MLK Community Garden visiting Mt Oliver Borough Community Garden.

I remember big questions early on that drove us to address social justice issues: Are black students seeing themselves in images of gardening and farming? Do we support a community garden project that has very little community support? How do we respond to discrimination we witness on our sites? How do we support community investment and reducing blight while also protecting affordability? How do we support longevity of staff? How can we ensure that our resources are going to those in need? Getting closer to the answers to these questions takes time, resources and action.

On the Community Projects team, some changes we have made to our programming include designing a workshop called How to Start a Community Garden that focuses on community engagement and establishing formal phases to our program so that a garden group must complete the community engagement phase before it can start designing the garden. These changes work to reduce barriers to participation in community gardens and avoid issues of gardens starting without community support. Further, we are addressing the pressures of development on community gardens through a partnership with Allegheny Land Trust to protect gardens permanently.

We know that this is an ongoing process. One observation I’ve made is that when you individually or as an organization put yourselves out there as sharing a commitment to social justice, then you have to be ready to back it up and you have to be ready for feedback. Sometimes the feedback we’ve gotten has been hard to hear but it’s a good thing people in our communities think sharing their thoughts with us is worth their time. It’s important to acknowledge mistakes we’ve made in the past and stay grounded enough to keep moving forward. As a Jewish person, and as a person committed to social justice who works for an organization that values social justice, the following Jewish ethical value really resonates with me: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

Does this value resonate with you? Share this post on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram, tag @growpittsburgh and #LivingOurValues and let us know what social justice means to you!