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The Genesis Project: A Just Harvest’s economic development to end hunger

Thu, Oct 11, 2012

“If you see people drowning in a river, what do you do? You go save them,” said Cindy Bush, director of organizing for A Just Harvest, a nonprofit organization located in Rogers Park that fights against hunger and poverty on a much deeper level than your average soup kitchen. “So if you’re doing that every day, which we’ve been doing for 30 years, at some point you say, ‘how are these people ending up in the river?’ And the organizing piece of our work stands for the proposition that there’s something pushing these people, so we need to go upstream and fix that first,” Bush explained.

This statement alone is a perfect analogy for A Just Harvest’s unique mission to not only fight against hunger through their Community Kitchen, but to attack the issue at the source by working to alter the laws that suppress low-income individuals. This is done through Northside P.O.W.E.R. (People Organized to Work, Educate and Restore), which addresses the root causes of hunger and poverty through community organizing.

In addition to the Community Kitchen and the intense level of activism that A Just Harvest engages in, the organization decided that this year, it was time to tackle yet one more element that will help in the fight against hunger and poverty: community and economic development through The Genesis Project, a newfound program which seeks to create meaningful opportunities for the community.


When Anthony Boatman (pictured on the right above) was presented with the opportunity to be the director of The Genesis Project, he was most eager about having so much potential to touch the lives of at-risk youth within Rogers Park and surrounding neighborhoods.

“I live in the community and I was very concerned about the direction that many of the young people are headed. I’ve come from that direction and I know the obstacles that lie ahead, because I’ve faced many of them myself,” Boatman said. “So the opportunity to build something that could impact my own community thrilled me.”

The Genesis Project not only addresses the needs of at-risk youth, but is also structured to support traditionally underserved entrepreneurs and to incite economic development. In order to fully achieve this end, it was divided into four key areas, which include (1) Aquaponics Social Enterprise, (2) a Micro-lending Program, (3) piloting Just BITES (Business Incubators That Encourage Sustainability) and (4) further strengthening of Community-Based Learning Partnerships


Lead Apprentice Sergio Cullum stands in front of the aquaponics system located at the Gale School Greenhouse at 1631 W. Jonquil Terrace.

“[This portion of The Genesis Project] will place young adults that find themselves locked out of the job market into a two-year rotating apprenticeship that will give them the skills and experience needed to enter the growing market of urban agriculture,” said Executive Director Reverend Marilyn Pagán-Banks. There are currently three apprentices working with the Gale School Greenhouse (1631 W. Jonquil Terrace) where the pilot aquaponics system is located.

“Aquaponics is a symbiotic system of growing fish and of growing vegetables or fruits and fish all within the same system,” Boatman explained. “The waste of the fish is the fertilizer for the plant life and the plant life is food for the fish.” A Just Harvest’s tank is designed to raise a variety of tilapia, goldfish, herbs and vegetables.

When choosing the perfect social enterprise to be the basis of this program, aquaponics was at the top of the list namely because it provides the apprentices with a uniquely marketable skillset. “We can readily see [aquaponics] as something that can help young people learn new [and more marketable] skills,” Boatman said. “It’s far more interesting than going out and watering the garden, because you have to test the fish, concern yourself with pH levels, test the water consistently and you have to build a system. There is just so much to it,” he said.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sergio Cullum is an apprentice for Aquaponics Social Enterprise and he agrees that learning aquaponics has drastically widened his horizons for future employment. “I don’t see any boundaries with this opportunity and this skill that I have,” he said. Cullum is one of three apprentices in the Aquaponics Social Enterprise program, ranging from ages 18 – 28.

While spending his youth in Uptown and frequently hanging out with friends in Rogers Park, Cullum got mixed into a scene of gang involvement and drugs and he eventually ran into trouble with the law. He was arrested in 2009 and has been serving time ever since. However, because Cullum’s offense was non-violent, in March he became eligible for A Safer Foundation’s Crossroads Adult Transition Center (ATC) (3210 W. Arthington.), a secured residential facility that “allows incarcerated individuals to serve out the last 30 days to 24 months of their sentences in a community-based work-release setting.” Members of this program are permitted to leave the center to go to their job or internship and must report back after their work is finished.
Cullum will be released from the prison program next September and will then begin his probationary period.
“I knew [A Just Harvest’s executive director], Marilyn, just from hanging around the neighborhood… and when I talked to her, she said it would be a great opportunity and she wanted me with The Genesis Project,” said Cullum.

Cullum’s work with The Genesis Project has become a shining example for future apprentices to follow. Despite his part-time, 15-hour/week status, Cullum is so enthralled by his work that he willingly dedicates most of his time to his apprenticeship. “I work like crazy. Either I’m doing something directly related to aquaponics or I’m active in the [Community Garden],” he said. He focuses on his job because he’s discovered a fiery passion for the field. His work ethic has earned him the title as lead apprentice.

“It’s not just something that I’m doing to get out of the center or to make money,” Cullum said. “At first, that was my goal… ‘I need to get out of this place. I need to get a job and make money.’ But once I started learning about it, I got more and more involved and more and more interested and now, I want to see this work.”

Apprentices also spend time in both of A Just Harvest’s Community Gardens located at Rogers and Ashland and another behind Howard Area Community Center (7648 N. Paulina Street). “The community garden is one of the tools we use to do social development [with the apprentices,” Boatman explained. “They get the opportunity to engage people in conversation or positively interact with a totally different social circle than they’re used to.”

Cullum is currently the only apprentice to receive a $100 stipend each week. After additional financial resources are secured, A Just Harvest hopes to be able to pay all of the apprentices. They also hope to increase the number of individuals they can hire from three to seven.


Cullum has big dreams for himself after he’s finished his apprenticeship. “Right now, [Anthony and I] are in the process of trying to find out how we can turn [our skills and knowledge in aquaponics] into a for-profit business,” Cullum said.

“We had the idea to build smaller, more home-friendly systems and then we can charge to build the system and we can charge a regular fee to come out on a monthly basis to service those systems and make sure they’re still running right,” Boatman explained. “It’s just like Comcast does… only instead of setting up TV’s, we’re setting up fish and vegetables.”

This new business venture is very much in tune with the modern trend of sustainability and healthy eating.

“If you don’t grow your own food, then basically you’re depending on someone else. I feel like everybody should know how to grow fish, vegetables, spices… because what if all the power went out and this was all we had?” Cullum said. “And everyone’s working out now and a lot of people are getting healthier, so this will help you on your quest to healthiness.”

Boatman further supported Cullum’s sentiments in saying, “Think about how many people say, ‘I can’t go to the grocery store today.’ Well, I could reach into my system and grab one of these fish out of there, slice it up, filet it and then grab some vegetables and I’ve got a whole meal… a salad with fish.”

In terms of the future of The Genesis Project, Boatman and the apprentices will further adapt a Food Justice Task Force, “which will work to address issues of access to healthy foods, engage in local and regional food policy efforts and organize to close the ever-increasing food gap.”


Although the Aquaponics Social Enterprise is the hub of The Genesis Project, it would not be an all-encompassing endeavor without the last two pieces: Micro-lending and Just Bites.

According to Pagán-Banks, the micro-lending program was established to provide access to credit to people traditionally underserved by credit markets, enhance their fiscal responsibility and help them avoid predatory lending services.

“At this stage, we’re giving out ‘micro-micro’ loans. We have a $5,000 base and we’re looking to give out five loans by the end of this year,” Boatman explained. As the program expands, they hope to also increase the amount of money they can loan out.

In addition, Just BITES (Business Incubators that Encourage Sustainability) mentors community members who want to start a small baking or catering business and gives them access to A Just Harvest’s licensed, industrial kitchen in which to prepare and then sell their food, explained Pagán-Banks.

“We like to encourage people who have entrepreneurial culinary desires and allow them to use our kitchen and utilize our network partnerships to build their business and not go under before they have a chance to succeed,” Boatman said.

Boatman also emphasized the importance of organizational partnerships to the work of the Just BITES program. “We have a host of network partners that come and volunteer and so we want [the entrepreneurs] to be able to use our network to build up their business base and to start to generate some revenue,” he said. “Hopefully the idea is that they go outward and some of the stores in the community will take on some of their products.”


In order to raise funding for the organization, A Just Harvest will host its 9th Annual Awards Banquet & Benefit on October 14 and invites everyone to attend. They will feature The Genesis Project and the theme of the event will be “… and it was good,” which echoes the premise of the Genesis scripture from the New Testament. This theme is very much in tune with this new program and its objective to spark a new world of economic development and prosperity.

The benefit will be located at the Mid-America Club (200 E. Randolph Street, #80) and will begin at 5 p.m. Tickets are $125 each. Visit http://bit.ly/QyFCzD for more information or to purchase tickets.

The annual event is also the perfect occasion for A Just Harvest to thank its collaborators, partners and stakeholders, which include community residents, local and citywide businesses, community organizations, local and citywide congregations, elected officials and foundations.


“This organization was volunteer-founded and it remains volunteer-driven,” said Michael, the volunteer coordinator.

“A Just Harvest represents a unique effort in that it brings together the volunteer and leadership resources of the local community, those of its more than forty partnering organizations, court ordered individuals to complete community service hours, high school, college and graduate level students and mission projects from all over the country,” said Pagán-Banks.

Without volunteers, functionality of A Just Harvest would likely wane severely. “On any given night in our Community Kitchen, we will have 15 or 20 volunteers and three staff people, so that’s how critical volunteers are in what we do,” said Michael. Furthermore, Pagán-Banks explained that the Community Kitchen is the only place in Rogers Park and in the northern suburbs of Chicago where people can get a free meal every day of the year.

If you’re interested in volunteering with A Just Harvest to support their organizing efforts, contact Volunteer Coordinator Michael Heisler at Michael@ajustharvest.org.


Although A Just Harvest began in 1983 as a soup kitchen, it has blossomed into a tight-knit and intensely passionate organization with a keen sense of social responsibility. Boatman feels like he has truly found his calling with The Genesis Project.

“To me, it’s about creating opportunity for the community and watching people grow,” Boatman said, making a subtle, yet charming comparison between the growth of fruit and vegetables to the growth of an individual’s hope and aspiration. “[I’ve watched] Sergio grow from a guy who was literally just hanging out on the street who came to find out that he can cross those boundaries to success. So I hope that I’ll be finishing my career doing this and that, at the end of the day, I can say, ‘… and it was good.’ ”

Story and photos by Brittany Langmeyer,
StreetWise Director of Marketing & Design


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