2009 Garden Crusader Taja Sevelle
After being discovered by Prince in 1987, releasing a hit single, recording three albums, and seeing the world, singer Taja Sevelle has returned to her childhood love: botany.
Her journey back to her roots began in 2004 when she was recording music in Detroit. “I had never seen a city with so much vacant, unused land, and there was so much poverty and job loss,” she said. The next year, she helped plant three gardens in the city.
Four years later, the nonprofit she founded, Urban Farming, has helped plant 600 gardens in 17 cities and five countries. And they’ll keep expanding until their mission is accomplished: “We want to eradicate hunger, and we really think it is possible,” she said.
For her work in planting inner city gardens all over the country and working to eradicate hunger, Taja Sevelle has been awarded the top Garden Crusader award by Gardener’s Supply Company.From Music to Gardens
Taja grew up in Minneapolis, where she was signed by Prince's music label. Her first single, “Love is Contagious” was a Billboard hit in 1987. She continued singing, recording and writing music. And when she founded Urban Farming, her connections to the music industry proved useful.
In 2006, Atlantic Records adopted Urban Farming as their corporate charity. That meant money and publicity. “Atlantic has been a big, big blessing. They have really gotten their artists involved. And that is a big help, particularly when you’re dealing with the teenage demographic. It can be tough to get teenagers out in the garden; they tend to feel like it isn’t cool. But as soon as they hear their favorite artist is involved, they’ll give it a try. And once they get in the garden, many will come back,” she said.
Taja now spends much of her time on the road, visiting gardens and partner organizations around the country. Her gardening side project has become all-consuming. “I put everything into Urban Farming now,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of time for singing.”Urban Farming Paradigm
Urban Farming is headquartered in Detroit (three doors down from the Motown Museum), but it partners with organizations all over the U.S. and in five other countries.
“The goal is to get rid of hunger, and our philosophy is based on a win-win partnership,” she said. “When we talk about a really lofty goal like that, we really know that people need to join hands.”
Urban Farming provides support, such as training and supplies, to local organizations. And they are expanding their programs to meet specific needs. These newer programs include job training for green collar jobs and entrepreneurship training for aspiring farmers.
“We call it the urban farming paradigm,” she said. “We take a look at the contributing factors to hunger, such as joblessness, lack of education, lack of access to healthy food and we develop programs to address them.”
With over 600 gardens and counting, Urban Farming works to create gardens beyond traditional plots, including rooftop gardens and wall gardens in which plants grow in vertical panels. This is because not all cities are like Detroit, full of empty lots.
“We want people to see food growing all over the place, in yards, on rooftops, on walls, anywhere there is space,” she said. The one common denominator with all of the gardens is that they are open to the public. “There are no fences,” she said. “Anyone can take food from the garden.”
That means that when a garden is planted, the entire neighborhood benefits. Neighbors work together and have access to fresh produce. Many of the new gardeners are two or three generations from someone in their family who had a garden. That means they need a lot of training and support. But once they learn gardening basics, they have a powerful tool for self-preservation and support.
“Our goal is to empower and to solve some of these problems forever, and we really believe they will be solved in our generation,” Taja said. “We want our children to look at us and ask: What was that like when there was hunger?”
Taja knows that eradicating hunger will take time, and her approach to Urban Farming, is the same that she takes with a garden: “You have to have patience, you learn about systems of things,” she said. “You plant a seed and you have to wait, you have to water it. You don’t get results immediately.”