Gardening for Social Justice

Sean Phelan first got involved in an urban community garden for the same reason many people do: to grow flowers and vegetables. But soon he discovered an even better reason.

"There were all of these different people in the neighborhood - older white women, African Americans, gay men - who wouldn't look at each other on the street," Phelan said. "But when they were in their gardens, all of a sudden they were talking," Phelan said. "They just had to know what kind of tomato that was or what had been done to those cucumbers. The garden was the bridge."

From those first experiences 15 years ago, Phelan has continued to use gardening as the medium to get people to talk to each other.

Since 1997, Phelan has been the coordinator of the Judkins Park P-Patch, a tiny community garden in an inner-city section of Seattle. And he has shown what is possible even in an area most people would not think is conducive to gardening.

When Sean took over the Judkins Park P-Patch, the garden was overgrown and many plots lay fallow. In four years, Phelan has led the garden to a rebirth. In an area the size of three city lots, Judkins Park boasts over 100 gardeners, programs for schoolchildren, extensive plantings of native shrubs, a greenhouse constructed from reused materials, worm bins and compost piles.

And Sean is at the center of all of it. He is a Master Gardener, a Master Composter and a Native Plant Steward. He even teaches in the Master Gardener Program, where his specialty is teaching about composting, organics, and integrated pest management to inner-city communities. He also leads a special program at Judkins Park about beneficial insects. He even finds time to help youth centers and nonprofit groups around Seattle plan gardens at their facilities.

"Sean lives and breathes for sharing organic gardening with the community of the world. One could say he has green shoes, leaving his organic print everywhere he goes," wrote Sandy Pernitz when nominating him for the Garden Crusader Award.

For Sean, gardening is a tool for social justice. Gardeners at the Judkins Park Pea Patch include people from different ages, backgrounds, races and a dozen different countries. And, most important to Sean, they talk to each other and learn from each other.

"The garden provides a common interest for the everyone," he said. "And proves what a community can do when they care deeply about something." Our contratulations to Sean Phelan, who proves what an individual can do when he cares deeply.

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Last updated: 01/31/2021