May 19, 2016

“The Sanctuary for Independent Media builds community through food”

Date published: 08/25/2015
Publication: Albany Times Union

The Sanctuary for Independent Media’s radical urban gardening

 Published 6:13 pm, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Sanctuary for Independent Media is housed in a converted historic church in North Troy. It was started 10 years ago as a grass-roots effort to offer alternatives to mainstream media, explains arts education coordinator Branda Miller. With just one salaried employee, the Sanctuary works on volunteer power to produce media and offer workshops on varied topics: the environment, anti-violence, alternate energy and food. “The minute we moved into this neighborhood in North Troy, which is very economically disadvantaged and environmentally devastated … we became more and more connected to the community,” she says. By offering workshops and hosting speakers, artists and musicians from around the world, the Sanctuary has explored how the arts can be used to foster social change and to give a voice to the voiceless.

Miller, a professor of media arts at RPI, says that, as part of a focus on nutrition issues, the Sanctuary has worked with children from the neighborhood to create posters to promote healthy eating habits, such as consuming more fruits and vegetables. The posters were displayed at a local corner market. Expanding from just the original church building, the Sanctuary has since acquired seven empty lots and is turning some of them into urban gardens.

Each Friday afternoon for the past six months, volunteers Azura Keahi and Christian Grigoraskos have helped tend the gardens. Grigoraskos said he enjoys the connection to the land and all the processes that change a small seed to a thriving plant. Having previously worked on a traditional farm, Grigoraskos said he finds it remarkable how the urban environment holds heat and how quickly plants here grow in comparison to more rural areas. Soil testing was done to ensure safety, Grigoraskos said, after which vegetables and fruits were planted on a large lot. Other lots were deemed toxic, so they are used only for flowers. Newly added fruit trees now line the street leading up to the garden and plans call for adding a bee colony to harvest honey.

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While the garden is teeming in green, Grigoraskos says there’s really no master plan for planting. “Growing it is the easy part, getting it onto people’s plates, getting people to want to eat vegetables … is the challenge” he explains. Wheat grows next to delicate ground cherries. A variety of greens and peas flourish across the way. Tomatoes are being hauled by wheelbarrow across the street to be planted in another garden. At the back, a large greenhouse has been framed for future use. All around, the arts permeate the garden; recycled bicycle wheels form entryway arches, life-size painted cutouts of neighborhood children line the front gate and handmade plant labels serve as markers.

Because this truly is a community effort, Grigoraskos says he enjoys coming back each week to see what someone else has planted or tended. The man who lives in a building just behind the garden has been inspired by its beauty to plant his own small flower garden and created a small seating area using tree stumps in the larger garden.

Miller notes that the Sanctuary pairs trainings and programs to the garden and food theme. A recent ”skill share” taught attendees how to grow and harvest grains. Residents, adults and children are all welcome to work in the gardens and share in the harvest. The “planting seeds” metaphor is not lost on Miller, who says they really strive to make the gardens living, learning labs from seed to table. Once the food has been harvested, it’s distributed to community residents and prepared in the Sanctuary’s kitchen. Jonathan Segol, a longtime volunteer who prepares many of the meals, says he has found his niche at the Sanctuary. “Everyone needs nourishment,” explains Segol, who notes that for many of the visiting artists who have been on the roa
d, a home-cooked meal is always welcome. The Sanctuary offers potluck meals and in October hosts an annual “Story Harvest,” a gathering where people can share both food and harvest stories.

For Miller, connecting food to the many projects at the Sanctuary is essential. She’s witnessed how the simple act of breaking bread and sharing a meal has allowed this diverse group of neighbors and volunteers to be rooted in their community. The Sanctuary is currently building and fundraising for its own FM station, where they will broadcast programs, including many about food. They are also hosting “Uptown Summer” with the Rensselaer County Youth Department, where hundreds of kids will be exposed to and work at the Sanctuary and gardens. For Grigoraskos, his connection to the garden focuses on social justice. “It is a human right to have access to food, whether you are earning money to buy food or whether you empower yourself to grow food.”

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