In 2015 at DAISA we accepted the invitation to serve as the National Program Office for the unique FreshLo initiative, blending neighborhood transformation strategies across health, arts & culture, and economic development all while advancing equity in practice and outcomes. An initial task was to help design and implement an equitable review and selection process for the record-breaking 550 FreshLo grant proposals which arrived. I read, organized, and discussed applications for many, many hours and in doing so gained access and perspective on systemic and nuanced urban neighborhood-based challenges and community-driven innovations from across the United States. We brought the initial 26 grant recipients together in Cleveland, OH shortly after the awards were announced and began an unforgettable journey of discussing struggles, joy, strategies, and questions – together.
Across the years our DAISA team visited all of the FreshLo groups and communities that moved through the 2-year then 3-year implementation phase of FreshLo – prompting us to share in local, cultural food delicacies, stand in the bitter rain gazing at vacant lots and social enterprises-in-the-rough, share in distinctive community-based lodging, participate in unique cultural festivals and local events, and become immersed in raw and dynamic learning. In visiting parts of the U.S previously unfamiliar to me, and traveling alongside my colleagues at DAISA, the Kresge Foundation and our Learning for Action evaluation partners, we witnessed divestment in the physical and social infrastructure of neighborhoods. And yet, we saw people coming together through art, creative processes, food and celebration to both defend and to celebrate their unique neighborhood identity. I will never forget the pride I witnessed while a neighborhood gardener in Detroit, MI talked about sharing her freshly grown tomatoes with her neighbors, sampled wild herbs while on farmland rich with crops grown from saved-seeds and cultivated through Indigenous practices, and saw small food-oriented enterprises in Seattle and Oakland. These communities and the community leaders within each left a mark on my mind and heart; it is impossible to imagine otherwise how I would have had this experience and the opportunity to respond and support across the 5 years.