This podcast with Rita is about planning a garden party in tandem with her local Rec Center’s back to school picnic. Her goal was to promote the neighborhood garden to families who could benefit. She shares how she learned to manage it all as a single mother in part by realizing she didn't have to do it all on her own. Rita says she found the energy to keep up with the project by "putting her cape on every morning" and designing ways to multi-task by including her son in the project planning. Rita's love of her neighborhood's rich racial, ethnic, and economic diversity launches her into greater community leadership once the project is complete.
Rita: My name is Rita Covington. I guess the question you asked me — what am I passionate about my community. I think being different and embracing that. I have like a fairytale fantasy of people living in harmony and I like seeing that. I like how we all are different and that brings flavor like a good pot of chili and I want to see that.
Katie: Talk a little bit about Price Hill.
Rita: Well, Price Hill in general holds over ten percent of the population of Cincinnati and three nationalities: Appalachian, African American, and Latinos.
Katie: And that’s the pot of chili with flavor, you were talking about.
Rita: Yes, yes.
Katie: Do you think right now the neighborhood is living in harmony? Like you were saying as a dream of yours a fairytale dream, is it happening?
Rita: I think people in general, especially in Price Hill, have invisible walls up — that we’re afraid of the unknown.
Katie: We all have stories in our heads about people and that maybe creates a lack of opportunity for people to cross paths or be more intertwined in each others’ lives.
Rita: People are comfortable. They’re with who they’re always around so I think its almost like a club or a clique, you know I just stay with people who look like me or think like me.
Katie: Tell me about your work with building community, how did that start?
Rita: Well it actually kind of started with, I did AmeriCorps, I served in Price Hill. I got very familiar with the people in Price Hill. I got aware of different other small non-profits in Price Hill so I could collaborate to serve the people better.
So I love to garden and I find gardening is very healing. I’m like a “go green” type of person, like if you litter in front of me I probably will have to like *gasp* “My god, Captain Planet - No!” So we had our training at the Price Hill Rec Center which to me I call it the nucleus of the community. So the nucleus, right so we’re having the meeting at, we’re having our first week of AmeriCorps and here I see this guy come in with bags of green beans and I’m like I think this is the guy that people have been talking to me about who works for Turner Farm. My intuition is like, “Go introduce yourself, go ahead.” So I introduced myself I was like, “hey” and I was really more intrigued you know like do you need volunteers really to help with this garden because I walk past it everyday like from the library to the Rec Center.
Katie: And this is a garden on the Rec Center property?
Rita: It’s literally next door. Yes.
Katie: So where did your love of gardening come from and your environmental passion?
Rita: My grandmother. See, my grandmother used to hide money in the garden. She taught me how to garden ever since I was little.
Katie: She would hide money in the garden?
Rita: Yes, in this like cookie can and she was like, “Don’t save for a rainy day, save for a thunderstorm.” She would tell me life lessons while we gardened. Some of my most memorable thoughts was while we plant and my grandma taught me to garden.
Katie: So it’s a literal tie back to a woman in your life, your grandmother.
Rita: Yes, my first mentor. Who was a community person too.
Katie: She sounds like a really inspirational person who kind of took you under her wing in a way that you’re still living with her. Tell me about the steps that it took then to being part of a community garden or being connected to other neighbors through that passion.
Rita: So from there I was also meeting up with my mentor, we were just thinking of ideas of how we could get this community working and get this community, like involved. Because my biggest thing was, it has so many, it was so rich with resources and I don’t think a lot of people in the community knew what these resources had to offer — especially for me working.
Katie: Yeah based on your experience in AmeriCorps the community garden would be a great place to start, hey let’s try and amplify this is here, for all the neighbors to know and start to use more.
Rita: Yeah, and so first I went through what Turner Farm had to offer. So they had these ten week classes that you attend and you learn more about gardening you learn about soil you learn about compost and everything else. And do some volunteer hours and then you get a bed, they build you a garden bed in your yard. I just started volunteering. I wanted it to be authentic, that I wasn’t just trying to like, alright, I really was passionate. I really wanted to get my hands dirty, literally.
Katie: Was that a step for you to kind of say alright I’m going to start taking some of my time out of my day, out of my week and make room for this extra obligation that also just like a fun thing to do but it’s anytime we take parts of our time away and give it to some place else it’s a compromise right, like what else did you not get done? You know you kind of have to weigh the options. Was that a tough thing to commit to?
Rita: When I think back on it from last year I don’t even know how I did it. I had some superpowers, I put my cape on every morning and like I didn’t even dry clean it until like September. Like seriously but to be honest I got good at multitasking and overlapping multitasking. So I think I got good at making things a double win for me.
My son started going to spaces that most kids didn’t go to. So the compromise was for people to accept there was actually a child in the class learning about gardening. I basically had to make a meal, pre-make our dinner, microwave it using the utensils at the Rec Center. Warm up my son something to eat while he you know sit and listens and plays on the phone a little bit while I was in gardening for those ten weeks. It was also a good balanced project that we could do together to you know bond even.
Katie: So you made it work for you? You made it fit into your life in a way that wasn’t too much of an ask, and I think that’s all about design which I think is brilliant.
Rita: So what came next was to keep continually building relationships and I think that’s the important part of any project is having authentic genuine relationships with people because those relationships turn into networks.
So here I was you know going inside this Rec Center no one really knowing these staff members like they’re like in a mystery like what is she doing, I thought she just used our services for the after school program but she’s involved with community stuff, right? So I got the attention of the director at that Rec Center, so then you know...
Katie: Just from being involved?
Rita: Yeah, yeah so then he became a mentor to me. So now I just gained two mentors, and I was like this is what I’m suppose to do.
Katie: That’s when it was like the “ah-ha”.
Rita: Yes! Because everything started flowing like a wind, like oh my god. I met John McKnight in that process.
Katie: Who is the book writer on Asset Based Community Development.
Rita: He is the Beyonce of community development. He’s Beyonce. So yeah and that’s the biggest thing. Is that I really grew to be like you can’t do it all, you can’t. It takes the fun out of it. It’s humility, it makes you humble, its not about you it’s about community. I wouldn’t have been able to do none of this without all those small little pieces which were big pieces to the whole vision.
Katie: Ok so what’s the design for the project?
Rita: So we had the Rec Center, we had Turner Farm, we had Santa Maria, different businesses like truck food, and it was like a win-win situation because it was like ok we had back to school.
Katie: Yeah so your project ended up being a way to transform or redesign something that had already been happening at the Rec Center, right?
Rita: Yeah, and they were expecting two thousand people, period. So I was like yeah so this is where you promote the garden right here. My objective was like I want the community to know about this garden. Because this is the purpose of it. And I wanted to at least capture three or four people, which we did, we did more than that.
Katie: How did you do it?
Rita: I planned, I failed, I got back up. I planned, and then we conquered.
Katie: That is a pretty precise way of putting it, that is how every project happens, and there’s so much grace and I think compassion for yourself when you can put it that way. And knowing and being able to look back and say, it worked out. Do you think part of the reason you stuck with it through any of the road blocks was that you saw this as your dream, of people coming together over something very basic and fundamental like gardening?
Rita: Yeah, getting back to the beginning of the story everyone just stayed in their spaces and it was the first time I seen this diverse community - a Latino kid and a black kid and a white kid and they were all listening to music. It was like families up in the garden getting fresh fruits and vegetables, like I can’t wait to go back. It’s like a wedding to me, like its like my birth of my life of my passion because I was just so blown away.
Katie: It was an amazing time and I think everybody, you were saying it was the dream coming true. Everyone was convening around things like music, gardening, food and just being there together and I think the back to school event that happened every year is never going to look the same.
Rita: I know right, It's so funny because I gained respect within the leaders of my community and I found out that I am a force to be reckoned with and I think that’s the beauty.
Katie: How does that change the way you show up in your neighborhood, your voice being heard and being respected?
Rita: I think now when I walk in a room, my opinion is more respected because I put the work in. I think they’re impressed. I feel like I'm no longer more of like a threat or a question of why I’m here. More like I’m the advocate, I’m the person in the middle.
I want to concentrate more now on the solutions than the problems. And I feel I have an obligation to influence more people to attend circles where they’re usually are not used to going. We need to have tough conversations; we need to address some things that we just really as a society really push away.
Katie: And that’s what you’ve done.
Rita: Yeah, I think so.
Rita: We have to have this space that we all can live together and I think I want to keep the funk of East Price Hill, that I think is cool. When I think about that it keeps me going to try to organize something.
Katie: And I think it’s important for you to know there’s a way to talk about this that feels actionable. That feels like ok these are small things that I can do. So you’ve been going to your city council meetings and having these conversations?
Katie: It’s interesting how your approach to this work began as a volunteer in AmeriCorps and then it turned into creating something with a project, doing something interesting as an added value to your neighborhood and now it’s more of a day to day it sounds like for you as a voice, showing up on a regular basis to things in the community. So it doesn’t necessarily have to mean your project is continuing or its happening every year but what it’s turned into is you’ve dug your heels in even deeper and that cape needs to be put up in the hall of fame.
Rita: Don’t do it! I’m a Pisces I’m a cryer, don’t do it!
I’m just so thankful for this experience, period. It gave me self-worth. This process, also seeing how my son is proud of me. But this thought and this collaboration with Starfire has built real life relationships of network, in my community. People now call me to get me involved.
There’s a lot of politics in this but overall love wins.
I think I want to keep creating spaces for people to see that we all… you keep talking to me we might have an interest but the conversations need to happen, the relationships need to happen.
Katie: Yeah. Well, thank you for being a force and allowing this to happen.
Rita: You’re welcome thanks for having me. Yay!