All posts by Laura Witzig

I was raised on the foggy beaches of the Oregon Coast and spent my teenage years among musicians and artists. Part passionate creative, part keen logician, I found the best way to get involved in my community was to create my own opportunities. I kept busy with freelance web design, 'zine editing, tour planning, and social media. Building these skills led me toward a stint as a concert promoter and DJ for the past few years. I’m excited for the opportunity to become a more effective advocate for socioeconomic equity by stepping up our presence and reach here at CommunityGrows.

Celebrating 23 Years of CG

IMG_7104Wednesday, October 4, 2017 was an amazing night to celebrate 23 years of CommunityGrows and Barbara Wenger’s upcoming retirement as founder and Executive Director.

The African American Arts and Culture Complex (AAACC) was abuzz with activity from early morning, setting up the Hall of Culture and firming up last minute details. Barbara Fujimoto, former Advisory Board member, donated the beautiful flowers and huge pumpkins for our decorations (thank you Barb!). By 4pm a few of our BEETS (Band of Environmentally Educated and Employable Teens), Eluis, Jennifer, Vihn, and Michelle, arrived with Advisory Board members Jaromy Schmidt, Liz Holt, Catheline Leung, Maricel Guinto, Jessica Jauw, and Christina Mathis to volunteer with setup and our silent auction. 22195363_10155462311501140_6421382218067334561_nStaff and VISTA employees Karen Lally and Laura Witzig also did a lot of behind the scenes work.

CommunityGrows staff: Ana Valdas, Karen Lally, Melissa Tang and Osceola Ward
CommunityGrows staff: Ana Valdas, Karen Lally, Melissa Tang and Osceola Ward

Sophie Constantinou, Partner/Director of Citizen Film, arrived to set up the sound and video work with Kevin Myrick, Director of Synergy Moon and sound director for the AAACC. Name tags were laid out…22154658_10155462310931140_8066386578112722340_n…and delicious food from La Mediterranee arrived. the spread included hummus, organic green salad, falafel, spinach and feta phyllo, rice pilaf, chicken pomegranate, and grilled veggies with tofu.22221655_10155462310936140_4789901640448702517_n Jaromy Schmidt, our Advisory Board co-chair and Starbucks District Manager, brought delicious cake pops and homemade cupcakes with the help of Liz Holm, also an Advisory Board member and Dual Store Manager at Starbucks.Jaromy-Liz-Cupcakers-SFW

Over the past few weeks Barbara had been dreaming about all the people that were invited to the party—friends she’d made over the past 23 years. These were friends from her past, from former employees to friends from the neighborhood. There were friends from Hayes Valley, John Muir and Rosa Parks Elementary Schools, the San Francisco Zen Center, youth organizations, partners, City dignitaries and employees, the Tides Center (CommunityGrows’ fiscal sponsor), consultants, funders, and supporters of CommunityGrows. So many of these people showed up to celebrate with her. It was truly a celebration of life!
22195243_10155462311821140_8219625076929008222_n22228403_10155462311536140_5550771335622914786_n
Barbara thanked the AAACC staff and their two new Executive Directors, twins Melora and Melonie Green, for hosting the evening.

Melora and Melonie Greeen
Melora and Melonie Green

The AAACC has been our home office for the past five years. We feel very grateful to serve the community in such a beautiful, vibrant building, which contains such institutions as the African American Shakespeare Company, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, AfroSolo, Cultural Odyssey, Project Level, dance and recording studios, and functions as an art gallery and historic center.

Ruby Jackson, Office and Events Coordinator, and Michelle Black, Business Affairs Manager for the AAACC
Ruby Jackson, Office and Events Coordinator, and Michelle Black, Business Affairs Manager for the AAACC

The night was about reconnecting, cultivating and supporting the future of CommunityGrows. Along the walls of the Hall of Culture event space, photos of over 150 of our BEETS teen program participants reflected ten years of the program, as well as highlighting some of the 1,300 youth we serve each year. Here are some guests from the evening…

Alex Vazquez, Lily, Sonja Robles and Sonya Watson, past and present Advisors from the Tides Cewnter
Alex Vazquez, Lily, Sonia Robles, and Sonya Watson, past and present Advisors from the Tides Center
Judith Cohen, Director of Handful Players and her husband Malcomb Gissen
Judith Cohen, Director of Handful Players and her husband Malcomb Gissen
Chandler Covington Braddick and Francee Covington
Chandler Covington Braddick and Francee Covington
Adrian and Nanny Almquist with Barbara Wenger
Adrian and Nanny Almquist with Barbara Wenger
Dahlia and Jack Kamesar, Pam Jackson and Valerie Harris
Dahlia and Jack Kamesar, Pam Jackson, and Valerie Harris

Will Newsom was our Master of Ceremonies, introducing everyone and keeping the program moving along. Speakers came to offer their praise and stories about Barbara, including President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, London Breed; Director of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru; Director of the Human Rights Commission, Sheryl Davis; and General Manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, Phil Ginsberg. It was an honor to have them there.

London Breed, President, Board of Supervisors; Mohammed Nuru, Director of the Dept of Public Works; Sheryl Davis, Director of the Human Rights Commission; and Phil Ginsberg, General Manager, Recreation and Park Department
London Breed, President, Board of Supervisors; Mohammed Nuru, Director of the Dept of Public Works; Sheryl Davis, Director of the Human Rights Commission; and Phil Ginsberg, General Manager, Recreation and Park Department

One of the highlights of the evening was the music by Con Brio lead man, Ziek McCarter.

Ziek McCarter, Lead singer of ConBrio
Ziek McCarter, lead singer of Con Brio

Ziek came to us in 2011 as one of our BEETS. He was a very shy and introspective guy. Soon after being a BEET, we hired him onto our staff to be a Garden Educator at Rosa Parks Elementary. Music being his passion, he soon broke out with Con Brio, which is now one of the premier rock, pop, and soul bands in San Francisco and the world. They go on tours through Europe, Australia, and Japan (where they are number 8 on the pop charts)! We have deep love for him and were so happy that he and his bandmate came out to play for us that night. IMG_7063

Barbara introduced the staff and Advisory Board of CommunityGrows and our new Executive Director, Kelly ErnstFriedman, who has been with CommunityGrows for the past three years as Director of Programs and Deputy Director. Kelly has a decade of experience working with nonprofits increasing program performance and impact, grant writing, staff management. She has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from American University in Washington DC. Since she’s been with us, she’s expanded programming evaluations, streamlined and strengthened our operations through better record keeping, financial reporting, and engagement with the Board. With the help of our Board members, she secured two AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers last year, increasing our staff capacity by 80 hours a week! We know Kelly will take CommunityGrows to even greater heights!

Barbara also thanked the Koshland Family who gifted us Koshland Park and the Community Learning Garden over 44 years ago. This park and garden continues to be our home-base site for John Muir Elementary School day classes, as well as after-school and summer programs. It is the site of the Western Addition Peace Wall, a seven-year project that honors the families and youth of this neighborhood. The Koshland Family has continued to support our presence in the park and garden and we owe them our deepest gratitude.

Another highlight of the evening, introduced by CommunityGrows Director of Programs, Melissa Tang, was a surprise video done by Citizen Film in honor of Barbara, thanks to Sophie Constantinou.

Sophie Constantinou, Partner/Director, Citizen Film
Sophie Constantinou, Partner/Director, Citizen Film

Many of Barb’s dearest staff and friends talked about the impact she made on the lives of so many people. It was a beautiful tribune which brought tears to our eyes. Here are more guests from the evening…

Abby Winshop-Hoyos, Assistant Manager, Heart of the City Farmers Market and Dee Lewis, former BEET and Advisory Board member
Abby Winshop-Hoyos, Assistant Manager, Heart of the City Farmers Market, and Dee Lewis, former BEET and Advisory Board member
Linda Ruth Cutts, Abbot and Steve Weintraub, teacher, from the San Francisco Zen Center
Linda Ruth Cutts, Abbot, and Steve Weintraub, teacher, from the San Francisco Zen Center
Wendy and Peter Rudnick, Zela Rowland, Richard Johnson, Pam Jackson and Francis Thompkins
Wendy and Peter Rudnick, Zela Rowland, Richard Johnson, Pam Jackson, and Francis Thompkins
Frances Nealey, Paul Olsen, Bob Barnwell from the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association
Frances Nealey, Paul Olsen, Bob Barnwell from the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association
Nora Brereton, Former Director of Programs, Cheryl Clarke, Development Consultant, Heather Groninger, Former Advisory Board member, and Kristen Wolslegel, Former Advisory Board Chair
Nora Brereton, Former Director of Programs, Cheryl Clarke, Development Consultant, Heather Groninger, Former Advisory Board Member, and Kristen Wolslegel, Former Advisory Board Chair
Barb Fujimoto, Adrian Williams, Ashante Smith, Peter van der Sterre
Barb Fujimoto, Adrian Williams, Ashante Smith, Peter van der Sterre

Finally, Barbara tried to answer one of the burning questions of the night. “What am I going to do when I retire?” Here is what she said: “While I’m happy to be leaving this organization with a young, smart and devoted crew, I want to be outdoors more, as well as pursue the visual arts. I envision walking in a forest as a park ranger or being an assessor of our national parks and old lodges throughout the United States. I also hope to be creating and studying art. If anyone has leads of a part-time job doing these things, let me know.”

An amazing crew of Advisory Board members and others stayed to clean up and put the Hall of Culture back to it original self.

CommunityGrows Advisory Board members and staff
CommunityGrows Advisory Board members and staff

It was a night to remember and one joyously celebrated. Thank you everyone!22196309_10155462311176140_3995917989257693357_n For more photos, most taken by our gracious photographer, Judith Keenan, see our Flickr Photostream here.

Speakers: London Breed (President, SF Board of Supes), Mohammed Nuru (Director, Dept of Public Works), Sheryl Davis (Director, SF Human Rights Commission), Phil Ginsberg (General Manager, SF Rec & Parks Dept)

Food:  La Mediterranee and Starbucks

Silent Auction Donors — Thanks to the work of Bob Barnwell and our amazing Advisory Board: Last Minute Gear – gift certificate, Melissa and Mike Mulcahy and Stuart and Jim Michler – wine tasting weekend in Sonoma, Suppenkuche – dinner for two, Stacks – breakfast for two, SF Symphony – two tickets, SF Opera – two tickets,  Yoga Tree – five-class pass, AASC – two season subscriptions, Legion of Honor/de Young – two VIP passes, Urban Putt – two games of mini-golf, Peggy Chipkin – one Feldenkrais lesson, Bluxome Street Winery – wine tasting at Ghirardelli Square, Rochioli – set of wines

Event Space:  African American Arts & Culture Complex

Donors: Thanks to all attendees, and to those who donated but could not attend.

Saying Farewell to Mr. Jay Jackfruit

Portrait of Jay Jordan

This month we are saying farewell to one of our beloved Garden Educators, Jay “Jackfruit” Jordan.

Photo of Jay teaching a gardening class

Jay came to CommunityGrows in 2015 as a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s African American Studies program. Since then he has managed four of our community gardens, including the ones at Rosa Parks Elementary School — meaning he did a lot of construction, planning, maintenance, and getting his hands dirty!

Photo of Jay teaching a gardening class

Through the curriculum he designed for our seven-week Environmental Education program, Jay taught over 400 students from kindergarten to 5th grade how to grow food responsibly and organically.

Photo of Jay with Ms. Erin Miranda's first grade class at Rosa Parks

Jay would often teach his students ways of celebrating the earth, and being thankful for how the garden takes care of us as we take care of it.

The Eleven Practices for an Honorable Harvest


  1. Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so you can take care of them.
  2. Introduce yourself; let the plants know who you are.
  3. Ask permission before taking. Listen to the answer.
  4. Never take the first. Never take the last.
  5. Take only what you need, and take only what is given.
  6. Never take more than half; leave plenty for others.
  7. Harvest in a way that is safe for everyone.
  8. Use what you harvest; never waste it.
  9. Share.
  10. Give thanks for what you have been given.
  11. Give a gift in reciprocity for what you have taken.

Inspired to take the next step on his personal journey, Jay recently decided to further his education and was accepted into Louisiana State University’s Landscape Architecture master’s program. But he also wanted to find a way to continue the kind of work we do at CommunityGrows, so he reached out to faculty members in the sociology department about creating CG-inspired youth development programs, and they were thrilled with his ideas!

Photo of Jay teaching a cooking class

Jay is now enrolled in a PhD program in sociology (way to go, Jay!) and will be working with undergraduates to start teaching gardens at high needs schools, spreading our mission here at CommunityGrows to new places!

Photo of Jay tabling for CommunityGrows at a neighborhood event

We applaud Jay’s dedication to youth and the environment, and we wish him the best on his journey! Congratulations, Mr. Jackfruit and thank you for all that you gave to our kids and community!

“Over the past two years, my time with CommunityGrows has blessed me with a tremendous amount of growth, warmth, and happiness. The team at CommunityGrows is truly a family and I feel so grateful to have worked with them and to have gained lifelong friends. These friendships have inspired me to be the best Garden Educator and Site Manager I can be, and words can’t express how grateful I am to have spent been a part of such a loving and supportive team. This has been a dream job for me, and I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to offer children tools for the cultivation of their own happiness and health by connecting them to the miracles of gardening!”

— Jay Jordan
CommunityGrows Garden Educator and Site Manager, 2015-2017