Partner Spotlight: Urban Transformation Network
The Urban Transformation Network (UTN), which was awarded an Equity in Conservation Outreach cooperative agreement by the NRCS in 2022 for their Chicagoland Collaborative Project, embarked on a two-day tour of Washington, D.C., aimed at promoting urban agriculture and celebrating cultural diversity.
By Derinda Applewhite, NRCS Arkansas and Lynnette Harmon, NRCS Ohio
The Urban Transformation Network (UTN), which was awarded a $760,000 Equity in Conservation Outreach cooperative agreement by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2022 for their “Chicagoland Collaborative Project,” embarked on a two-day youth tour of Washington, D.C., aimed at promoting urban agriculture and celebrating cultural diversity. UTN’s project aims, in part, to introduce at least 1,000 students from underserved communities to the principles of climate-smart agriculture and build their knowledge about agricultural and natural resource careers.
The group’s first stop on the tour was the People's Garden at USDA’s headquarters. Seventeen youth from Chicago were warmly welcomed by staff from the USDA Office of Urban Innovation and Production, who shared information about how urban agriculture contributes to local food systems. Employees explained how the People's Garden was established and showcased the cultural diversity of the Washington, DC area.
Participants were amazed at the techniques used to grow the crops and fascinated by the ecosystem of the People's Garden in an urban setting. The group was then invited into the Whitten Building to discuss food systems, agricultural and natural resources conservation topics with the USDA leaders including Deputy Secretary Xochitl Torres Small. The team was honored to meet with USDA leadership and dine in the South Building cafeteria with staff from different agencies.
The tour continued to the U.S. Capitol and congressional offices, where participants met with staffers for Representative Danny Davis (D-IL) from Chicago and with Rodney Brooks a detailee to the House Agriculture Committee and a USDA beginning farmer regional coordinator from Georgia. The group learned about the origin of USDA, described by President Lincoln as the “People’s Department.” The team then visited the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
On day two, the group had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American Culture, where they learned about the historic plight, resilience, and roles that African Americans have played in the advancement of agriculture throughout American history.
The trip concluded with a visit to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) facility in Beltsville, Maryland, where Manan Sharma, Research Microbiologist from ARS’s Environmental Microbial and Food Safety Lab shared his insight into USDA’s support of local and regional food systems. Scientists and researchers spoke about their innovative work and the group completed an educational scavenger hunt.
These two days provided opportunities for exploration, learning, and growth for both Urban Transformation Network youth and NRCS, building interest in agriculture and natural resource careers, providing opportunities for dialogue, and laying the foundation for continued collaboration between USDA and the next generation of producers and conservationists.