Humans of Sweet Water...Meet Jesse Blom

Jesse has been part of the Sweet Water family since 2010 when he worked with SWF to cultivate partnerships with schools and community groups across Milwaukee and Chicago. Although his professional journey has led him to his current role as Executive Director of the Green Heart Project in Charleston, South Carolina, Jesse continues to be a close collaborator and an extended member of the SWF team. Green Heart Project uses agriculture as a tool for personal development, education, and community engagement, and will be developing an urban garden in downtown Charleston. SWF is excited to feature Jesse as a partner and lifelong member of the SWF family.

Read on to learn more about Jesse’s evolving relationship with SWF.

Tell us about your background
I say I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but I have lived in a number of places: Texas, Australia, and Baltimore, to name a few. My family and I now live in Charleston, South Carolina, where I am the Executive Director of the Green Heart Project.

In 2014, I started graduate school at the University of Wisconsin Madison studying Freshwater and Marine Sciences. I had a dual focus: I wanted to get a technical education around aquaponics and I was interested in policy. I was specifically interested in how government entities and community-based organizations work together to accomplish common goals. I was able to integrate my work with Sweet Water Foundation into my master's program.

In 2016, I graduated from UWM at that same time my contract was up with the Milwaukee Public Schools. It felt like the right time for a change. Around that time, a Farm Manager and Educator job popped up in Baltimore with the Johns Hopkins Center For a Liberal Future. The Center for a Liberal Future is the leading authority of local food policy councils. They’ve done a bunch of research about how they work and best practices for other groups. They were the foremost group doing research on the social and environmental implications of aquaponics. I had two previous connections with them and they were looking for someone to run their educational aquaponics farm. So, my family and I packed up and went out there. It was great! After working there for a couple of years, I wanted to get back to working for a community-based organization because that’s where my heart is. Right around the time I was thinking of making a change, the Executive Director position opened up at The Green Heart Project in Charleston, South Carolina, which is where I’ve been ever since.

What is your relationship with Sweet Water Foundation?
I began working with Sweet Water Foundation in 2010, and I haven’t stopped since! I found SWF when I was working at an after school program building wooden boats with high school students in Milwaukee. My co-worker Dave Mangin told me about a fish farm that had just been built across the river. So, we went to visit and met James Godsil, SWF Co-Founder and Board President. Soon after, I began to volunteer at the farm and met Emmanuel Pratt, SWF Co-Founder and Executive Director, who was cultivating relationships with local schools. Emmanuel, Dave, and I continued to develop partnerships with schools and community groups who would visit the farm. In turn, we would visit their locations to build small-scale versions of the Sweet Water farm, including raised bed gardens, composting, and aquaponics systems.

Most of my work with SWF has been around the development of school and community partnerships, and programs to support those partnerships. In both Milwaukee and Chicago, I worked with Emmanuel to partner with schools and school districts (MPS and CPS), with community groups such as the Center for Veterans Issues, ACTS Housing, and with universities such as University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee and Chicago State University. We also worked together to build a digital badging system called AQUAPONS, laying the groundwork for a model of apprenticeship and mentorship around the practice of aquaponics.

I am still a close friend and collaborator with SWF - still a part of the team! I strive for “geographic fluidity”. James Godsil, SWF Co-Founder, used this term as a foundational principle to describe how SWF is a network of people across time and space. Even though I’m in Charleston, and SWF is in Chicago, I still feel like I’m part of the team. I encourage people who read this blog to be openminded about what SWF is and how it operates between space and people and across boundaries. It’s a good framework to have in your own life too - to not look into divides and boundaries as obstacles, but as opportunities. I visit SWF often via phone calls, text, and emails! As far as visiting the Perry Ave Commons, it’s been a while, and I look forward to getting back there soon.

Can you tell us about your work with The Green Heart Project?
I am the Executive Director for the Green Heart Project in Charleston, South Carolina. The Green Heart Project is an organization that builds and runs school gardens and Farm-to-School programs at schools in Charleston, SC. I got involved with the Green Heart Project after they put out a national call for a new Executive Director. This role was the right fit for me, at the right time of my life, and in the right location!

Like SWF, the Green Heart Project uses agriculture as a tool for personal development, education, and community engagement. One of the main differences is that Green Heart does not (yet) have a home base like The Perry Ave Commons. Green House Project is at the phase where it’s been growing for 10 years, primarily working in schools, and they are now shifting the organization from simply being in schools, to building a new urban farm in downtown Charleston. My work with Sweet Water was around developing partnerships with schools and getting that work into school infrastructure. When I first started with SWF, they didn’t have The Perry Avenue Commons as a flagship site, so I am in a similar position. Green House Project is in the process of building a new urban farm in Downtown Charleston which will serve as our home base for engaging community members. I’m looking forward to the future!

Are you using any of the skills you learned at SWF in your role now?
SWF has provided me skills and experience to take on a number of different life challenges. One of the most powerful skills I learned through SWF is using a hands-on activity, like gardening or woodworking, to focus my mind and to provide a platform for building relationships with other people. For example, if I want to get to know you and hear your story, I would much rather invite you to come work in the garden with me, than to sit down at a table for a meeting. Another skill is relating to people from different places and backgrounds. SWF somehow attracts people from all over the world and from all walks of life, to a shared space of community and learning. Getting along with, and learning from, these diverse people is a skill that will serve me for the rest of my life.

SWF somehow attracts people from all over the world and from all walks of life, to a shared space of community and learning.
— Jesse Blom

Can you tell us about the most recent interaction between SWF and Green Heart?
Green Heart has a need for more seating in our gardens. We have wonderful garden beds, and a few working tables, but not much seating. We have partnered with SWF to build fractal seating to fill that physical need, while providing an opportunity for interpersonal and cultural exchange between SWF in Chicago and Green Heart in Charleston. We wanted to not only have fractals in the garden space, but also provide an opportunity for SWF’s mentors to interact with Green Heart’s staff and volunteers to broaden each of their horizons.

In March 2019, Devontae Phillips and Armani McAlister made a trip to Charleston. The main purpose of their visit was to lead a fractal building workshop for our staff and volunteers. During their visit, they also were able to see and experience the city. Some highlights of their visit included a visit to the beach and to historical sites around the city.

Since their visit, the fractals have been deployed in our gardens as seats, as tables, as storage spaces, and as welcome aesthetic additions. We intend to stay connected. As we develop and launch our new ½ acre urban farm site in Downtown Charleston, I’d like for SWF to be involved at every step of the way. Whether it is designing and building furniture, managing the farm, or developing apprenticeship programs for young adults, SWF has much to teach and offer us at Green Heart.

What are some things you enjoy doing outside of work?
I love spending time in the outdoors, especially gardening and canoeing with my family. My wife, my two kids and I all fit in the boat! I also love the sport of rugby, which I’ve played since I was 8 years old, growing up in Australia, and I’ve coached some college rugby teams.

Do you have any advice for folks who are in similar lines of work?
It takes a lot of work and effort. Be really patient. Don’t move too fast or try to do too much too soon. This work takes relationships. The whole process of building community-based farms are around relationships. Relationships with people who are going to be working at the farm or using the farm. The relationships are what drives the work. Anyone can do the physical practice, but developing social and cultural capital is most important.

If you could describe SWF in one word, what would it be?
(r)Evolutionary!

Courtney Hug