Journalist: Shari Edelson
Photographer: Keelin Purcell
On July 18, 2008, the First Year Longwood Graduate Fellows visited the Greater Newark Conservancy, a unique environmental and horticultural organization located in the heart of urban Newark, New Jersey. Since its founding in 1987, the Conservancy has grown considerably. What began as an effort to convert vacant lots in Newark’s South Ward into community gardens, now consists of an environmental education program that reaches five thousand schoolchildren per month through in-class lessons, a job training initiative that provides professional internship opportunities for forty-five students each year, a vibrant community greening program, and an ongoing environmental justice advocacy campaign.
Upon arriving at the Urban Environmental and Ecological Center, the Conservancy’s field headquarters, we were greeted by Kathleen Salisbury, Director of Education (and alumna of the Longwood Graduate Program), and Michael DeVos, Ecological Landscape Designer. Kathleen and Michael described for us the guiding mission of the Greater Newark Conservancy: to improve the quality of life in New Jersey’s urban environments through environmental education and advocacy, youth empowerment, open space reclamation, and neighborhood beautification.
Key in enabling the Conservancy to achieve this mission is the ongoing development of the organization’s facilities at the Urban Environmental and Ecological Center. The Center’s site, once occupied by two condemned buildings and several adjacent vacant lots, now boasts a mobile classroom, a production greenhouse, and a magnificent 1 ½ -acre teaching garden known as the Prudential Outdoor Learning Center. The two formerly-condemned buildings, an historic synagogue and a post office, are being converted into a multi-use educational facility and central office, respectively.
As we learned during a lunch meeting with the Conservancy’s staff, fundraising and development initiatives have been crucial in allowing the organization to make progress toward its goal of completing construction on the Urban Environmental and Ecological Center. Robin Dougherty, Executive Director of the Conservancy, described the organization’s current capital campaign, which began in 2000 and is now approaching completion. Unlike the many non-profit organizations that generate project funding through membership revenue, gifts from individual donors, and endowment interest, the Greater Newark Conservancy relies almost exclusively upon grant funding and corporate gifts. Because it does not hold an endowment, the organization must also fundraise the entirety of its $1.3 million operating budget each year, making it challenging to simultaneously raise funds for capital projects.
Luckily, the Conservancy’s fundraising and development team is up to the task. Brian Morrell, Director of Grants, and Sue Anderson, Grant Consultant, expertly research funding opportunities, submit applications, and conduct necessary post-grant reporting.
Another important component of the Greater Newark Conservancy’s fundraising strategy is its City Bloom Gala, a ticketed party and awards ceremony held every other May. In addition to generating income for the organization, this event also allows the Conservancy to publicly thank its donors, as well as showcase noteworthy accomplishments.
Following lunch in the mobile classroom, we were given a tour of the Prudential Outdoor Learning Center, the Greater Newark Conservancy’s flagship garden site. Designed to serve as a living laboratory for environmental education, the garden has hosted over 8000 schoolchildren since opening its gates in 2004, and recently secured a contract with the Newark public schools to conduct on-site programs for fifty classes of 1st-graders each year.
The Outdoor Learning Center is designed around eighteen educationally-themed garden areas, which feature plants, design elements, and interpretive signs that support the Greater Newark Conservancy’s environmental curricula. A “Before Newark” garden showcases crop plants cultivated by Native Americans prior to colonial settlement, while a section of the property dedicated to urban forestry features a grove of sugar maples (Acer saccharum) whose sap will eventually be harvested for maple syrup.
One of the garden’s most captivating features is a small pond over which passes a wooden bridge. The pond contains multitudes of fragrant water lilies, and its banks are planted with native flowering shrubs such as buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), which attract scores of insect pollinators. During migration season, the pond serves as a welcome resting spot for birds traveling through Newark’s paved urban expanse; plans are currently in the works to construct a viewing station that will allow students to unobtrusively observe visiting birds through a set of high-powered mounted binoculars.
After touring the Prudential Outdoor Learning Center, we visited two of the Conservancy’s vacant lot garden sites, the Enabling Garden and the South 10th Street Community Garden. In the vast majority of cases, the Conservancy does not own the parcels on which it constructs these community gardens. Instead, the organization works with groups of concerned citizens to appropriate vacant lots, transforming them into green oases in some of Newark’s most under-served neighborhoods.
The Enabling Garden is one of fifteen Living Lab Gardens founded by the Greater Newark Conservancy. Maintained entirely by special-needs students at an adjacent school, the garden is completely wheelchair-accessible and includes several raised beds of vegetables and flowers, as well as a screened-in butterfly house. Although a real estate developer recently purchased the lots on which the garden is located, a visit to the site inspired him to donate the land to the special-needs school on the stipulation that the garden project continues there.
At the South 10th Street Community Garden, we met a community member, who gave us a brief tour. Rows of bush beans, tomatoes, okra, and cutting zinnias filled the formerly vacant lot, providing both a beautiful view and plenty of fresh vegetables for the neighbors.
En route back to the University of Delaware, we discussed all that we had seen at the Greater Newark Conservancy. The organization’s dedicated staff and connection with the community were truly inspirational to us all, and served as a reminder of the incredible things that can be achieved with hard work, persistence, and good will.