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City Blossoms’ Rafael Woldeab on Gardens, Green Spaces, and Cultivating Youth Leadership in D.C.

How this nonprofit Executive Director sows garden-based education in the nation’s capital.

9 min read

City Blossoms is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works with Black, Latino, and children of immigrant backgrounds, ages 2 to 19, to build safe, vibrant green spaces in their neighborhoods. Now reaching thousands of young people each year, City Blossoms, a 1% for the Planet program grantee supported by OXO, was founded in 2008 by native Washingtonians Lola Bloom and Rebecca Lemos-Otero out of concern that D.C. youth were missing opportunities to explore the outdoors, express themselves, and be leaders in their communities.

Executive Director Rafael Woldeab has been working with City Blossoms(Opens in a new window) since 2015, when he first joined as an intern. We spoke with him about exciting new programming for the back-to-school season, the ripples of positive change they’ve been able to affect throughout the D.C. area, and what it’s been like to climb the ladder of success at this extraordinary organization and watch it, quite literally, flourish.

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Tell us about your personal journey with City Blossoms.

I first worked with City Blossoms as an intern. When my internship ended, I had a conversation about joining the board of directors with Rebecca Lemos-Otero, who was Executive Director at the time. I was 23 years old and had the idea in my head that a board of directors looked and sounded a certain way, and thought I didn’t qualify. Rebecca assured me that I was not just welcome but essential, and I joined the board’s development committee, helping to co-design City Blossoms’ funder and donor cultivation strategy. Although I initially felt a little lost, what I really appreciated was the emphasis around “superpowers.” City Blossoms believes that everyone has their own unique set of superpowers that make the organization stronger—we intentionally don’t call them skills because there’s a preconceived notion of what skills might mean.

My colleagues reminded me that I was invited to the board to bring my own energy and lean into my own individual style of leadership. City Blossoms invested in me from the start, and through that experience I was able to cultivate my abilities as a leader that led to the executive director position.

What does City Blossoms’ summer programming look like, and how are you preparing for the back-to-school season?

The summer months are an especially wonderful time for our community to come together. A few highlights from the summer have been workshops with local entrepreneurs and activists, educational programs for Early Growers(Opens in a new window) (our youngest members), and, as always, our free drop-in programming for children and families five days a week at our Community Green Spaces(Opens in a new window).

We wrap up summer programming and prepare for the back-to-school season with our annual Basil Bonanza community potluck in August. The basil-themed dinner is a great way to kick off back-to-school for our Youth Entrepreneurship Cooperative (YEC), who will help plan this event in-person for the first time in two years.

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How do you connect with students as Executive Director, and what's something about those experiences that have surprised you?

There have been so many surprises! It’s been seven years since I was first involved in youth programming as an intern. So when I visited Girard Street Children’s Garden for our free after-school drop-in hours in my new role, I was a little nervous. I thought I needed to have a whole set of activities ready to go, but was pleasantly reminded that these spaces are completely youth-led. Young people enter the space and just know what they want to do—they don’t wait for direction or instructions.

City Blossoms creates space for self-empowerment and decision making. All we have to do is lay the platform for our young people to engage in projects, like painting signs for the gardens, harvesting and taking care of plants, and getting their hands dirty in the digging bed. The children and youth can cultivate their own styles of leadership (like I did when I first joined the board). We oftentimes think there always needs to be structure to learn, but when we simply provide a safe, accessible platform to engage, that’s when we see success.

In what ways have you helped improve community wellbeing in the areas you serve?

In 2021, 5,630 children and youth had access to engaging green spaces through multi-year school and community partnerships, despite challenges of the pandemic. Our staff provided 790 hours of free and affordable virtual and outdoor programming, and 721 educators participated in virtual coaching and training sessions.

We’re incredibly proud of our partnership with the United States Botanic Garden, which helped us develop and launch our latest free resource: “Cultivating Young Leaders: A Workbook for Growing a Youth-Led Cooperative Garden Business(Opens in a new window),” complete with templates and tools to engage high school students in gardening and entrepreneurship. All of this information is intended to assist others in developing their own unique adaptation of this program—we’re not just thinking of D.C.!

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Have those educational tools developed by City Blossoms shown signs of success?

Absolutely! Our YEC program incorporates a practical element that helps prepare our young people to join the workforce, go to college, take on internships, or study through vocational programs.

Educational tools like Cultivating Young Leaders are a roadmap to youth-led garden businesses, and help children create their own strategies (like planting plans) around what they want to grow at their school gardens, when to harvest in time for farmers’ and pop-up markets, how they want to package it, and how to make value-added products like herb salts. Students take home 80% of their income and reinvest the other 20% into their business. The point is not necessarily to make money, but for young people to have real-world experiences that allow them to practice navigating challenges in the workplace, build financial management and operational skills, and cultivate their leadership. It’s been a highly successful program that’s been replicated at the high schools we work with. We encourage parents, educators, community members, and other organizations to check out our educational tools(Opens in a new window) and resources.

Even though organic and heirloom ingredients have never been more popular, we rarely hear about education in the basics of farming and food production, especially for young people in urban environments. Why is that?

People living in urban environments have fewer opportunities to engage with the natural world—there is a mental, emotional, communal, and physical cost to being disconnected from nature. Green spaces that are physically available are often not activated or safe, and school gardens and garden-based education are often thought of as a “nice to have” rather than a necessity. It is this exact problem that City Blossoms is addressing by providing opportunities for exploration that our children and youth might not otherwise have.


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