Will Allen is a beloved figure. The former professional basketball player and founder of the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Growing Power has had an influence on urban agriculture that is as conspicuous as his 6-foot, 7-inch frame and the characteristic sleeveless hooded sweatshirts that reveal his lumberjack biceps.
In 1993, Allen bought the city’s last remaining farm at 5500 Silver Springs on Milwaukee’s north side, four miles from the nearest grocery store and five blocks from the nearest public housing projects. What grew from that 19th century greenhouse could not be measured in pounds, bushels or even dollars. What arose was a nonprofit organization that expanded people’s ideas about what was possible in local food production and youth education.
Then, last November, facing insurmountable debt and legal pressure (the nonprofit has eight pending judgments totaling nearly half a million dollars) the board of directors decided to dissolve Growing Power. Many questions remain about what caused the organization’s downfall, but as Allen told Civil Eats recently, he has no intention of retiring.
“The shutdown was unfortunate and something I had no control over,” said Allen, who is still working on the farm. “We’re trying to get this place back to its original glory days. What’s been reported is absolutely not true. I can’t tell the story because it’s too involved, but I can tell you that we’re on our way back.”
As the story unfolds — and accounts differ — the downfall of Growing Power raises larger questions about the risks of scaling up urban agriculture in today’s complex philanthropic world.
The early days
From the beginning, Allen, a son of sharecroppers who grew up on a farm in Maryland, had two distinct priorities for his farm: composting and youth mentorship — the latter informed by the former. In drafty old greenhouses, Allen taught low-income children how to grow compost in rows of wooden boxes. Worms fed on decomposing vegetables, circuitously depositing dense nutrients into the soil and creating healthy compost, which was then sold by the organization. The compost was an essential part of the work.
Where most people see vacant lots, Allen saw vegetables. Growing Power built over 100 hoop houses, each one spread with more than 100 yards of compost over asphalt and concrete. “You have to assume every vacant lot has contaminants in the soil,” he said. “So that why I started this practice of composting at scale.”
Growing Power soon incorporated aquaponics, another closed-loop system that produced farmed fish and simultaneously fertilized the plants with their waste. In just six months, 50 tilapia emerged from this rudimentary but brilliant system.
A defining characteristic of Allen’s work was the way in which his social programs emulated the holistic feedback loops of his farm. Decorative plants were used for landscaping, then sold to schools and community centers, funding the continuation of the program. Students learned how to read, write and can vegetables. Growing Power worked with the local juvenile justice system, training and rehabilitating children by planting flowers in vacant lots where — by Allen’s own estimation — they might’ve otherwise been used for selling drugs.
The 1990s in urban Milwaukee was unkind to its young black men. In this period there were four times as many African Americans incarcerated annually for drug-related offenses as white men. (This persisted over the subsequent decade, with disparities rising to 11- to 12-fold between 2002 and 2005.) On a vacant lot at 24th and Brown, a planting flurry would yield what Will calls “a flower explosion.” It was a way of running drug dealers off the corner, as it invited attention and activity. And in just two years, Growing Power itself was beginning to attract attention, on the front page of the Milwaukee paper, and from other civic leaders in high-crime neighborhoods around the country.
By the early 2000s, the local food movement was no longer localized. Farmers’ markets were popping up nationwide, and along with them a legion of so-called “good food” advocates. Growing Power was still centralized in Milwaukee, but its impact had grown nationwide. The two-acre flagship greenhouse was now a training facility with visitors coming from around the world to learn from the organization. It was a good food hub, creating access to healthy food in an area that desperately needed it.
By 2009, Growing Power was selling food online, at farmers’ markets, schools, restaurants, and via below-market-cost CSA boxes, reaching more than 10,000 people. In addition to growing and distributing food, Growing Power-led trainings grew exponentially. Visitors from the city of Milwaukee, the Midwest and countless cities worldwide adapted Allen’s knowledge of growing, composting and aquaponics for their communities.
Notoriety and success
Growing Power’s expansion can be attributed, in part, to the MacArthur Genius Award Allen received in 2008, and the half-million-dollar prize that came with it. It also garnered high-level attention from the media, the food world and former President Bill Clinton.
Allen became a star, and his organization grew radically, from a staff of a dozen or so to 200 people. A widespread recruitment and mobilization of urban agriculture and environmental justice workers ensued. A decade later, many of those workers now lead their own urban farming enterprises.
People like Nick DeMarsh — a Growing Power employee from 2008-2010 and currently a program manager at Groundwork Milwaukee — attribute the health of Milwaukee’s urban farming community to Allen’s inspiration, saying, “We’ve seen Will as a model, and people have said, ‘How can I do that in my own neighborhood?’”
Educational programs spread throughout the region. There were leadership programs, job trainings for underserved youth, internships and hands-on workshops. The funds also supported a Chicago chapter of Growing Power, led by Erika Allen, Will’s daughter.
There were more greenhouses and hoop houses, more kitchens and training gardens, fish, chickens, turkeys, goats and bees. Most of what was raised on the farm was also packed, distributed and promoted by the organization. By all accounts, Growing Power was doing exactly what they had set out to do. They were feeding, training and exposing thousands of people to a more autonomous relationship with their food. The mission was being fulfilled, but with significant costs.
Perhaps the income and activity obscured the high operating costs, but there was income. In 2012, Growing Power was again awarded a substantial grant, this time from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Kellogg had an explicit aim to support racial equity and community engagement, and Growing Power checked a lot of boxes for them.
As the funding amplified, so did scrutiny about its origins. In fact, one of the very people that helped facilitate the crucial MacArthur grant would later become openly critical of Growing Power’s choice of funders.
Andy Fisher, the co-founder of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) — a food justice organization on whose board of directors Allen served for six years — had seen Allen as “an inspiring and charismatic leader.” But when Growing Power accepted a $1 million grant from the Walmart Foundation in 2011, Fisher was outspoken about his displeasure with this corporate philanthropy. Some, like Fisher, saw no distinction between the foundation and the company, and worried that Walmart was brazenly trying to buy its way into the good food movement.
As Fisher saw it at the time, the Walmart Foundation’s giving was 100 percent linked to the strategic interests of Walmart the company. He saw the funds as an endorsement (or absolution) of the corporation’s practice of exploiting and underpaying food-chain workers, farmers and suppliers. “I thought it was naive and problematic that he was taking the money and giving them a pass on their payment practices,” Fisher told Civil Eats recently.
For his part, Allen contended that significant progress without the buy-in of large corporations was untenable. “We can no longer be so idealistic that we hurt the very people we’re trying to help. Keeping groups that have the money and the power to be a significant part of the solution away from the Good Food Revolution will not serve us,” he said at the time, in a statement on the Growing Power blog.
Regardless of the source, from 2012 through 2015, more money was exiting than entering Growing Power’s doors. Internal Revenue Service documents from 2014 show that the nonprofit was running substantial deficits, in excess of $2 million that year. In 2015, an investor in a for-profit spinoff, Will Allen Farms LLC, filed a lawsuit against Allen and his accountant Thomas Schmitt. The investor alleged that she had been misled about the development of an industrial laundry site to be turned into an aquaponic facility.
People close to the organization were saddened by the news of its dissolution, but many were not surprised. As far back as 2014, the Chicago chapter of Growing Power had begun to move toward independent accounting and funding strategies. Warning signs about Growing Power’s financial health were embedded in its mandatory annual filings and felt by its vendors.
And despite Allen’s passion and dedication, he may have suffered from a bit of founder’s syndrome. Fisher theorizes that Allen’s inability to empower and retain an operational management team was the main cause of the organization’s collapse.
“Will centralized all the power in himself, but he was never around. It became dysfunctional,” Fisher said. “They tried to at times bring in others to run day-to-day operations so Will could have a more outward-facing role, but that person would resign and inevitably they’d go back to the old system.”
Chuck Kennedy/Official White House photo
Erika Allen, who has reorganized the Chicago chapter of Growing Power as Urban Growers Collective (UGC), also noted an inadequate composition of board members as a vulnerability of the organization. “There were weaknesses on the board. A little analysis would’ve exhibited the losses, and that the nonprofit needed to run more like a business,” she said.
After Growing Power announced its discontinuance, it was reported that Brian Sales, founder of Green Veterans, would assume the transition. Sales, a Florida veteran who’d only met Allen one year prior, said he created Green Vets as a means of trauma resolution and green jobs skills training for military veterans. He reached out to Allen and soon after had joined him in Milwaukee for a 30-day aquaponics training. He was persistent about working with Allen, who soon gave him a job as an assistant facilities manager at the headquarters in Milwaukee, where he worked until the nonprofit’s closure in November 2017.
Prior to Growing Power’s shutdown, Sales began working with Groundwork Milwaukee, a nonprofit chapter of an environmental land trust that also supports more than 100 urban farms in the city. The hope was that Sales would help manage the transition.
Deneine Powell, Groundwork Milwaukee’s executive director, told Civil Eats she was in regular communication with Allen and that she was under the impression that he planned to retire. Sales also seemed certain about Allen’s retirement, and reported that he was “always hinting at retirement” and grooming Sales as a successor.
Allen denied making any arrangements with Sales. And while he wouldn’t share any details about his plans with Civil Eats, he said he hopes to reveal more soon. “My focus has to be on getting this place back and getting possession of it,” Allen said of the lot on Silver Springs Street.
It’s clear that, in the meantime, Allen, Sales and Groundwork all appear to be actively working to shape Allen’s legacy. But just how coordinated those efforts will be is another question.
What can the demise of Growing Power teach the food movement? For some, collaboration (or lack thereof) was a prominent theme. Sales speculates that an inadvertent siloing of Growing Power left it too exposed. “One organization cannot take on that big of a task; you need multiple organizations that will work as part of the spokes on a wheel,” he said. Meanwhile, Allen echoed his daughter’s sentiments that a lack of oversight by board members compromised the organization’s financial health.
What is certain, however, is the undeniable impact the organization has had over the last two and a half decades. “The training, learning and benefits of Growing Power will be felt for years to come,” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former program officer for the Kellogg Foundation. Everyone Civil Eats spoke to for this article unanimously agreed on that point.
Erika Allen said UGC is now centered on empowering young people of color through education. “Growing Power was about feeding people, but for us, the education component is higher-stakes,” she said. She noted that training programs are expensive to operate — even those that generate their own revenue tend to rely on outside funding. More fastidious financial oversight would’ve likely helped Growing Power arrive at the same conclusions, but for now, she hopes “to take the lessons of what worked” and move forward.
It’s clear that Will Allen’s legacy will live on in the many organizations that grew from his work. In addition to empowering a generation of community leaders all across the country, who have gone on to radically transform their lives and neighborhoods, he also succeeded at teaching and protecting vulnerable Black children in an era when very few other entities were up to the task.
A common adage for Allen was, “We’re not just growing food, we’re growing community.” By that measure, his success is timeless. Allen is optimistic about the next generation of farmers, but he knows it will be a hard road and frames this challenge as only he can. “To be a sustainable farmer and grow without chemicals is harder than being a professional athlete,” he said, adding that he knows this first-hand, “because I‘ve been both.”