JODIE VALADE The Charlotte Observer
On a patch of lawn outside the fence surrounding the community garden at Fred Alexander Park, a cherry tree is dying and Reggie Singleton knows why.
The brown, bare branches of the tree stand in stark contrast to the two peach trees planted next to it, which already sprout the smallest balls of fruit under a lush green splendor in early spring.
Inside the fence, the 18 young men who are part of The Males Place’s current class carefully dig holes in freshly tilled soil and add seeds and transplants of a variety of vegetables in neat rows. They are planting this year’s spring garden.
All of this is done following the guidance of Singleton, Managing Director of The Males Place and a certified master gardener who has studied the agricultural traditions of communities and cultures worldwide. For the past decade he has taken boys gardening near this busy stretch of Beatties Ford Road to Ghana and Cuba; to Alabama and Washington, DC There they learned about regenerative agriculture and from experts at land grant universities.
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That’s why Singleton is frustrated that he didn’t realize what happened to the cherry tree sooner. The lone tree was planted about 10 years ago and began its steady decline until it reached its bare-branched low point this year.
“We learned a painful lesson about that tree over there,” says Singleton, pointing to its brittle branches. “We didn’t plant a companion for it. It takes two to fertilize each other.”
However, Singleton is not one to give up on anyone or anything. He will not cut down the dying cherry tree; he will stimulate it to bloom.
“We’ll plant another one,” he says.
The same, of course, applies to the boys and young men Singleton works with at The Males Place: he meets with them every week to encourage them to grow and flourish.
The organization began as a Mecklenburg County Health Department reproductive clinic for young men, and its initial focus was on distributing information and condoms in hopes of reducing teenage pregnancy rates. Singleton joined in 1993 and realized that the young black men targeted by The Males Place needed more than just reproductive health information.
“As I’ve been nurturing these guys, as I’ve been mentoring them, I realized we had to instill skills in them,” says Singleton. “We need to give them skills that go beyond just saying ‘Do the right thing, do the good.’ Here are some skills you will get for life.
“Because there really could come a time when those who know how to produce food are the ones who eat, and their families may be the ones who have access to clean, wholesome food.”
The organization’s official mission statement is “a guided journey into manhood,” but it proceeds in a unique way: agriculture is one of the three main pillars (mentoring and social justice are the others) of its founding. Many, but not all, boys have grown up without fathers in their lives, and the older men who volunteer time to care and educate are critical to success.
In 2009, The Males Place began planting the community garden at Fred Alexander Park. Fifty percent of the time the boys spend with the group is now spent in the garden.
Every Wednesday they meet to learn life skills and cultural enrichment. And every Saturday morning they are at Fred Alexander Park to garden.
Singleton, 60, grew up on the Sea Islands in Charleston, South Carolina and as a boy worked as a migrant laborer to earn money for his family. Throughout his life he has understood how working in the countryside not only teaches self-sufficiency but also creates a strong sense of community when the gifts and the work are shared. That’s what he wants to convey to the young men in The Males Place.
“It’s more than just a garden,” says Singleton. “There is a Spanish proverb that says that the farmer or the gardener realizes that more comes out of the garden than he plants. And we’re not just talking about plants, we’re talking about relationships and everything else.”
AJ Simmons began working at The Males Place as an “Elder” — as the program calls his mentors — shortly after moving to Charlotte in 2015 Farm can promote the development of young men.
Simmons goes by the title “mshauri,” a Swahili term for counselor, when interacting with the “warriors,” as the young men are called on The Males Place program.
“Grow something from seed to fruit and bring it home to your family?” says Simons. “There’s a certain skill associated with that that a lot of our young men don’t get in many other places.”
Simmons also strives to teach the boys “critical and cultural knowledge that they definitely don’t get in schools,” including African history and recent American history specific to African Americans.
The farm is divided into quadrants, each dedicated to one of the four major tribes of Africa. For the past 13 years, the group has visited Selma, Alabama to learn about black suffrage demonstrations and Bloody Sunday; Washington, DC to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and historically black colleges across the region to learn more about these institutions and what they offer. Next year they hope to travel to Egypt to learn about agricultural traditions accumulated there over centuries.
And Singleton always makes sure the warriors of The Males Place plant cotton in their garden every year. It is not about using the harvest, but about teaching the young men what many of their ancestors had to endure as enslaved people.
“Many of them knew nothing about the history of cotton, not only in terms of the role that cotton played in creating this wealth gap that currently exists between blacks and whites, but also from a cultural perspective, the tangles and troubles and the sun and having to endure snakes and being stung by the cotton boll and picking 100 pounds of cotton a day,” says Singleton. “And just the cruelty of it.”
In 2009, Denzel Ross was a West Mecklenburg High School junior when his mother pushed him to get involved with The Males Place after meeting Singleton at the health clinic. At first he was only “so-so” about the program, but he soon enjoyed the work he was doing not only with the garden but also with the people he met so much that whenever possible he still voluntarily takes time for the group.
“I’ve learned to give advice, to share positivity, because sometimes we’re in a certain situation and it feels like there’s no one to relate to,” says Ross. “You want to speak to someone who is somehow closer to your colleague. So I’m trying to provide insight, to say something positive and encouraging.”
Ross is now 30 years old, has a degree in mechanical engineering and is in the Army National Guard stationed in Texas. Singleton still refers to Ross as “son” on his phone.
“I’m trying, you could say, to live up to the expectations that he set for me early on,” says Ross.
Adonis Adams is 17 and has been with The Males Place for four years. The senior at Indian Trail’s Porter Ridge High School knew nothing about working with plants or gardening until he learned through the program.
“Mom always wanted me to start a garden, so I did a little research, but I didn’t really get involved until I got to The Males Place,” says Adams. “So it was just a huge learning experience.”
For example, he learned how much to water each plant, and that the tastiest okra are those picked early; If you leave them on the plant for too long, they will become too fibrous and tough.
“There’s a lot of stuff involved that a lot of people don’t really know about,” says Adams.
This year the young men at The Males Place are preparing the soil in a handful of raised beds set behind rows of seeds and grafts marked in carefully measured rows by the elders. They plant tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans and corn. In the middle of the earthy garden are several blueberry bushes.
There’s also a hibiscus tree that gave Matthew Charity his first sample of hibiscus tea a few years ago. Charity is an elder whose 14-year-old grandson, Cole Allen, has worked with The Males Place for the past several years.
“It opened my eyes,” says the 71-year-old. “I’m drinking hibiscus tea now.”
Most of what the garden produces goes to the young men in the program and their families, or is distributed to nearby seniors or low-income community members. Some are sold during the summer months at the Rosa Parks Farmers Market at 1600 West Trade St., where the young men also sell fresh produce from partner farmers and learn about entrepreneurship.
And in late fall, the hugely popular sale of collards helps provide fresh greens for holiday dinners.
However, Charity prefers the kale from the garden when he has to choose between the fresh greens.
“The kale you get here,” says Charity with a sigh, “oh, it’s just heavenly.”
Varnell Bien-Aime doesn’t want to take full credit for how delicious all the vegetables produced at Fred Alexander Park are, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility that he personally could have some sort of impact. When it is the elder’s turn to water the garden, he walks up and down the rows, speaking to each budding green plant.
“Hey, you’re doing a great job!” he will tell you. “Come on, grow!”
“Just words of encouragement,” he says with a smile. “It’s just weird when it doesn’t work. As long as they keep growing, I will keep talking.”
Superstitious words aside, Bien-Aime says the effect of The Males Place on his 18-year-old son Nyjhol and on his own life has been transformative. The group emphasizes looking for opportunities to “do good” each week. With this in mind, Bien-Aime has himself helped people change tires at the side of the road and watched Nyjhol become more aware of how to look for such positive moments on a daily basis.
And then, when they come into the garden each week, they can appreciate all the work they’ve put in both inside and outside of that fenced vegetable and orchard.
“It’s so peaceful,” he says. “This is where I feel like The Males Place has really paid me back. Just having another outlet to get away. Because you can drive down this block and turn right and it’s just chaos – getting in the car, moving back and forth on the freeway. But you’re out here and it’s just…peace.”
However, it is not always easy. It takes a lot of care and attention for everything to thrive. Sometimes cherry trees die. But more often than not, they get to watch the fruits of their labor take root and bloom.
“A lot of people would say, ‘I love farming, I love what you guys do,'” Singleton says. “Man, this stuff is hard. It is difficult. It’s not as pretty as it looks. We grow more than just plants. We are growing men.”