By Susan Morgan
A passionate advocate for social justice, community organizing, and food policy, Mark Bowen has navigated a unique career path that has included working on a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, setting up garden programs in correctional settings around the country, and empowering youth in leadership development through neighborhood garden projects. Bowen works at Rethink New Orleans, which he describes as “a multilayered, youth led organization” in New Orleans, Louisiana. The mission of Rethink is “to support youth of color in becoming thoughtful and capable leaders through the process of critically rethinking their experiences and taking action to create systemic change.”
As Rethink’s food justice coordinator, Bowen engages youth in building organizing and leadership skills through experiential learning opportunities, including local garden development projects. “The gardens work as mycelia, as fruiting bodies,” says Bowen. Through the proliferation of backyard gardens throughout their neighborhoods, “the youth are intercommunicators” and take an active role in helping their neighbors “expand their SNAP dollars [through the purchase of vegetable seeds in order to grow food at home], improve health and nutrition, develop value added products, and build authentic relationships within the community.”
A seed is planted
“Where I grew up is where my affinity for nature came from.” Bowen recalls his rough teenage years, growing up in the then small town of Herndon, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. “I used to walk into the forest as far as I could go. It was my refuge, especially when I was dealing with a lot of racism in my community. That’s where the seed was planted.” By age 20, while attending Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, he developed interests in various social justice issues and community organizing. He also became interested in his own health. “That’s when I learned about CSA.” He met a CSA farmer and worked for two years as the farm assistant. “I began to ask myself – what is the intersection between what I’m doing as a farmer and social justice, which is my passion?”
Therapeutic horticulture inspires
After leaving his position at the CSA farm, Bowen worked as a science teacher and director of the horticulture institute at New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a secure residential treatment facility for young males adjudicated in Washington, D.C. He attributes this experience in propelling him towards horticultural therapy (HT).
In working with the youth at New Beginnings, Bowen observed the calming effect that being in the garden had on individuals. He recalls the story of Carlos* (name is changed), who got into a fight and ran away from class one day. Carlos made his way to the garden, where he encountered Bowen. Carlos asked him questions, like “What are you doing out here?” and “What are you growing?” Bowen notes, “In the middle of this stressful moment – where he is being chased by correctional officers and dealing with whatever drove him out of his classroom – he is curious about tomato plants growing in the garden. He asked me, ‘How is the tomato ever gonna grow?’ And I said, ‘Taking care of these plants takes some time. You’ve gotta be patient.’” Carlos ended up spending an hour in the garden that day, and Bowen observed how relaxed he became. Later, during the first harvest, Bowen recalls watching Carlos reach down and “pick one big, bright red tomato out of the garden, studying it, confused, excited, and looking at it with mystery. Whatever was happening in that moment was amazing.”
Greatly inspired by the powerful effect of the garden, Bowen thought to himself, “How do I build upon this therapeutic and cathartic moment?” So he investigated and discovered the field of horticultural therapy (HT). After pursuing HT training at the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver, Colorado, Bowen implemented HT into the Summer Youth Employment Program at New Beginnings. Participating youth in this program are in juvenile detention and have a mental health diagnosis. Bowen collaborated with social workers and teachers in identifying participants and developing individual educational plans (IEPs) to aid in identifying and working towards individual goals. In this vocational program, participants worked on landscaping projects and tending the onsite garden. They had additional opportunities for personal reflection and growth through journaling and other activities. One lesson involved planting a fruit tree, like a pear or peach tree. He asked individuals “to reflect on something they would like to reconcile or get rid of and then write it on a piece of paper.” They would plant the piece of paper with the tree and then be asked to think about the tree’s growth and eventual flowering and fruit formation. They would reflect and journal about issues they are facing and envision that as the fruit bears, it brings forth a new perspective or resolution to the issue.
Bowen has trained staff and set up garden programs with therapeutic and food justice elements at correctional facilities in California, Alabama, Mississippi, Maryland, and Minnesota. Additionally, he has developed social and food justice curriculum for various youth programs, including as director of education at Eat South in Montgomery, Alabama, where he also worked for several years. He is currently working on a book inspired by his work in juvenile detention settings and regularly speaks on his work on social justice issues and the use of horticulture as a therapeutic activity with adjudicated youth at conferences. Bowen says, “Horticultural therapy is a form of social justice. HT is a means to liberate minds and lives.”