A Re-cap of the AHTA 2022 Conference
On September 8-10, in Kansas City, Missouri the 2022 annual AHTA conference took place…in person. There were the usual challenges of attending a three-day conference, organizing travel and hotel reservations, navigating around an unfamiliar city, and acclimating to a different time zone. This year, of course there was the added worry of contracting COVID and bringing it home to family and friends. Even with the great advances medical science has gained in the battle with Coronavirus, we have not yet truly entered a post-pandemic existence.
For those who did take on the uncertainty of traveling, there were the marvelous benefits of joy and delight. The joy that comes from having conversations without a screen in between, giving and receiving a smile, a handshake or maybe a hug from someone you have not been in the presence of these last three years. Nothing compares to being in the company of a colleague, your cohort, or a dear friend. And the ability to meet someone new and form a friendship, the old-fashioned way, was truly delightful.
Acknowledging a Global Reawakening
The theme of this year’s conference was Renaissance in Bloom, reimagining and revitalizing horticultural therapy. The goal of the conference was three-fold; to acknowledge the global reawakening of the inherent need to be in the presence of plants and nature, to recognize opportunity in the societal desire to use garden spaces to improve mental health, and to employ the efficacy of horticultural therapy to provide solutions.
Pre-conference garden tours were offered at two urban farms in the greater Kansas City area. The first stop was Cornerstones of Care, Ozanam Farm School which provides educational and vocational services along with behavioral and emotional support to at-risk children and their families. Students of Ozanam tend the gardens from planting to harvest gaining hands-on experience and vocational skills. They also work on their behavioral, emotional, and social goals. The tour group explored the on-site fruit tree orchard, where many participants had their first encounter with a Jujube tree. There was also a live demonstration in the greenhouse from a student on how to construct and use “soil blocks”.
The second garden tour was KC Farm School at Gibbs Road. This is an urban farm with much to offer. Their mission is to bring individuals of all ages, ancestries, and abilities to the farm for connection with land, soil, food, and community. Here the tour group joined in preparing lunch made with harvested vegetables and herbs from the garden. An impassioned young woman, an employee of the farm, spoke eloquently about climate change, food justice and the future of farming. Her words struck a chord with many in the group. Conversations on the bus ride back to the hotel revolved around the thought-provoking experiences of the day.
Black American Gardening
Both the keynote speaker, Abra Lee and the plenary speaker, Ashley Williamson brought something different to the table this year. Lee is a horticulturist, black historian, and author. She enlightened the audience about the culture of Black American gardening. What was once viewed as unkempt and careless methods of black gardeners, in fact, has deep meaning and representation that was far too often misunderstood. She explained the black garden vernacular and introduced us to the untold stories of black farmers and gardeners throughout history in her soon-to-be-released book Conquer the Soil. Lee also pointed out that horticultural therapy is the Most Empathetic branch within the horticultural industry!
Ashley Williamson is the Chief Replication Officer at Giving Grove, a community garden initiative. The mission of Giving Grove is to strengthen communities and improve the urban environment through planting and caring for fruit and nut trees as well as berry brambles. Giving Grove takes abandoned city lots and transforms them into little orchards that deliver a big impact on the community. All produce is donated to local food banks. This impressive community garden initiative has grown to provide for the food insecure in cities from Seattle to Atlanta. In Williamson’s presentation, she shared some compelling stories from workers and recipients of Giving Grove. Everyone in attendance was in awe of what Giving Grove has accomplished and the future looks a bit brighter as they continue to plant publicly accessible orchards across the US.
The conference presentations offered a broad perspective of the good work being done in communities throughout our nation and beyond. From using community gardens as a place of hope and healing in Chicago to developing a site for community-based rehabilitation and horticultural therapy in the Caribbean and how Rikers Island Correctional Facility was able to continue to operate during the pandemic shutdown. To say the least, it was inspiring to learn how creativity and ingenuity kept much-needed therapeutic programs operational and how new programs were created to meet a critical need during such a precarious time in our history.
In his closing address, the Immediate Past President, Derrick Stowell challenged us all to become involved and incite the positive change that is now happening within the AHTA, to ensure this organization will continue to grow and be sustainable for the future. He asked us to consider joining a work team, becoming a board member, or an internship supervisor. Most importantly, to recognize that we can and must learn from Indigenous Peoples to heal ourselves and the land.