What do building a self-heated shower, temporarily housing refugees, supporting international engineering projects, and raising chickens have in common? They are all underway at a little blue house in Downtown Harrisonburg, Vine & Fig.
A partner of Our Community Place and member of the national New Community Project, Vine & Fig exists to “build a more just and peaceful world where all can live in integrity,” according to http://www.ncpharrisonburg.wordpress.com. The organization takes a systems approach to create a “beloved community” in the style of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The backyard of the Vine & Fig headquarters is what my middle-aged conservative father would call “granola.” A large mural featuring the verse “And everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid” looks over a plot of land filled with gardens, chickens, cats, a composter, and repurposed bicycles. Surrounding the main property are homes used as offices and temporary housing, one of which is energy independent.
However “granola” the property may appear, granola is nourishing, and Vine & Fig nourishes communities far beyond its own premises.
“We’re not trying to be an enclosed thing, we’re trying to build out a whole neighborhood,” said Tom Benevento in a 2016 interview for Harrisonblog.
New Community Project has a gardening program that takes aim at the unhealthy diets often thrust upon low-income families. By helping neighborhoods and elementary schools secure land and cultivate vegetables, volunteers ensure that nutritious crops become available to all socioeconomic groups. Not only does having a garden improve diet, it reduces grocery bills and demand for big agriculture that degrades ecosystems.
Vine & Fig also operates its own low-emission farm, which is primarily run by the homeless or unemployed. Muddy Bike Urban Farm gets its name from the growers’ promise to run a zero-emissions operation; crops are harvested and transported via bicycle trailer. Muddy Bike has a table at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market each Saturday. This gives growers an opportunity to connect with others and encourage low-emission farming.
“We’re trying to figure out ways that we can divest from destructive systems that we have in our culture and build things that people can say “yes” to,” said Benevento. “We can be a positive influence in the natural world and in our communities.”
Another way NCP hopes to reduce CO2 emissions while simultaneously creating community is with the creation of a bike path in the north end of Harrisonburg. The path will make transportation accessible for low-income citizens who may lack a car or adequate budget for gas. According to NCP’s website, about 10-20% of Harrisonburg’s residents will be served by the path.
In fact, bicycle transportation is a long-standing movement of Vine & Fig. Our Community Place runs a free shop where people can come together to make repairs or donate and refurbish old bikes. Services are always pay-as-you-will.
Offering low-cost services is only one of the many ways NCP welcomes everyone into its projects. The River Rock House, a property along the gardens of Vine & Fig, houses those who have fallen on hard times, whether that be addiction, eviction, or escape from a war zone.
“It’s a supportive home, a safe place they can be, and a place where they can be surrounded by authentic relationships,” said Benevento. “Because real healing comes from real relationships.”
New Community Place supplements its service with science. Partnerships with students at JMU, EMU, and public school STEM programs allow for boundless experimentation and innovation. Environmental engineering has brought inventions from a self-heated outdoor shower to an industrial-sized salad spinner that turns lettuce grown on the premises into a product that can be delivered to local restaurants. Vine & Fig offers summer internships and practicums for students looking to become more involved.
Overall, Vine & Fig serves as an example of using the systems approach to social work to reach the goal of lifting populations that are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.
“We need to listen to those voices that aren’t being heard in our world,” said Benevento. “We’re hearing them say we need to live differently in the United States. We need to change policies. We need to change our affluence and our lifestyles… this is a response to the voices of people in struggle and oppression around the world.”