Incarcerated a total of eight times over 15 years, Darren Chapman sat in a maximum-security prison cell at age 25 and thought of happier times.
“I remember[ed] watching my grandfather trade collard greens and carrots with others and interacting with his community,” he says. “My dream as a little boy was to do the same; I wanted to work with others in the same community [of South Phoenix] where I grew up.”
After Chapman’s final release in 2005, he followed the example his grandfather had set and established TigerMountain Foundation (TMF), an organization that focuses on working the land and producing sustainable foods for the local economy, while also creating a sense of community.
“Community doesn’t happen unless people share something in common,” Chapman says. He felt that a community garden had the potential to bring people together around a singular goal and create “a classroom without walls and a place where people could feel proactive hope.”
Today, in an undeveloped industrial plot in an urban neighborhood in the middle of South Phoenix, an unlikely scene plays out: Volunteers scrape the earth to uncover sweet potatoes. Vendors sell kale, cactus, and red and green peppers in a small space outside the garden’s entrance, their wares lined up on picnic tables covered with bright tablecloths. A colorful mural depicting a young child holding a plant covers a nearby wall, setting the ambiance, and a local DJ spins Beatles songs.
TMF focuses on four community gardens, ranging in size from 1.5 to 18 acres and growing squash, melon, okra, onions, and tomatoes, among other crops. The nonprofit provides produce for more than 12 local farmers’ markets and grows specialty crops requested by local restaurants.
Gardening is only one aspect of the nonprofit, however. Chapman actively recruits the formerly incarcerated and people who grew up with hard lives surrounded by high-risk behaviors. TMF teaches participants practical, on-the-job landscaping skills, which include property cleanup, installing and repairing irrigation systems, and working on the garden’s overall design, in hopes they will develop a strong work ethic, spark ideas for a micro-businesses, and become financially literate by learning what it takes to harvest, grow, and sell produce. So far, Chapman says TMF has launched more than 1,000 entrepreneurs in various businesses.
A Force for Good in a Struggling Region
As founder and CEO of TMF, Chapman—now 53—focuses on a little bit of everything, from carrying out administrative duties to clearing the land to encouraging volunteers to absorb the philanthropic vibes in this South Phoenix community space.
Though the TMF garden produces food for the community, the connection with the land is also intensely personal for Chapman. It is how he escaped the prison pipeline.
Chapman grew up in a rough neighborhood where it was easy to make “horrendous choices and fall into criminal activity like gangs and drug dealing,” he says. He didn’t have the benefit of a “nuclear family or educational opportunities, and felt a gravitational pull toward less-than-ideal decisions,” and he spent his 20s in and out of prison.
In this region of Phoenix, crime rates are two times higher than the national average, and a quarter of the population lives in poverty. According to one study, South Phoenix is one of the most impoverished areas in the 4.7-million-resident Phoenix region. With these systemic factors are at play, it can be difficult to resist the temptation of bad choices.
Chapman attributes his evolution from inmate to CEO to the guidance of his grandparents, George Clarence “Bubba” Burnham and Jane Easter Burnham. “My grandparents were resilient, working hard to make a living,” he says.
He specifically credits his grandfather for pushing him to better himself while he was in prison and to transform the direction of his life. He witnessed his grandparents connecting with the land and saw how they formed a community garden in their neighborhood, where they grew plum and peach trees. “Everything revolved around building community in a natural way, through the land,” he says.
Acting on a Prison-Cell Epiphany
Still, an epiphany like the one he experienced decades ago in a prison cell isn’t always easy to make good on. Chapman faced some resistance in establishing a nonprofit that actively recruits the formerly incarcerated and recovering addicts. “Phoenix builds character, but without a formal pedigree, establishing a nonprofit, especially such a unique one, was an uphill battle,” he admits.
The struggle only fueled Chapman’s will to persevere, however. Ultimately, he put his faith in the perspective “that we are all just humans and there is no need for fences between people,” he says. “Digging in the dirt together, these barriers are eliminated.”
With this philosophy and Chapman’s resolve, TMF gained momentum in South Phoenix and attracted the interest of Social Venture Partners Arizona, a group of community and business leaders, philanthropists, and investors interested in funding nonprofits. In 2013, when Chapman pitched his idea about the community garden to SVP Arizona, they awarded him funding and the operational tools to run a nonprofit. With this honor, TMF received $100,000 dispersed over a period of five years. Chapman continues to apply for various local and national grants to sustain funding for his foundation.
This endorsement allowed Chapman not only to cultivate gardens, but to move beyond just growing food. It enabled him to recruit workers to help in landscaping and gardening, as well as teaching people about micro-businesses and financial literacy.
Although TMF is unique, there are several similar projects sprouting across the nation. RecoveryPark in Detroit tries to create jobs for those who face barriers through a community farm that supplies produce to 70 local restaurants. In Chicago, Windy City Harvest partners with the local botanical garden to provide transitional jobs to underprivileged youth. Milwaukee’s Growing Power served as an example of the redeeming power of urban gardening for decades.
Using the Garden as a Tool to Improve Lives
Chapman believes in paying it forward and taking a chance on those in underprivileged neighborhoods who face obstacles similar to those he encountered. TMF’s strategy, Chapman says, is to target those who have little hope and facilitate a passageway for change, with the end goal of figuring out “how TMF can impact each individual that walks in the door.”
Chapman derived TigerMountain’s name from the acronym “Tenacity, Integrity, Greatness, Empowerment, Resiliency”; its motto is “to empower communities to better themselves from within.” Many youth, teens, and adults, he explains, are seeking a “safe place from the violence they witness at home.”
“What is better than a garden, which has to be cultivated day after day, week after week?” Chapman says. “Digging in the dirt, working in the sun, showing up and being accountable—this garden is a tool for helping people strategize to make their lives better.”
But the gardens are only one of the ways people can seek refuge with TMF. Chapman’s asset-development model helps people learn about financial literacy, establish their own entrepreneurial enterprises, and foster workplace development.
Christine DeMyers, an Arizona State University Ph.D. student who is studying cultural anthropology and working with TMF, explains the approach: “The goal is to make the experience multidimensional by offering people options to do a variety of work, whether it means landscaping, community gardening, or learning more about financial literacy [and] entrepreneurial opportunities,” she says. DeMyers says this grassroots organization ultimately allows people to attempt to pull themselves out of poverty by observing how to take a vacant lot or an idea and turn it into a business.
Seventeen-year-old Emorej Daniels is one of the people learning to take their community garden experience at TMF and apply it to her personal life. She comes to the garden to “experience the positive vibe and participate in something positive,” she says. She calls the garden her haven, and said she “comes here to learn new things and hopes one day to grow my own garden by learning proper techniques.”
For America Lopez, the community garden space means something different. She sells sweet potatoes and other vegetables during the second Saturday of each month and also at the local farmers’ market.
Jasmin Ross helps Lopez with the customers. She moved from California looking to start a new life and loves how TMF “helps to inspire people and build women’s confidence.” She hopes to start a boutique for women’s clothing someday.
Digging in the Dirt Together
Chapman hopes TMF’s one-of-a-kind program is replicated nationwide. He is actively encouraging similarly situated communities in Baltimore to educate people about TMF, with the hope of enticing others with the notion of coming together through gardening, as well as educating people on financial literacy, workplace development, micro-business initiatives, and social or behavioral issues.
“The response is positive, and others seem interested in what TMF has accomplished and hope to do the same in their communities,” Chapman says.
As people finish tilling, gardening, and clearing branches, they head to a picnic table at the edge of the garden. Chapman’s wife, Leonara, cooks homemade meals for the volunteers and employees. Everyone gathers together, and one of the volunteers entertains the crowd by sharing his latest rap song. It’s impossible to ignore the palpable joy and togetherness in the garden.
Chapman knows this feeling of community is born out of the land. He pulls out the sweet potato from the ground, then looks up. “We are all digging in the dirt together,” he says. “We are part of this joint effort. The silo of Mother Earth offers hope, sustainability, and spirituality.”