Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean, the Executive Director of Literacy Mid-South.
My grandmother always told me that getting a tattoo would limit my chances of getting a good job. For Miles Tamboli, the exact opposite happened. Miles’ forearms contain a fork and shovel, a permanent reminder of his love for food and soil. Having recently returned to Memphis after college in New Orleans, Miles fortuitously sat next to Lisa Moore, the executive director of Girls, Inc, during dinner at Fuel Cafe. The two struck up a conversation about his tattoos, and Miles shared his intention to build and operate a nonprofit urban farm. Soon, the two were discussing opportunities for a 10-acre piece of land in Frayser that had originally been donated to Girls, Inc. as space for a new youth center that ultimately never happened. Together, Miles and Lisa developed the Youth Farm, a program for girls 16-18 who are interested in entrepreneurship, leadership, and civic engagement. Today, the farm has been changed from a vacant lot with chin-tall weeds into a vibrant training ground for young talent in Memphis.
Miles is an obvious choice for The Dean’s List. In conversation, he transitions easily from conversations ranging from health inequality to the importance of honeybees in food production to the twelve hens and a rooster he keeps in his backyard. He views his urban farming program as a new norm in fighting for justice, one that tackles blight, unemployment, and women’s equality. Miles is an important part of the future landscape for nonprofit entrepreneurship in Memphis, and his unique vision for tackling important issues in Memphis sets him apart.
I wish I could choose six, because the six young women I work with at the Girls Inc. Youth Farm are an incredibly promising bunch.
Charlie Caswell stands out to me as a shining example of community leadership. In his work in Frayser he galvanizes and supports a huge number of folks who are working night and day to create & sustain business opportunities in Frayser. He has created a small business incubation hub in a re-purposed church, he hosts job fairs, youth activities, law enforcement community meetings, and regularly visits Washington and Nashville to voice the concerns of his neighborhood. I see a lot of positive growth in Frayser’s future, and I think Charlie plays a pivotal role in setting he stage for what is to come
Why did you choose to return to Memphis over staying in New Orleans?
I was inspired to do the work that I do by the Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans. Their work at the intersection of youth, food, and community highlighted so many of he societal struggles I had seen growing up in Memphis. When I saw the power of growing food with young people, I knew that there was a place – a necessity, really – for this kind of work in Memphis. At the risk of sounding cliché, I felt a calling to come back home and make the fullest use of the educational and resource potential I have access to, in order to create something that will grow and impact our youth, our food system, and our community in a sustainable and culturally appropriate way.
When you moved back to Memphis, what were some of the most exciting changes you noticed?
Personally, I’m a big fan of all the new amenities. It’s still a pretty thrilling experience to bike around Memphis, but there are many more protected lanes than there once were. The Greenprint plan is hugely exciting. I’ve always enjoyed Memphis’ food more than any other city I’ve visited, but we’ve made some real leaps in providing healthier options and less Styrofoam. There are some cool new coffee shops and breweries, and I have to admit I enjoy my local beverages. Despite the controversy over the Greensward/Zoo parking issue, Overton Park has completely transformed from a desolate space with a poor reputation to a bustling outdoor recreation site. And Shelby Farms is undergoing serious renovations which should attract a lot of attention to the marvelous outdoor protected areas in our great city.
I think amenities play a pretty pivotal role in retaining our population and attracting investment to the city, and I hope that as our city grows and rebuilds we plan thoughtfully, and build intentionally so that the work we do has an equitable impact across our city. We are at a point in our growth in which we can plan to rebuild communities without fostering gentrification, and I hope that we are able to hear the voices of our neighbors when we initiate projects so that everyone will have access to the investments and advantages we cultivate.
Why did you choose to work with Girls Inc.?
When Lisa asked me to direct the Youth Farm in 2014, my first question was, “Why me?”
As a heterosexual white male I’ve always wondered what my role could be in working toward gender equity. Working directly in social justice is a priority for me, and I’m constantly challenged to find ways to be an effective ally for oppressed groups in my community. Having never directly experienced what the girls in my program experience, I have to continually challenge myself to find ways to make sure that my actions foster a space in which my girls can grow. By working with the incredible team at Girls Inc. I’ve found fulfillment in my role as a caring, consistent adult male in the lives of my girls. There are many roles I can’t fill in my girls’ lives, but I can build an environment where they can grow, take healthy risks, feel safe & secure, and know that they matter because of who they are & what they do.
When people hear the phrase “sustainable farming” they might not immediately think of social justice issues. How does the Youth Farm help tackle bigger issues involving inequity, poverty, etc.?
To a farmer sustainability is always a goal on the horizon. We strive to cultivate systems that will create, produce, and grow without needing outside input. Farmers are masters of creative problem-solving. Farmers make use of whatever resources are available to address the needs that take priority. In Memphis, we are in a unique position because we host staggering statistics in the areas of health, poverty, crime, blight, demographic equity, employment, and education. A farmer will split these issues into their component parts and see the potential attached to each issue. We have an abundance of land available, a marvelous growing climate, a hungry & sick population (a market), a ready workforce, and a population of youth looking for opportunities outside of school. As far as I’m concerned, sustainable farming activates all the potential available. That’s why we pay young women to grow vegetables in a food desert. In addition to using sustainable agricultural methods we strive for sustainability in our community, in our finances, in our investment into our city’s young people, and in our commitment to social justice.
At the end of the program, what changes do you hope to see in the girls you serve?
The Girls Inc. Youth Farm is not a vocational program. Our program gives girls the tools to be strong, smart and bold by giving them a farm to manage. I hope to see my girls physically and mentally healthy, bold enough to take healthy risks, smart enough to make the choices that are in their best interests, and resilient enough to strive for their self-designed success.
What led you to live in the Binghampton community?
When I moved back to Memphis in 2014 a friend connected me with Carl Awsumb and the McMerton Gardens in Old Binghampton. I volunteered a few times, and was struck by the incredible diversity of the neighborhood. There are a number of refugee resources in the neighborhood, which has led to a population that represents communities the whole world over. There are a lot of gardens in the neighborhood, lots of families and pedestrian activity, and Caritas Village – a home base for social justice folks and good food.
You serve as bee keeper to half a million bees on the farm. Why did you choose to invest in bees over, say, gold?
Haha, well now that you put it that way… I keep bees for a number of reasons. Yes, I’m an adrenaline junkie, and yes, I enjoy honey, but I primarily keep bees because they play a very important role in our ecosystem. I really strive for whole-system sustainability in my farming methods. The soil microbes, the worms and the butterflies, the weeds and the trees, the birds, the feral cats, the chickens, the vegetables, the water and the sun, and the hands and feet that work our land all play a role in balancing our system in such a way that we can grow really high quality, delicious food. Nourishing food can only result from a whole systems approach that accounts for every biological niche. Our bees pollinate a huge portion of the food we need to survive, and native populations are in a state of decline. The way I see it, I don’t own the bees. I don’t manage the bees – they manage themselves. But I did build them a home, and I try to make sure they have everything they need to thrive. About a third of the rows we’re planting this year provide food for bees and birds, and won’t be harvested for sale. Our flowers are an investment in a robust ecosystem.
How often do you get stung?
My first day beekeeping I got stung about twenty times. Since then, the bees have quieted down and have become accustomed to my intrusions into their abode. I’ve learned to slow down and be respectful, and I’ve become a tank-top-and-flip-flop beekeeper. If my memory’s right, I’ve only been stung twice in the past calendar year.
What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened on the farm?
Our farm is on a fairly active pedestrian corner in a neighborhood. We’re generally morally opposed to fences around our farm, and we readily welcome folks in. It’s how we’ve built some really strong relationships with our neighbors. Visitors often ask me what we do to prevent theft of food from the field. I’ve always planted enough that if some went missing, it wouldn’t put us out of business. After all, we’re there to feed the neighborhood, and it’s not the end of the world if someone takes our food home without paying. That said, theft is often a concern, and I take an interest in others’ interest in the farm.
One day last summer, one of our youth crew members – who happens to live directly across the street from the farm – called us to tell us somebody was out in the field. I high-tailed it to the farm to apprehend the criminal who was stealing from a youth organization, and just about flew from my truck to the field only to find an elderly neighbor chopping weeds in the nearly-100-degree heat. As I approached he said something to the tune of, “y’all looked like you could use a hand!” I’d come prepared to catch a crook – a hardened criminal – in the act of stealing from our farm, but when I arrived all I found was a kind neighbor who was touched by what we do and wanted to lend a hand. Needless to say, our opinion on fences was validated that day.
Describe the perfect meal in Memphis.
I have two favorites. One is the oxtail meal with boiled okra and candied yams at Madea’s in Frayser. Every meal comes with a cornbread pancake, and is always Thanksgiving sized. If you can finish it all in a sitting, you’ll be asleep within an hour. It’s incredible. I’d have to say the catfish special at Ms. Girlee’s Soul Food is a very close second. It comes with cornbread and two sides – usually seasonal. I’ll go for the stewed cabbage, greens, yams, or just a big helping of dressing.
Of the many issues we face, what’s the most important issue you believe Memphis must remedy in order to move us forward as a city?
I pride myself on working in social justice, promoting green space, working to alleviate poverty and feed our neighbors, but there’s one issue to which I have not been able to find a constructive solution. There’s a bus stop on the corner of our farm, and I see folks waiting for the bus for 2-3 hours on a regular basis. Almost daily, neighbors come by the farm looking for work. They can’t make the bus trip to another part of town for consistent gainful employment.
It takes me twelve minutes to drive from my home in midtown to my far in Frayser. It would take 2-3 hours to get there on the bus. Each way. If I didn’t have a car and couldn’t ride a bike, my commute would prohibitive. This situation is indicative of many folks’ employment situations all over the city. Someone with children – or even a dog – can’t rely on public transportation to get to & from work unless they live on the Poplar corridor (and those folks probably don’t need to use public transit).
We’ve annexed our city into a sprawling segmented giant with very few equitable resources available to those who need them to climb out of poverty. I think that if we could renovate our transportation behemoth in such a way that it would provide equitable access to jobs and resources, our hardworking citizens would be able to climb out of poverty, start accruing wealth, and would work towards investing in a stronger, more robust city.
If you’d like to contribute to the Girls, Inc. Youth Farm, click here.