Kai Conley

“We grow together, share the work and share the harvest.”



Kai Conley is New Root Specialist at the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore

I’m Kia Conley. I’m the New Root Specialist at the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore, and I help support our community gardeners here in Baltimore. There are three community gardens. I help establish new relationships and partnerships to grow the program, and hope to provide more space in the future.

Also, we have a component of the program that is Food Secure Resettlement. We make sure our refugees are being resettled in communities one mile away from a full access grocery store. They’re seven miles away from culturally appropriate shopping options and grocery stores. They know how to use their food stamps. They know how to use their WIC.

We have a mobile market program as well. We partner with real food farms and provide farmers markets in their communities. This is in Moravia and Frankford area. They have access to fresh foods that way. That’s a double match program through food stamps. They can get $20 of produce by spending only $10.

I coordinate all these programs and work directly with the gardeners providing education, seeds, tools, soil and that sort of thing. You can imagine coming from Sudan, Bhutan or Cameroon. Many of our refugees used to be farmers. They used to garden. Some grew for market. Some grew for their families. These are pastoral cultures. They come here to resettle in cities like Baltimore.

Everything is new. They have to ride the bus and live in an apartment. This is one piece they already know how to do. They’re so skilled. They have access to a garden, access to get their hands dirty and really have a piece of home. They can grow what they used to grow. We can access Chinese Eggplants and pumpkins. They eat the shoots instead of the actual pumpkin piece. They can grow whatever it is they’re accustomed to.

The New Roots Community Garden that started the program is across the street at the Baltimore Orientation Center in Highlandtown. It’s our starter garden for newer arriving refugees. There’s also some folks who’ve been there for a couple years. Those are raised beds. They’re growing whatever it is that they would like. There’s two community beds as well.

We grow together, share the work and share the harvest. In the past we’ve done okra and potatoes in those beds. Then, we also have two community gardens out in the Frankford/Moravia area. One is called Karesa Bari, which in Nepali means ‘kitchen garden’. It’s a 100 percent Bhutanese garden. There’s

another called the Good Now Community Garden. It’s right next to the Good Now Community Center. We do that in partnership with the center and Real Food Farm.

Both gardens in Moravia and Frankford are run by Bhutanese gardeners. Both the Good Now and the Karesa Bari are these gardens. The Karesa Bari did win ‘Best New Community Garden in Baltimore’ a few years ago. As a prize, they got a fig tree which is still out there. That is such an amazing garden.

You got to go out there in prime growing season because the things that they are able to do are amazing. They use every little stick or twig around to make a trellis for their beans. They have zinnias and marigolds going down the sides. It’s just beautiful.

Highlandtown is a vibrant community that’s full of immigrants and many different cultures. It always has been. The IRC brings in refugees, asylees and migrants from many different nations. Just drive down the road of Eastern Avenue.

Friends will say, “Oh. You work at that place with all those flags.” I’m like, “Yes. Those flags represent the people who are moving into this community.” They’re shopping in these stores and so many of them have opened businesses in the area. Small Little Nepali Market is down the street. Our garden is one of those pieces in this neighborhood.

We have backyard gardeners all over the city. Anyone who has a backyard can get an approval from the landlord. We help to get them growing with soil, seeds, tools and things like that. We have folks down in Pigtown. We have folks in Druid Hill. We have folks in Dundalk. Refugees are growing all over the city.

The UMBC garden is a new project that we’re working on to get our refugees in the UMBC/Catonsville area onto the campus garden. A lot of our Burmese are having access to land. Otherwise, they were growing in their backyards anyway. We have backyard gardeners, and a lot of the Burmese are backyard gardening.

The more land, better quality soil and the community integration helps. At UMBC, they’ll be able to talk to students, staff, faculty and practice English. That’s something I’m looking forward to.