Erika Allen

Co-Founder and CEO of Operations

Organization: Urban Growers Collective
Location: Chicago, IL

Social Media: @urbangrowerscollective

Current work in response to COVID-19: Erika Allen is providing no contact farm fresh produce pick up and matching orders with donations of food bags to Claretian Homes for Seniors and Thresholds in Chicago.

I’m excited to be a Castanea Fellow because… It will enable me to leverage my work and relationships in ways that I hope will shift and reframe the narrative of what good food can do for communities.

What is the challenge your work addresses?

Healing and sustainable food production, infused with creativity. There is an urgency to save peoples’ lives on a multitude of levels and along that continuum to slow down the pace, and have the ability to come into a garden or farm space and have a healing moment, to exhale and breathe in, lessening the impact of trauma. There’s a complexity around making it simple again, while also addressing very complex social problems that are rooted in structural violence and racism.

Policy is something that is very important, and which also takes time and relationships. It took 20 years to build a cohort of people in Chicago that represents the people who are most impacted by dysfunctional food policy. This work is also healing work, when it’s done in authentic and inclusive ways. It requires patience, relationship building, bridge building and constant nurturing.

Running in parallel to these things are the realities of economics. Having a baseline of economic support enables real change to happen because you can refine your focus to fewer issues.

What strategies are you using to address the challenge?

My work in the coming years will focus on creating a sustainable, for-profit energy production model using an anaerobic digester to create renewable fuel and compost for food production. Building a profitable business entity, that is rooted in social change. The mission is to develop regenerative economic systems as a way to generate wealth. I hope to take that system – which is based around food and energy - and replicate that in areas of the world that are dependent on external sources of fertility and non-renewable power.

I’ll be learning about the economics of these systems, capital and equity investors and transitioning to the space of operating a for-profit entity.

What does success look like to you?

Creating the environments that provide healing foods, and peaceful experiences for growth and reflection, and economic development opportunities. Getting the first digester up and operational so that people can see it, after a decade of planning and to make sure it works at the household and small urban farm level. Having an opportunity to tell the story and do some economic modeling around how to leverage investment to create opportunities for people in my neighborhood to own part of the project.

Having an engine that can literally create energy, be sustainable and create wealth in ways that are not exploitive is exciting. There are regenerative possibilities that are important within the context of climate change. There are rich educational possibilities, as well. Being able to create a system where people don’t have to destroy other geographic locations to access energy is exciting.

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