Kennedy Woodfork isn’t afraid of bugs or dirt like some 15-year-olds. In fact, she’s spending her summer pulling weeds, harvesting her own tomatoes, and otherwise caring for a community garden in Grant Park. 

Woodfork is one of 18 students in the new tour guide program at Urban Growers Collective, a nonprofit managing eight gardens, mostly on the South Side of Chicago. The camp teaches students about everything from gardening and compost to food justice and the agriculture industry — all in the center of downtown Chicago. 

And as students go through the program, they spread the word by giving tours of the garden to curious tourists. 

For Woodfork, her newfound love for gardening and her passion for a big city like Chicago are not mutually exclusive. She said she’s excited to showcase her work on her tours to convey the two together. 

“It’s one of the best cities in the world,” she said. “Chicago is very alive. I love it.”

The tour guide program is a part of the decade-old partnership between the Urban Grower’s Collective, formerly Growing Power, and After School Matters, one of Chicago’s most visible programs for teenagers in the summer. The curriculum, designed by Urban Growers, uses the garden as a vehicle for teaching about advocacy, environmentalism, and public speaking. As a part of After School Matters, students are also paid for their participation, removing barriers for students who need summer income. 

Most days begin with weeding, planting, or harvesting in the garden, and in the afternoon, the group learns about the science and social implications behind its work. 

As Chicago leaders wrestle with how to improve outcomes for city youth, especially in the summer, these students are engaging with farming even in a dense metropolis. Some students remark they are still learning and struggle to see themselves as advocates. But many now see engaging with environmental justice or agriculture in their future. 

“I wouldn’t call myself an advocate yet,” said Nikki Penny, a student at South Loop College Prep. “Hopefully I get to that point, but I’m learning more about it and being more aware, and trying to make others more aware about what we’re doing here.” 

Woodfork said she hadn’t thought about agriculture before joining the camp, but now she’d like to have her own organization like Urban Growers Collective.

“But I want to be the boss,” she added.

Nal Xviera, a rising junior at Whitney Young Magnet High School, said the hands-on curriculum connects caring for a garden to science concepts. 

The program links the students’ work with larger environmental efforts going on in Chicago. On a field trip the day before, Xviera said she learned about efforts to be a more eco-friendly city, from creating more green spaces to cleaning up the Chicago River. Still, she doesn’t get to engage with these passions during the school year. 

“Having something as hands-on as this in a school would be really good because it teaches students to be able to provide for themselves a bit more,” she said. “It also instills a sense of responsibility because you have to take care of yourself.”

Hidden in plain sight in Grant Park, Woodfork hopes more people will visit their garden to see their hard work and learn about the topics in the curriculum. 

She said everyone should know how to grow lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes. When she gets back to school, she plans to teach other students about GMOs, pesticides, and compost. 

“This helps the environment and us as people,” Woodfork said. “I want to stay on this planet for a long time.”