Victory Garden is a win for the Harambee Community

July 15, 2021

Kathy Gaillard
freelance contributor

Victory Garden Initiative (VGI), located in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood, is a non-profit organization that helps communities grow their own food and creates a community-led, socially just, environmentally sustainable, nutritious food system for residents. With offices located at 249 E. Concordia Ave., and its garden located at 220 E. Concordia Ave., the Victory Garden Initiative is making a positive difference in one of Milwaukee’s ‘food deserts’.

True to its slogan “This is a grassroots movement. Move grass. Grow food.”, Victory Garden initiative teaches residents how to grow food and supplies them with the resources needed to create their own sustainable gardens.

VGI was launched in 2009 when a group of community members recognized the negative environmental, social, economic, and health implications of communities like Harambee. The solution for addressing their concerns was to teach and help residents to grow their own food. Since then, VGI has installed more than 3,500 gardens, launched a 1.5-acre urban farm, and planted 26 orchards in low-income neighborhoods. In addition, VGI regularly teaches adults and children how to grow food and has trained more than 60 community food leaders. VGI also hosts an annual, signature event called The Great Milwaukee Victory Garden BLITZ. During the BLITZ, volunteers install hundreds of community gardens in one day. Last year— during the pandemic—VGI received a record demand for garden beds. Pushing themselves to the limit, volunteers installed 500 beds and cumulatively installed more than 5,000 gardens across Milwaukee!

The Milwaukee Times Weekly Newspaper asked newly appointed Executive Director Michelle Dobbs to share more about Victory Garden Initiative’s programs and her vision for the nonprofit organization:

You are Victory Garden Initiative’s first executive director, and an African American woman. How and why did you first become involved with VGI? I became involved with Victory Gardens in October 2020 while the organization was serving the community through the pandemic. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, VGI had pivoted from a ‘share cropping’ format to just giving away food every Friday that was harvested from our gardens. I first joined as a board member and then the board decided to create an Executive Director position, so I resigned from the board to become the Executive Director. This is my dream job!

What is your background and why are you so passionate about gardening? I am the owner of Sugarfoot, a consulting house specializing in creativity, community, and culture. I have a degree in Communications and French from Howard University and my professional experience includes working as an educator, nonprofit executive, author, and playwright. I began living the foodways and pathways of my people in my quest to unearth my heritage. I traveled to Senegal, the Gulf of Mexico, the Shawnee National Forest, and The Badlands of South Dakota to explore and live my culture. I’m also an ardent foodie who raises vegetables, fruit, nuts, and herbs at home with my husband, daughters, cats, dog and four chickens. It is an awesome experience to see people experience living on the land, living well, and growing their own produce.

What is most rewarding for you about working at VGI? I’m giving back in a way that feels really useful to my neighborhood of origin. I can see the difference that VGI is making in this community—people are delighted to be able to grow their own food. Through gardening, we are connecting people to the cycle of life by growing good, tasty food, from garden to plate. I like when people are engaged in what we are doing… This isn’t something alien; it is a place to nourish yourself and we deserve that.

How does one get involved with VGI? It’s quite simple. If residents are already vegetable gardeners, VGI helps them through mentoring. We also find creative ways to grow food right where they are—in their yards, on rooftops or patios – no piece of earth is overlooked. While our neighbor plots are all sold out, we have a variety of other activities for interested individuals. For example, one Saturday of each month, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., we have a yard party that includes vendors. Neighbors come out and swap seeds and learn gardening tips. Next month, we are taking on a bike trail ride. On Tuesdays, from 3-6 p.m., we have a food pantry, and on Fridays, from noon to 6 p.m. we offer a fresh farm stand where neighbors can come and pick up free produce. We don’t charge, but sometimes people make donations. VGI’s office hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., so stop by and let us know what how and where you want to volunteer. We have about six different categories where volunteers can plug in.

How many people does it take to run an operation like VGI? We have eight full time staff, but all our other initiatives are propelled by volunteers. We have about 10-12 volunteers that are 65 and older, about 25-30 kids that assist during the summer, and about 30 families actively involved with this initiative. Some of the volunteers are garden mentors, others help with setting up beds for others, and some share their talents— such as quilting and other ancestral traditions. Some of our volunteers are scientists who participate simply because they are interested in growing things. It’s really the volunteers that help us make this work.

For more information about Victory Garden Initiative, visit the website at