Alexis Carlsson is a fourth-year undergraduate international area studies major with a concentration in global science, sustainability and health, minoring in Spanish, public health and nutrition. She is passionate about the power of sustainable food systems to eliminate urban health disparities and promoting food justice and sovereignty in order to build healthy, diverse and resilient communities. She is the president of Drexel Urban Growers, a member of the Student Global Advisory Board and acts as a community health researcher for the River Wards Environmental Health project based at Drexel with professor Alison Kenner. She was also a news contributor for The Triangle from 2013 to 2014.
The Triangle: Describe yourself in three words.
Alexis Carlsson: Curious, ambitious and adventurous. I think these words drive where I want to be in my personal and professional life and they keep my life interesting.
TT: When you first came to Drexel as a freshman, what were you interested in?
AC: At first, I was most interested in medicine and joining organizations that were specifically focused on medicine, health and health care like Red Cross and the Global Medical Brigades. I knew I wanted something to do with health, I just wasn’t sure what aspect at the time, so I explored a lot of options.
TT: What are you involved in on campus right now?
AC: I’m the president of Drexel Urban Growers. We’re a student organization that works with the community to maintain and manage fourteen raised beds at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. We have a technical partner in Triskeles—an agricultural educational organization based in the suburbs of Philly. They provide us with the technical end of the program, which aims to donate over 90 percent of the food that you grow to the community, or a food bank, or a food pantry, or a food recovery kitchen.
TT: So most of the food goes to West Philadelphia?
AC: Yeah, 90 percent of the food that we grow is donated directly to the community members. It’s been working out really great these last few years. Since DUG is about five years old, it’s still a relatively new organization but we have a lot of different stakeholders. We have the Dornsife Center, DUG as a student group, the community members, and Triskeles. Keeping communication open and free-flowing between all of these stakeholders can get confusing sometimes, especially because students are leading the initiative, for the most part. But I think we’re really aiming to step up our role in the community and work more directly with them in the coming year.
TT: And what drew you to DUG as an organization?
AC: I returned from a health care study abroad program in Costa Rica in 2014. When I came back on campus in the spring, I was starting to get really interested in food. I had always been interested in nutrition just for my personal health but after studying abroad and taking environmental classes, I realized how important food was for communities, for the environment, and just how much industrial agriculture plays a role in environmental destruction. I signed up for Philly Food Works, which was a new community supported agricultural produce market, in their first year. They have three or four farms that they source from in the suburbs around Philadelphia but they also have all of these different sources in the city. I was really pumped to be getting this fresh produce on campus but the closest spot to pick up was in Fitler Square*. So I contacted the president of DUG at the time and told her that we should run a CSA through DUG because it really aligns with the mission. So we implemented it and I became CSA coordinator and vice president. This year, I stepped up to be president and became a lot more interested in just learning how to urban farm and garden. I didn’t have any experience at all but now I’m going through the Penn State Master Gardener Program. I did that just to get a little bit more of an understanding of gardening and make sure that we’re growing things correctly and getting the best use out of the land, the plants and the soil.
TT: What does being president entail?
AC: When I first started, I recruited my friend Haley Peckman and we wrote out five or six different positions. There wasn’t a lot of structure to the club before we came on. It was just kind of the traditional roles of secretary and treasurer and things like that. So we felt there was an opportunity to create positions like “volunteer events coordinator,” “CSA manager” and “garden manager” to get more students involved who really wanted hands on experience within urban agriculture and community development. Being president also means that you have a good, solid understanding of our mission and vision, which contain a lot of words like food access, food security, food sovereignty and food justice, and you understand the social implications of what you’re doing. In a more technical sense, being president means that you’re leading the harvest days in the summer with the garden manager, you’re coordinating meetings, coming up with new ideas and helping support the other positions. It really feels like we’re running a small non-profit somedays. You really have to put a lot of effort in but it’s super fulfilling.
TT: What’s your biggest accomplishment with DUG, so far?
AC: Growing the organization, as a whole. Haley and I—we have this full team now, and it’s all women. I’m like, “This is our little female farmer project!” But, now that we have this team of seven amazing, very diverse, women who come from all different backgrounds we can really start to implement programming based on our ideas and health assessments of the community. We’re currently developing a one- and two-year plan and looking to build our infrastructure up. We want to build a drip irrigation system and a greenhouse. We also harvested a record number of produce this past year. We had over a thousand pounds. Although, I may contribute that to the ridiculously long fall season where we were harvesting long into December.
TT: Has this influenced where you want to go after graduation?
AC: Absolutely. All of these experiences have showed me how important sustainable food systems are. I’ve done co-ops working with public assistance programs, food access issues and food security. So being a member and president of DUG, I’m looking at these issues a lot more comprehensively and just realizing how important a community garden is within the realm of food security. As far as community building, environmentalism and creating green space, community gardens are really critical, especially in areas that have a legacy of late industrialism or are historically marginalized. Social, environmental, and food justice all work together within a community garden setting and really aim to provide food access in communities and areas that don’t have a lot of resources. Looking ahead, I definitely want to work at the intersection of public health and food access, however that may look.
TT: Alright, take a second and think about this, if you were a plant, what kind would you be?
AC: I wish I knew about this in advance, I would have done more research. The funny thing is I just did this as an icebreaker for one of our meetings. I’m just gonna go back to basics and I’m not going to say a vegetable, even though that may hurt some people who read this. I’m gonna say sunflower because they’ve been my favorite plant since I can remember and they look so gorgeous in an urban farmer’s garden and they’re something I really want to plant this year at Dornsife. Everyone loves a good sunflower, you can even roast the seeds, so it’s a pretty useful plant.
If you want to get involved in the garden or local volunteer opportunities with DUG email [email protected].