When Jim Guckert retired in the District, he knew little about Sasha Bruce Youthwork. For 25 years they’d operated a housing program for youth in his neighborhood, but despite wanting to be helpful, he didn’t have anything to do with them. In fact, he and his neighbors experienced somewhat of a roller coaster relationship with Sasha Bruce and Sasha Bruce youth; perceptions went up when things were quiet and down when situations became challenging. He remembers that the term “Sasha Bruce kids” was laden with assumptions and negative connotations.
Guckert is the Founder and Executive Director of Guerrilla Gardeners, a non-profit organization focused on the beautification and maintenance of public parks and gardens throughout the District. It’s a role he both created and happened into, after attending a ribbon cutting event fifteen years ago for a reclaimed “pocket park” in his neighborhood, a previously neglected and abandoned space that a non-profit group had cleaned up and re-planted as part of the Barracks Row Main Street Rejuvenation.
Guckert enjoyed the new green space and appreciated the non-profit group’s efforts. But he noticed over time that despite the fanfare and celebration of the park’s opening, the park’s maintenance wasn’t getting as much attention. Or any attention, actually. As the park began to slide once more into decay, Guckert got moving. He enlisted some of his neighbors, gathered some basic gardening tools and began guerrilla gardening.
Guerrilla gardening is a concept that began in the 70’s as a way to make unused and neglected spaces beautiful, green and healthy. Early guerrilla gardening often took place in the dead of night because the activity was considered a guerrilla movement, unsanctioned and unsupported by city authorities. But Guckert didn’t hide his activities. Though nervous at first that the city might try to sanction him or order him to stop, he quickly realized that he wasn’t interfering with the city’s maintenance plan because there was none.
His volunteer efforts grew into a full-fledged non-profit organization: Guerrilla Gardeners of Washington, DC. It remained a volunteer group, however. Neither Jim nor his cadre of gardeners received any funds for their work. Contributions were requested for gardening supplies and tools, but no one received a stipend or pay.
In December 2021, Guckert was working on Barracks Row, when a woman, Pam Leiber, approached him. She explained that she was the Director of Sasha Bruce’s Drop-In Center, just up the street, and that two of the youth at the center had seen him working and wanted to help out. Would he take on these youth as volunteers? Casting aside any hesitations, he agreed.
Guckert sees similarities in the two organizations’ missions. Guerrilla Gardeners plants seeds in neglected, sometimes abused, plots of land. From those seeds grow beautiful flowers and green spaces. Sasha Bruce uses a positive youth development framework to plants seeds of connectedness and autonomy within youth who have faced abuse, abandonment, neglect or violence. “It’s got the same essence of what a group like mine does,” he says, “improve community!”
Guckert began working with the youth and found no pushback from his regular volunteers. “They altered perceptions,” he says of the two youth working side-by-side with his neighbors. “Both the community and the youth had to reconsider their perceptions of each other.”
Impressed by the commitment of a particular youth named White Dawes, Gucket established an internship that would allow him to offer Dawes a stipend. He introduced the concepts behind gardening and landscaping, and, throughout all of 2022, he watched as the young intern grew and thrived.
“White has been terrific,” he says. “He still faces life challenges, but he’s grown and contributed to the community. He’s built relationships with other volunteers, and our neighbors like seeing the positive side. They’re encouraged by his story. He’s grown, and so have they.”
Based on the success of his work, Guckert and Sasha Bruce’s Senior Manager of Individual Giving Leigh Bailey collaborated on a grant proposal to launch a workforce development/ beautification pilot project at the Sasha Bruce House emergency shelter from April to September 2023. The project combines landscaping and urban agriculture training with hands-on campus beautification. It will result in ten Sasha Bruce youth working and learning together as they improve the physical grounds of the Bruce House. All youth will be paid stipends on an “earn while you learn” basis.
Dawes has been hired to work alongside Guckert to develop the program, and Guckert says he couldn’t do it without him. “White’s a team leader with lived experience, and other Sasha Bruce youth relate to him. He’s become known as the guy working with Guerrilla Gardeners, and it’s a confidence booster. None of these kids have chosen the life they’ve been given, and they shouldn’t be judged on the bad hand they’ve been dealt but how they’ve responded to it when given support and encouragement.”
Due to his involvement with White and other Sasha Bruce youth, Guckert amended the mission statement that guides Guerrilla Gardeners to include a reference to positively impacting the lives of at-risk youth and providing internships to young people facing homelessness and food insecurity. “The youth I’ve met and worked with have had a terrible start in life. At an early age, they’ve had to be concerned about where to sleep, or eat. It’s hard for someone like me to understand; it’s not something I can speak to myself. But these youth want to be seen as net contributors to their community, and I’ve become a shameless promoter of Sasha Bruce.
“Guerrilla Gardeners began as a beautification effort, but we are now trying to improve the social environment of our community. Sasha Bruce plants the seeds, and these kids are absolutely blooming. I want to give them a chance to change the dynamics in their lives, and, if nothing else, I want them to learn that they can get off the trajectory they’ve been set on and choose their own path. I want to build hope.”
The project will assist youth in learning time management skills, interpersonal skills and communication while also improving the grounds of Bruce House. “I want to make it more welcoming so that youth can feel good about going there,” Guckert says. “Their efforts will build the future for new youth to come. Youth often think that nothing they do matters, but gardens produce quick and noticeable results. I want their work to foster pride of ownership.”
Guckert has also learned a lot. “Working Sasha Bruce has been very eye-opening. I’m thrilled to be a part of the vital work they do.”