Gwen Kokes is a phenomenal visionary and leader, working daily toward social and environmental justice. She was a key feature in our most recent issue of En Root, and now we have the opportunity to share a bit more about the story behind the woman in our Q+A below. Enjoy!
This month's theme is all about growth. Tell us about how you define growth, and how you stay committed to a growth mindset through your work.
We are constantly learning from our AmeriCorps Members at Civic Works. They come from all backgrounds – they’ve mostly been born and raised in Baltimore. We have some college students, some working on their GED, some building their own businesses. Every week, I meet with our Real Food Farm AmeriCorps Members and staff. It’s an opportunity not only to go over professional development events and record harvest numbers, but AmeriCorps Members can bring up concerns, ideas, and move our programming forward. Their energy keeps our programs fresh (literally and figuratively!) and useful for our customers.
At OutGrowth, we are committed to providing others with the tools for true growth. What do you think we as individuals can do to begin our growth journey today?
I believe we all (including me), shouldn't underestimate people in our sphere – neighbors, coworkers, kids, students – they all have ideas and perspectives that are vital to our societal development. Some of “my” best ideas are from volunteers who I didn’t think I would talk to after their service day, but gifted us excellent ideas. Oh, and ask questions. Be curious about how people you admire got to where they are and ask them for help. I have countless mentors that sharpen my skills.
Tell us about your most significant professional moment to date.
In my first year at Civic Works, and I was a corps member focused on youth education. My fellow corps member and I were responsible for the gardening class at an arts program in West Baltimore. Our timeslot competed for the dance class time, and BOGO day at the local skate rec center. So, our students were not exactly excited to be stuck with us. One of our more distracting students – we will call her “Mia” – was particularly frustrated one class. The students had collectively planted 4 trees in an adjacent field where the arts program hosts activities. Mia ripped one of the tree's (arguably most of the students’ favorite tree's) young branches – a bold move that was sure to kill the tree.
I was visibly upset. That tree had symbolized the students finally getting excited about their environment and taking care of their futures. A few kids cried. It was a mess and I didn’t keep my cool. But I went on a walk with Mia and we discussed why the students (and I) were upset. She didn’t understand that the tree meant more than an after-school activity and she didn’t know what it meant to her peers. When she realized the impact a tree could have, she made a sign with the name of the tree – Serviceberry – and where other students had given details of the tree, she wrote “I love you so much, tree.”
How did this experience change the course of your life, your career or your outlook?
Mia was not the nuisance I thought she was. She was the pivotal student that set the temperature in the classroom, and I needed to listen to her, know why she was distracted, and know how to bring her back to the task at hand – or not! It was this moment that taught me that an activity is not as important as I think. The kids needed to enjoy themselves in nature and understand their own perspective of nature, not just complete a lesson plan. This transformed how I teach and learn from students, my staff and AmeriCorps Members.
If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
It’s cliché but BE YOURSELF. Don’t compromise who you are for the comfort of others. And listen to silence – it speaks loudly.
What is your favorite quote or song lyric?
“You always knew the melody but you never heard it rhyme” –Brandi Carlile, “The Mother”
At OutGrowth, we believe in preparing the next generation of leaders. Based on your experience to date, what are the top three career competencies that you believe are essential in 2022?
1. Emotional intelligence
What's next? What are your next steps toward growth in 2022?
I will continue to challenge my perspective, especially as a white woman. We will build our food access programs to reach other demographics and bring food security to our neighbors through choice and dignity.
Gwen started as a corps member at Civic Works in 2015 and has worked there ever since. As the Food and Farm Associate Director, she oversees the urban farm – Real Food Farm – and their distribution projects to increase food access. Gwen was raised in Howard County, and her claim to fame is that her family used to own Greenfields Nursery in Roland Park, Baltimore.
Gwen's AmeriCorps Members at Civic Works bring her joy and knowledge, and keep her going, especially when they bring jammed goodies in.