Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Project Native: Growing from the Heart

Project Native is a native plant nursery and more in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Native plants, as their website explains, are "species that grew in this region prior to European settlement." The operation sits on a 54-acre farm in the town of Housatonic, and its all-female crew of eight runs a host of programs, like educational outreach and a seed bank (you can read more below!). Its mission? All about inspiring "the stewardship of natural communities" and "connecting people to nature and through that empowering [them]," says Raina Weber, the twenty-seven-year-old founder and executive director of Project Native. Recently, this dynamic woman took a break from her work to share her story and advice for girls with us. I have to put her advice for girls who want to start a project young (she began it at 19) right here, right up front, because it gives goosebumps it's so good:

We all have this gut instinct of knowing something what will work, and as long as it’s coming from a good place, a good solid place, a place from love and kindness, it will work. Just keep that motivation and keep hold of that passion, and you’ll persevere. You’ll have support. You’ll find support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what adults are for, and a lot of them are really willing to give that energy. I see a lot of young people tend to be like, “I can do it. I don’t need your help.” Quite the contrary--we can learn from people who have lived longer and have had more experiences. As long as we hold onto our gut instinct, and make sure that it becomes our project and we don’t do whatever people tell us to, we can really utilize that advice. Also, there will be rocks in the road. That’s normal, that’s life. Just keep persevering.

Wow. Thanks, Raina! Read on for the rest of the inspiring interview! And by the way, if you're a girl (or anyone) who lives in the area and would like to help out, they offer flexible internships and volunteer positions--whatever you can make work. Their contact information is at the end of the post.

(For photo credits, see end.)

About Raina's Job

New Moon: You’re executive director of Project Native. Does that mean that you get to
spend a lot of time outdoors?

Raina Weber: Unfortunately, no. I’m also the founder of Project Native, so when I started the project, I spent a good amount of time outdoors, because the initial start-up involved building a greenhouse and collecting about twenty species of native perennials from wild locations throughout Berkshire County, and then propagating them on-site at our greenhouse. That was the majority of my job, but it’s also always been about fundraising and community support—raising community awareness—and then the educational program development component. As it’s progressed, I find myself indoors almost entirely.

What’s a day in your life like?

A day in my life…generally has a lot to do with grant-writing, fundraising, possibly meeting face-to-face with donors, or preparing persuasive grant proposals. I also deal with the daily operations. We now have a staff of eight here, in different programs. Our programs range from a greenhouse, which is more of our business and has earned revenue for the non-profit, to our seed banks, in which we preserve all of the 150 species that we’ve collected and propagated now. We have a landscaping component through which we do public and private restoration, as long as it’s eighty-percent native plants or more. We have educational programs, which are both on- and off-site. We also do community gardens, integrating natives and vegetables at different sites throughout the Berkshires, primarily more “at-risk” populations out in Pittsfield—homes for young women and their children, Section 8 housing. We also have a small garden shop where we retail and wholesale our plants, other products we create here, and our seeds.

Wow, so you’re pretty busy.

Yes. Extremely. We also own fifty-four acres. We have a beautiful farm that we bought at a very low rate. We spent a lot of time in our first three years here with a lot of sweat equity and a lot of fundraising and a lot of volunteer help to make this place look like what it looks like today, which is quite beautiful…We just took down three-quarters of an old dairy barn that was falling apart, salvaged the timbers, and fourth that we kept will become our first indoor classroom, an educational center, and a seed cleaning facility. So that’s exciting. It also makes the property look a lot better!

On Project Native's Growth

What was it like to watch [Project Native] grow and gain support from just starting a greenhouse?

It’s been absolutely amazing, because when I developed the concept for the project and started, I really had no idea how it would go. My background is not in botany or in horticulture. In fact I did drop out of high school and moved to Hawaii when I was sixteen-turning-seventeen and got very much into permaculture there. Not as an official career path, but just in hanging out at various farms, learning, then eventually starting my own farm there. When I moved back three years later at nineteen, I just wanted to continue to grow. I quickly found out through some of my own landscaping projects that there was a need for native plants to be used in landscaping, particularly at that time at private homes. I was trying to recreate what I found the most beautiful landscaping, which was nature’s landscaping, and finding lack of those materials.

I was fortunate enough to have a connection with a nonprofit called the Railroad Street Youth Project, and that’s still in existence today and has done very well. It was only a month old at this time, and it was started by a peer of mine from high school who had also dropped out of high school. The nonprofit recognized the need for a youth empowerment center that went beyond the normal youth centers, if you will. One that actually asked the kids, “What do you want to do? What inspires you? What kind of projects would you like to see happen in the Berkshires?” They raised the money to send me to an 8-week business course, where I built the plan for Project Native, and gave me access to mentors, who helped me learn how to grant-write and begin Project Native.

So watching it grow has been mind-blowing, really, to say the least, because we never could have imagined that we’d own fifty-four acres and have a crew of eight and have this much community support and be growing over a hundred and fifty different species. And really, we’re just growing. We have not reached a stagnant point at all in our organization. Quite the contrary, we’re getting bigger and stronger every day.

I’m so personally inspired by this story…

I was nineteen when I started Project Native, and it was challenging, because at that age, and even at my age now, there’s not a whole lot of life experience to go on. And I have to say that’s part of why this project’s been so successful, though…My friends who I was hiring and I were not bred from a place that was thinking inside any sort of box. We had no idea what other nursery industries were doing, what worked, what didn’t. So we went on our gut feelings and instincts and a lot of motivation and passion, and that’s what has really made it work to date now…

What empowered you to make this bold step in your life at such a young age?

There’s a combination of events…High school always really frustrated me. I did well. It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable of learning in the way the system is structured. It was quite the contrary; I did quite well. But I was really bored—really, really bored—to the extent that it kind of drove me up the wall, which is why I made that kind of crazy and nonconformist decision to drop out of high school and then left my parents’ home six months later and flew to Hawaii with no plan whatsoever. So I guess I always had that in my blood, so to speak, that yearning for adventure and something different. But when I came back to the Berkshires, primarily for financial reasons, I very much wanted to in many ways prove that I wasn’t this at-risk youth that had no potential because I’d left school and the traditional system, that there wasn’t any possibility for me. So part of it was this strive to sort of prove something…to myself, my family, the community that I’d grown up in.

Another part of it was just I’ve always enjoyed innovative and new projects. I’ve always been that way. I never really got a job working for someone else. From the time I was young, I did things like make lemonade and bake sales, and that’s how I always made my allowance…so I guess I’ve always been entrepreneurial. And it just didn’t seem that risky. I wasn’t that attached to money, I had cheap rent, no belongings, no debt. So it was like, “Why not? Why not try to make something like this work, put my energy there and see what comes from it?” So that’s the key to doing something young, before you have kids, before get married, before you’re worried about buying a home or any of those things…to start something innovative and dangerous and many ways. You have the option to do that when you’re young, and I recognize that.

On Nature and Project Native's Mission

Your Motto is “Growing Nature’s Garden”… How has nature shaped you? What do you want [Project Native] to offer others by helping others connect to it?

[It was] one of the ways that I really became grounded in myself in growing up as a female, not really following your general path of either being a career woman or having kids and starting a family. Neither of [those paths] really fit me, and nature has always been a mentor for me. It’s always just been a place where I felt at peace, where I felt the strongest, where I felt the most inspired. When I started learning about invasive species, which are plants that originated somewhere else, have moved into your area, it doesn’t matter where, and have not evolved with the rest of your species. A lot of times, and with invasive species in particular…because they haven’t evolved, haven’t formed those niches, they can tend to take over. They don’t have checks and balances in place. So where maybe fifty, sixty species grew together in harmony, all of the sudden you have one that wipes out the entire population. When I started recognizing that most of that was direct impact from humans—we brought them here for gardens or for fencing for cattle on top of the fact that we were the number one destroyer of natural habitat just with homes and roads and cities. I just felt it was my responsibility to start giving back, to take care of the earth, and in doing so [I knew] we’d only feel more empowered and inspired.

Thanks again, Raina!

To contact Project Native:

Project Native, Inc.
342 North Plain Road (Route 41)
Housatonic, MA 01236
Phone (413) 274-3433
Fax (413) 274-3464

Here are some more links you might be interested in:
Yankee Magazine's article about Project Native:
Native Plant Network:
Plant Native:

Wishing you your own fantastic feelings of growth, Elizabeth

**Photo credits: Photo of Raina Weber: unknown, Photo of crew and photo of Black-eyed Susan: Rachel Kramer


poetryman69 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Really makes me feel validated and proud to see that someone has different ideas and a lot of passion and is a success in her own eyes and in the community's. I love that she's not packed in the traditional educational box.

I didn't go to college. Not because I was stupid, but because I couldn't afford it and I didn't know exactly what I'd do. But, many people make me feel inadequate, because they've had more formal education. Yet, some of the least educated people I know have graduated from a 4 year college. Reading a story like this makes me say, "YES!" because it recognizes that not all education happens in the traditional classroom. You can be bright, passionate and have ideals and still be successful. Thanks!