Westgarden Steward Abigail Lazarowski is leaving Whidbey Island later this winter to pursue personal and professional goals in the Portland, Oregon area. While we’re sad to see her go, we’re excited about the potential for a new team member to join us, and we’re proud of the care with which Abigail is stewarding our garden through this transition. Yesterday, Communications Manager Marnie Jackson sat down with Abigail to talk about the transition, the garden, and what to expect in the months ahead. Here’s that conversation.
Marnie: Can you tell me more about how you came to the garden?
Abigail: I came in 2014 as our Westgarden apprentice. That first year was, in some ways, perfect for getting me ready for this role. I received great leadership training, and Maggie Mahle—my teacher and mentor—gave me a lot of responsibility. She was an excellent teacher, guiding me into that leadership role that was required of me when I took the garden on. I was able to experience a full year of being in charge of crop plans, organizing and facilitating work parties, and making to-do lists with her support.
How did working alongside Maggie impact your approach to the garden?
She was and still is a dear friend and mentor. We stay in touch, and I reach out with questions from time to time. She taught me a lot about listening and paying attention to your space, treating it holistically. The garden, to her, was not just a space where you come to check off your to-do lists and finish tasks, but a place that invites close attention to an entire garden ecosystem. She had deep respect for the plants and all the creatures who live in the space. She helped me hold that kind of vision and perspective, and she taught me a lot about how to be a mentor for the subsequent years when I coached apprentices of my own. Being a recipient of her conscientious leadership taught me how to be in that teaching role. She modeled humility, and struck a great balance between being a friend as well as a teacher and mentor.
“I feel honored to have been entrusted with a garden that’s been so well cared for by so many people for so long.”
Can you tell me more about why you’re transitioning?
To be honest, I’m feeling a call outward into the world . . . I’m called to keep exploring. I really love my work here and feel like I’ve grown so much from it. In many ways I’m sad to leave, but I feel like there are other parts of my life that I need to nurture. My partner Karl is a baker, and he’s been very successful running his own small bakery here on Whidbey. He is excited to work with another baker in Portland and build his skill set . . . to be in a student role again, where he can grow his understanding of and passion for bread.
What kind of connection do you expect to have with this organization once you depart?
I love it here and it feels like a home. The Institute has been much more than work for me—it’s a community of people that I really love and respect. I plan to stay connected, and I’m open to coming back and continuing to help train the next person who comes into this role at different points in the season if needed. This quieter season is a great transition time, but I’ll be happy to help with the questions that arise, and come visit when the season picks up. I had the gift of getting to practice for a year under Maggie’s mentorship and I’d like to pass some of that support forward.
Can you tell me more about your dreams for the garden?
I hope that the medicinal herb portion of the garden becomes more of a focal point. I don’t want it to shift to be just a medicinal herb garden, as we do grow a lot of good food for our kitchen, volunteers, and food bank, but in conversations I’ve had with people connected to the garden, I’ve seen that the herbs are what makes this garden unique. I’d love to see more care and bed space dedicated to the herbs, and to finding more ways to share them with the community.
I also hope for the Westgarden to become a bigger part of program participants’ and neighbor’s experiences here. As the garden continues to take shape, I would love for it to be more integrated into guest experiences. It could become an even more welcoming, open space for passers by and people on the land in general.
Can you address what’s changing with our involvement in Community Gardening Leadership Training (CGLT)?
The Whidbey Institute is shifting away from membership in the Community Gardening Leadership Training program, which has been held jointly with Good Cheer Food Bank since 2011 and the South Whidbey School District since 2013. It’s been a very valuable and helpful partnership, and we’re proud of how the last few years have served our apprentices and our community. However, it has begun to feel as though the Westgarden is growing in a different direction than the other gardens and we’ve realized the Westgarden needs to be on its own, and to define its own scope, in order to reach its full potential. Additionally, with my resignation as co-coordinator of CGLT, there’s new space in the budget to increase apprentice compensation and reallocate resources in response to the needs of the program.
More and more, the thrust of CGLT has become providing community-grown food for people and organizations who otherwise don’t have ample access to fresh produce, which is vital for our entire South Whidbey community. The schools and food bank have been in much closer connection and are doing a great job meeting that need since the creation of the Big Acre, a new farm located on school district property adjacent to the Good Cheer Garden that grows food for both organizations. That gives us space to explore other things in the Westgarden, such as how medicinal herbs fit into our community fabric, while continuing to contribute what we can to our local foodbank.
Will we continue to hold apprenticeships at the Whidbey Institute?
While we will no longer be an official part of CGLT, we anticipate that within a year of the new Garden Steward and Land Steward having time to collaborate and plan, we will launch a land apprenticeship here that engages someone both in the garden and on the land at large. We need a transition year in order to build a program that will be of service to apprentices as well as to our organization and those we serve, but we do hope to offer residential, full-time learning opportunities in the future.
How will the Westgarden Steward position be filled?
We’ll be posting the position description on our website this week and interviewing well-qualified applicants in early January. We hope to make a hiring decision in early February, so that our new team member can work alongside me for a few weeks before I move later this winter.
What are your hopes for the person taking on this role?
I’m hoping the new Westgarden Steward will work in close collaboration with Robert Mellinger, our Land Steward, to support more integration of the garden and lands, and work with the Place team to tackle big projects both in the garden and outside it. This new employee will be part of staff meetings, and will be engaged in learning about topics such as self-governance, equity, and justice. We hope to hire someone who will fully engage as a team member, both in and outside of the garden. This is a rich community of colleagues.
In this role, you get to be part of this organization that’s envisioning a better future and actively doing work as a team to address questions like anti-oppression, cultural evolution, and community engagement. This is a really special opportunity for someone who’s excited to be in a non-profit growing space. We hope to find someone who’s excited to work holistically with plants and people—to teach, to lead in the community, and to develop the garden as more than solely a production space.
One of my favorite parts of this role has been getting to connect with volunteers in our community every week. I love developing relationships in the context of the garden, which is a wonderful place to connect. I love the surprise when new volunteers come, and when we get to work with school groups, homeschoolers, or kids during the summer. Children’s youthful spirit brings a lot to the space. I’m really grateful to all the people who have come, and this transition is an opportunity to enrich the way we engage community in the garden. While we’re not yet sure what the future of volunteer engagement in the Westgarden looks like, I know that my successor is going to have a lot of allies on the staff team in building a robust volunteer program both inside and outside the garden.
Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
I’m really grateful for my experience here, and feel honored to have been entrusted with a garden that’s been so well cared for by so many people for so long. I’m part of a lineage of caretakers here. I was always very aware of the work that had been done before me—the many hands that had cared for it—and it has been such an honor to be part of that succession. While I have some sadness about leaving, I feel a lot of excitement about passing this on to the next caretaker.