A decade with DIG


With her daily tea nearby, Latasha McMillan reflects on her experiences at SEEDS. (Staff photo by Parth Shah)

With her daily tea nearby, Latasha McMillan reflects on her experiences at SEEDS. (Staff photo by Parth Shah)

Every afternoon, Latasha McMillan strolls into the walk-in pantry at the SEEDS — South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces — warehouse and reaches into a cardboard box full of teabags.

“I’m on a mint kick right now,” McMillan said as she pulled out two bright green teabags from the box and headed into the kitchen to set a water kettle on the stove.

For the ten-year veteran of the SEEDS-run DIG, Durham Inner-city Gardeners, program, the SEEDS warehouse is a home away from home.

“Let’s say SEEDS is like a fridge and I’m a magnet,” McMillan said with a laugh.

Over a cup of her favorite tea, McMillan shared her story of how she stumbled upon SEEDS, a Durham non-profit community gardening organization.

It all started at a job fair when McMillan was only 14 years old. A youth educator at SEEDS named Thaddeus Bennett, better known as Mr. Thad, was looking for someone to hire for one week of work. According to Mr. Thad, McMillan was far more professional than her peers.

“All the other students just came up to the table and it was like a joke to them,” Mr. Thad said. “They weren’t professional; it was just about the $100 the job paid. But Latasha really wanted the job. She shook my hand and we had a great conversation.”

Mr. Thad said McMillan was the perfect candidate for the job – so much so that he spent almost two months after the fair searching for her instead of hiring another student.

“I was in the process of moving at the time so they couldn’t get in touch with me,” McMillan said.

“I went back to school during the summer for a report card or something and they told me that SEEDS was looking for me. I thought I didn’t get the job because I hadn’t heard back.”

McMillan was offered a weeklong camp counseling position taking care of younger students.

“After the week was over I stayed on as a volunteer because the atmosphere was so beautiful,” McMillan said.

McMillan learned about the DIG program while she was volunteering. DIG gets youth in Durham involved with urban gardening and teaches them the importance of eating fresh, healthy food. McMillan said the mission of the program really stuck with her.

“Fourteen-year-old Latasha was so enthusiastic and so passionate,” McMillan said. “The information was refreshing so I took it very seriously. You understand that you put something in the ground and it grows, but there’s a respect level and process most people don’t realize. Like who actually put the seed in the ground, who had to weed, who had to go through and pick Japanese beetles off every last collard because they were destroying them. It was a very self-awakening experience.”

McMillan became hooked on food justice — a term that describes the concept that all people should have the right to healthy food. She began sharing what she knew with her loved ones.

“It’s like holding on to a cure and not being able to tell someone,” McMillan said. “Like, gosh I know something that can help everyone. Let’s grow our own food, let’s be conscious of what we eat.”

After a year with DIG, McMillan was hired as a full-time employee. Over time, she became the face of the program, representing DIG at banquets and press events.

“At 14, it was like I had a real job,” McMillan said. “So the next summer, at age 15, I was able to hire somebody my age. I actually got to interview somebody to work. It was very empowering. You don’t experience this kind of stuff until you’re an adult, whatever that means.”

But when McMillan graduated from high school, she became ineligible to work as a paid employee for DIG. She bounced around a few other jobs while enrolled at North Carolina Central University.

“I tried the whole fast food thing,” McMillan said. “My mind used to be how can I not think about where this chicken came from or how it was slaughtered, or how come the fries won’t mold? How can I live with myself?”

After her brief stint at Wendy’s, McMillan went on to work as a cook in the military. But she never strayed far from her roots.

“In between that time I would still come back to SEEDS either to volunteer or act as an assistant coordinator,” McMillan said. “And I was paid, which helped me out a lot because I was in a weird place because I couldn’t work anywhere with food unless it was handled with intention.”

For McMillan, volunteering with both DIG and the larger SEEDS organization has helped hone her leadership skills and has given her the chance to work with her favorite kind of people: kids.

“I like that young people are so open,” McMillan said. “They have this thing I call Superman syndrome, where everyone is the hero. They have this ability to forgive so beautifully and be more accepting, which is something I think is lost the older we get.”

McMillan’s forged strong relationships with many of the young people at SEEDS, like 19-year-old Nilisha McPaul, who McMillan affectionately calls her protégé.

“She’s like a sister to me,” McPaul said. “I remember one time I needed to borrow some money for a car part. I didn’t know how I would make it happen, but she actually ordered the part for me and helped me get it to work. Latasha will help you without hesitation. If you need something, she will always make time out of her schedule, no matter how busy she is.”

And McMillan stays pretty busy. She’s studying Mass Communication and Spanish at N.C. Central, works part time as a cook in the military, and teaches Spanish at Upper Room Christian Academy. To top it all off, she still comes into SEEDS three to five times a week.

One of her current ambitions is to formally add a sex education component to DIG.

“We’re not looking at it as a youth group that just focuses on gardening,” McMillan said. “We’re talking about budgeting, racial issues, sex education. And of course we’re cooking, too. Before we were talking about sustainable agriculture, now we’re talking about sustainable living.”

McMillan hopes to keep giving back to the organization that fostered so much of her personal success so more young people can have the opportunities she had.

“If I win the lottery, I’m going to make this really huge DIG boys and girl chain.” McMillan said. “I’ll make sure every building has a garden and that the youth is in charge.”

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