Taja Sevelle

FL - Taja Sevelle
Executive Director & Founder, Urban Farming

Did you know that if all of us planted food in our home gardens, in planters, on rooftops, within corporate landscaping, at schools, in vacant lots—anyplace where there could be a healthy growing environment—that we could eradicate hunger?

That’s the big idea that drives Taja Sevelle, the inexhaustible visionary behind Urban Farming, a nonprofit organization that—in less than two years—has created thriving urban gardens that feed thousands of people in a dozen major cities across the country.

A true Renaissance woman, Taja was discovered by Prince, went on to write and perform several hit songs, has one novel under her belt already, an invention coming out soon, and she represents a new rap group on the rise called D.Y. But her greatest mission is ending world hunger, and that’s what keeps her going from morning to midnight.

What we learned from Taja: Stay in touch with your spiritual life every day. Try your best to reserve some private time. Make sure you have fun. And trust in miracles.

How One Passion Feeds Another

“I was working really hard to get my invention [a butter-maker that makes fresh homemade butter in a few minutes] off the ground after it had been on the back burner for a long time. When I signed my record deal with Sony, I was able to put the invention on the front burner with the money from the advance. Later, I decided since the music biz was having a rough time, I should go full force with the butter-maker to create another income stream. When I cut a deal with investors and QVC I was able to start the charity with just $5,000. I’ve gambled everything I own on these three things: music, my invention, and Urban Farming.”

Growing Big and Strong

“We started with three gardens in 2005. We will have 160 gardens across America and Jamaica this year. We’ve just added Newark, New Orleans, and Atlanta. We’ve got farmers giving food away in Canada, North Carolina, and Florida, and people interested in being a part of our mission to end hunger in Belgium, Italy, England, Vietnam, and Africa.”

Motown Inspiration

“Being a starving artist, I’ve had really big ups and downs in my career. I’m well acquainted with not having money and having to struggle. When I relocated to the Detroit area I started to get to know the city and what had happened there in terms of poverty, job loss, and needy families. One day when a pastor’s sister told me they couldn’t keep donated food on the shelf, it really struck me that there is so much unused land in the city of Detroit—17,000 acres of it. I thought, ‘Well why don’t people just plant it?’ If they planted all this land there would be no more hunger in this city, for sure.”

The Miracle Man From Brazil

“The Urban Farming model was inspired by a story I saw on Jaime Learner, the mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, on a Dateline NBC special. His city was totally in poverty. He literally took that city and turned it around. Poverty, transportation, drugs, everything. Very inspiring.”

What Red Tape?

“How do you cut through all the red tape in a small amount of time? You can’t wait around for committees. So I just did it—I started planting gardens. In 2005, I began with $5,000 and a pamphlet. We planted three gardens, partnering with Starbucks and the city of Detroit, a great alliance. The city was thrilled. They looked at the gardens as one less plot of land they had to mow. That year we gave away one ton of food. Within months after planting the first gardens, we were on the Montel Williams show.”

Bring Back Victory Gardens!

“During World War II, 20 million Americans planted victory gardens and grew 40 percent of the nation’s produce supply. Now, we have a 12-13 percent hunger rate. We could easily solve our hunger problem if we encouraged everyone from the private to the corporate to the public sectors to plant edible gardens when they landscape. On rooftops. Unused land. In yards. You can create edible walls! Grow some and give some away! The seniors who’ve volunteered with us got it right away: ‘Oh yeah, like the victory gardens.'”

A Model for World Peace

“Our infrastructure brings the community together and strengthens those relationships. How? We get a very diverse group of people working side by side. We ask the faith-based organizations to bring their youth out twice a month. Muslims, Christians, Orthodox Jews, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4H, YMCA, corporate groups, seniors. They’re all working together. All getting along. Everyone is interested in feeding hungry people.”

The “E” Word Stays In

“People said to me when I was putting together the mission statement, ‘Take the word “eradicate” out.’ And I said, ‘I’m not taking the word out.’ Subsequently I heard about the victory gardens. I said, ‘It’s already been done … if you tell young people that we can do this [eradicate hunger], they believe it.'”

A Miracle Is Waiting

“When I get discouraged, there are always the miracles that show me I don’t have to fight this battle alone. Sometimes I throw my hands up and say a prayer—I believe in bringing in that positive energy. It’s not my own strength that puts me back in the ring every time. It’s much bigger than me, and many connections with key people who have supported the charity happen without my planning.”

There’s an Angel in the Seat Next to You

“On a plane once I sat next to a gentleman, Michael Travis, who had just saved a man’s life from a tanker truck explosion—no one had ever survived that. He’d won awards and been on Oprah, Maury, in People magazine. I told him all about Urban Farming and he said, ‘Sign me up.’ He’s our co-director now.

“I sat next to a Land O’ Lakes executive who turned out to be an old friend of Joyce [Urban Farming’s Program Development Consultant, Joyce Lapinsky Lewis]. He’s on our board now. Joyce’s husband, the actor/comedian Richard Lewis, was in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel and the CEO of Atlantic Records, Craig Kallman, walked up to say what a big fan he was. They became friends and when Craig found out Richard and Joyce were involved with Urban Farming, he said, ‘We are going to adopt you as the official charity of Atlantic Records.’ That brought in the support of top artists like Keke Palmer. Then the Scream Tour gave part of their proceeds to Urban Farming through Hip Hop 4 Humanity.”

Nurture Yourself, Then Nurture the World

“I try my best to have some private time in the morning to study, to get my spiritual and meditative moments in. I don’t drink or smoke. And I love to have fun. But right now I’m in the trenches on everything I’m doing. From the moment I start to nurture myself in the morning, I am 100 percent focused on the goal, going 17-18 hours a day, making 150 to 200 phone calls. And I don’t stop until I go to sleep at night.”

Your Vision Is Your Gift Alone

“Don’t give up! Stick to your vision. Here’s a big one: If you were given an idea, whether by God or the universe or it came from inside you, remember—that is your vision. It may not have been given to someone else because they can’t see it. And you don’t have time to wait around for certain people to understand it. When you have a vision and a dream, you have to move on it.”

Biggest Obstacle

“Not having enough money. Because most of my energy goes to figuring out not only how to pay my own bills, but how to get stuff for Urban Farming, like garden supplies, proper staffing. It’s taught me to do a lot with limited resources. I have a master’s degree in limited resources.”

We Are All Connected

“Every inner city across America has a problem getting proper nutrition. It’s really sad, because whether people believe it or not, we are all connected. When you have a section of our society that’s suffering to that degree and not able to have access to basic things like food, a good education, and a good job, then guess what? That’s like having your foot full of gangrene. It will eventually travel up through your whole body. We can’t ignore it.”

No One Goes Hungry

“One of the hallmarks of Urban Farming community gardens is that you can walk on that garden if you are hungry. People can just come and get the food if they need it. As soon as we tell them the food is free, we’re met with tears, prayers, laughter, initial disbelief—everything! Thanking us, praying for us, they’re so happy. And so I’m witnessing firsthand how it’s touching people’s lives.”

What’s Next?

“We want to have successful seasons in our current gardens, and move strategically at a pace that makes sense into new cities. We’re starting to see the snowball effect—people doing it on their own, food gardens catching on around the world. We can’t put in every single garden ourselves. If you plant a garden in your backyard, give your harvest to the food bank. Ed Begley is doing that now.

“Many people have fruit trees. The fruit can be donated to a food bank. We call that initiative our ‘Cooper Fruit Runs’ [after entertainment lawyer] Jay Cooper, who came up with the idea. On Hawaii’s Big Island, homeschooling groups are making Cooper Fruit Runs a part of their teaching. They’ve given away close to half a ton of food in just eight months.”

Imagine No More Hunger

“I know there will be a time when our kids ask us, ‘What was that like when you had hunger?’ They can’t imagine life without a cell phone—soon they won’t be able to imagine a world with hunger. We can plant on our rooftops to help with global warming. Corporations can create edible landscaping borders with purple cabbage, French onions, decorative peppers, etc., and give it to the food bank. Why not? It’s a problem we can solve. So let’s solve it and move on.”

This Featured Lady was profiled by Lauri Maerov , a Los Angeles-based writer and brand-identity specialist.