by Ellen C.Warren, photograph by Melody R. Carranza

Mark Caldwell looks like an ordinary guy. A Riverwest ordinary guy, that is. Dred-locked and fresh-faced, with a pleasant demeanor, you probably wouldn’t really notice him until he opened his mouth. Then you’d quickly discover that the word ordinary would probably never land in the same sentence with his name.

“If you want something to happen and you’re willing to work for it, you’ll get it,” says Mark. It’s a belief he holds; one that has proven true for him in the past, the present, and, doubtless, the future. He’s already in process toward an aftercollege goal of living in Senegal. More on that later.

We met up at the Riverwest Co-op Café where Mark had just prepared a big bowl of vegan chocolate chip cookie dough. He’s a paid worker at the café (although he was doing this on his “off” hours) where he cooks, bakes, “does a bit of everything.” He most enjoys the freedom of a small place like this where he can use what’s there to create a variety of dishes, especially those that are a meal in one dish. “They’re pretty important for people who don’t have that much money,” he notes.

You might say cooking is in his blood. Both his parents were executive chefs. They now live in Versailles, France, where his father is a pastry chef and his mother is top human resources pro for an international hotel chain. He’s been working in kitchens for the last ten years – that’s a lot of experience for a guy who just turned 21.

Mark’s interest in and excitement about food and nutrition has a sociological aspect to it as well. He agrees with one of his mentors, Will Allen of Growing Power, that people need to be well nourished before anything else can happen. The most fundamental requirement for improving life is making sure people are eating good food.

That’s something Mark helps with in its most basic stages in his internship placement. For three and a half months, he’s worked 55 hours a week at Growing Power.

His time there is filled with every aspect of the duties inherent to a complex devoted to growing. He plants. He waters thousands of plants that are not directly watered by the aquaponic

system, which he’s also worked with. Much of the feeding and care of the goats, chickens, ducks, and turkey is in his hands. “I deal with life and death everyday,” he says. “Chickens die, a new baby goat was just born!”

He shovels and shovels and shovels. Animal excrement. Tons of beer mash, rotting vegetables, and leftover produce into the compost piles. He leads tours and works with the bees.

And he loves it all. “What we do is a lot of hands-on learning through connecting to the earth,” explains Mark. Words are seldom necessary for this kind of education.

A short time ago he spent five days at the State Fair at Growing Power’s booth at the center of the Agriculture Building. He helped construct an aquaponic system on site for this, their first year there.

Speaking with the fair-goers was a pleasure for him. “It’s encouraging to be able to really talk to someone about something you’re passionate about, and actually have them get excited about it,” he says of the experience.

Another outreach project is called, “Walnut Way.” Mark and another Growing Power worker are involved in the creation of an “urban orchard,” between Walnut Street and 17th and North Avenue. The end result will find the area planted with peach, apple, cherry and pear trees.

Mark will return to UWM this fall for his final year of baccalaureate study, majoring in Sociology/Africology and minoring in French. Raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, he chose UWM out of only three universities in the country offering a major in Africology. He’d planned to major in photography, but eventually decided against it, in part for practical reasons, but also because of values and life choices he ascribes to as a student of Rastafarianism. At twelve years old, he became interested in Rastafarianism and attended the Zionist Coptic Church in Cincinnati.

“What really drew me, initially, was the reverence for the land and being connected with the land,” he recalls. His continued studies led him to embrace the philosophy of doing a great deal of work for the community before doing work for the self.

He wants to move to Senegal after he graduates. “That’s the goal,” he says. There he hopes to work in renewal agriculture with the women farmers of southern Senegal, doing things like drying mangoes and processing cashews. A recent visit of the Senegalese state department to Growing Power may bring that dream closer to manifestation.

Meanwhile, Mark continues his residency in Riverwest, and he is outspoken about the experience.

Favorite stuff: “Really connecting with real people who live within the constraints of their economic conditions, but display real family ties and affection.”

Least favorite: The divisions that everyone knows about between groups in our neighborhood – “we’re not breaking those boundary lines.”

We’re glad he’s a Riverwester, and that he’s willing to share his points of view, his culinary expertise, his kind and loving attention to the neighborhood kids, and his work and caring for the community.

Riverwest Currents online edition – September, 2006