Garden of Dreams still has longtime professor inspired by what SCRD students, community accomplished there nearly a decade ago
For ASU faculty, milestone employment anniversaries – those numbers of years ending in “0” or “5” – provide special opportunities to reflect on time teaching, researching, learning and contributing toward helping students find their place to work on making a better world.
Robert Ashcraft has taught at the School of Community Resources and Development (SCRD) through its many name changes over the 35 years he has logged as a faculty member. Today, the professor has a title befitting his longevity at ASU: He is executive director and Saguaro Professor of Civic Enterprise of the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation.
One of Ashcraft’s most memorable events from his three-and-one-half-decade tenure was the 2011 construction of the Garden of Dreams at a city park less than two miles from the Downtown Phoenix campus.
“It’s a great story that brings together all the elements of what we seek to do: inspire and educate our students,” he said.
The State Press announced the garden’s opening in a Sept. 25, 2011, story: “A new sustainable garden catered to the desert environment of Arizona opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday at Encanto Park in Phoenix.”
ASU students in what was then called the SCRD’s American Humanics program – now called Nonprofit Leadership Alliance – joined faculty in working with the local community, Phoenix city officials and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, whose donation was instrumental in funding the project.
Ashcraft said the garden’s opening was an important event for the school, the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and the university for two reasons:
First, it was produced in collaboration with others from outside ASU. “It was co-produced with community stakeholders, not just in an ivory tower exercise with students,” Ashcraft said.
Still, students learned quite a bit from the experience even though they weren’t the only ones involved, he said, including how to raise money, write a grant proposal, gather volunteers and seek opportunities for enduring community impact. They also learned how to work with various entities such as the park’s neighbors.
“What bubbled up was a community space organized by citizens and our students,” Ashcraft said.
Second, what they created was not a vegetable garden, but a botanical garden that could be especially enjoyed by those using wheelchairs or walkers. The park’s large expanse of grass fields was inaccessible to such persons, he said.
The Garden of Dreams remained the stuff of dreams for three long years after it was first proposed. Many students involved at the start of the project graduated, succeeded by new students who took up its many tasks.
Ashcraft said he largely stood back from the project, admiring the work of both the students and their partners. But he said he asked for one special favor as it neared completion: That the city erect a sign honoring the effort and those involved.
“I said, please do the final element of this special place and put up the sign that honors the students,” he said.
The park’s opening more than nine years ago gave Ashcraft a special thrill, he said: “The first time I
ever went I saw a whole new population enjoying a very special part of the park.”
Of special note to Ashcraft was the student who chaired the project.
Jenna Cooper, who graduated from SCRD in 2009 with a degree in nonprofit leadership and management, currently is associate vice president of youth development and community relations for the Valley of the Sun YMCA in Phoenix. Cooper is also an SCRD faculty associate who teaches advanced programming and facilitation.
Looking back today, Ashcraft said that the garden, continuing to be enjoyed by park visitors, represents an important example for today’s ASU faculty. It’s an endeavor that provides students with an opportunity “to dream some dreams and come up with ideas they co-produced with actual citizens, and see a project from beginning to end.”
“Someday, everybody will be gone, but it will always be a reflection point of my time here,” he said. “I’m proud of our students, our alumni, the design. It wasn’t about me leading. Teaching isn’t about leading. It’s about educating and empowering and letting the genius of your students move forward.”
In addition to Ashcraft, SCRD faculty marked these milestone anniversaries in 2020:
- 5 years: Anne Kotleba, Eric Legg, Claire McWilliams, Sandra Price
- 10 years: Laurie Mook
- 20 Years: Dallen Timothy
Main photo: ASU photo by Mark Scarp
Mark J. Scarp is media relations officer for the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.