A door opens on North Side

Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saturday, September 14, 2013

Association's project seeks to change lives of kids

Quincy Kofi Swatson grew up in Manchester in the ’90s when the influence of crack and gangs was at its peak. He and his friends saw their peers following the path of the few male role models they knew.

“I was lucky that my mom strived to keep a barrier for me,” he said. “For a while, I went to a Catholic school,” which separated him from negative influences in his neighborhood. Even after resuming public school, he said, his mother was vigilant to keep him shielded.

At 16, he joined the Student Conservation Association and went to a national forest for the first time.

“It changed my whole thinking on everything,” said Mr. Swatson, the 22-year-old founder of the Door Campaign, a new association of young men whom he recruited “to change the cycle of children in the inner city, to give them what we didn’t have.”

The Door Campaign is weeks old and already has a board of directors, two sites for an innovative leadoff project and associations with high school and college mentors.

“The idea is to get young African-American men to show the community that we can be the change,” he said. “We’re trying to expose our demographic to a different world. The door in the Door Campaign is the one that opened to me.”

A recent alumnus of CORO’s Next Leaders program on the North Side, Mr. Swatson came up with the idea of an aquaponics studio — a climate-controlled chamber in which fish and vegetables grow together in a symbiotic nutrient cycle. There are a variety of set-ups that include an aquarium for the fish with the produce in a tier above.

The basic concept is that the fish provide the fertilizer for the plants to grow. The environment has to be controlled so that sunlight, water temperature, nitrogen, oxygen and ammonia levels are kept in balance.

The details of the plan are still being worked out, but the fish and the plants they fertilize would be used for consumption. The fish, possibly perch or tilapia, would be housed in large freshwater tanks.

Mr. Swatson found a supportive ally in Renita Freeman, director of the Urban League’s Family Support Center in Northview Heights, where the studio will be located in a 19-by-15-foot former greenhouse.

A demonstration model also is being planned for a site in Manchester, where more people can see “and wrap their heads around plants growing with fish,” said Mr. Swatson, a student at the Community College of Allegheny County.

One benefit of aquaponics is that it solves the problem of contaminated urban soil that traditional gardens have to overcome. Another is that you get fish.

“The Door Campaign will raise food to give to the community, and we have established some collaborations with North Side restaurants to purchase the fish,” Mr. Swatson said.

Students from Perry High School’s bio-tech team will regularly test the water. Andre Jones, director of Perry High’s after-school programming, is one of Mr. Swatson’s partners in the Door Campaign. He is a rapper who mentors youth and works on the Stop the Violence campaign in the Hill, where he is from.

“He knows how interested I am in working with the community to change values and open doors, so when he let me know what he wanted to do, I said I would make it happen,” Mr. Jones said.

Drawing on his experience with the Student Conservation Association and work on gardening projects with the Children’s Museum, he proposed the idea to his friends. Jehosha Wright, a childhood friend, said the idea came during “debates in the car around Manchester about what the community needs.”

Mr. Swatson recruited Mr. Wright, a student in art therapy at Carlow University, and Davaughn Copeland, a student in liberal studies at Clarion University, who said he is interested in “the global issues of obesity and tooth decay. I’ve switched my own diet, incorporating more fruit. We want to substitute fruits and vegetables for Little Debbie cakes.”

Mr. Swatson met architect Bob Baumbach on a kayak trip and asked his advice about the proposed site. Mr. Baumbach brought Fred Underwood, the owner of Underwood Solar Future, to the gathering.

One recent evening, while Mr. Underwood was on the roof to determine potential of solar generated electricity for the aquaponics studio, Andrew Churchill, another CORO alumnus, was rendering some drawings.

Mr. Swatson has talked to foundations, corporations and institutions about funding. GTECH is supporting the Manchester model, which should be in place by November.

T.J. Eatmon, an assistant professor of environmental science at Allegheny College, will be consulting. Allegheny College has a commercial aquaponics system that sells fish and lettuce to the on-campus food service company.

“Our students designed the system, the business plan, education and research programming around it,” Mr. Eatmon said. “The revenue supports our projects and helps us employ 12 work-study students who operate and maintain the system.

“One of my former students knew Quincy from environmental consulting in Pittsburgh. We are in communication with Quincy and trying to share our background and technical expertise with him as much as possible.”

Mr. Swatson said he is working now to establish the project budget. “It’ll be mostly up front, because over time it will pay for itself.”

He said the hardest part might be convincing people how the system works and to not be repulsed that fish waste and edibles will share the same space.

“There is a bacteria in the pumps that decomposes it and changes it to nitrogen,” Mr. Swatson said. “This stuff is mind-blowing. But once you have clients who sustain it, it is easier for people to buy in.”

The Door Campaign partners intend to embark on other projects “to provide alternatives” to other youth, he said.

“Middle school is a tough time to find out where you fit in,” he said, reflecting on his own experiences. “A lot of kids in these communities see drug dealing as a way people survive, to be financially stable. The way to change these values is to create a discussion.

“I had those same choices, and this is why I chose this way,” he said. “I feel you have to fix it on a personal level.”