Change Agent

Cecelia Rich

by Kate Schmidgall & Nolan Burger

“There were so many years of people telling me what I can’t do. Walden told me that I could. Walden gave me the tools to do it and be successful,” says Walden graduate Cecelia Rich ’17, Master of Public Administration (MPA).

With that support from Walden, she was able to earn her master’s degree—and was the first in her family to do so.

Today, powered by her educational experience and internal drive, Rich is making a difference as the founder and CEO of The Village Tree Inc., a not-for-profit urban garden in a vacant lot in Wilmington, Delaware. The garden is designed to meet practical needs and start conversations in her community. “I find the garden very therapeutic mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally—without a doubt,” she says. She wedges this work into every crack and crevice of her schedule, planting tomatoes, collards, spinach, and peppers.

“When people come to the garden, it gives them the opportunity to think on a broader scale. And that’s when questions are asked,” she says. In her experience, if you ask someone to pull some weeds or plant some seedlings, it won’t be long before they’re asking about where to find resources or opportunities.

Rich’s passion for systemic change is what first inspired her to write her master’s thesis at Walden on social sustainability and food insecurity. Her work is driven by a simple and universal truth: We all have to eat to survive. So, when she decided to take action in her city, a garden was a natural place to start.

The food grown at The Village Tree nourishes a community that otherwise has no access to fresh, locally grown produce or space for residents to cultivate their own gardens—a form of food apartheid. “I know lately we’ve been using the word ‘underserved.’ Well, right now I’m dealing with the unserved. There’s a difference. There’s a difference,” she says.

“We can look at an environment as something dirty, something desolate, something infertile,” she says. “Or we can look at it as a place of opportunity, a place of growth, a place of growing outside of what the norm is.”

On April 30, 2021, The Village Tree volunteers served more than 3,800 meals to Wilmington community members in just three hours. “That right there is a straight needs assessment. That right there says that people are hungry. That right there says that we need to do something,” Rich says.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, The Village Tree provided meals to seniors and people with disabilities on the last weekend of every month. Many of the meals incorporated produce grown in the garden, prepared by local chefs and delivered by volunteers. “All they had to do was put their order in and say what they wanted—we had a menu,” Rich says.

This year, they’re continuing to offer grab-and-go meals throughout the summer. “This is definitely a labor of love. I’m willing to do whatever, because I see something happening,” she says.

Whether you find her growing produce to keep her neighbors fed, or empowering them to overcome barriers, Rich is in it for the long term.

“Right now, we’re dealing with the soil, but it’s what’s feeding the root to make it grow. We’re planting social change in the community. That’s what it’s about,” she says.