Along the Lumbee River, North Carolina

From Prison to Farm: Lifting Up a New Generation

Noran Sanford


For many in Robeson and Scotland counties, the land along the Lumbee River is a source of pride, a catalyst for environmental activism, and a resource to effect change. In the second half of this two-part look at the region’s environment, Noran Sanford, a local clinical social worker (and co-editor of this report), explains how working the land shoulder-to-shoulder with high school students at the nonprofit GrowingChange advances their ability to act as leaders in their community. —Morgan Augillard and Joey Swerdlin, Along the Lumbee River report editors

Read The Land is Our Identity, part I of our look at “Getting Reacquainted with the Land.”

Noran Sanford and GrowingChange Youth Leaders construct a chicken coop at the GrowingChange Farm in Wagram, NC. Credit: Andie Rea

Morgan Augillard, Jon Brearley, Isadora Dannin, and Joey Swerdlin interviewed Noran Sanford in 2020

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


The Clinical Model and The Farm

Morgan Augillard (MA): Can you describe the clinical model GrowingChange was founded upon? What was its purpose and how has it played out throughout GrowingChange’s development?

Noran Sanford (NS): The clinical model came out of a cognitive-behavioral approach. That meant we were developing a program to help young people see themselves differently. 

We were working with youth that were kicked out of home, kicked out of school, and put on probation at the age of 14 or below—we call that the “unholy trinity” of risk factors. These are the young men upon which we build our current prison system in the US. 

We don’t work with self-esteem—it’s difficult to know what people mean when they talk about self-esteem. It’s really hard to get a firm clinical definition of it; it is very difficult to study in some ways. But we can study self-efficacy—the confidence that I can get from point A to point B based on a realistic plan, and the kind of confidence I have to be able to realize that plan.

We then gave numerous opportunities for the youth to practice being different in a community space as they present to and interact with local and state leaders.  That’s more significant than it sounds, because when our youth team got real with us, they told us that they expected to be dead or in jail by the time they were in their 20s. Now, just pause for a moment and consider what kind of impact that would have on your personal life if that’s the expectation that you were operating on from 14, 15, 16 years old.

Our clinical work, though, didn’t end there—that would have been more like a traditional framing of the clinical work. Instead, the clinical model is designed to go back into the community and help it to see these youth differently. In that process, perhaps a community member can even conceptualize their own experience differently as well. We don’t even have a word for helping people believe that these youth can get from point A to point B: It’s a kind of societal efficacy. 

Lastly, we give leadership structures—youth probation officers, judges, educators, principals, house of representatives, senators, the state, deans of universities, grad students, etc.—a chance to treat these youth differently in the community as they help implement our program. 

This approach is what explains our 92 percent non-recidivism and effectiveness in preventing entry into the adult correctional system over a five-year period. The attendance rate for youth showing up at GrowingChange or the community garden during our pilot from 2011 to 2016 was significantly higher than other court-required groups the youth had to attend. That was difficult, because in North Carolina the age of jurisdiction was 15, which means at 16 you were charged as an adult for all crimes. 

We took youth who basically, at that point in their lives, were only being told what to do: there wasn’t that self-agency that that is a requirement in order to reach efficacy. We reached in and flipped the traditional power structures weighing on them. We literally gave them the keys to a closed forced labor camp and said, “All right, how do we do this? What should be done here? How do we go about this?” In that process, they developed a different level of shared authority and generated a different level of buy-in. 

Isadora Dannin (ID): Up to this point, there have only been young men involved with GrowingChange. Why are there no girls that are a part of the Youth Leader group? 

NS: It’s a limit of capacity. We need a clinically trained female adult ally to work with us. We intend to open up the opportunity, but there would need to be a separate program that would interface with GrowingChange and female Youth Leaders in a properly mediated way. I would love to have young ladies learning welding and some of my young men learning how to spin the wool we have into thread and yarn. Additionally, it would start to help our region to rethink some of our restricted views of gender.

Easter, the farm donkey, passes by the former cafeteria building on the GrowingChange Farm. Credit: Andie Rea

MA: How has the clinical model informed or been informed by being on the closed prison site? How do you think being on the site, in the physical carceral spaces, is particularly important for GrowingChange’s work?

NS: The clinical model interfaces with the physical space by taking these youth and us adults through the experience of having to (re)learn our most recent histories—ones we’ve chosen to forget—in order to unpack the reality of mass incarceration and the disproportionate way it targets people of color in this nation. We claim the site as an active link in the chain that connects chattel slavery, the Jim Crow South, the forced labor that built the North Carolina road system, and the war on drugs to the current rise of the mass incarceration system.

Disproportionality was always built into the system. Now it’s getting its own particular focus, thank God, but it was always there. Having these conversations in a space that in and of itself is a closed forced labor camp, we’re able to break through the cognitive dissonance with the youth and for the facilitators and adult allies we work with. We can talk, wax and wane poetically about a lot of things, but then you walk through the site and see a segregation cell and the hot box that was used as solitary confinement. 

The Hotbox on the GrowingChange Farm has a notorious history as a space of punishing isolation and heat. Youth Leaders have plans to turn this into a music recording studio for reflecting on this history and telling new stories. Credit: Group Project

Then the youth explain that they’re turning that hot box into a recording studio and reading room with the purpose of giving out a positive narrative and helping to reorganize a positive narrative in their own lives. Well, that’s when you kick through the dissonance in many people’s minds. Then you know this space is significant. If we reclaim these social spaces in a very active, generative way, then we also advance the conversation around mass incarceration as a more recent form of slavery. 

The physical space itself serves as this kind of liminal space. I mean that both in the physical and the spiritual senses. Now, for us, it’s The Farm. It just happens to still be a mostly undeveloped forced prison labor camp. We’re already seeing it with new eyes. You see it when groups walk onto our farm for the first time—their bodies change. You can see the agitation as they enter the gates, how they walk around the farm itself. Yet that’s what walking through something to get to the other side looks like. The experience of The Farm is a way to walk people through to the other side of what decarceration can look like.

Conversations on Decarceration and Prison Abolition

MA: How does GrowingChange see itself and its work in conversations around decarceration, policing, or prison abolition? 

NS: We’re solidly rooted in the work, both locally and nationally, and I think what we do is several-fold. One is that we are based in and focused on the rural US. Ninety percent of the conversation currently about decarceration is an urban phenomenon, leaving out a significant portion of our country. 

Additionally, we need to be able to create a framework that can bring both dedicated progressive tradition—which is where we come out of—as well as conservative tradition that is, perhaps for the first time, significantly questioning the state of incarceration. Conservative allies might support us for a slightly different value base. They may be supporting us for reducing taxpayer dollars or because they’re literally suspicious of federal government intrusion and/or want to guarantee personal liberties. All those perspectives can be part of the conversation, I believe.

There will be further prisons closing.1For example, some states such as North Carolina receive incentives to close carceral sites. North Carolina is a Justice Reinvestment Initiative state, which means it will do certain judicial criminal reforms, keep less people in prison, and pull down federal money as a reward for doing so to reduce fiscal impact on the state. If we really are about the question of social justice, then why aren’t we asking ourselves, what should we then be doing with these properties once they are closed as prisons? How do we continue to work with the typically low-wealth, rural communities who benefited from housing prisons in their communities? How do you, just like our clinical model, start to reverse some of those crazy reinforcers that drive the penal system and worsen outcomes? What structural reinforcements are we giving young people to change? You don’t have to be a cognitive behaviorist to question the efficacy of a system that tells a 13-year-old who is facing a lot of negative reinforcers, “I know the streets are hard, but hang in there. Resist your involvement with that particular organization, and maybe we get you through high school. Let’s keep it together. Maybe we can get you a job or even to college. Then, if you do go to college and you’re not crushed by personal debt, then everything’s going to work out when you’re about 23 years old.” I’m just asking us to consider the reinforcement systems, both on the individual clinical level, as well as at the societal level.

If we’re really going to tackle the issue of decarceration, we need to come forward with a socially just set of examples, networks, and opportunities to support communities that often don’t benefit from the focus, funding, and philanthropy of our urban neighbors. When we do that, that’s when decarceration is going to be a term that’s taught in middle school and early high school. 

I believe this is where the reclaiming of social space happens. After the toppling of a supremacist statue or the taking back of public space, why are those symbols/places left to rot in fields? Why is history forgotten—purposely forgotten? Why can’t we answer these questions with a new wave of solutions that are born in equity and embrace directly impacted people in a way that they have authority? In some ways, they’re experts at the system—why aren’t we tapping into that expertise? 

Let’s be realistic: The state of North Carolina is not allowing something as outrageous as GrowingChange to go on because they’re invested in sustainable farming. That’s not the Department of Public Safety’s mission or vision. But they are interested in getting some help with the heavy lift of what they’re going to do. There are 26 closed prison sites in North Carolina, and they have no idea what to do with them. If we can help with that heavy lift, then we’re at a different level of conversation.

MA: It’s very interesting to hear how you balance these two sides of your work: one side being these national, statewide, and/or federal-level conversations about decarceration and even the whole philosophy around it, while the other side is the actual work of being with the youth, being at The Farm, and working with your community. How do you balance those two sides? 

NS: On a very grassroots level, we have youth who are African American, Native American, Asian, Indian, Jewish American, White, and Latinx in a field together unpacking what the week’s been like for them and their relationship to law enforcement while we’re weeding and planting. Those Youth Leaders are taking their experiences, their wisdom, and helping us work with, for example, the Group Project design team to help reshape the vision of what this farm can be. Then they’re able to share that vision and idea with the other 300 communities in the country who are tasked with flipping a prison. That’s when we begin to capture national attention. 

Nationally and at the state level, there’s the strategic use of the Prison Flip Toolkit2As part of a Kellogg Foundation grant, GrowingChange, UNC Greensboro, GrowingChange History Project, and Group Project are developing a toolkit to help other nonprofit organizers flip decommissioned prisons into community-focused spaces. that we’re designing and lifting up as an open-source resource for other grassroots organizations around the country—and potentially outside the country—to share innovations around how to flip these prisons in our respective areas. I believe that if we are able to get to that tipping point where there is a robust coalition tackling this, then you can begin to generate system level change. 

Then there’s getting to the point of national efficacy—that we then begin to move through and believe that we can get to a point B, that maybe police forces can be defunded if it means they’re no longer the point people for mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, or homelessness crises. 

For years the Youth Leaders had no idea who I was politically. But for the first time in my clinical life, I have broken and changed some of those rules. With the rise of Trump, I have no idea what else to do if I don’t speak out against some of the atrocities that I’m seeing. All my youth know I’m a Christian and that’s what brought me here. They hear my conversation of hope, discussions of possibility, the future, and my obligation to my neighbor, whoever that neighbor is. That’s it.

Connecting the Dots

Jon Brearley: How do you think farming—working with one’s hands to produce and nurture another being; the production and influence of food—contributes to the conversation of empathy, efficacy, and teaching? How do you see The Farm as being instrumental to GrowingChange’s mission?

NS: There was early soul-searching in the first design thinking project with North Carolina State which helped get us focused enough to take the work forward with Group Project. It was during that early work with NC State that we decided farming would be at the core of how we did what we do. 

Now, there’s several reasons for it. One, farming teaches you a lot about frustration tolerance. Let me tell you, it’s masterful in that way. 

Second, it’s culturally appropriate. We come from a farming tradition [here in the Sandhills], and if you throw a dart at many of these closed prisons around the US, you’re going to find a similar landscape. What differentiates a prison perimeter from a pasture? The right grass and a couple of fences? We have to address that through design thinking. When you walk into a room and say, “Hey, we’re gonna flip the closed prison . . . ” you’ve got a very short amount of time to connect to that person before they just become cognitively overloaded and just stop listening to you. So if you give them, “ . . . and we’re turning it into a farm. The prison perimeter becomes pasture and this old building becomes the barn,” then all of a sudden they got enough to hold on to. That’s when they can really sit down and we can have a conversation about the transformation of our youth leaders, decarceration, the links between chattel slavery and the Jim Crow South and mass incarceration. We want to be the national voice for transforming prison perimeters to pastures.

Lastly, there’s a spiritual component. We practice radical hospitality that I think probably is most developed with our Muslim sisters and brothers. We welcome people to the plate, to the table, and share food. Well, that’s already moved the conversation along. 

So it’s all those things at once. In this work, GrowingChange purposely stands at the intersection of health, food, social, and economic justice through practice of decarceration. We stand at that intersection because that is the only way we can reuse this former prison site in a just way. 


Noran Sanford

is the founder of GrowingChange and a native of Scotland County, North Carolina. He is trained as a clinical social worker.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.