Name: Tony Hillery
Profession: Founder and Executive Director, Harlem Grown
One Word That Describes You: Changemaker
What does being one of the BEMM 100 Men of Distinction mean to you?
I am humbled to be considered a Man of Distinction and grateful that the work that my team and I are doing in the community with Harlem Grown is being recognized. I am hopeful that people will start to understand how building community around healthy food and healthy behavior choices is critical to building a better future for our children.
What are you doing as a BEMM to help support black male achievement now or in the future?
Seven years ago I started Harlem Grown with a mission to inspire change and work to break the cycle of poverty. Driven by my passion for the children we serve and the community of Harlem, I, alongside countless volunteers, supporters, and my staff, was able to grow Harlem Grown from one farm to over 10 farms throughout Harlem. We use these farms to inspire change across over 4,800 youth and, this year, we are on track to provide over 4,000 pounds of organic, locally grown produce to families in need. I am most proud of our Workforce Development program, where we work with young men of color who have dropped out of high school and have had minor brushes with the law and provide internships on our farms and in our partner schools, where they learn both the basics of farming and, more importantly, how to be mentors and role models to the young children we serve. After successfully completing 18 months of training, we provide full-time jobs at one of our partner schools.
What are some examples of how you turned struggle into success?
I ran my own successful business for over a decade, and then, in 2008, the Great Recession hit, and two years later I had to significantly scale down my operation. It was one of the toughest experiences in my life. I had no clue what my next step should be. I kept hearing about how bad schools were across the city, especially in communities like Harlem and decided I needed to see it firsthand and figure out how I could help. Ever since that fateful day walking into that school on 135th Street and Lenox, I learned that success is not simply about making money. Anyone can make money, but who can inspire real change? I now define success by the number of children we’re able to inspire daily, and the number of families that we’re able to provide fresh, local vegetables and fruits for.
What is your “Extraordinary Impact?”
I like to believe my Extraordinary impact is in the child that comes to see Harlem Grown and our farms as their homes—safe spaces where they’re encouraged to dream big and be themselves. Simply put, the children we serve are extraordinary, and my job is to help them see and embrace that.
What is an important quality you look for in your relationships with others?
I look for passion and integrity. I get a lot of people and organizations who want to throw money at the ‘problem’ and walk away, without putting any sweat equity into helping create the solution. Our children will remember you and the time you spent farming alongside them more than they will remember a check. I am looking to build true partnerships that go beyond just a check with people and organizations that are willing to put their time into the work.
What are some immediate projects you are working on?
I am currently working on building the country’s first two-story vertical hydroponics greenhouse, right in the heart of Harlem. It’s called the Impact Farm, and it has the capacity to grow over 2 tons of food, in a sustainable way (using over 80% less water than traditional farming). We’re excited to get this opened, not only for the additional food that we can grow and distribute, but we’re especially excited to see our youth farmers use STEM in their daily farming.
What is the best advice you ever received?
Love what you do, do what you love. It’s inevitable that work will be hard at some points, but if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, it will be enough to get you through the hard days. Staying focused on your mission and why you do the work is critically important to keeping you grounded and focused.
What is some advice you have for other men who want to make a difference?
Do it. You can’t make change if you don’t put your words and thoughts into action. Don’t second-guess yourself, or you’ll end up stuck. The road may be difficult, but you won’t know until you actually invest the time and effort.
How do you prep for an important business meeting and/or event?
I rely on my staff that works tirelessly to help keep Harlem Grown moving forward. They help me prep by providing all the important facts. It’s important to know your audience, so research, alongside practice, is key.
As a busy Modern Man, how do you unwind on vacation?
No matter where I go, I make sure I take time to unplug and disconnect. No emails and no phone calls. Just relaxation. I also always try to find community-based farming nonprofits wherever I travel. With the non-stop flow of work, it’s easy to get caught inside a silo where you can get weighed down by the details. So I love to meet other people across the world doing the same work: growing children, building community, and providing food. I find it relaxing to share stories and find commonalities with others doing similar work in different communities.
If you could travel and stay anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I would stay right here, in Harlem, where the youth we serve live. These bright, eager, and ambitious children are who keep me doing this hard work. They are the reward I look toward every day. Every child who tastes their first bite of kale or talks about their goals WHEN (not IF!) they go to college keeps me pushing forward, and I wouldn’t change that for the world!
Anything else you’d like to say?
I am humbled for this honor, and I encourage everyone to visit me at Harlem Grown. Our children and young men who have changed their lives are the story, I’m just the storyteller. Let them show you how we’re Harlem Grown.
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Come celebrate the BE Modern Man 100 Men of Distinction at the first-ever Black Men XCEL Summit, Aug. 30 – Sept. 3, at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.