Emese Ilyes, Psychology, Class of 2009, Graduated in 2008

Ilyes is the Coordinator for Project Grow, an organization for people of a wide range of mental abilities to engage in conversations and action that advocate for human rights, art, urban farming, and the pursuit of passions. Located in North Portland, Project Grow has an art studio, an urban farm, and a very dedicated community. The food grown on the farm as well as the art created in the studio are sold and the money goes to supporting Project Grow’s community members, for whom disability benefits are often not enough. One of Project Grow’s goals is to incorporate its work and impact into the needs of the broader community, for example, by distibuting fresh and local food to the local community.

Project Grow provides a safe space for everyone in its community to cultivate their passions. Hierarchies such as ‘staff’ and ‘client’ as well as labels such as ‘disabilities’ are removed from the community. Ilyes says that they all work as a team, so there is no need for such terms – everyone is learning and growing and supporting one another. The Project Grow model allows everyone to be fully invested and to be a part of the decision-making process. She says, “Not everyone enjoys that kind of freedom, but for those who do the relationship is phenomenal.” Ilyes explains that this is an important process in helping this community to advocate for themselves, as they are often the first on the chopping block in our society.

While art and farming were not part of Ilyes’ background, throughout her time at Reed she was immersed in research about stereotyping and discrimination and was drawn to underrepresented populations. She is proud of everything Project Grow has accomplished. After 3.5 years, Project Grow has grown from 7 members to 52, has expanded its studio and garden, and has created a new way of thinking. “The way that this little world has been shaped into something so effective is inspiring,” she says.

Ilyes says that after receiving a wonderful education at Reed, she was able to further build upon her learning when she became involved at Project Grow: “Reed satisfies our need to absorb information. But social service helps challenge some of that. The absorption isn’t really complete until you’ve had a chance to challenge yourself.” .

Project Grow has also provided Ilyes a place to nurture her passions while working. “Underneath all of this what we’re really advocating for is the right to be happy. We’re all under the impression that work has to be something that is a little miserable. It has been really liberating to discover that work can be a happy place.” She encourages other Reedies to seek out fields in which they find joy in their work, because she doesn’t believe that there needs to be a stark separation between life and work.

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