Bridget Pettis’ Journey from the Basketball Court to Growing a Healthier Community
“You cannot fail if you don’t want to. You can’t. Make sure you use your talent.”
~ Bridget Pettis
In the hot Arizona sun, I met Bridget Pettis as we walked between the plowed dirt rows of vegetables. She is quietly confident, speaks with measured words and her non-judgmental presence immediately puts people at ease. As a backyard grower I was impressed with the robust tomatoes, towering sunflowers, massive zucchinis and kale that were growing in her community farm. Farming, however, is not how most people know Pettis. It is basketball.
Pettis grew up in Indiana where she learned the fundamentals of basketball from her high school coach. Those fundamentals and her love of the game brought her to Central Arizona College where she played for two years. From there, she was offered a scholarship at the University of Florida and after graduation became the 7th player selected in the first-round draft pick in 1997. “I worked my butt off,” she said. “I was focused and I had good people around me to help me achieve my goals.”
Pettis quickly became a fan-favorite during the eight years she played for the WNBA: six years with the Phoenix Mercury and two with the Indiana Fever. After her playing career, she became an assistant coach with the Mercury when they won two WNBA championships in 2007 and 2009. She then became an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks, Tulsa Shock and the Dallas Wings. She is currently an assistant coach for the Chicago Sky and divides her time between Phoenix and Chicago.
Project Roots community farm in South Phoenix
Basketball gave her the ticket to travel, but it is her work with community farms that grounds her. Her first garden was in central Phoenix where she gained experience for two years. From there, she was told about plots available in south Phoenix at Spaces for Opportunity. She acquired a quarter acre in November of 2019 and due to her success managing that space, has grown it to half an acre. The farming area is roughly the size of a block of land that is surrounded by the urban sprawl of homes and apartments. South Phoenix has a population that is 10% black, 28% white and 50% Hispanic. It has 1,000 people per square mile more than other parts of Phoenix, and nearly a third of its residents live below the poverty line. Project Roots is located in the heart of this community.
This past March, Project Roots AZ became an official 501(c)3 non-profit with the mission of bringing healthy food to the community. “The name Project Roots came about because I wanted to get back to my roots when it came to our health.” Pettis said, “I want to help reconnect people to the global concern of the importance of knowing how to grow your own food, eating it and also sharing it with those in need.”
Project Roots both grows their own food and shares some of their farm land with the community. Additionally, they offer their food via donation at the Farmers Market every Saturday. Before Project Roots was established, Pettis gave away the vegetables she grew to the homeless, made soup for food banks and organized the planting of 200 trees.
One of the things that endeared Pettis to Phoenix was her community outreach when she played with the Phoenix Mercury. She continues that outreach by speaking about where food comes from at local schools. “I was talking to a kindergarten class and mentioned fake food,” she said, “I had to explain what that was.” One child innocently asked me, “Why would someone make fake food?”
“It’s important to know how to grow food and to know where your food comes from. I’ve seen a big change in the community by the way people are waking up to not just knowing about our food concerns but doing something about it. So many people share their growing experiences with us, and how it’s inspired their family to eat better and do better,” Pettis said.
When asked how this experience has changed her, she said, “…it’s not only physical balance in my health but also physiological. I’m connecting with nature by being outside and getting more in tune with who I am as a whole.”
Project Roots is supported by Pettis, her partner Dionne Washington who is the Director of Operations, volunteers, grants and donations. They are currently raising funds for shade coverings and a water tank. In Phoenix, when summer temperatures range between 110 to 117 from June through September, having shade and a reliable water source are essential to keep gardens growing. When asked what her long-range goal is, Pettis said, “I want to get Project Roots into the education system, have more help to provide underprivileged communities with access to community gardens and provide garden beds for families growing in their own spaces.”
If you would like to contribute to their efforts and help grow a better community, you can make a donation to Project Roots, Inc., 7000 N. 16th St., #326, Phoenix, AZ 85020. If you would like to volunteer your time or donate materials, call 602-775-2090. For more information on how to contribute go to https://www.projectrootsaz.org/donate.
We thank Bridget Pettis and Dionne Washington for their time.
Photography by Stay Focused Photography
1997 Pinnacle sports card