At the gala, though, there was little outward indication the organization was on the verge of a seismic shift. Guests embraced the “Age of Aquarius” theme, snapping Instagram photos astride a flower-festooned VW bug. Wearing his signature cowboy hat atop an iridescent metallic print suit, Musk took the stage to extol the virtues of planting gardens at low-income schools, expressing his excitement to get back to campus this fall.
“We’re going back to 650 schools,” Musk said in footage of the event reviewed by The Counter. “Six hundred fifty schools with kids that need us—kids that want us, kids that love us. We cannot wait to get back to them.”
Yet the employees responsible for actually visiting those schools would no longer have jobs by the time the school year started. The layoffs were announced before many of the gardens had even been planted for the fall season. “There were tons of events scheduled with schools that week that were canceled the day of, or the day before, without any notice to our school-based partners,” said Jenny Tokheim, one of the laid-off program coordinators based in Memphis. “So it was very, very stunning—not only for us, but for the teachers that use our services.”
Until recently, Big Green’s primary focus was building and maintaining Learning Gardens—attractive, modular raised bed configurations—at Title I schools in major cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis. The idea was that proximity to the gardens would help students get more familiar with fruits and vegetables, boosting their willingness to eat fresh food while providing outdoor education at the same time. A major selling point was that busy teachers wouldn’t have to maintain the gardens all alone. Staffers from Big Green would help build the gardens, plant the beds, and harvest the crops each year.
For a long time, though, the program coordinators who worked with local schools had begun to feel tension building with the national office in Boulder, Colorado. They say arbitrary-seeming decisions would be handed down from above with little room for negotiation. Some coordinators felt like they had to put on a show when wealthy donors visited schools, bristling when they would talk about the students as if they were out of earshot. Other changes the coordinators advocated, like growing culturally relevant food, should have been easy to implement, but dragged on.
“Big Green would go into communities of color and be like, ‘what? You don’t like kale? What do you mean? You don’t make kale chips for fun?’” said Kelsey Gray, a former program coordinator in Denver who left earlier this year before the layoffs. “It was like fighting tooth and nail just to be, like, ‘can we please grow collards or mustard greens or something?’”
The coordinators sought to address these concerns, first through a pitch to the organization president, then through a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) council, a committee that was disbanded after Big Green leadership claimed it violated company policy. The plan to form a union was the most recent effort to give coordinators more sway in the national decision-making process—before it backfired spectacularly. “The mantra of Big Green is that you always expect national [headquarters] to react in the worst way, and they always react in a way that you can’t even imagine. When the union went public, it was like, ‘What’s the worst thing they can do?’” Gray said. “And then they went 10 times overboard and fired everyone.”
Big Green did not respond to requests for comment or a detailed list of questions for this story.
Founded in 2011 by Kimbal Musk and chef Hugo Matheson, Big Green is focused on building a “replicable, scalable school garden solution,” a uniform set of garden designs and lessons that can be implemented anywhere in the country. To qualify, schools don’t even need a patch of fertile soil: Big Green’s curved beds are meant to work on any surface, including some roofs. In theory, the Learning Gardens program knocks down many of the biggest hurdles to providing garden education in public schools. Big Green handles the planning, the infrastructure, the build-out, most of the cost—even seed purchases. It also sends program coordinators into schools to help teach the lessons. “I’m a teacher now, and that kind of support is unheard of,” Gray, the former program coordinator, says.