Serving Through Sustainability and Education: A Conversation with Aster Bekele

In Indianapolis, a remarkable initiative has been transforming the lives of inner-city youth through the nurturing touch of urban farming and environmental stewardship. Leading this transformative initiative is Felege Hiywot Center Founder and Executive Director Aster Bekele who is a symbol of hope and growth for the community. Under Aster’s visionary leadership, the center has blossomed into a vibrant ecosystem where young minds are not just taught the science of botany but are imbued with the values of family, community service, and sustainability.

The Felege Hiywot Center demonstrates the power of connecting with the earth and each other, guiding participants through hands-on experiences that sow the seeds of responsibility, cooperation, and environmental consciousness. By embracing the principles of 4-H and focusing on access to STEM professions, business acumen, and cultural awareness, the Center prepares youth for a future as flourishing and promising as the gardens they tend.

In this Q&A, Aster’s experiences, her roots, and her commitment to youth education and environmental preservation will be shared. We’ll  also uncover the growth stories of both the students and the gardens they nurture, revealing the impact of fostering a generation of informed, empowered, and environmentally responsible citizens. Follow along as we explore the journey of an extraordinary leader whose life’s work cultivates a legacy of sustainability, learning, and community enrichment.

You have such an interesting story. You immigrated to Indianapolis from Ethiopia in 1973. You enrolled in IUPUI and earned a degree in chemistry and then started a 26-year career at Eli Lilly and Company. During that time, you started to see a need in your neighborhood, and you started tutoring kids. Tell me about young Aster. What was she like, and what was it like to live in Ethiopia?

In Ethiopia, I am the oldest girl. I have one older brother, and there are ten of us total. That means the girl, especially being the older one, takes care of everything,  I was raising my siblings, and doing so many things. My mother was a missionary, so we took care of so many orphans, or people who were hungry, that kind of stuff. But at the same time, I was, I was good in school. My father started working at USAID when I was a junior, and by that time, there was an American community school where their children to go. My father was considered a United States government employee,  so I was able to go to that school. My connection to people in the United States, especially in Indiana, started from that school. When I finished 12th grade, I was getting ready to go to college. I was applying to so many different schools. Well, they are universities there. They’re limited, so I applied to different places. There was one in Ohio, and I almost went. Then somebody said, ‘wait a minute, you know, the Joneses?’  ‘Yes, I know them. And then do you know that they have somebody at Franklin College? Where is Franklin College?’ And then from that, I ended up here in Indiana at Franklin College. So, the connection from the school, that’s the people I knew. Their relatives were part of the university. So when, when, I came here in August of 1973. I went straight to Franklin. I knew I wanted to study chemistry because medicine in Ethiopia comes from a plant. I always wanted to know what’s in it. So that was my purpose. But  what really tips everything was I knew somebody that was working at Lilly, and they asked me, ‘Hey, why don’t you work at Lilly for the summer?’ Working at Lilly and seeing what they had, I transferred to IUPUI to come to Indianapolis.

So, you’re a young girl, here without your family. What was that transition like for you?

It was hard to understand. One, the English language in the book is different than what people are saying. So, it was like I didn’t know what anybody was saying. And then, food. I was totally in trouble. My uncle who had been in the United States before told me not to take clothes, but rather to fill both bags with spices and food. He told me the truth. So, I came over here and ran out of food in two months. I was in trouble. So, the first time I’m sitting at a table, and friends are eating pancakes, and I say, ‘what is it? Oh, it’s a breakfast. Would you like it?’ I took a bite. It was bitter and I just completely went like, ‘what is this? It’s sweet. It’s good. What do you mean sweet? This is not sugar. Really, I had a big shock, so I had to adjust. But I tell you now, I eat it, so food is very hard to adjust. The whole spicy hot everyday breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our bodies are used to that, so it took a while, and the family I stayed with had a hard time trying to find me a store that has all these different things I needed.

Is it easier to find Ethiopian or international food in Indianapolis now than 50 years ago?

It’s perfect now because we can go to a store and find everything we need. From Franklin, we had to come to the market by the City-County building. That’s the only place I could have gotten some spices and the vegetables we eat. That was spatial. I can get things slowly. Things start opening, but mostly, I had to go to D. C. to load up and come back here.

So, you start at Lilly, and that grew into a career?

Yes, that grew into a job. They knew I was going to go into chemistry, so it was like every summer you can come and work here. So, it didn’t end up just one summer until I got my degree. Then from there, I met somebody that was working at Lilly and got married. And when I graduated, I started working there full time. I did. A lot of research, especially out of the 27 years, half of it was insulin research and half of it was bone biology. But I also found out all those plants that my mother or the village doctors gave me were already in the medicine. I brought all of those and they say, ‘yeah, that’s what we extract that from. You know, that’s what we do. It was a great connection being there. I learned a lot. I learned about all the plants and all the curiosity I have. And the biggest part of being there, I remember, there was training. I was new, and they said, ‘we want our employees to be happy. I said, ‘okay.’ And they said, ‘we want you to do your passion, and we can help you do it. I said, ‘so what do you have, and they said I could work in schools. They laid out all the different places other employees had participated, and it was perfect. I went to IPS to talk to the students. That’s how this whole thing started. So, when I start talking, I thought I was going to talk about science, but it ended up blending with culture, so it was amazing. The kids asked where I was from and why I did things like I did, and I would tell them it was how I grew up. From working at Lilly, I got connected to Martin D. Brightwood. What happened at that time, was I was engaged to be married,  so my husband then, his family, he was born in Mardi Gras, so he wanted to show me the area. He took me around, there was this double house, and the area was rundown. He said, ‘this is the house I was born in.’ Wow. The other side of it was empty. This was when I was transferring to IUPUI. I looked at the double, I said, ‘well, I’m getting ready to transfer to IUPUI. And, uh, why don’t I just live here?’ He just looked at me and said, I didn’t want to live there. I asked what was wrong with it. I knew the area didn’t look great, but I never looked at it that way, so I cleaned, moved in, and he asked me I would go to school. IUPUI used to be by the fairgrounds. I looked at my feet and said, I’d walk. I walked from the Martindale Brightwood to there. Then I connected Lilly to Martindale Brightwood. When I was walking to school, I see all these seniors sitting on their porch. That was heaven for me. That’s home. So, when I get back, I’d sit on the porch right under them. The elders were my books. They would tell me how they grew up, what the community was like, and I thought ‘oh my God. This is great. But I didn’t understand why none of the children were sitting under them and taking all that in. That’s how the whole Monday program started. I didn’t even know it. So, I brought the kids and told them they needed to listen to them, and I helped them with school. I had no idea that was part of the Martindale Brightwood Future Program.

You saw the kids in your neighborhood, you’re slow traveling, which let you know your neighbors and build community. How did you start to reach out to the kids? Was it through your IPS connections?

No. When I was walking home one day, I see students, it’s during the week, and I said, ‘What are you doing here, and why aren’t you in school? They said, I don’t want to go to school today. I asked why and invited them into my house. We’re just sitting there talking and I realized they needed a lot of help. So, I said, ‘Ok, come on. I can help you with this, and I became a tutor. There were five kids. It just didn’t look like I could really help. But even though it’s like, ‘Oh, guess what? I’m not flunking. I got a D or things like that. It’s all great. But one day, one of the mothers said, can I send her daughter home. Her favorite television show was coming on. A that moment, I wondered what is wrong here? I start pulling pictures and I asked, ‘do you want to see this picture?’ We sit on a stone. There’s no notebook. You see the sand in the front? That’s our notebook. We wrote with our fingers. That’s how we had to learn. And they say, ‘oh no.’ These kids are dirty, and I look at them. Can you look at their face? They say, ‘yeah.’ Do they look sad? No, they’re smiling. That’s what matters. They’re in school. So, I want to know what is it that I can do for you to be happy at school. And they say, ‘do you have more of these pictures? Can you tell us more?’  The whole cultural connection started. They didn’t go home. They kept asking me more. They improved. They wanted to hear more about me. And I thought like, I guess I do have more interesting things to tell them. That’s how it started. Then I graduated, got married, had my kids, the house is too small. I didn’t go far. We moved to 38th and Sherman and I’m still there. I didn’t go back to the old house. So, I’m already full time working at Lilly, and this kid I was working with knocks on my door. I had no idea who he was. He said, ‘don’t you remember me?’ And he said, this is Robert. You used to help me. I finished high school and joined the Navy. I said, ‘What? You mean I did something? It didn’t feel like I did anything.’ So, I just said, ‘Ok. When I grow up, that’s what I’m going to do. Twenty years later, after my kids grew up.

How did you take those initial lessons and group of kids to the next step and  grow it to a bigger vision?

So how that happened through listening and sharing. After school, different kids. I couldn’t teach the same way. It was completely different. And I was thinking let’s do this fun science. I’m doing all these things, and it just was not happening. Whether I do the culture of science. Whether I do fun things. I was ready to give up. I just simply said, ‘you guys, I’m really doing this. What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t this fun? This girl raised her hand. She said, ‘I don’t want to be a scientist. Our school is dirty. Can we plant flowers? So that girl started the program. My biggest lesson was I didn’t ask. I just thought  this was how they’re going to like science. So that day, I got my education. I said,  ‘what would you like to do? Plant? I don’t know anything about plants. So I went back to Lilly, told my boss and all the people that worked with me. There were plenty of biologists, plant scientists, and they said don’t worry about that. They came with me. They transformed the school with flowers. We put science into it. So, 20 years later, it’s a completely different group of kids. This time, there was a lot of kids getting killed. There was a lot of emotion. So, what happened when that girl asked me was the scientific theory. While I was thinking I need to plug science into common day talk, right when we’re doing that, a 13-year-old got killed. I walked in and they were crying. I asked what happened, and they said Alex got killed. Alex was not in our program, but his sisters, cousins, everybody’s there. We knew him. I put everything aside. At that minute, what clicked into my head was Six Sigma. I just said we’re brainstorming what you all want to do. They looked at me because nobody ever asked us what they wanted to do. I said, I am asking you because you already told me, what you want to do what you want to do, so from here on, I’m going to ask you. So, we’re brainstorming, and they say, ‘we want these weeds and stuff to be taken out of our neighborhood. We want more police. We want food for people. They listed everything. Then we became a resource to make it happen. Then they want to plant a tree for Alex. It’s by School 74. That was 2006. So how does the science go in there? All the scientific theory. You have a question? What do you want to do about it? What is the process, which is a hypothesis? And then at the end, when it gets there, nobody makes a mistake. Science never says you made a mistake. You just found another way to go. So, take that that they are afraid to make a mistake It helped them solve the social issue. We all cried, we all did this, but we needed to talk about it. So, I did not have a book I knew all the different parts of science, where does the plug, where does that happen? Where does the mainstream book fits when they are ready? If they’re not ready, I didn’t deal with it.

So, you’re serving their needs and then they let you lead them?

Yes! And through that process, there are layers of things. We use scientific theory. And then they start liking it. And when we get done with the program, it was one day a week, they will say, ‘are you coming back next week?’ I say yes. After two, three weeks, I say, ‘Why are you all asking me every week?’ They said they didn’t  know when it’s going to stop, and they were afraid they would never see me. So, I asked them what they wanted to plan for fall. They need to be part of the plan. So that way they could see that they’re not being abandoned. Then I would ask what they wanted to do for winter and spring, and what they wanted to do following middle school. We just kept  talking like that so they knew they could trust and look forward to something. We’re doing grants. As a scientist, I know the importance of numbers, results, and impact. My data was this student smiled and hugged me. This student had a safe place. This student said this and was able to talk.

You’re talking about the role of faith and fortitude too, right?

Yes. Imagine from fourth grade, they finished eighth grade. I just assumed they’d be done with us. The next year, five of them walked in and I’m looking at them like, ‘Great. What am I going to do now?’ One of the students said, you don’t have anything for us. And I just looked at the list. I didn’t know where the money was going to come from. But I said, you are camp counselors now.

Did they stick with you?

They did. And they’re still with us.

Where is the program now and what does the big picture and vision look like?

When I’m talking about this big picture, we got to go back. We incorporated in 2004, and we had nothing. Houses were boarded, and I was trying to clear some weeds, and this man walks in and asked me what I was doing. I said, I didn’t know and I’m probably crazy. I don’t know anything about plants, but we’re trying to do this. We have like eight or ten students, and he listened to everything, looked at me and he said, ‘Do you know what that building is over there?’ I’m thinking what building? He said, there’s a blue building there. I said, no, I don’t know, and he said, ‘Ok. Nice meeting you and left. The second week, he stopped in again. And the same thing. ‘Do you know about that building?’ God, is that a message or something? Why is he asking me twice? So, I Googled that thing. There’s a name and maybe I should connect with them. He indirectly connected me to major tools, and they helped us clear some things. I found out that’s exactly where he was going. It wasn’t like he didn’t know. That man is Dean Illingworth, and at the time, he was the director of Habitat for Humanity. After some clearing happened, he came one day, sat down, and asked me what was the plan? I said, God, didn’t I tell him about the plan? So, he said, ‘no, tell me more.’ I tell him we’re going to get this, and then we’re going to bring them, we’re going to teach them. He asked how much I’d need, and I guessed around $5,000. He keeps asking me about the dream and where it can go. He just keeps going and going and going. He got me a big building with  classrooms. When I finished explaining, he’s writing Sarah Hempstead’s name and  phone number down and he said, ‘I need you to call her.’ I asked why and he said, to tell her everything I told him. She said, ‘Oh, Dean, I know what he’s talking about.’ And she asked me about all those things I said to him. She took my vision and drew the first building. I took that drawing and said, ‘Here, Dean, it came.’ Then I’m calling the Lilly Endowment and explaining the whole vision. For our first meeting, we used the Habitat office because we didn’t have our own. They said it was an amazing vision, but there were 10 things we needed to address. That was 15 years ago.

And you applied for $1.6M at the start, right?

Yes, and 15 years later, we applied for $2M and got it. The first person II connected with was Dean. He couldn’t believe I got a hold of him, but that’s how a vision like that works. Somebody who patient enough to sit with me for two hours. That’s how this whole thing started. I had it in my mind, but I couldn’t think because it was too much of fire to put out.  I couldn’t think that far, but he helped me to do that.

And what happened next?

We did not have a payroll, but I made sure that the students got paid because a lot of time without something to do meant students would get in trouble. When I raised my kids, I gave allowances. I had a bank they could open. We would go through budgets, and I did the same thing with the students so that they would know where they would get it. By 2015, we start hiring and adults start getting paid. That took off and students start running the place. That was amazing and seeing them take ownership was rewarding. The last two summers, including this coming one, we have a student who has been with us since 8th grade. She went through the whole school, was a farm leader, worked the desk, and is running camps. In 2020, she was the director of the camp. And then this year, she is a FarmD student at Purdue. She’s coming back as an intern to run it again, but this time she’s going to teach about food and how it affects our body for the whole seven weeks. All those students are coming back and running things.

You’re growing kids as much as you’re growing plants, right? And then they’re going on to grow the next generation. That’s beautiful. What resources are you leveraging to give the kids what they need so that the program takes off further?

I’m always thinking about what kind of people I can bring in to make sure and they do discovery science. It gives me so much energy when they discover themselves. It’s a huge boost. It’s one discovery after another and it’s amazing. It’s huge, but it’s also different. I just ask them what they want to do to discover yourself. So, it’s enrichment.

I told you we would get back to food. Talk to me about the connection that you’re helping these young people make between what we grow and what we put in our bodies.

Yes. Now, when we start, they get so excited, watching the vegetables grow from that little seed. They’re like, ‘oh my god, this happened. And I say, were going to eat it. ‘Oh no,’ they say. And I reply, ‘okay, you grew it. What do you mean you’re not going to eat?’ So, here’s what I did. I asked them what kind of things they like. Turns out, they like a lot of cheese and pasta sauce. So, do I have a problem putting all the cheese inside to go over the vegetables? No, I don’t. And so, I remember when a health-conscious person tells me that I’m defeating the purpose. I said, ‘okay, I’m going to eat this. I don’t care what vehicle they used to get it in their body if it gets there. So, we did that. I have a precious picture. It might have been three, four years later. This girl, we can see the salad, the lettuce, the green, the eating, and it’s not covered with salt. So, we say, ‘that’s it.’ We finally got a picture. It took a while, but they got there in their own time. Not on my time.

Let’s pivot to health and wellness. What do you do to take, take care of you?

My exercise, instead of the gym, is all the stuff I’m doing for the farm. It’s a different way of taking care of me, but it works and is fulfilling. The other part is getting back to my natural Ethiopian roots. Every summer, we have a culture week. There is a two-bite rule on food and the students can’t say no with all of the different things, we have from various countries. We had people who lived in France, and we’re still to this day hooked. And then they learn.

If people want to help you and they want to help the kids you work with, what should they do?

We need a lot of help. We need plenty of volunteers. Our website is at fhcenter.org, and it has plenty of the donations we need. We’re getting ready to have this amazing building. Finally, instead of a tent, we would like to have our students have a place under a roof and that is safe. So, we are fundraising for that. But we can use any help. I’m blessed and very much humbled that so many children are on our waiting list. They want to come to us. The community is embracing us as a health and nutrition hub. People look at us now and want to come and learn how to pickle can. So, we need a space, and we’ll take anybody’s heart, prayers, volunteers, and donations.

That’s amazing! All right, one final question. I ask everybody, if you had one book that you would recommend that everybody read, that you’re reading right now, or one that you go back to, what would it be?
I recommend reading Mother Teresa’s book. You learn how to put faith to work for you. You learn to be mission-driven and not evangelize. You learn to separate and look at every single person the same. She taught me how to do that.

 *Excerpts from this Q&A were taken from a podcast episode with Bekele in April 2023.