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I’m looking back over photos from last spring, fast-forwarding through the months as young people from San Francisco’s inner city take a bare lot covered with asphalt and transform it into a beautiful container garden. Earth Activist Training, our permaculture teaching organization, partnered on this project with Hunters Point Family, an organization that offers youth programs, violence prevention and job training in Bayview/Hunters Point, the San Francisco neighborhood with the lowest per capita income and highest rates of violence, disease, infant mortality and toxins.
Earth Activist Training and Hunters Point Family have been long time collaborators. EAT has provided support for many of HPF’s garden programs, especially for the garden they manage as part of their Girls2000 program for middle-school-aged and high school aged girls. In the last two years we’ve also been able to offer more advanced training for young adults in permaculture, horticulture and urban food production.
Last year, Hunters Point Family was forced to move its offices from the building that had been its home for many years. They ended up in the heart of one of the city’s public housing projects, in a small, concrete building surrounded by asphalt. The site was functional—but no one could call it beautiful, although the building does sport a colorful mural on one side. HPF had the inside of the building painted, and Jay Rosenberg and I set to work with our crew to create something on the outside.
The very first week we were there, a gang of neighborhood kids broke into the building and vandalized it, destroying some of our materials. We were discouraged, and worried about the fate of our garden, but we pushed on anyway.
We did not have the option of tearing up the asphalt and digging into actual ground. But asphalt does not daunt Jay, who was one of the founders of Hayes Valley Farm, www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/ an urban farm built on the site of an old freeway off-ramp. We had a small budget, but using recycled pots and potting soil that was donated, and scavenging from nearby piles of woodchips that had been sitting unused for years, we began building beds and creating a container garden.
Teaching urban youth to garden poses many challenges. You’ll notice in the pictures that most of our students wear gloves—we find it takes weeks or months before they are willing to actually touch the dirt. Eating the food is another challenge—we have visual proof that at least once, we got the guys to eat some salad. But mostly we’re countering a deep assumption that ‘organic’ means ‘stuff that doesn’t taste good and that we don’t eat.’
Our students also face huge crises in their personal lives. Some already have kids, and childcare emergencies often take them away from work. Others have ongoing health issues compounded by a lifetime of poor diet and stress. Some come from families impacted by addiction and alcoholism. Some have already been in jail or in juvenile hall. And every single one of them has already lost someone they care about to violence. We’re teaching gardening—but more than that, we’re working to counter the effects of continual trauma and hopelessness.
So we plant seeds, take cuttings, build beds, teach some skills and work on setting goals and achieving them. We make friends with the neighborhood kids—and our own guys tell their little brothers, ‘Leave the garden alone!’ Our starts grow, and fill their containers, spilling out over the asphalt. We see the first butterfly of summer. And suddenly we’ve created something beautiful—a little oasis in the asphalt that provides a bit of beauty for those who work there or live nearby.
What does this have to do with The Fifth Sacred Thing movie? First, it’s a pilot program for the type of jobs training we hope to do once the movie is financed. The lessons we learn today will be invaluable when we have the resources to do larger-scale projects in the future.
Secondly, it’s a model of the kind of sets we hope to build—gardens that can remain as assets for the community, as well as banks of container plants that can be moved around when we need temporary sets and later donated to communities. Doing this will give us the experience and resources we need to push forward with our Green Plan, and can demonstrate to skeptical potential investors that ‘green’ does not have to mean ‘more expensive’.
One day I come to work early and discover the neighborhood kids have again hopped the fence and are loose in the garden. But this time, they’re watering it!
We started our program on a shoestring, with funding for just the first two months. We were lucky enough to get funding that carried us through the end of June. But then the funds dried up. A few summers ago, Obama’s stimulus funding provided summer jobs for dozens of kids to work in community gardens. Last year, there were also summer job programs—and the murder rate went down. But this year, the funding dried up and the murder rate went up.
The garden remains. The community kept it alive and watered and it continues to flourish. We’ve added a greenhouse, now, and we’re ready to begin a new round of training. But we need funding!
If you’d like to help this project move forward, you can make a tax-deductible donation here http://www.earthactivisttraining.org/bayview_project.html
or send a check earmarked “Bayview project” to our fiscal sponsor, Alliance of Community Trainers:
ACT PO Box 1286 , Austin TX 78767-1286
Thanks so much for all your support!
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