Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dreams Can Come True


Plant Dreaming Deep: The Story of
EarthWorks Community Farm
by The Rev. Connie Yost
December, 2006
EarthWorks Class Fall 2006
            In 2002, while in seminary at Claremont School of Theology, I attended a conference on poverty and heard a young man from inner city Boston named Wil Bullock speak about how at age 15 he became employed by The Food Project, where for one whole summer he worked alongside other youth to grow and sell organic vegetables to the community.  Now he was 22 and running The Food Project’s for-profit business venture – marketing salsa made from their farm’s organic tomatoes, peppers and onions.  He said, “The Food Project changed my life.  It gave me – a kid from a struggling, single parent family – the chance to do meaningful work.  It gave me a way to think about the importance of food and community.  Now I work to advocate for the health of our planet and people.”   He said, “Today I am honored to be part of this movement for change.”

            That speech touched me deeply.  It was one of those aha moments when my entrepreneurial passion joined my passion for social change and gardening, and a practical vision for restoring our connection to each other – especially to our youth – and to the earth was born.

            My advisor and Professor of Urban Ministry, Michael Mata, asked me to develop a business plan for the project as part of the Ministry and Management course he taught.  He knew I had a strong business background and experience as an entrepreneur, and encouraged me to pursue the project when I graduated with a Master of Divinity degree in late 2003.

            I was living with my husband in Whittier, in that great metropolis of greater Los Angeles, where the family farms had disappeared long ago and been replaced with tract housing and condominiums.  The very land we lived on was once an orange grove.   "Quaker Citrus" was big business in the early part of the 20th century.  I loved to imagine the sight and smell of a long ago Whittier filled with orange, lemon and walnut groves.  But now all the land was developed, except for some of the hills which were being preserved as part of the Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor.  Where would I find five acres of land to farm for my dream of a youth empowerment program?

            I began by talking with some of the long-time Whittier residents I knew from my work as field education intern at a local Christian church.  Many of them had been or still were active in government, business and benevolent activities.  The mayor attended that church, and one of the richest families in the country attended that church.  They liked the idea, but didn't have any specific suggestions for me on where I might find five acres of land.  I had a series of meetings with a local memorial park, but they were concerned about possible vandalism.  I called the City Manager and asked if there were any city-owned parcels we might use, but he had had a bad experience with someone who had organized a community garden.  He suggested that I try the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, a 1500 acre county park.

            I called the park office and was invited to a meeting to discuss the idea.  I met with the park supervisor and her staff at a picnic table in the park.  They told me that they were planning to build a community garden on the vacant land adjacent to where we were sitting, but they would need only a small part of the parcel.  "Here's your land," the park supervisor said.

            On wings of glee I raced home and that evening my husband and I walked the parcel and began to envision the farm.  We drew a map of the parcel, noting the fences and nearest water.  The parcel was cleared of trees and shrubs, but covered with weeds that Parks & Rec cut down and occasionally sprayed.  The Ramada Inn next door used the area for overflow parking.

            The park supervisor had indicated at our meeting that the next step would be for us to sign a permit for use of the land.  I called to schedule the meeting.  No return phone call.  I called again and left messages.  I talked with the staff person who was at the meeting.  She thought the idea was great, but still no return call from the park supervisor.  A month or two went by, an agonizing time when I struggled to figure out what to do.  I wrote a two page summary of the project business plan and sent it to all the officials in the area:  head of Parks & Rec, LA County Supervisor, City Mayors, US & state Representatives, state Senators.  I was in luck:  LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina's deputy loved the idea, and soon I got word that the park supervisor needed to know who we were.  What was our organizational capacity to do the job?

            That was a good question, and in the weeks since our meeting in the park, I had been organizing the EarthWorks Advisory Board, which initially consisted of a couple of members of the UU Congregation of Whittier, First Unitarian Church of LA, Professor Mata's wife and other interested community members.  I had coffee with numerous community residents and area clergy.  Everybody said that Victor Ledesma was the community activist to know.  
            They were right.  Victor, 73 years old, blind, hard of hearing and disabled from a bout of polio was the force behind a lot of community projects over the years.  We had coffee and he agreed to help me get the land.  He had worked for LA County, knew the acting head of Parks & Rec and had a good working relationship with Supervisor Molina and her staff.   It took a full year, but with Victor's steady presence at all the county meetings, we finally had our land.  We worked out a good relationship with Parks & Rec.  They installed the water lines and did the initial plowing.  We got a $20,000 grant from LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina to use for capital improvements, and in June 2005, we were finally ready to go.

            I hired Mary Maverick as our farmer.  She was a wonderful grower and hard worker, and with the help of community volunteers and my fellow LA County Master Gardeners, Mary soon had a small patch of land cleared and planted.  An experienced charter school teacher read about the program and volunteered to help us get the program started.  I developed a relationship with the guidance counselors at the local high school, South El Monte High, who referred our first group of six students to us.  The youth, all high school students, were “at-risk” for dropping out of school due to poor grades, poor attendance, difficult home environments and/or behavioral problems. 

            Our first six youth began in September, 2005.  Since then, each quarter there are 10-15 youth who come to the farm on Saturdays and Wednesday afternoons, where they learn the basics of organic farming, life and job skills, leadership development, team building, self-esteem and empowerment.  The students help grow the organic fruits and vegetables, and run the Saturday morning farm stand where they sell their produce to the low-income community at reasonable prices.  They grow food for the local food bank.  They participate as guest chefs for the cooking demonstrations done by local chefs.  

            But in the beginning, the students, most of whom are Latino and a few Asian, are not very interested in growing organic food, nor eating healthy, nor developing their leadership skills.  At least in the early weeks of the program, it’s all about the money – they get paid a weekly stipend.  And it’s all about pushing the limits of the behavioral standards we have set.  Normal teen-age stuff.   But then relationships begin to deepen, some of their story is shared, eyes light up and faces soften.  Even the constant complaining about the rules or someone else signifies engagement. 

            “Missus, missus, why do you do it if you don’t get nothin’ out of it?”  one of the youth, Miguel asks.  “Why do I do what?” I ask.  “Why do you do this whole farm thing if it isn’t for money?”

            It had been a particularly trying Saturday at the farm, and part of me was wondering that same thing, too.  Early in the program, in an effort to explain to the youth how the program was most importantly about performing a community service as well as getting paid, our program director had told the youth that none of the staff was paid very much.

            I looked at Miguel and noticed a soft joy in his face as he waited for my answer, a joy that wasn’t there months ago when we interviewed him at the high school.   Back then, slumped in his chair with his head down, he could barely look us in the eye.  And then his story unfolded, about how his brother had committed suicide in Mexico the previous Fall, how he didn’t get along with his mother, how  he had spent his sophomore year doing drugs, failing his classes, and getting into trouble.

            Why do we do it, indeed.  

            My answer to Miguel was this:  “It’s something that comes from my heart.  It is my hope and my faith in you, in all of you, in all of us.  Because I know that together we can better our lives and our community, just by being together—by being friends, by working together.”

            Miguel is one of our success stories.  With his first paycheck he bought himself a bike.  A week later he told me that the police had stopped him and his friend.  “In a car?” I asked.  “No, on our bikes.  We were doing all kinds of wheelies and things, you know.”  I didn’t know, but I was glad that the police just gave them a friendly warning to keep back from the traffic. 

             The next week he gave me some sunflower seeds from some of our dried seedheads:  “Eat it, missus.  It’s good.”  And the next week he proudly displayed his sprouted sweet potatoes which farmer Mary had the youth plant in a prominent place on the farm.

            I am not an expert in horticultural therapy, but I do know that being connected with the earth has a profound stabilizing effect on me.  Physicians in ancient Egypt prescribed garden walks for mentally ill patients.  Hours after the 9/11 attacks in New York, scores of people were waiting to get into the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  They waived the entrance fees and were thronged with those seeking solace and serenity.  Organic Gardening magazine readers report that in times of trouble, they go outside or to plant nurseries for comfort.  Just looking at the plants brings hope and healing to many. 

            And more and more research is showing that gardening can have profound effects on one’s mental health as it provides a sense of control which is a psychological counter to stress and anxiety.  Our youth experience it at the farm.  They plant a seed that becomes a beautiful vegetable that they sell at the produce stand to customers who often tell them how good it looks and tastes.  Our youth often remark that they can learn things at the farm that would be difficult for them to learn in a classroom.  They get to engage all their senses in the learning. 

            Like Miguel, most of the EarthWorks youth enter the program carrying the stress and burden of poor grades, unstable family life, behavioral problems or simply living in poverty.  Most do not know much about plants, nor worry about eating enough fruits and vegetables.  But there is a profound transformation that occurs as the weeks go by.  14 or 15 year old youth may not know how to express their feelings, but we do see the shy ones open up, and the arrogant ones become more open to learning from others.  The farm is a great place to conduct education, to help youth connect with each other and to a sense of their worthiness in this world.  I believe that we cannot separate ourselves from nature; that we should not separate ourselves from nature, because in fact we cannot separate ourselves from the very thing that we depend on for life itself. 

            Thich Nhat Hahn writes that in order to love someone, you must understand them.  And that to understand someone you must have time; you must practice looking deeply into this person.  You must be there, attentive; you must observe, you must look deeply.   It is perhaps this quality of attentiveness that is at the core of the transformation we observe at the farm.  No longer is the physical environment just a “park” or a bunch of grass or a weedy lot or somewhere just to walk through on your way someplace else.  It’s a farm, and the youth come to observe it and understand all its various parts that together make it a functioning whole.  They greet the farm with attentiveness; that is how they love the farm.   When I asked the youth how it felt to be out there planting, watering and caring for things, one boy said that it was “Really cool.  I look around and I ask the plants how they’re doing, and I look and see what they might need and I help them.”

            I have also come to believe that the farm environment gives our youth a place to discover themselves, to try out different ideas and skills, to begin to think deeply about themselves and society.  Our curriculum engages them in personal goal setting, giving and receiving feedback, and reflecting on systemic issues like hunger and the environmental and health benefits of sustainable agriculture. 

            Parker Palmer writes of vocation, not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.  He says vocation doesn’t come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not.  It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.  He says that the deepest vocational question is not “What ought I to do with my life?” but “Who am I?  What is my nature?”  

            I believe that when we spend time outdoors in nature, we come closest to finding the answer to those questions.  For who am I apart from the plants who supply oxygen so I may breathe, and the fruits, vegetables and nuts that feed me.  Who am I apart from the animals whose milk, eggs and flesh feed me?  Who am I apart from the sun, the moon, the rivers and oceans, the valleys and mountains?   Can there be a me without the Earth?  

            I, along with many volunteers and staff, put in countless hours making the farm a reality.  The farm was supported by many of our UU churches in the greater Los Angeles area.  When I left LA to move to Oregon, I was able to turn the program over to the Los Angeles Conservation Corps and the EarthWorks Advisory Board.  The program lives on in the community and has employed and trained hundreds of youth.

            Through the hard work and dedication of so many people – staff, board members, advisors, County employees, high school employees, master gardeners, community volunteers, UU ministers, friends, funders—we have a beautiful, vibrant farm and youth program, full of creativity and life.   Now, during even the most intense encounters with rebellious youth at the farm, the situation is mediated by the crows who fly overhead, but by the wild parrots, the pelicans, the herons, the lone goose who showed up to inspect farmer Mary and her composting system, the stray cats, the ladybugs and all the insect life that has come back to an eco-system that once was robbed of its birthright vitality.  It is now our joy to experience God – the creative, sustaining power of love – in our relationships with each other and in the cycles of life and death at the farm. 
              EarthWorks is about change, about a new way of seeing and being in the world.  The youth we employ to help grow and sell organic vegetables to the community are performing work that is deeply meaningful.  The farm teaches us to remember who we are.  It reminds us that we are part of a vibrant web of life that holds the promise of new life in even the tiniest seed.  The farm teaches us a new way of seeing – of recognizing the usefulness and worth of all strands of the web of life – from the smallest ladybug to the so-called weeds – to the flock of wild parrots who fly overhead, supervising our work.

              Our youth have worked hard and succeeded well in restoring the biodiversity of the land, which in turn sustains our life through its yield of healthful produce.

              EarthWorks is an environmental project that gives all of us, as community members and citizens, the opportunity to effect change on the most profound level – literally right in our gut – by being a local source of high quality fresh food.  And by also being a job training program for youth, we build relationships of support and care for not only the earth but for youth whose young lives hold such promise for the future.

              Ultimately our success is measured by health – the health of our soil, of the youth we support, and the community we feed.  Farmer and writer Wendell Berry writes:  “The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility.  To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”[1]  And so our success will be measured by our ability to grow together in health, wisdom and stewardship.

               There is an ancient saying:  “If you walk the road of your dreams, the world will be a better place.”[2]   I am so deeply grateful to see our dream manifest in the world, here at this farm.  I challenge each of you, but especially the youth in our midst, to walk the road of your dreams.  And in the words of Sitting Bull:  “Let us put our minds together and see what kind of life we can make for our children.” [3] Together, we can do it!  Plant seeds!  Enjoy!  Thank you.

[1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco, 1997, 14.
[2] “From the Verba Seniorum (“The Sayings of the Fathers”), a compilation of texts from early Christian ascetics who lived near the Sceta monastery in Alexandria, Egypt, and left us important lessons about how to get along with our neighbors.”  Paulo Coelho, Ode Magazine, May 2006, 35.
[3] Kent Nerburn, ed., The Wisdom of the Native Americans. New World Library: Novato, title page.
Copyright 2013 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved