By Kelly Curry
It’s a bright sunny Sunday and I’m sitting in my homeboy’s restaurant drinking a cup of his rich, black coffee. With ceiling fans whirling overhead, the last customer, of the last rush, hustles out the door. He nods goodbye to him and then turns to me, “What are you doing today?”
I tell him I’m working on a series of interviews with guys who have recently been released from prison and are now working the land and growing food for the community.
“What a joke.” He says, grabbing the remote and pointing it towards the wide flat screen overhead, “Those guys don’t stand a chance,” he mashes the mute button, “why would anybody hire a ex-con when they can have a guy with no record, never did anything and works hard? You know what a thief does? They steal...you know what a junkie does? They use. End of story.”
His words echo in my ear a few days later as I sit with colleagues at a cafe on the outskirts of Berkeley. We’re there to raise friends and resources for an organization whose stickers read “Grow Food, Grow Jobs, Grow Community.” A brother known as Big Mo is on the mic, sharing from his heart, his very own transformation. “It started at San Quentin,” he says. “I was doin’ time for armed robbery. I saw a flyer on the wall saying that if we signed up and came to trainings and helped out in the garden, that when we came out we could get jobs startin’ at $17.50 an hour. We were all like, ‘that’s not real, that’s somebody’s idea of a joke, we didn’t believe it.’”
Mo laughs and the crowd laughs with him, he bounce-sways from toe to toe as he speaks, moving with the rhythm of his words, which also bounce. Mo is a friendly man with laughter in his voice, so none of us notice the tears streaming down his face, until he wipes them from his eyes and the timbre in his voice shakes, “Having this training as a landscaper and coming out having a job means that I can be there for my family. It means that I can help out and have somewhere to live and do my best and be my best. The support of Planting Justice has changed my life. I used to be a guy who if I walked into the room you would wanna watch your bag. That’s not me anymore.” There is a thunder of applause from the small group assembled to play food justice trivia, eat burgers and fries and enjoy being a part of a movement that seems to be providing solutions to the most daunting issues of our time.
The Green Jobs Movement Gives Back
Later that week I am at San Quentin, in the garden at the edge of the Bay that Mo was talking about. I am with colleagues from Planting Justice, Katina and Haleh and about 20 guys who participate regularly in the garden class. We pinch the tops from the bright, gold and red calendula to reseed the beds, pull up mint and green-leafy sorrel, and bundle the abundant medicinal herbs, greens and vegetables that grow strong under the watchful, gentle, loving guidance of the guys from H-Unit. And although it’s against the rules for them to partake of the harvest, they are happy to be working out in the open, fresh air, salted by a gentle sea breeze. Together, we stack the fresh goodies on ice and they are ready to be transported back to the city, where they will be donated to local Bay Area folks in need.
Later, we’ll go to the chapel for a workshop on blazing new neural pathways that promote our ability to respond mindfully instead of reacting thoughtlessly. These are potentially life-changing techniques that everyone in the world needs, and which are indeed changing the lives of program participants.
“How does it make you feel, being this close to the ocean?” I ask B, a participant from H-Unit, as we look up from the basil and glance through the cyclone fencing that separates us from the shores of the Pacific, just beyond the monolithic structures where thousands and thousands of men are housed.
“Makes me feel free,” he says. “Just bein’ in this garden makes me feel free. I close my eyes and see myself getting up in the morning, going to work, doing my job, coming home, being with my children, my family, providing and really being there for them.”
I imagine him walking through the door after a long day of work and hugging his children...helping them with homework...checking on them while they sleep. With that, we turn our attention back to the garden, our fingers wade through the fragrant herbs, as the soothing smell of basil finds it way through the air.
The training that the brothers in H-Unit receive prepares them for one of the biggest booms in demand for skilled and unskilled labor in California since Congress struck a deal with Pacific Rail to lay railroad tracks across the United States in the late 1800s.
Everyone in San Quentin’s H-Unit has a release date, but given the mysterious ways of the prison system, that release can be elusive. Volunteering with the Planting Justice program, however, can not only improve a prisoner’s chances of being released because it secures them a viable network and a job when they come out, it can actually help them participate in the transformation of their own communities by helping to grow food, grow jobs and grow community. That’s because the Food Justice movement provides resources for the very communities where Mo and the others come from—West Oakland, Chicago’s West Side, Detroit, Watts in Los Angeles—areas whose economies have been devastated by U.S. corporate reliance on overseas outsourcing of jobs for cheap slave labor (among other things).
Devastation, Gentrification, Resilience
West Oakland, original home to many of the folks at San Quentin, is being hit by massive, relentless waves of gentrification. A drive through this historically Black neighborhood reveals the impact of over 75 years of corruption, crooked politicians and bureaucratic mismanagement by City Hall, which stamped out a thriving, bustling “Harlem of the West.” Starting with a designation as a “blighted area” in 1946, West Oakland has been the victim of lots of poor planning: the “urban renewal” projects of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s; the use of eminent domain for the construction of a major postal hub and freeway which cut off the neighborhood from the rest of the city; the destruction of homes to develop ACORN projects and set up BART—all of these forced Black businesses and families out of the area, thus destabilizing the local economy.
A ride through West Oakland makes you feel a little like you’re rolling through a Dali painting. A place that isn’t what it was and is not yet what it is going to be...all tinged with a mood of unpleasant uncertainty. So today, the residents float together, like the odds and ends of bits and pieces that have drifted together after a disastrous flood. They are hipster youth (mostly white) holding down abandoned property; homeless of every age and color; historic resident hold-outs who remind us of what was and is no longer; regular working folks wondering how long before their landlord raises the rent astronomically; and the opportunists—monied gentrifiers, some of whom are painfully aware of the horrific legacy that they are benefiting from, and many others, who could give a damn. These folks are waiting for the area to become what Harlem now is for white folks—“safe and ready for our invasion”—as I heard one new Harlem homeowner recently testify on the A train from Brooklyn.
And though you can feel the pulse of ghosts of resilience beating hard in the air—Little Bobby Hutton ...Huey Newton ...C.L. Dellums ...Elvis’s songwriter Ivory Jo Hunter—things just feel strange. There is a vibration roiling through the streets. You can certainly feel it if you’re standing on the green grass of Defermery Park (known to the community as Little Bobby Hutton Park), across the street from the elementary school that houses a City Slicker Farm school garden, adjacent to the fence displaying artist Keba Konte’s Black Panther leaping through a giant burst of blue ribbons... each tied hopefully by children and elders of the community.
The vibration, which seems to rumble louder and louder everyday, incantations of those ghosts perhaps, is saying that enough is enough. Resilience starts from the inside out. That resilience is getting a boost from the well-organized Food Justice Organizations in the neighborhood. They offer hope in the form of reminding the community how to grow her own food and make her own medicine.
Green Jobs and Food Justice
The intersection between Green Jobs and Food Justice creates new opportunities to reconnect folks who have been shut out and relegated to the margins to move with confidence through the world. Through these pathways, folks find themselves relevant, engaged and alive. Bringing attention back to the land, back to growing their own food, reminds folks of all the ways that the current, commercial food system neutralizes our connection to the earth. Right now we have an opportunity to reconnect to an understanding of the perfection of interdependent, holistic principles through a recalibration of our being. Tapping back into the earth’s rhythm means that we may be transformed to our natural, life-affirming balance.
This transformation has the power to redirect the future of the United States and her people, who have been left on their own to figure out how to survive the mess created by the systems that have failed her humanity miserably. This transformation creates space for America to step into her greatness as a land of true opportunity. Right now, People’s Grocery, City Slicker Farms, and Planting Justice are at the helm of a movement of healing community through connection with the earth and sustenance through her gifts of nutrition and medicine.
Mo and B are essential to this story. Because when they come home, it means that the connection that was broken when Black men left communities in waves, as a result of the transformation from Jim Crow to Prison Industrial Complex, may finally be re-established.
A Witness to History in the Making
It’s Thursday and we are at the campus of McClymonds High School in West Oakland. McClymonds, which has produced some of the greatest American figures in sports, politics, and music, also hosts a garden donated by Planting Justice. Darryl and Mo are here, working to help train the students in the “grow food” part of the organization’s mission. Right now Dion is asking me a question I don’t have the answer to. I defer to Darryl. He is about 6 feet 5 inches tall with stunning locks, black like coal, and a voice like the one Marlon Brando did in the Godfather.
Dion is about 14 and entering the 10th grade. When he looks up at Darryl his whole demeanor shifts, he becomes markedly polite and his body language is deferential. Darryl’s shoulders seem to straighten and his tone softens as he demonstrates how to plant the fledgling marigold in the stinky-rich, organic soil.
“See,” he says, leaning down and over the soil, “you gotta be gentle with them or they won’t make it. Put it in here and pull a mound of soil around it. When you’ve done that, get you some water, and sprinkle it on there with your fingers. It’s goin’ through changes now because you just moved it from one home to another, so be careful, be gentle.”
Dion, large brown eyes sparkling in the high summer sun, gets that Darryl’s silence is a cue for him to mirror the planting demonstration. He does so with care and grace. And as he looks up at Darryl, I realize that I have been witness to a moment that has been in the making since the first slave ships began moving human cargo off the coast of Africa, across oceans, centuries ago.
The men are coming home to their communities, in positions of growing power and equality and learning to command their new identity, as teachers and leaders and fathers and brothers. “Thank you,” Dion says looking up at Darryl, who replies, “You’re welcome.”
It is after this exchange that Darryl approaches me and asks whether he can get some training in how to work with the youth. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing or mess up,” he confides.
“You’re a natural teacher,” I tell him. We do the training two weeks later. He says it’s boosted his confidence. “Now I’m ready to work with them.”
This intersection of Green Jobs and the cultivation provided by Food Justice organizations, here in Oakland and over the rest of the country, harmonizes beautifully with the melodies played out of the African American hymnal on survival and growth. One more synthesis, pulled together from the discordant notes born from enduring the pain and the brutality of a system designed to take our lives and our energy and all of our hope...a system designed for genocide. Because we are survivors, we have taken the pain and the struggles and did what we do...make music. Because we are survivors, there will be more to this story and the more to this story looks and feels like healing.
Kelly Curry is an author, publisher and social justice activist. She works with the Planting Justice education team.