I’m always a bit nervous, starting a new program, but I realize as I wake early in the morning that my anxiety meter is reading Extremely High today. We are finally starting our new Emerald City Green Entrepreneurs Program—a collaboration between Earth Activist Training, our program that combines permaculture, spirit and activism, and Hunters Point Family, which runs programs for youth and young adults in Bayview Hunters Point, the San Francisco neighborhood with the highest rates of poverty, crime and violence. EAT and HPF have a long-standing relationship, for the last six years EAT has offered support and training for the three urban farms that Hunters Point Family runs. Last year, I taught a permaculture design course for young adults—and a couple of elders—who live in public housing. We’d hoped to continue and expand it over the summer, but ran short of funding.
But now we’ve begun again. I spent a long time reflecting on what I learned from the last program. At the beginning, it was hard for me to make the shift from teaching permaculture courses to the highly motivated, eager students we generally get to teaching young people who are traumatized, often shut down and fearful of new experiences, and without the kind of background of knowledge or education we generally take for granted. How do you explain a food forest to a bunch of urban youth who have never been in a forest? “Nature builds soil in three places,” I remember one session well. “In lake bottoms, in forests, and in prairies.”
“What’s a prairie?” one student asked.
“Is that like Little House on the Prairie?” another suggested.
By the end, I felt like I was beginning to find my way. I brought in an old friend and former housemate, Senegalese artist Charles Dabo, and asked him to tell the group about his experiences growing up in a village where the young people were taken through rites of passage. The elders would take them out of the village, for weeks or months at a time, in their age-groups, and teach them what they needed to know to move from one stage of life to another. We don’t do that much in Western society, and so young people find their own rites, often involving drugs, guns and danger, too often ending in prison or death.
This time, I wanted to start not with the plants but the people, and to structure the program as a rite of passage. If we take the time to build the inner attitudes and understandings and to make the work and material relevant to the real-life issues these young people face, I thought, they will be far more excited and motivated. So we’ve structured the program as a Rite of Passage—and this time, I decided to bring in Charles at the beginning. I also recruited Jay Rosenberg, who started the amazing Hayes Valley Farm, an urban farm on a disused freeway offramp in San Francisco. Jay is now working with The Fifth Sacred Thing film production as coordinator of our Green Projects. The movie production is loaning his services and providing us with a bit of seed money to get started. In the long run, when (not if!) the production gets financed, we hope to be able to hire some of our trainees and produce some of the thousands of plants we’ll need to create legacy gardens, as our Green Plan envisions. If I look at what’s been pushing me to start this project now, it’s in part my belief that if we want these things to happen, we’ll have a much more compelling argument for investors and finance people if we can say “Look what’s already happening” than if we’re saying, “Here’s all our really good ideas and intentions!”
Another longtime, dear friend of mine, writer, storyteller and Priestess of Oshun Luisah Teish was coming to do some story-telling for Hunters Point Family’s Black History Month celebration, so we brought her over to help us inaugurate the program. I was not lacking in backup! Nonetheless, I was not at all sure whether my plan would actually work. Would these streetwise young people go for it, or would they see it as far too woo-woo and irrelevant?
Monday, our first day, was a bit chaotic in starting. Of our six trainees, we ended up with just three—three young women ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-one. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because without the guys there, they were able to open up and speak more freely. Charles talked about the Rites of Passage, and they listened intently. We asked them what they like doing most. One writes poetry, another wants to write a book. Oooh, that made me happy! Another loves to do construction, would like to build homes for people. Already in their young lives they’ve dealt with death and loss. A boyfriend who was killed—a disabled brother. When we ask them who their heroes are, they all say their grandmothers are their heroes. Why? Because they’ve seen it all. They have the experience, the love and compassion, the wisdom.
“Do you have all that?” one of them asks me. I consider the list. “I do,” I say. “But I have enough wisdom to know that you always have to keep learning.”
When Teish comes in the afternoon, she politely suggests that Jay take off and we all settle in for some serious girl talk. For two hours, she regales us with stories of her life growing up in East LA, being part of a gang but deciding instead to take another path that led to her being a dancer, a writer, and a spiritual teacher. She gives the young women some very blunt advice—and tells stories that make us laugh. Her folks talked in proverbs, she says. Her mother would stalk over, stare down at her with a fixed eye and then finally come out with some piece of wisdom. “Child, don’t be like the bulldog in the haystack!”
We laugh at Teish’s bewildered expression. “Now what does that mean? My mother is ninety-two years old, and if I were to ask her today, you know what she’d say. “Child, you still haven’t figured that out? Keep working on it!’”
On the second day, one of the women has a class, the other two are late coming in. We know that one of the big pieces of learning will just be showing up, and showing up on time. If we can get that covered in the first month or two, we’ll be doing well.
But the three young men are there. And Jay and I are able to catch them up. Although we don’t have Charles or Teish, the guys open up when we ask them what they see as the biggest problems in their community. Violence and poverty head the list. One of the guys names his mother as his hero, the other two don’t have any heroes. But they do have a similar list of qualities—compassion and love start it off. We talk about food, about access to good quality food and health and food justice. The discussion is deep—nonetheless we fail to convince them to eat any salad for lunch. That will be another long process! The girls, more weight-conscious, ate up the salad although one of them made an emergency call to her mother to bring her some Ruffles. Tortilla chips and even sandwich fixings weren’t to her liking.
In the afternoon, we have our first real hands-on project, starting seeds and making soil mix. And they all dive into the work—once we hand out gloves! Actually putting your hands into the dirt will be another long-term learning process. I find it enormously sweet to watch these big, burly guys so seriously and delicately planting the tiny seeds of collards.
We had set a goal of planting one flat apiece—and we surpass it. We teach them how to make the soil mix and they are enthusiastic about doing it and doing it right, making sure it has enough of each of the ingredients. We finish the day with some permaculture pictures. All in all—a great beginning.
We’ve started the program on faith, with just enough funding for five trainees for two months. We’ve ended up with five and a half trainees, as one of the young women will miss one day each week because she’s in college studying to be a medical assistant. But we like her so much we can’t bare to tell her, “No, you can’t come.” We are really hoping we can get more funding, to increase the number of trainees and the number of hours per week so that some of them can treat this more as a sustaining job rather than a supplement.
We’d love to have your help and support. We hope to raise another $5000 to carry us through April and into May. If you have any spare cash to contribute, your tax-deductible donation will help us change lives and train the next generation of community leaders. Donate Here!
Thanks to all of you whose generous support has sustained our work for so many years!