We thought an urban garden would help restore our community: just take kids, add water and dirt, grow food. But for the project to sprout, we would need...
by Melody Ermachild Chavis
Things were not getting any better in my neighborhood. For years white families like
mine had joined with black neighbors to ask for police protection, but we were drowning in
a flood of unemployment, crack, and gunfire. Some of us had lived on our block long enough
to see a whole series of youngsters follow their older cousins and friends into drugs and
When Shyaam Shabaka, a program supervisor with the Young Adult Project in Berkeley,
California, introduced himself at our neighborhood crime-watch meeting, he said his job
was to work with youth in our community. I volunteered to help him because I am always
talking about "prevention," and "early intervention," and I wanted to
do something positive, not just call the police.
At first, I helped Shyaam arrange trips to ball games and museums. When some of the
kids put their field trip lunch in their pockets to take home for dinner, we talked about
the need for food in a neighborhood where so many families run out at the end of the
month. The one nearby supermarket had closed, leaving just the liquor stores selling
overpriced milk and overripe bananas as their only produce. We decided to start a
The kids wanted something to do so badly they would have agreed with whatever we
suggested. Shyaam had served as a volunteer with a horticulture project in Mali, West
Africa, and he had a vision of restoring "the lost agricultural heritage that's
rightfully ours" to the African-American community. As for me, my own garden was my
solace, a place that gave me shelter when the street outside was just too rough.
From the beginning, we had our eyes on a lot for our garden. It had nothing on it but a
billboard that usually advertised alcohol on one side and tobacco on the other, showing
black people drinking, smoking and smiling. Someone had dumped a mattress in the weeds and
the little kids used it as a trampoline. At night, there was often a card game on the lot
and, 24 hours a day, almost any drug could be bought along the sidewalk. Our vision of a
garden full of food took a lot of imagination, but Shyaam and I could see it: vines
growing on the billboard and, hanging from its frame, baskets of produce for sale.
We decided to act like a functioning garden project even though we hadn't yet gotten
the space, and took the youths to organic farms and gardens. As they walked among the
plants and fruit trees, their faces relaxed. Every place we visited, the kids asked the
farmers, "How'd you get a job like this?" (Ask young people here what they want,
and they always say, "A job," and they mean it. They need money in their pockets
for all the things a teenager needs, like clothes, movie tickets, and pizza slices.)
Between trips, the kids still so profoundly had nothing to do that when somebody threw
an old sofa out of an apartment building up the block from my house, they slouched on that
couch like it was a life raft. "At least," I told my husband, "we don't
have to worry about our couch potatoes watching too much TV." (In fact, many of the
sets that were once in their apartments had long since been stolen or sold for dope.
Houses where drugs are used are furnished with nothing.)
We were still a long way from turning our first spade of soil. Though the
community-minded owner of the property offered to rent us the ground around the billboard
for the price of the county taxes, we also needed money for a fence and liability
insurance. I checked out library books on grant writing and got to work. Then, on a bright
day, four guys in a car drove by the billboard lot and shot three people right there on
the corner. Shyaam arrived on the scene just after the cops did. He didn't want to look at
one man's body lying bloody on the sidewalk in the noontime sun, an officer trying to
resuscitate him. The man died. Shyaam said, "We need a garden, but we also need to
feel safe." We realized we couldn't use the billboard lot.
The only other open space was a tot lot where children never played because everybody
knew it was dope dealers' turf. We never did find land for a garden that first summer.
School finally started and the rains came and soaked the couch and the city hauled its
sodden mass away. But if it occurred to either Shyaam or me to give up, we didn't say so
to each other.
When school let out for the summer, we were ready with jobs. Shyaam had found a
rent-free garden plot, already fenced and insured, at a city-owned senior center a mile
away. At first, the seniors weren't so sure about teenagers coming around, but Shyaam and
I persuaded them to give us a try. It turned out to be a perfect match: the kids, so
hungry for love and attention from adults, and the seniors, eager to teach what they knew
about growing food. Doris, a heavyset lady with a sweet voice, told us she had raised
goats as a girl just blocks away. She taught a class for us on traditional
African-American crops like a squash grown in the South called "kush," an
African word. Albert, who moved stiffly on his bad leg, started all of our first vegetable
seedlings in cut-open milk cartons on the porch of his tiny apartment.
Fifteen-year-old Charles liked Albert and Doris right away. Charles was shaky that
first summer, because his older sister's boyfriend had just been murdered, and he carried
a little frown between his eyes. He seemed uncertain, too, about dirt. "This is
nasty," he told Doris.
Another of our gardeners, Ernest, 16, was new to the neighborhood, having just moved
with his mother from Mississippi. We were worried about how he would get along with the
other kids. He won everyone's respect quickly, not just because he was a good basketball
player, but also because he was already a natural with plants, having worked on his
grandfather's small farm.
We had basic rules, made up by the youths themselves, posted on the garden fence:
"No throwing tools" and "No profanity." A lot of dirt clods, bad
language, and a few tools flew the first weeks before we made the sign. "Hey!"
Shyaam would call out. "Hey! We don't act that way here!"
Shyaam taught dispute-resolution skills, and talked about how to say you're sorry.
There was so much to learn: not just gardening, but how to show up, be on time, work and
keep working, and how to talk to adults with respect. More than once, I thought about
that bumper sticker, "Hire a teenager while he still knows everything." And I
thought about how much easier it is to stay at home and vote for politicians who want to
build cells for young people than it is to actually spend time with them.
Doris, who is shorter than most of the kids and walks with a cane, approached them with
authority and affection. Watching the youngsters work with her, I realized that the way
you learn something like setting out seedlings is by putting your body up close to the
body of someone who knows how to do it, and doing it with them.
Making our way through city channels, we became a job site under the Summer Youth
Employment and Training Program, a federal effort that has been in effect since Lyndon
Johnson's time. Our gardeners were just a few of the 615,000 low-income teens who worked
30 hours a week for $4.25 an hour that year, earning about $1,000 each during the whole
The kids owned this project. The ten of them chose its name, "Strong
Roots," and the slogan, "Gardening for Survival." Still, not everyone stuck
with the program. Some had too many problems a job just couldn't solve, and they dropped
out, to be replaced by other youths from the neighborhood. Many of the ones who made it
through asked Shyaam to keep their money for them so that no one at home would take it. At
the end of the summer, Shyaam took the group shopping for school clothes.
Strong Roots did a lot with a little. Of the half-dozen grants I'd applied for, we'd
gotten only one: $5,000 from a federally funded substance-abuse-prevention program. The
Smith & Hawken company gave us tools and local nurseries contributed seeds and soil.
We won a Rototiller in a national garden contest. Strong Roots--Gardening for
Survival--could also be called Gardening Against Isolation, because it connected us to the
environmental movement. At an ecological fair in a city park, Charles and Ernest--who deal
every day with the nervous, averted eyes of people who are afraid of black teenagers--sat
at our booth soaking up big smiles and friendly inquiries, as they described Strong Roots.
"What a wonderful project!" people kept saying. They were the only young
African-Americans at sustainable-agriculture meetings, where people were eager to hear
about their work.
I got to know Dana, a young woman who is trying to keep the Headwaters Forest in
Northern California from being logged, at one of those gatherings. "We're working
together," I said. "You're doing preservation, and I'm doing restoration, two
halves of the same work." Dana told me about the marbled murrelet, a bird I'd
never heard of and probably won't get to know. I realized that it's the same act of faith
for me to come to love that bird and want to save it sight unseen as it is for her to love
our vacant lot and all that grows there: plants and the children of strangers.
We were all surprised by how much food we were able to raise: corn, tomatoes, peas,
beans, greens. When we gave vegetables to the seniors, everybody felt good. At our
end-of-the-summer party, the seniors said they had loved being with the young people.
Watching them, I thought that what a person really wants in life is to find a thing that
needs doing, and do it well.
After the kids had returned to school, the morning paper printed a small article that
said the federal summer-jobs program had been an "item" that had died without a
eulogy when President Clinton signed the 1995 budget. Unable to speak, I showed the story
to my husband: "Republican sponsors of the budget," he read out loud, "say
the program is a failure because it does not lead to permanent employment." The
kids are 14 to 17 years old. "Too bad these politicians aren't still working at
whatever their first summer jobs were," he fumed. "So much for the idea
that they want poor people to work." I felt as if I had been trying to save a forest,
and it had been cut down. What could we say to our team? I didn't want to tell
fragile youngsters that some grown-ups had decided to make life even harder for them. I
didn't want them to hear even one discouraging word. But I felt flattened.
Shyaam, though, didn't skip a beat. "We saw this coming. Why should we roll over
and give up just because of some people in Washington?" I didn't see how we could
keep going. The nationwide youth jobs program had cost $872 million, much less than the
one billion Congress voted for one B-2 bomber--a plane the Pentagon and I didn't even
want. I didn't know yet where money for the next year's bag lunches were coming from, let
alone wages for the gardeners.
We asked them what they thought. In his rather formal, Mississippi way of talking,
Ernest said, "The jobs program was cool. Now that they're going to cut it out I
believe it'll make a lot of youth feel bad. The crime rate might go up, because youth
could turn to selling drugs and stuff to get money."
In the following months, the struggle for Headwaters went on upstream from our struggle
to keep our project going, and I thought about Dana many times. Like Shyaam, she doesn't
give up. I realized nothing irretrievable had happened yet. The ancient Headwaters grove
is still standing, and the marbled murrelet's fate is undecided. We never did find private
or corporate funds, but Strong Roots' young gardeners are still alive and growing, and our
gardens will thrive too. Writing grant proposals again, I keep in mind Ernest and Charles
showing off a big plate of their tomatoes at a produce fair, enthusiastically selling
Strong Roots T-shirts. If they're not ready to give up, how can I?
In May 1996, Congress restored the jobs program, with a 25 percent cut. Strong Roots
had another good crop that summer, but with fewer participants. A $27,000 grant from the
city of Berkeley will finance the project another year. The gardeners recently reclaimed
the billboard lot and are constructing a memorial to the people slain in the area.
Melody Ermachild Chavis works as a private investigator on death
penalty cases and as a community volunteer. She is the author of Altars in the Street: A Neighborhood Fights to Survive (Bell Tower, 1997) and is a Sierra essay contest winner.