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  May/June 1997 Features:
Twelve Gates to the City
Pedestrian Paradise
Urban Escapes
Strong Roots
Earth to Congress
Field Guide
Ways & Means
Food for Thought
Way to Go
Hearth & Home
Sierra Club Bulletin
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Strong Roots

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 trouble.

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 garden. 

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 summer. 

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.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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