"People here grow school gardens and community gardens of flowers and food, reclaiming wasted land and nourishing body and soul. In time, we might grow a civilization." — San Francisco Chronicle
Today, I witnessed a trauma, a trauma that happens every day in Bayview-Hunters Point. I'm not talking about Uganda, but 94124. San Francisco, one of the liberal hubs of the universe. A Superfund toxic site, a modern-day ghetto where the normal pedestrian has to travel miles to get to a grocery store with "healthy" produce — AKA fresh vegetables.
I ask my students at Willie Brown Jr. Academy, "What is food security?" Chills begin to run up my back as I realize that this is not just a lesson written for a grant report. No, this lesson is for me as much as them.
The kids get quiet and start participating. I put out big ideas in my hip-hop intonations and they hear me — like a rap star on TV — because that is how they hear best, through rhythm. That is how they wake up out of their trauma-filled, late-night drama, like you see on The Wire.
I ain't even jokin'; when I saw The Wire, I understood my school more. The next day, I asked a friend and colleague, "Is that for real, is The Wire really like this school?"
"Yes," he said.
In shock, I asked a kid in the office if there were gangs in their hood. He started to go off about how they work, and without a doubt, I realized how this whole system is messed up.
So the lesson continues, and my students get it.
I ask again, "What is food security?"
"When you can walk down the street and get fruits and vegetables," my students answer.
They get it.
"How can you make a difference?," I ask.
"Plant food in a park!"
Answers roll off the tongues of this normally energetic and chaotic class; students start to listen to each other, because this is something that makes sense.
We ain't speakin' of the dinosaurs, or the white people who made this country. We ain't speakin' in order to meet some standards, so they can pass a test that was meant for my students to be "left behind." I'm speakin' truth, and they throw words of authenticity back, and their creative minds start bubbling.
Like the grease in McDonalds, the sickening grease that is the result of inhumane animal treatment and commercial seduction. Grease that sedates the minds, and numbs the souls of African Americans and other minorities and lower class peoples.
Unhealthy food equals numbed minds and an inability to think critically about how to make the world better.
African people, ancestors to a number of my students, left the southern plantations as freed men and women, and were for the first time in their free lives given the opportunity to make money and rise. In hordes, people headed to San Francisco and worked on the shipyards, where the toxic waste from World War II was dumped. They worked; some rose to places of wealth, while others were eventually placed in low-income housing, abandoned military barracks, disheveled, asbestos-filled pieces of shit.
Like Bedouins, another minority people in the far-reaching deserts of Be'er Sheva, where the sun beats hot in Israel. Placed next to nuclear weapons and electric plants, denied citizenship and exposed to more diseases than one can shake a stick at, these people were being annihilated, slowly, deliberately.
In America, a black mayor — who my school is named after –tried to sell out this ghetto to white people, removing low-income families from their homes because they wanted to turn their buildings into luxury condos. Then, as the politician's pocket books grew, he would kindly re-house them in a "better" place for the same price, miles away from their family and friends.
Just like the Bedouins who've been encouraged to leave their tribal way of living and move into bland homes in a shanty town that looks like an ugly, uninspiring movie set. At least the Bedouins live with each other next to the electric company in the former, unrecognized village. In the newer, lifeless, recognized village — with electricity and healthcare — they sell out to the government and materialism; Nokia phones and Internet porn replace their tribal ways.
Where does culture go when the flashing lights of billboards ring higher than the fluorescent light of the mosque. What happens when the African people forget their culture because they have been displaced? Without a culture? Violence, hatred, anger, abuse, poverty, depression, guns, killing, stealing, havoc.
If we ain't feeding the lowest rung of the culture, then how can they survive? If they aren't thriving, then they are traumatizing the lives of others through car theft, murder and random acts of violence. The roots of violence are clear, and if we want to make a change, food security is essential. Healthy food is the beginning of healthy thought.
Right now, the world is deteriorating at such a quick pace that we need the people to work en masse to create better solutions to complex problems. We need the human power!
Hunters Point is the most densely populated neighborhood in San Francisco, myriads of people waiting to be awakened.
But today I witnessed a tragedy, a trauma that happens every day.
It began when I brought flowers to the office, because I wanted the office to be more joyful. I wanted my coworkers to connect to the beautiful energy inherent in our garden, which can be seen from most windows in the building. But who dares to look? In their minds, these students walk in the halls, trauma bumping into trauma, and one student makes fun of another, hits another, getting out the aggression inherent in abused societies where the majority of students have a parent who is either involved in drugs, alcohol, and sexual abuse, or in prison.
This is the reality of the underworld, the "Other."
And when I witnessed this sweet 5th grade Special Ed foster kid, who's moving from home to home, unsure of who loves him and what he needs to do to have someone love him (because who knows why he's in a foster home and what his momma was doing when she was pregnant?) being pulled off a chair from the office by one kid and then kicked in the guts by a girl. I stopped them, with anger and vigilance, justice and authority.
The girl who hit this kid, this boy, this comrade of mine, ran ashamed, she ran, humiliated that she, this wise and sweet girl, had succumbed to her own boiling point.
Not because she is mean, but because her world is so hard that something needs to break sometimes
When children are abused, are called names, and their whole lives are trauma, can you expect more from them? I can.
Because in the garden that little girl who beat up that boy is a little girl. She plays in the dirt, plants chard and runs around in the secret garden. She follows direction, gets others to listen to me and is an all-around good kid, but she broke, and I needed to walk back into school and face those children. When I see all those children, I need to show love, because in the garden there is love and they feel it.
That boy who had been beaten on the floor will come with his therapist, and he will come back to the bench in the garden, and he will come over to me, calling me an angel and telling me he sees the world from the peak of the hill in the secret garden.
Some therapeutic test might say he has some issues, but he shines in the garden, and I can expect more from him and her, but I need help to make this happen. I cannot do this work alone. I need to come to my work from a place of abundance because they need to know that this is a possibility for anyone who puts their mind toward it. I need to have the sustenance to make this program run. We are at a crux, ready to move to the next stage, but we need funding to help us get there.
I am starting to obtain what grants are looking for: they want communities to have true food security, access to fresh fruits and vegetables. That is what my garden is.
It is a matter of implementing innovative programming to make this successful. Employing youth, getting boxes of produce delivered to their neighborhood, collecting food from several gardens in the neighborhood, working together as a collective. This garden is big enough to make a real impact in the neighborhood. This new stage means really serving the population the good food they need to begin this process of being active, positive citizens.
Yet if I am constantly searching for funding, justifying to some strange man with weird glasses how my program needs to be warranted, and feeling belittled when I cannot answer with full confidence how this program can be sustained, I shrink and wonder, "How am I gonna make this place work if people don't start giving us money?"
When so much money is embezzled and placed into the wrong hands, why can't it go in the right hands — a program that is really making a difference?
It's hard to say, but the truth is this program needs money now so that I can work with a team of other committed human beings to make this program work.
The healing power of this earth is amazing. After I witnessed this trauma, I went back to the garden and immediately was asked to help on a project. Without a word, I put the dirt on top of the gopher wire. A couple minutes later, I shared with my coworker the travails I had just undergone. And before I knew it, the garden had helped me feel better again. Working the land, I got out my energy, and began to come back to center.
This healing happens everyday for me, the staff, and the children who truly allow themselves to breathe in the beauty of this land. I long to return there each morning. I long to place my hands in the earth again, because she is the wisest teacher of all.
I am blessed that I can witness this and come back to my community of lovely individuals who can listen and advise me, and I need to use this privilege to make a difference. This is my beginning and I need to learn how.
Peace, Light, Love, Happiness, Health, Open paths,
Health in the body, Joy in the spirit, Love in the Heart.
It is this we wish for ourselves and all our brothers and sisters.
So may it be.
And let us say Amen.
Joti Levy is Program Director of the Willie Brown Academy Garden Program in San Francisco.
Image by ItzaFine Day, courtesy of Creative Commons license.