- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
The Verde Partnership Garden is located on the campus of Verde Elementary School in North Richmond. It is a true partnership: both a school and community garden project. It's one of the loveliest gardens I've ever seen.
The project's coordinator is Cassie Scott. A gentle and wise woman, she shared some of the garden's history with me.
The Verde Partnership Garden project serves an extremely low income North Richmond neighborhood that despite its poverty, is rich in diversity and a sense of community. Like many urban areas in America today, North Richmond is poor. Per some statistics, ninety-seven percent of North Richmond families are eligible for public assistance, and the average family income is below $21,000 per year.
More than a decade ago, the area where the market garden now resides was a trash-strewn field behind the school. Richmond has a large population of Laotian refugees. A number of those Laotian refugee mothers - many formerly subsistence farmers from the Mien group - appeared one day and began quietly working. They sought no public permit. They saw a need, and they filled it.
Within three days, these women had claimed unloved and unused public space in the center of their community - the school where their children attended - and turned that space into 25 family garden plots. They hand-tilled each one, and in so doing, transformed a school. One of the school's employees, a child therapy intern with a background in organic gardening, was inspired by their work, and in the adjacent area, cultivated a small children's garden. Several organizations also became involved in the effort, including Catholic Charities. So began the Verde Partnership Garden.
This garden grows healthy children along with healthy food. It serves the school as an outdoor laboratory that brings classroom learning to life. It has distinct areas that encourage nature study and human interaction. Using the garden as its center, teachers and community volunteers teach cooking, nutrition, job readiness, literacy and leadership classes. The garden is a wonderland for children, providing areas of exploration, study, and contemplation.
The original field portion cultivated by a generation of immigrants eager to put down literal (and figurative) roots in the community, has now become a production-oriented garden, a student-run business. It provides food for the community, rolling into the larger effort of the 5% Local Coalition's work to produce and consume 5% of Richmond's food locally. It demonstrates the potential of urban agriculture to produce meaningful quanitities of food for local communities.
The garden may be helping Verde Elementary School in other important ways. The school placed last in statewide academic testing in 1999, the year when the garden programs began. Since then, per some statistics, Verde Elementary School’s test scores have increased at the fastest rate of any school in the state. The school also serves as a place to teach peace and cooperation among diverse groups of students. I visited the garden twice, and each time, there were community volunteers there supporting the work, busy students, and just an overwhelming sense of peace, purpose, and deep community.
There are statistics, and then there are the things that defy quantitative analysis. A shady nook to read a book, plants to touch and smell, an area for pollinators...and a place for school and community to come together.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
I have not blogged much the last two weeks, perhaps because I've been caught up in thought and possibility. Two weeks ago, I had an opportunity to travel to Richmond, California to visit a number of school and community gardens. I met with residents, and learned about the remarkable work of organizations such as the National Park Service, Urban Tilth, and the 5% Local Coalition in this city in west Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco.
My hosts, Park Guthrie of Urban Tilth, and Carla Koop of the National Park Service's Rosie the Riveter/World War II Homefront site, organized an amazing (and amazingly busy!) two day visit. (You'll hear more about Park and Carla and others I met in future blog postings). The visit ended up being one of the most profound professional and personal experiences I've ever had.
A vibrant shipbuilding city on the American WWII homefront, Richmond faces new kinds of challenges in this new American homefront. The community has experienced serious violence and poverty (some statistics indicate that more than 1 in 5 of Richmond residents under the age of 18 live below the poverty line, but I'm guessing with the current economic situation which is hurting so many Americans, that the figure is higher). There is a lack of employment opportunities, and some degree of blight as industries have left the area. Several residents told me about the negative press their community always seems to garner in the media. North Richmond and the Iron Triangle have certain connotations. The pain of some of the people I met about the negative portrayal of their community in the press was obvious. Richmond is much more than negative statistics.
I saw a different Richmond than the one that is often presented in the media. I saw a Richmond that is trying to create a new statistic that should inspire us all: producing and consuming 5% of the city's food locally.
I saw many other amazing things falling out of this work: community building, positive youth development, pride, healing, collaboration between people of diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests...what I saw is that gardens are creating all sorts of new possibilities in this community, helping to create a new American homefront that could serve as a model to us all.
My first stop was to visit three adjacent and linked sites: the Lincoln School Farm, Berryland and the Richmond Greenway.
At the Lincoln School Farm, I learned about a wonderful after school program that engages children through gardening. The number of participants varies on given days, but most weeks, students go home with fresh produce from the garden spaces they tend.
Berryland is an unfenced and openly-accessed community gardening site immediately adjacent to the Lincoln School Farm. It is situated on the Richmond Greenway, which I'll describe next. Berryland features raised beds planted with - you guessed it! - berries. While there, I tasted a plump, sun-warmed blueberry that made my mouth water. Berryland is not fenced in, but rather, is on the edges of a newly created Richmond Greenway, which runs directly behind Lincoln School.
The Richmond Greenway is one way that the city is demonstrating its pride and purpose. Formerly a railroad easement, the Greenway is now a city park that provides a bike and pedestrian path, linking different parts of the community. The Greenway is designed to be multi-purposed: travel, recreation, nature appreciation, displays of public art, etc. The use is citizen-driven. What struck me is that in this space, Richmond is providing opportunities for residents and community groups to garden on what might be considered wasted or blighted space in other areas. In this space that was previously abandoned, Richmond residents envisioned opportunities for school, home and community gardens. It's happening, too.
Recently, the National Park Service hosted a Jr. Ranger Day at the Berryland site on the Richmond Greenway, educating youth about Victory Gardens, providing an opportunity to "transform an old railroad route into a living corridor of edible fruits & berries." Berryland is managed collaboratively by several organizations and volunteers who help out at regularly organized workdays.
Berryland and the Richmond Greenway hearken back to the gardening innovations seen during WWI, the Depression, and WWII, when railroad and utility easements were often used for gardening activity. It also reminded me of something else common during those periods: the reclaiming of public space for victory gardening. During WWI, Boston Commons was used for Liberty Gardens. The most public house, the White House, used its front lawn for a Victory Garden during WWII. Using public space to grow food for the nation's citizens - a most sacred purpose - has been a given in America's past.
Richmond is reclaiming that positive heritage and creating a better community, one garden at a time.
Look for more Richmond stories in the next two weeks.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."