Gardening Students in South L.A. Use Their Skills to Build Garden Beds for Local Families

The students' garden classroom at All Peoples Community Center. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Sandwiched between 110 fwy on the west, the 10 fwy and the Blue Line tracks to the north, and an industrial area to the east, the All Peoples Community Center sits in a densely packed neighborhood in Historic South Central that seems to have been forgotten by the city. You know things can’t be great when a gang can take the liberty of drawing enormous hand signs in the middle of an intersection (below), for the benefit of anyone in doubt about whose territory they are in. And, every time I roll through there, I feel like I and everything around me are being liberally coated in layers of grime.

A clique marks its territory in the middle of the street. The signs have been there in various incarnations for years. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Yet, the hardworking folks at All Peoples have somehow managed to bring a bit of green hope to the area.

Last February, I stopped by the center to learn more about their garden projects. With the help of Crystal Gonzalez, a Peace Education Coordinator from American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), youth at the center’s continuation high school and parents of kids in the center’s after-school programs built two small gardens. One is a learning site for students of the gardening and cooking class and the other has plots which are allotted to parents on a rotating basis. Students reported feeling like they had managed to create a little oasis in their neighborhood and parents enjoyed being able to share recipes with others and teach their children about health and where their food came from.

All Peoples sits in a densely populated area surrounded by freeways, trains, and industry. (Google map screen shot)

So, I was really excited when Crystal got in touch to tell me that students from the gardening class would be spending the morning building raised garden beds in the homes of two families in the neighborhood. The recipients were parents who had spent a year picking up gardening techniques at the center and who would now be turning their garden beds there over to a new set of parents so the cycle of learning could continue.

It wasn’t all going quite as planned, Crystal told me when I arrived to meet the students this morning. They didn’t have the key to access the room where the soil they had purchased for the project was being stored and police were hanging around one of the home sites, apparently looking for the male friend of a neighbor.

Undaunted, Crystal and the other mentors split the students into two groups and we all headed out.

My group, consisting of Austin (an intern with AFSC), Cathy (a former teacher and volunteer), and students Oscar, Melissa, Luk, and Leslie, walked about 5 blocks east over to Doña Mari’s home.

As we walked, we talked about what might have brought the police poking around so early in the morning. Oscar declared he was tired of being harassed by the police.

Gangs were obviously a problem in the area, he noted, but not everybody was a gangster and the police needed to do better than stop and hassle people like him all the time. He especially didn’t like them getting intrusive and asking him to lift up his shirt so they could check him for tattoos.

“Oh, yeah!” Melissa chimed in, saying that the same thing happened to her friend a lot, too.

Doña Mari, at right, looks on as students work in her new garden and teacher Elly drills holes in the lumber. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

So, it was a relief to find the only people waiting for us at the house were Doña Mari and her one-year old son, Elly (the gardening teacher), and Jorge (a volunteer and former student) who were busy preparing the lumber for the beds.

As Elly put the students to work leveling the soil, I sidled up to Doña Mari to get her thoughts on the project.

She was really pleased to have new garden beds, she told me in Spanish as she watched the students dig up the narrow space along the fence.

Her daughters were ten and thirteen years old and she wanted them to understand what growing food entailed.

When they see it in the supermarket, it is already done/ready, she explained. It is important that they see where it comes from.

They already enjoyed helping her harvest her produce at the All Peoples’ site and watching the few plants she grew at home blossom and develop over time, she said. And, she had managed to cultivate their appetites for fresh, home-grown food.

Which was a good thing considering the challenge of finding viable produce in her neighborhood.

Sometimes she went to the Trader Joe’s in Culver City, she said.

So far? I asked.

That particular Trader Joe’s is almost 9 miles away.

She shrugged.

They stopped there when they were in the area, she explained. Sometimes they tried Whole Foods, too. Even though they could only afford to get a few things there at a time, she thought it was important that she be able to give the kids organic produce when possible.

There’s also a farmers’ market here on Central and 43rd that people like to take advantage of, she said. And, when Curren Price asked us what we needed in the area (at a recent meeting with constituents), some of us asked him to put a farmers’ market here in the park on 23rd.

But around here, she gestured to the immediate area, there is nothing.

Melissa, Oscar, and Leslie get to work leveling the soil where the garden beds will be installed. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When she went to help set up the hose for the students, I moved over to where Luk was dropping some spoken word on Austin.

“Do you do a lot of spoken word?” I asked.

Mature beyond his 20 years, it seemed like he does a little bit of everything. Having spent much of his younger years being moved around from place to place, he made it sound like reconnecting with school, the earth, and his inner voice were helping keep him grounded.

In fact, he explained, juvenile hall had helped him come to appreciate school.

“Huh?” I hadn’t heard anyone sound quite so upbeat about juvie before.

He had been removed from his home around age 14 because his brother had had some sort of psychotic break and was a danger to kids in the family, he explained. Most of the kids got placed with other relatives, but no one could take Luk in. So, he got put in foster care. At one point, something — it’s unclear what — went wrong with the foster care system and he and other foster kids were sent to juvenile hall.

He hadn’t done anything wrong, he said. The system just apparently got overburdened and that’s how cases like his were handled.

At least he and the others were put in a minimal security area, he reassured me, probably seeing the look of horror on my face at the idea that innocent kids with troubled families would be de facto jailed.

“It was only for a year…” he tried again.

“A year?”

Even when he said that being shepherded back and forth between school and juvie every day — meaning he couldn’t cut class — had helped put him on the path of being a better student, I still wasn’t comforted into thinking that this was a viable way to deal with good kids whose circumstances were no fault of their own.

He was saved from having to reassure me further by Crystal’s arrival. She had finally gotten hold of the key to the room with the soil and now she was here, armed with chicken fertilizer.

Luk and Jorge cheerfully headed out to the street to the grab bags from her car.

I marveled yet again at the resilience of the youth I meet in South L.A. and thanked the powers that be that there are advocates out there that take the time to tap into what the youth have to offer.

And, according to Luk, they have a lot to offer:

We are the seeds that grow beyond the garden
Towered over by this concrete jungle
Yet we bask in the sunlight,
Fed by the knowledge of those that came before
We thrive
Using what we’ve learned to maintain and to survive.

Students standing outside All Peoples grab gloves and tools to take to their worksites. (Luk is fourth from left) Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog