Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

The Garden Project: Growing Urban Communities

I’m honored to have been invited to talk to you about what we are doing at the Garden Project in San Francisco, and I’d like to emphasize the “we.” People tend to give me the credit for it, but I’m just one of many people who have made our project happen. The project involves people coming together to give what they can give, to do what they can do, to get something done. We don’t see enough of that in our society. When I first started the project, I asked myself, What are we trying to do here? I realized that our goal should be “gardens everywhere,” because that’s what I think this world needs.

I am glad to be speaking in a lecture series named after E. F. Schumacher. I hadn’t known anything about him, but before I was invited to speak here, someone sent me his book Small is Beautiful. Ever since I started the project, I have been getting letters, books, notes, little crocheted booties, and all sorts of things from people all over the country. I also get a lot of checks—for two dollars and thirty cents all the way up to a thousand dollars and more. It’s just amazing. Whoever sent me the book scribbled a name in it that I couldn’t read, so I don’t know to this day who gave it to me, but I read it. Even the title itself relates to our Garden Project. We are told that it takes a lot to bring about change: a lot of money and a lot of people. I don’t think that’s the case, because I’ve seen a small garden move people in a big way. I’ve seen our small garden affect what to me is one of the biggest disgraces in this country: our criminal justice system. I’ve seen the system move a little bit. And I haven’t seen that happen anywhere else.

The project has three parts, the first of which I started in San Francisco’s county jail. Because I was working within the penal system, the first part of the program was the hardest to get going.Yesterday I was in Vermont, some people from the state Department of Corrections had asked me to come and talk to them about what I’m doing. They told me they have a thousand people in their entire system. I tried to keep from laughing, because there are a thousand people in just one of our jails.

When I first started working for the Sheriff’s Department as a law student, I was twenty-one years old. I had just had a baby, and in order to go to law school I started a child-care co-op of mothers, mostly single like me. I grew up wanting to be a lawyer, yet I was shocked that I was accepted into law school. One of my professors ran a legal services program for prisoners, and I became infected with his enthusiasm and his concern. He struck me as different from the other lawyers I had met. He seemed to care and to understand that the people in our county jail needed the kind of help that people with money routinely got. He also seemed to understand that some of the people in our jail were there just because they were poor.

His outlook impressed me deeply, and it made me change from wanting to be a hot-shot lawyer to realizing that although criminal lawyers can sometimes get people out of jail, they don’t deal with why they are there in the first place, and they’re usually not allowed to help them stay out of jail; that’s not their role. But by working with Michael Hennessey, my professor, I realized that keeping people out of jail was what I wanted to do.

Michael decided that he wanted to be the Sheriff of San Francisco County. He ran in the election, and he won. When he took office, he asked me to come and work with him as a counselor. He felt that was what I had already been doing in the jail as his law student—a few divorces here and there and a few restraining orders but counseling as well. When Michael offered me the job, it not only gave me the chance to do something I wanted to do, it also represented an income for me, a single mother, a way to be able to take care of that little baby and her brother.

So I jumped at the opportunity to work in the jail. But when I had been there long enough to see the same people returning to jail, I began to question whether I was really making a difference. It wasn’t enough just to get people a new set of clothes when they left the jail; it wasn’t enough just to find out for a mother jailed for prostitution where the police had taken her children. Perhaps because I grew up in the sixties, I thought that’s what we were supposed to do: make a difference. Actually, I was motivated more by the example of someone who had dedicated her life to making a difference: my mother, who worked in the civil rights movement.

I began to look at why people were there, to deal with causes, but I didn’t have many tools to work with. The women—and I was working primarily with women then—tended to have zero work experience, at least of the legally acceptable kind, and very little educational background. They also had a big “C” for Criminal tattooed on their foreheads. Once released, if they tried to get a job, the application would almost always include the question, “Have you ever been arrested?” If they wrote “yes,” they didn’t get the job. Who wants to hire someone who’s been arrested?

That rejection reinforced their belief that they weren’t worth anything, that they didn’t belong, and that they deserved to be the outlaws everyone said they were. So they would go back to selling drugs, to selling themselves, in order to feed themselves, in order to survive. That was very hard on me, physically and emotionally, because I really identified with the people in the jail. Most of them looked like me and my family: African-American men and women, men and women of color.

It bothered me that I wasn’t able to keep a woman out of jail just by giving her my old suit and talking one of my lawyer friends into hiring her. Even though she had on my suit and even though she had a job, she still had to go home to a hotel where someone was either getting arrested or shooting up. She didn’t have a supportive environment; often she didn’t even have the resources to get to work. The little things I was doing weren’t making a real difference.

At that point I ended up in a hospital, going in and out for almost a year. At the end of the year, after chemotherapy, I wasn’t getting better. My doctor, who was very nice, very earnest, and, I had thought, very caring, said, “Well, you’re not responding, so you can go home and die, or you can stay here and die.” Fortunately for me, the very day he said that, Michael Hennessey and Ray, another friend, came to visit me. Ray brought me a book I had never read, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In it I found a powerful message: hope lies in the land, and if people who are feeling hopeless can connect to the land, and stay connected, then they will be okay.

I had been noticing the way visitors—my family, my friends—would look at me. I could tell they were thinking, “Oh, she’s dying. It’s so sad.” When Michael and Ray came back to see me, they had that look on their faces. But I was feeling excited and inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, and I hopped out of bed. “What’s up, Cath?” they asked in surprise. I said, “I want to get out, and I want to start a program to garden with the prisoners at the jail.” Michael said, “Okay, if you get better, we’ll do that. But you’ve got to get better first.” And I said, “I am better! And I’m going home.”

I did go home. And I did go to the prisoners, but I could barely walk. This time I noticed something I hadn’t really seen when I worked with the prisoners before: I saw that they cared. They were concerned because I looked horrible, and they cared enough to practically carry me, every day through the winter, to the old farm where our garden was to be. As they prepared the area for the garden, they really began to work together, to feel that they were making a difference. They would go back to the jail all excited, and the guards—the “deputies,” as we call them—would say, “Shut up and get in your cell.” It always amazed me that these prisoners would go back to their cages for the night and then in the morning would be up and ready to go with their new enthusiasm: “Let’s go. Let’s make a difference.” I had never seen that in a prisoner before. I think what I was witnessing was that they had found an activity that meant something to them. Sitting in a cell they had not had that. I also think they had not had a sense of purpose in their lives either, a feeling that they could do something that mattered.

Very slowly—-mostly because I couldn’t walk—we began to work: to tear down the old buildings on the farm and to clean up areas where we could plant a few things. Within a couple of years my illness was in remission.

By then I had a waiting list of prisoners, men and women, who wanted to get into the program. The deputies were scratching their heads and saying, “What are you doing with them out there? They come back all tired out, and they’re so cooperative. What’s going on?” A few years later, one of my friends who was a deputy (it’s a miracle that I became friends with a deputy) told me that earlier the staff had had a betting pool, and everyone put money down on whether or not the prisoners would hurt me—beat me up or rape me. That demonstrates the lack of support we had. The deputies were completely and totally against the Garden Project, and as far as they were concerned, the Sheriff was a communist anyway, who hired people who looked like me and was making them do this. They just didn’t get it. They thought the prisoners were taking us for a ride.

It’s been thirteen years now. Gradually the deputies started to come around. They saw that the prisoners were excited about working together and accomplishing something. Then, when we started bringing in the vegetables we were growing and giving them to the deputies, they got excited too. They finally became supportive. I think they stopped betting on what would happen to me.

For ten years we concentrated on making the program at the jail work. During that period I saw tremendous change in thousands of prisoners. But what began to worry me was what happened to them when they got out of jail. Where did they go? They went back to wherever it was they had been when they were arrested, because they had nowhere else to go. They went back to the hotel rooms that no one should live in. They went back to the housing projects that no one should live in. And then, of course, they began to come back to jail. But the difference was that this time they were excited about being in the program again. That was disconcerting to see. It was clear to me that the gardening experience had meant so much to them that going back to jail didn’t seem so bad. The fact that jail is better than home for many people is an outrage that America needs to deal with.

I began to consider what we could do about this situation. Even though I was raising my children, I still managed to make time to look for projects that released prisoners could participate in, because I couldn’t bear to see them back in jail.

That was the beginning of the second part of our work. One of the projects was tree-planting. Every Saturday for years, ex-prisoners would come, many of them in their jail clothes because they didn’t have anything else, and they would plant trees with me for a volunteer citizen organization in San Francisco called Friends of the Urban Forest. They would come and work very hard. Planting those trees gave them an opportunity to do something, to make a contribution. During the week a lot of them would bring family members and proudly show the trees they had planted.

The problem was that many of them couldn’t get to the tree-planting site because they didn’t have money for the bus. At that time all we were able to give each prisoner released from our jail was eighty-five cents for one bus fare. That was all most of them had when they left. While they were in jail, they lost whatever possessions they might have had because if they had been living in a hotel, their belongings would be thrown away as soon as they didn’t come back. Or if they had been living with their families, whatever resources the prisoners had accumulated were used up because their families were poor.

It became clear to me that we had to find a way to help them get to the planting sites. I started off by giving out eighty-five cents for bus fare from my own pocket, but that didn’t last long, because I didn’t have enough in my pocket. Then, with the help of some business people and again with the help of Michael Hennessey, we were able to give out bus money on a regular basis, expanding the tree-planting program so we could plant on Saturdays too, and then we would get together and weed on Tuesdays, just as a way to connect with one another.

The expanded program was very successful, but it still wasn’t enough. So again I spent a lot of time talking about what we had done at the jail, trying to win financial support for our work. One person I spoke with knew of a vacant lot behind his bakery. We rushed over there to look at it, and sure enough, there was a lot filled with about six dump-truck loads of garbage. Because I felt we had enough to do already, I wasn’t immediately excited by this garbage dump. Instead, I persisted in asking this very nice man just to write us a check so we could have more bus money to expand the program. But he kept pointing to the empty garbage lot, and he said something I wouldn’t have thought of: “Grow something, and I’ll buy what you grow. Then you’ll have the money.” I said, “Okay, I can do that.”

So we cleaned up the garbage dump. We started planting. And now we have a beautiful garden that’s about half an acre (remember, small is beautiful). Last summer we had 125 people working on this half acre, which meant that every head of lettuce got stroked quite a bit. There were absolutely no weeds there, mountains of compost, and probably the most pampered spinach you’ve ever met.

I remember the way we hurried around trying to make sure Alice Waters got the spinach she had ordered for her restaurant on the day and at the time she specified. And I remember talking to a young man one day who was picking spinach, and he was patting the spinach and arranging it in a box. Finally I said, “Look, we have to get this to the restaurant right away. Just put it in the box. Let’s go!” But at the same time I realized what was happening: this young man was producing something that was valuable, that looked beautiful, that was going somewhere, and some money was going to come back in return. He knew he was beginning to make himself and his family self-sufficient. He also knew that before patting the spinach he had been selling crack. Now he had made a conscious choice: he was going to sell spinach, not crack.

I believe small is not only beautiful; small is necessary. I suggest a sequel with that title to Schumacher’s book. I say that because I don’t have thousands and thousands of dollars, I don’t have a fancy office in a fancy place and a great big area to grow enough produce to supply the restaurants that want our food. What I do have is a lot of people who say, “I want a chance. I want to work. I want to work here.” I know this is true not only in San Francisco but in other places as well. The idea that there isn’t enough work for people or the other idea that the kind of people I’m working with don’t want to work is just plain wrong.

It’s stupid for us to spend the amount of money we do to keep young people in jail instead of preparing them for a job. They certainly didn’t have the opportunity to get an education at a place like Yale right here in New Haven. I am sure we are spending more to keep them in jail than parents pay to send their children to Yale. It’s stupid.

I said that small is necessary. I think it’s necessary for us to begin with what we have: a lot of land and a lot of people. Seems to me we can put them together. The lunch we were served earlier as part of today’s program, made from locally and organically grown food, is what schoolkids as well as grownups should eat all the time. That kind of meal should be the rule rather than the exception. I had to take a plane here; the food that was served was unrecognizable. You look at that lettuce and you have to ask, “What is this?” The people working with me—some of them with sixty-five, seventy criminal convictions—can do better than that. They can grow beautiful spinach and lettuce; they can feed people. And while they’re feeding people, they’re feeding themselves, and they’re creating new communities. They’re creating hope in their communities.

Now about the second part of our program. The year after we started the garden for released prisoners, the next step was signing a contract with the city; now our people are paid for planting trees. They graduate from the garden to the Tree Corps.

In the four years since we started the garden, we’ve hired six hundred people—I have files for them all. It’s the first time many of them have ever had a Social Security card. One young man was actually very upset when he got his first check; he wanted to know who FICA was and why his money was being taken. The shame of it is that this means he had never seen a paycheck before. It means that the only money he knew was probably his mother’s welfare check and her mother’s welfare check. How do we break the cycle?

My file drawer represents six hundred people I have to worry about. I have to wonder where they are. I have ten on salary now, and those ten are paid for only two hours of work a day. The funds come from a block grant of around four thousand dollars that has to be divided ten ways. That’s not a lot of money. The drug dealers can offer a lot more. It’s just a matter of time before they’ll go back to those dealers. They have to eat, the same way you do. That’s not to condone drug dealing; it’s to be realistic.

Yesterday I read an article in The New York Times about the Million Man March. A young African-American man was quoted as saying, “What we need is guidance.” So often what we read about African-American men is negative, but in this case it was something positive. It’s interesting he said that, because last Thursday one of the people in my program said to me, “I just need guidance.” He is a sweet boy who at eighteen has been in jail maybe twelve times. Do you know how much money that costs? I don’t. No one really does. We only know how much it costs to feed him, clothe him, and keep him in jail, but figures aren’t available for how much it costs for the cop to arrest him or for the court proceedings or for the probation officer to write a report, so we don’t really know how much it’s costing us.

This boy said, “I need guidance.” It broke my heart, because I thought to myself, “You’re right. You do need guidance. And how are you going to get it here in jail? Who’s going to give it to you when you leave the jail? I can’t because I have only two hours’ pay for you. In two hours you’re not going to get the guidance you need to say to that drug dealer, ‘No, man, I don’t need to sell that stuff.'”

I have to think of all those like him who are regarded by America as criminal. America wants to believe they are somehow “other.” There have been many movements throughout history when people have thought of a person or a group as something so terrible that they felt justified in saying, “We’ll have to get rid of them.” That’s what’s happening, I think, to all the men and women who are sent to our jails. We’re saying, “They are other, they are criminal, they are not us.” It’s three strikes and they’re out.

Small is necessary. I think we have to start with that. When I go home, I have to start with Rashawn. On Monday I’ll say, “Rashawn, even though I can’t pay you for more than two hours’ work a day, at least you know that if you come to the garden, that’s two hours when you’re not out on the street. And you could volunteer for us for the other six hours, because when you go home you’re not getting more money anyway. You might as well just come and stay with us for the day.” Unfortunately, if he does, he’ll get hungry at some point, and then I’ll have to feed him, but the good thing about having a garden is that you can have salad, and we do eat a lot of that. I routinely make lunch for my workers, and they say, “Oh-oh, we’re having salad again,” and they say, “Oh, vegetarian,” but they also say, “Hey, I didn’t know vegetables tasted like this. I didn’t know you could eat that.”

People always ask me why our garden doesn’t get vandalized. I know it’s because the young people in the neighborhood where the garden is don’t know that vegetables are growing there. They don’t know this is spinach, they don’t know that is lettuce, because they think food comes from the Safeway supermarket in California.

I believe people use drugs because their body is craving something they aren’t getting from anywhere else. Over the seventeen years I’ve worked for the Sheriff’s Department, I always ask people, “What were you eating when you were arrested?” Then they look at me as though I’m crazy, and they say, “What do you mean, what was I eating? I was eating whatever I could get.” Or, “I was eating at McDonald’s.” What they can get at McDonald’s is a lot of potato chips, a lot of HoHos. I believe I know why people go on crack and from crack to heroin: it’s because the poor of America, the poor in urban communities, don’t eat real food, and so they crave, and they try to ease that craving. Of course, some people might say, “Then why are there rich kids on drugs?” I don’t know. Although again I would guess that it’s a similar craving, except that it’s not physical; it’s in here, in the heart. There’s something missing in here.

Educating is the third part of the Garden Project, first of all teaching nutrition and exposing people to good food. I talk to people about what they’ve been eating. I say, “Think about it. You were eating junk food when you got on crack; now you’re not eating that mess, and you feel better. We have good food here. Try it.” I think I’m respected enough now so that they do try it. In the old days they just laughed. That was probably because I don’t have a fancy classroom where I can teach nutrition and parenting.

Most of the people in our program are young parents. They learn how to be parents from what they observed as children. Unfortunately, if they weren’t well cared for, if they were mistreated, then the pattern is likely to repeat itself when they become parents. So instead of saying to them, “Oh, don’t hit those kids, it’s bad for their development,” I say, “Bring your kids with you to the garden. Someone here will take care of them, and then you won’t feel so frustrated. You won’t feel as though you can’t do anything. Here’s a way to get a break from your kids.” So another parent takes care of their kids for a little while. That cooperation is important, because I can’t hire a child-care worker.

We’re also trying to use the garden to teach people how to live. And I really believe it’s working. But I often think it’s not enough. Until others start doing what we’re doing, we’re in big trouble. It’s not only the environment that’s in trouble, as we hear all the time; it’s also people who are in trouble. And it’s not just poor black people, because if poor black people are in trouble, then we all are in trouble, because despite what some may think, we’re all connected, and we are a community in more ways than one.

I believe we must say, “We’re going to start very small, and we’re going to do what we can with what we’ve got.” We start by using examples that are good and building on them.

People want to know where I get my inspiration. They ask how I know that what I’m doing works. The answer is because I am recreating what I have known all my life: family love. I come from a family of fourteen children. And with those thirteen sisters and brothers, I always know somebody cares about me. I really believe that what draws my students to our garden is not the little bit of money they make but the feeling they get working there that they’re part of a family where everybody is lifting them up instead of putting them down.

My two children also keep me going. Whenever I look at them, I feel inspired. There are times when I wonder why I am doing this work. Deep down, I know I’m doing it because my son and daughter are just like the sons and daughters in our jail. The only difference is, my children have me, and those kids don’t have anybody. What we’re trying to do, what I know I have to do, is help them to see that they can have a supportive family, and it doesn’t have to be blood relatives.

Schumacher says in his book that the greatest resource is education. What we’re really doing in the Garden Project is educating. Showing people that there’s another way, showing them that we are family. They can come to the garden and feel safe, feel encouraged, because someone is there for them.

Small is beautiful.

Publication By

Cathrine Sneed

Cathrine Sneed is the director and founder of The Garden Project in San Francisco, California, a program begun in 1992 to provide job training and support to former offenders through counseling and assistance in continuing education while also impacting the environment of their communities. Prior to the Garden Project, Cathrine founded the San Francisco County … Continued

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