Land & Life: From Neighborhood Garden to Global Climate Resilience

Written by Vicente Garcia

May 3, 2016

As the New York Times reported today, the worst predictions for climate refugees here in the US are now coming true.  In its first ever “climate resilience grant,” the Department of Housing and Urban Development has authorized $48 million for Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, “the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community struggling with the impacts of climate change.”

Climate Resilience — led by communities themselves — is among the highest social justice priorities of our time. To this cause, the MSC Community Climate Solutions team recently released the Climate Resilience Social Cohesion Continuum to help groups make community resilience work toward the overall well-being of everyone in a place. This tool helps groups consider social cohesion in terms of social networks, public systems, democracy, community building, and organizing. In the following blog Vicente Garcia reflects on the relationship between one neighborhood garden and the global need for community resilience. 



Knock. Knock.

“Hello, can I help you?”

“Yes, my name is Vicente. I’m here door knocking in the neighborhood. We’re trying to get neighbors together to convert that abandoned lot around the corner into a neighborhood garden.”

This was me 7 years ago in a repeated conversation opener, held countless numbers of times, walking up and down a three block radius in an East Oakland neighborhood suffering from years of public neglect and lack of access to healthy food. With nothing more than a bundle of scrappy flyers grasped tightly in my hands, I went doorknocking to talk to residents about improving the conditions of their neighborhood through the garden.

A group of us, including Rosa Gonzalez, who lived across the street from the empty lot and is now the MSC Community Climate Solutions Team Lead, decided to take on this challenge of transforming the lot into a thriving garden. We gave ourselves the name Land and Life to represent the notion that land is life, a way to connect to the earth and the traditional ecological wisdom of our communities. We began to flip this empty lot in East Oakland into a neighborhood garden where people could gather to build community and draw on our shared cultural wisdom for healthy living.

Reflecting back on it now, I recognize that the garden created potential for increased social cohesion at multiple levels.

We connected with our neighbors and also with the local officials we engaged with order to obtain legal access to the vacant lot. Rosa and another volunteer, Diane, spent hours on the phone and in-person talking with city council reps, County officials, and even the Mayor. It was a lengthy process: first trying to figure out who owned the land, what it would take to acquire it, and then eventually how to keep the land from being auctioned off by the City. It took seven years to reach that goal, success that was made possible through  relationship building!

The more connected local officials felt to the garden, the more stable the land became for the community. And the more unified the community was — the more people we could mobilize to make impassioned phone calls to decision-makers — the longer we were able to keep the lot off the auction block. This is called transformative resilience: not simply learning to cope with or adapt to things like food insecurity, but having the ability to build the kinds of social connections that allow us to transform food deserts into communities with organic gardens on every block.

Rosa also started attending the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings to build support for the garden. These groups tend to be the only formal governance structure at the neighborhood level. What she found at these meetings was an approach that seemed to criminalize many of the very people we were hoping to engage in the garden. She quickly realized her role there wasn’t just to build support for the garden, but to help shift the focus of the NCPC. She was elected vice-president of the council and found people open to shifting some of the ways they were thinking about what they called “crime prevention.”

Through connections we had with other local gardeners and through a small grant program in Oakland, we secured all the compost, seeds, and mulch by donations.

We began with a large kick-off event featuring Danza Azteca and other performances. Many of the neighbors whose doors we knocked on brought food, drinks, and random gardening tools.  People of all ages came to celebrate the transformation of this small piece of land. A family from El Salvador brought a cooler of lemonade, the father encouraging his sons to pick up shovels, the mother teaching us the best techniques for growing corn. Hal, an African American elder who lived right across the street from the garden shared stories of how the neighborhood had changed since he was a kid over 60 years ago.

After the kick-off people continued to visit and make use of the garden. There was a group of kids I remember fondly because they came for hours at a time to play in the garden and help out on Sundays — Herb, Alisha, Trisha, and their cousins. The garden was a place of safety and recreation for the kids in a neighborhood with no parks in walking distance. Participation ebbed and flowed, but at some point people of all generations, ethnicities, and walks of life came to the garden from the surrounding community. With time, especially for those who came regularly, the garden became a place to connect and get some greens.

Even with the beautiful vision we held, building a true community at the garden proved a lot more difficult than we expected. The social fabric in the neighborhood had been significantly eroded by mass incarceration, deportations, the drug war, and economic stress. Many were just too busy or caught up in their own individual struggles to consistently show up to the garden.

The reality of marginalization and disconnection was apparent, but never totally deflating.  Despite everything people are up against we experienced a consistent spark of love and humanity with almost everyone who came through the garden. Even those who never once picked up a shovel found ways to acknowledge what we were doing.

I think what we learned, more than gardening techniques, was that rebuilding community and the kinds of social connections necessary for resilience have to happen at much deeper and integrated levels for it to be possible even within the context of a neighborhood garden. More opportunities for people to be in relationship to each other in place have to occur. For the neighborhood this could include: more neighborhood block parties, more public parks, elected officials who are in tune with community needs, shifts in attitudes around the criminalization of young people, public services that provide culturally relevant programing, and, broadly speaking, more community programing for residents to socially connect. Otherwise, our small community gardening effort will always be going against the grain. Unless there are other opportunities in the neighborhood that increase social cohesion and address social inequalities it will be much harder to create the level of community resiliency we were looking to create with the garden project.

Social cohesion for climate resilience is no different. As the climate clock continues to run out of time, we must prepare to adapt to the challenges that lie ahead. We know that the sea level will rise, we know that the likelihood of natural disasters increases as the global temperature rises, and all of that means threats to the overall health of our air, land, water, and soil which we depend on for everyday life. The degree to which we can weather these challenges brought on by climate disruption depends on the degree to which social cohesion is strong at all levels.

Our individual resilience will only get us so far. Resilience rooted in deep social cohesion and radical connection will actually save our communities, our children, and our planet. If we know our neighbors, if we work with cities, local governments, schools and other public institutions to practice inclusion and equity within climate resilience planning, and if movements organize people to think holistically about all these processes, we can grow resilience in deeper ways. Ultimately, if we all care about each other’s well being, if social cohesion is strong, this will arise naturally. Thus, when climate disaster strikes, everyone in a community will know each other and they will work together to make sure Ms. Beckie down the block, who can’t walk on her own, gets to a safe temporary shelter.

This is what we mean by community climate resilience. We’re in this together and we need each other to weather the storm.

Check out the MSC Climate Resilience Social Cohesion Continuum here and use it as your own starting point for deepening social cohesion in your own neighborhood, organization, or city.

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