Can you dig this?
Last night the Clinton Street Theater presented the film, "Can you dig this?", inspired by the grass roots, urban gardening revolution currently taking place in South Central Los Angeles, one of the largest "food prisons" in the country. The film was inspired by Ron Finley, who was called to action by the lack of healthy food options in South Central. In 2010 he started a curbside "food forest" in the strip outside his L.A. home. Soon after, Finley received a citation for growing plants due to "height limit restrictions". This citation for "illegal gardening" was one which he promptly and unapologetically disputed. During the battle, an article was written about his defiance which spun Mr Finely into the spotlight. His Ted Talk has now reached over 2 million views, and articles/interviews with Ron can be seen across the internet. Finley is known as the "gangsta gardener". He is a strong community leader who founded an organization called L.A. Green Grounds, dedicated to installing free vegetable gardens in curbside medians, vacant lots, and other underutilized sites.
Ron Finley, an inspiration to all of us working for food justice in our local and global communities. Though the film wasn't just about him. It's about urban poverty, inequity, food imprisonment, and community health. It's about the direct opposition to such oppression through spirited rebellion, that is, gardening. The film follows additional community members and depicts their journey with cultivating healthy food. There are so many beautiful and dynamic players and layers to this documentary. It's ability to touch on the art of gardening, the cultivation of soil, the importance of water, the concept of life as an instrument for transformation, while prominently featuring the topics of structural racism and oppression that are so imbedded in our communities, our institutions, and our policy, is profoundly moving.
Now, we might not live in South Central, but the hunger gap in South Central isn't so far from our local roots here in Oregon. According to a 2013 USDA report, Nationwide, 17.5 million families - or one in seven - were "food insecure" in 2013. In Oregon, about 15 percent of families were food insecure in 2013. While Oregon is no longer the "hungriest state" in the nation, that's only because other states are additionally falling into the Hunger Gap. The percentage of hungry people in Oregon is back up to where it was more than a decade ago, and other states are joining the the battle to put food on the table.
Having grown up in and spent most of my adult life in a food insecure home myself I can in some ways relate to the struggles and experiences conveyed in the documentary. With diabetes and illness in my own family due in part to poverty and unhealthy relationships to food, I can relate to that feeling of powerlessness while watching your loved ones suffer and fall ill due to food access issues. It's heartbreaking. Sure, some of what's inspired me to do this work might seem a bit tragic, but even more so my journey has been one of extreme beautiful and triumph. As clearly demonstrated in the documentary, the human spirit is as determined to grow as a seed is in the throws of spring.
After the film, I was invited to speak on a panel of community organizers and food justice activists. We discussed our backgrounds, how we came to this work, where our point of contact is with these topics, and answered questions related to urban agriculture and food justice from the audience. We addressed topics such as structural racism and institutional oppression, not simply as a notion of the past or as a topic of otherness, but as a reality in many aspects of our community. We discussed poverty and food insecurity, especially in relation to land ownership and sense of place.
Edward Hill, executive director of Groundwork Portland, spoke eloquently about Oregon's history. He spoke about the inability for many folks to "root down" in a place. We asked ourselves, what are the inevitable consequences to one's sense of place, community connectivity, and urban agriculture participation when the urban planning and development landscape is painted with vast swatches of reoccurring displacement? What kind of sense of place might one have if one holds little decision making power over the development of place? Edward Hill also talked about his own experience with growing food, and touched briefly on how his experiences with the transformative powers of cultivating. Laquida Landford, with Urban League of Portland, spoke on the recent gentrification of North & North East Portland. Her dedication to "creating space" for youth and people of color is an inspiration, and she directly outlined the importance of doing so in our urban agricultural spaces and communities here in PDX. Jen Davis, founder of Bee Friendly Portland, spoke on the importance of pollinators in our efforts to assure food security and wellness in our communities. I also shared some of my personal experience with food insecurity, my impressions of food justice in relation to urban agriculture projects, and introduced the Malden Court Community Orchard as an opportunity for community involvement and active placemaking.
My vision is in many ways very similar to Ron Finley's. I see an urban environment very different from the one we witness and live within at present. I see a city that works for ALL people, one that works with healthy, ecological systems. One in which we collaborate as a community and as neighbors, and challenge the systems of oppression that put all of us in danger. One in which our buildings and infrastructure exist within a patchwork of open forage food forests. One in which our kids, youth, adults, and elders can learn the lessons and experience the healing that the garden has to offer us. A Garden Ecology that beautifies, teaches, and provides food, medicine, materials, urban habitat, as well ecosystem services. Garden Ecology that thrives both on public and private lands. Garden Ecology that transforms us. As Ron Finley says, "I have witnessed my garden become a tool for the transformation of my neighborhood."
And as I set out on this journey that is Garden Ecology, I hope that you will join me, "Because gardening is one of the most defiant things you can do. Plus, you get strawberries." Alright, enough talk, "Let's plant some shit!"