In the Mar Vista housing project, residents are not allowed to plant food or flowers in their yards. When I was in Los Angeles in February, Carlos “Elmo” Gomez, who works with AFSC, showed me his home where he had planted corn, rosemary, tomatoes, and beans. A few weeks later the housing authority came and pulled up and scattered all his plants.
That didn’t stop Elmo, though. He continued to advocate for and with residents to have places to grow food. The day we visited he showed me the fenced in yard in which residents, with the support of AFSC, would be planting nine raised beds in a few days.
We walked past bleachers and the many buildings in the project. He talked about how often the police come and harass residents, provoke and arrest people. He said, “After getting harassed this way all the time, it becomes hard to be motivated to come out of your home. The prison is around you, but it’s built in you, too. It takes a lot to work against that. We didn’t choose this situation, someone placed us in it. Even so, we can work to change it.”
“Planting seeds and the garden are instruments to organize the community. We figure out how to use what we have to shape our community. Once a garden is planted we the people have experienced shifting something, doing something in the hood. Food justice is about sharing food with our brothers and sisters. ”
Elmo said, “Just like you can internalize the prison, you can internalize the garden, too. I am a person of practice. Consciousness and action come out of the garden. I have a vision of a wholly changed social structure with the garden at the center.”
He walked us by a lawn with lush grass growing on it. He told us that it had been a soccer field and that for a month residents came and played, would gather there and join in a game or watch. But the police started coming, harassing people, arresting people and now the field often stands empty. There are regulations against three or four people congregating together, they get identified as a “gang.”
He said, “I don’t want to escape this world, this world shapes the outside world. If we can change our world here that can have an impact beyond this place. We are trying to change the policy about growing food here. If we can do that, it could change the policy in public housing all across the state.”
The Roots for Peace program is all about addressing food justice locally, but also about working with students and community members to examine the larger systemic issues that impact poverty and access to food in Los Angeles and California.
That morning Anthony Marsh, Roots for Peace Program Director, had taken us to the All Peoples Alternative High School (Elmo had first connected with AFSC through a similar program at Central High School). AFSC established community gardens for the students and for families there. Students gave us a tour and proudly showed us what they were growing.
They took us to a class in which Crystal Gonzalez, Roots for Peace Program Coordinator, was teaching about power. First she instructed everyone to stand with a partner. She said, “One of you will be the hypnotizer and one the hypnotized. The hypnotized needs to follow the moves of the hypnotizer and stay with them.” Everyone followed each other sometimes into crazy positions. There was laughter.
Crystal asked about the exercise. One student said, “We were mind controllers. It was fun to have power.” Another said, “I didn’t want to push it, but it was tempting. It’s easy to abuse your power.”
Crystal asked, “It’s important to be able to tell when power is abused.” She asked the students to name relationships in which power isn’t equal. They listed, “Teacher/student, mother/son, manager/worker, principal/teacher, older sibling/younger sibling.”
She said, “Now let’s explore power dynamics a little more. Often we are in the more powerful position in some relationships and the less powerful position in others.”
She invited the group to gather again. She had one person be the “chief hypnotizer” and that person hypnotized two others and they hypnotized two others and so on, so that there was aweb of power and powerlessness all intertwined.
Then she asked about circles of power in the food system. The students named the web of power in the food system with the FDA and food companies having more power and young people and parents having less power.
Crystal said, “All the power isn’t with you. There are companies making the food, stores buying the food, advertisers promoting the food. You can do a lot, but can’t necessarily control what
comes into your community, so working together to impact the system is important in order to create the changes needed.”
She told a story about Subway. They had been putting a chemical in their bread that was used to polish leather shoes. A blogger had found out about it and published the story. It had gone viral and the company had changed and didn’t use that chemical any more.
Crystal said, “It’s important to grow our own food, but also to influence decision making bodies. It’s important to work together, to participate in community efforts so that the larger structures that impact our community can change. The world is the way it is because people impacted by what decision makers do are excluded from the decisions. If we can organize and work together, we can put pressure on the system to change.”
The Roots for Peace program is doing much more than growing food, it’s helping youth learn how to change the conditions, the soil, in which they live.