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Brenda Verano is an intern and program facilitator with AFSC’s Roots For Peace (R4P) program in Los Angeles.

My grandma, Maria Uribe Aguilar, used to say that gardens were a form of life. For a long time I held on to that phrase, with no real or personal meaning to make sense of it. Before I migrated to this country, my grandma was my first companion outside of my home south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

We would spend mornings together drinking cafe con bolillo and dropping breadcrumbs across the kitchen floor. I’d watch her spend her afternoons sitting beside her garden, full of chile verdes and medicinal plants, weaving clothes and singing to her roses. I’d always wondered what kept her from getting bored repeating the constant, daily tasks. She took care of her family and plants with so much love and enthusiasm.

It wasn’t until I stepped onto R4P’s South LA Farm where I finally understood what my grandmother tried teaching my family and me. Life was indeed infused in every single part of this garden, starting from the microorganisms in every single peck of soil to the plants hydrated with water and the birds and insects pollinating the plants.

Becoming part of the South LA Community Farm reminded me of my grandmother, it reminded me of her eyes, her passion and her commitment to the land she owned. This farm reminded me of the connection I continue to have with her, the one that for so long I have been working to restore since leaving at the age of five to the US. I intuitively remember things I don’t have any memory of learning before: talking to plants comes natural to me, nurturing a plant so that it can grow beautiful and healthy, making me certain these practices have been embedded in my heart as gifts from my ancestors - passed on to my grandmother, my mother, and now to me.

My grandmother continues to live in Queretaro, Mexico. I have not seen her in 15 years, and unfortunately it will probably take a couple more years for me to see her again. I want to hold her, be able to cook for her and garden next to her. And care for her, the way she did for me. But this garden has allowed me to feel closest to her than I ever have in the 15 years I’ve lived in this country.

The following poem can be found in the R4P zine called Planting Seeds Towards Social Change. I wrote it, inspired by my grandmother.

Getting Involved 

When I first came into the R4P program back in the winter of 2014, I had no personal expectations for the program. I was a 16-year-old girl, recently coming out of a very depressing point in my life, who was simply looking for a place to accumulate community hours needed for graduation. Six years later, the R4P has given me much more than just community hours—it’s given me a family, a chosen family, who has supported and held me with love.

R4P is where my passion for community organizing was birthed, where I’ve learned self- and community-care practices that I will continue to grow in the years ahead. Today I am a youth facilitator and youth organizer in the R4P program, a journey that has helped put the pieces together of what makes me, pues me.

Through this opportunity, I have not only had the privilege to witness the development and growth of the South L.A Community Farm, but I’ve also witnessed the growth of the people who have contributed and nurtured this space for the past two years. I can testify it’s been a journey full of hard work, sweat, long days, tears (of happiness) and an immense amount of love. A special group of people whom I have grown with during this journey are the young leaders who have participated in the R4P Leadership Trainings, Freedom School and Farmternships.

Youth Leadership in the Garden

If I could describe the intersection of gardens and the R4P Youth Program in two words, I would say “growth” and “transformation.” The community farm was a bridge to the connection that I’ve always had for nature, a bridge that for a long time I forgot how to cross, and forgot it even existed. When I think of the young people who have come across R4P, I hope that this community farm supports them in their journey to remember and rebuild a healthy relationship with the Earth—something that, due to historical trauma and the lack of trauma-informed youth spaces, is difficult for many of us to practice.

At the same time, the lack of green spaces continues to be a problem in Los Angeles, specifically in underserved communities like Historic South Central, Watts, and Boyle Heights (to name a few). As a city, we’ve placed high value on revitalizing and modernizing neighborhoods without understanding and planning for the impacts of gentrification and increased policing that come with it.

When it comes to funding the development and maintenance of youth-centered spaces, supportive schools, and open, green spaces, this city falls short in most cases. That’s why places like the South LA Community Farm are highly valued in our neighborhood. Since the beginning stages of the farm’s construction in May 2018, the youth program has been an essential support to fulfilling the community's vision for the 20-year-old empty lot.

In the 2018 Farmternship, we worked alongside community members on constructing the garden’s raised beds and the on-site community compost bin with support from LA Compost; we also led the envisioning and creation of the Farm’s first mural named “The New Story.” As our final project and as a gift to the community, we (the youth) began this project by brainstorming and envisioning the message the mural should convey for the garden, but also throughout South Central. The mural’s message was brainstormed by the youth, and then designed and brought to life by lead artist of the project, Jackelinne Gallardo, also known by her artistic name Magical Youniverse, with the guidance and assistance of artist Manuel Reyes. Magical Youniverse described the mural with the following passage:

The new story is one of justice, freedom, unity and love.

Mother nature thrives. We take care of her, she takes care of us.

The new story is one of harmony, love, peace, and healing.

The new story is freedom.

People can be who they are, we create and thrive in healthy, healing, safe and accepting environment like this garden.

We create beautiful communities. We thrive.

Ancient wisdom is honored and passed down through generations in the form of seeds to never forget our past, our truth, our resiliency, our connection, and our need to protect each other and this earth from harm’s way.

This was Magical Youniverse’s very first mural, the first of many. As a community, we hold this piece of art with love and appreciation, knowing that it contributes to the creation of what we consider a sanctuary place, like the garden.

Mural “The New Story” by 2018 R4P Farmternship youth

Becoming an R4P Facilitator

As a third-year facilitator in the Roots for Peace Program, I have learned how to co-lead leadership training embedded in our vision for social justice and our values for building deep relationships, creating trauma-informed spaces, self- and community-care, and time for reflection. The trainings, Freedom Schools and Farmternships are focused on anti-oppression workshops, practicing earth-based skills, and developing a deeper political analysis of self, community and the world through creative arts.

The Summer 2019 Farmternship was a training for youth of color looking to further their leadership and organizing skills. Our final event, “Salud Para la Gente; Planting Seeds and Collective Healing brought together over 70 people to the Community Farm. The Youth Program participants, interns, and staff organized and facilitated a community forum where the community was able to hear and be witnesses to community organizations in L.A fighting for environmental and racial justice.

In addition, we created a social justice zine called Planting Seeds for Social Change; I put together all the youth art and testimonies for the zine. We prepared natural medicine bundles to take home and created artwork in support of the #Health4All statewide campaign focused on providing health coverage to undocumented people. “Salud Para la Gente; Planting Seeds and Collective Healingwas the first youth-led community event at the new South LA Community Farm!

Panel discussion organizations: (left to right ) East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, Vigilant Love, Black Lives Matter LA, and STAND LA.

Marlen Hernandez, 2019 a Freedom School participant and casual volunteer at the farm, describes her experience with the farm:

Being in the garden gives me peace. Surrounded by the community, seeing them learn and grow their own food. Having kids inside green spaces laughing and asking what vegetables they are taking home. Seeing new vegetables every time I go is really exciting, or noticing how fast they grow. I feel that indeed it’s a great space where we could share laughter, knowledge, and have a good time.

Marlen is one of the many young people who have come back after the program to volunteer their time to help harvest and maintain collective areas on the farm. Providing harvest to more than 10 families, these areas are maintained and taken care of by the families in the garden, youth and volunteers like Marlen.

Personally, I love seeing the garden when it’s full of people. I love seeing that the people who plant fruits and vegetables in the garden are the same people who get to take harvest home. It is of great honor and pride to be in a farm where it feels safe to pick a cherry tomato and eat it, knowing the food is not exposed to pesticides or GMOs.

Food justice is constantly being redefined and altered for the best interest of the communities, and I believe this garden is an important example of food sovereignty because people are not only growing organic food that is culturally relevant for them and taking power in their own hands, but also they are able to do this in an urban area and one of the largest cities in the world - Los Angeles. Each member of the Community Farm is able to prepare and cook the food harvest that came from their bed with their families.

A Place of Belonging

In the short time that the The South LA Community Farm has been opened, it has become a place to share knowledge and learn from one another; it’s become a second home to many young people, including myself. For a long time, I’ve struggled with finding my place – a place that feels like a home, a place where I'm certain I belong. Part of my identity is rooted in a lot of constant uncertainty and dreamful expectations of  returning to my home country of Mexico.

A house, a place in this country, never felt like an actual home to me—that was until I was able to spend time in the garden, where I found a home and a second family. The experiences, feelings, but most importantly, the people in the garden are walking examples of what home is for me—a feeling and not a physical space. Self-reflection and internal growth have helped me unravel little things like that, and that’s why I believe in the power the farm holds, a power that can be transformative to one’s life.

The garden has opened my heart to vulnerability. It has helped me tell the stories I like to tell, to the people I want to share them with, in a place and environment where these stories feel welcomed, safe and validated.

I am currently in my first semester at the California State University, Dominguez Hills, after transferring from East Los Angeles Community College. I am on the journey of getting my Bachelors’ Degree in Journalism. As an aspiring Journalist, I am certain I will continue to write stories like these—of vacant  lots transformed into beautiful gardens, of community hubs filled with love, of the resiliency and dream work of communities of color.

I like to think that my grandma is proud of the person I am becoming. I’ve had dreams of my grandmother and me gardening together. I’ve dreamed of a borderless world, where my family and I are able to grow old together. I’ve dreamed of standing tall on the shoulders of my ancestors. I hope someday all of these can be more than just dreams. I hope I am able to live long enough to see these seeds that I hold dear sprout, flower, and bloom for myself and others like me, as more gardens are created and the Earth returns to its sacred state, and we do so as well with it.

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