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Planting seeds of change in St. Louis

Jelani Brown
Jelani Brown is a Freedom School Intern with AFSC in St. Louis. Photo: / AFSC

Kristina Vidovic and Jelani Brown are organizers with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) in St. Louis.

“Boyd told me we got the lot.”

Our good friend and coworker Darrick sent out the text. It was an exciting day for our group, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), under the Saint Louis chapter of AFSC.

We could not believe how Darrick’s idea of leasing cheap property from the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) for garden space in his neighborhood was manifested in the course of a week. On the other hand, we were not surprised that he was serious when he told us he would talk to his Alderman, Jeffrey Boyd, about acquiring two empty lots of land for a community garden.

We quickly learned that gardening takes more than simply planting seeds and wishing for the best. Pulling hundreds of weeds, learning how to use a tiller, and finding a steady water source for the plants were only the first steps of our work.

Before we got caught up in the production and distribution of food, we had to step back and evaluate our foundation. Why were we growing food and raising livestock? How does this connect to YUIR and the overall struggle towards social justice? What are our goals as a group, and how do these goals support self-sustainability and anti-racism?After asking these questions, we were able to create a strategy to help us better focus our organizing efforts.

We are supporting independent community gardening in order to:

  • Provide a fun and interactive space in the community

Through the sharing of time, tools, Gatorades, and countless jokes and smiles, the garden is slowly becoming an intergenerational communal space where food and culture is exchanged. If we can purchase the lots from the LRA, dreams of a playground, treehouse, basketball court, outdoor stage, and open-air market can also be set into motion.

  • Provide free or cheap food to the community

When residents grow their own food, they counter the global capitalist structure. Rather than buying overpriced, genetically modified spinach from the grocery store, community members will be able to cut a fresh bunch of spinach down the street.

  • Promote health and vitality

Our food choices affect our societal and individual well-being. Combined with physical activity, a healthy diet helps us maintain healthy weights, reduces the risk of chronic diseases, and promotes overall well-being. Community members are encouraged to exercise through garden upkeep and to join us in recreational activities. The Galavanting Gorilla Gardeners are providing resources and teaching us to grow healthy food at no cost; Darrick plans to teach community cooking class.

  • Create a broad base of community members to support our fight against the School to Prison Pipeline

A unified community is necessary to create social change. Through the collective maintenance of the garden space, new and old relationships will be strengthened into friendships that are built on shared interests, involvement in the garden, and a collective understanding of the struggle for social justice. These relationships will make up the network needed to generate change in our education systems.

  • Recruit youth to Freedom School and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR)

We intentionally agitate youth to question societal norms and challenge them to change these structures. Youth who are involved in the garden will be invited to Freedom School and our weekly YUIR meeting where we learn to strategize and strengthen our anti-racist analysis.

  • Inform community members on structural racism and the School to Prison Pipeline

It is imperative that our base share a common analysis. In the next months, we plan to create a mural that depicts the power analysis used in Freedom School. Along with an ongoing community dialogue, this will help to achieve a collective understanding of institutional power and structural racism.

  • Strengthen our community by creating and supporting new and old intracommunal relationships

We believe that a healthy and thriving community is built upon strong relationships and a shared sense of community ownership. The garden is a space for residents to strengthen bonds and collectively claim stake in their neighborhood.

  • Give back to the community

The Hamilton Heights neighborhood is burdened by the cycle of poverty and violence but upholds its rich history and culture. We plan to give back to the neighborhood by providing fresh fruit and vegetables in a communal space where new cultures will be shared and created.

  • Promote self-sustainability

We are taught to depend on systems; in reality, we have the power to meet most of our own needs. We want to promote this idea by learning to grow and cook our own food, collect and reuse rainwater, and become energy independent.

  • Achieve community ownership of the garden

We hope that the community will develop an attachment to the garden and one day claim ownership of the space. Our goal is that they become invested in its preservation so that we no longer need to be.

The garden is only a part of our larger strategy to reroute the School to Prison Pipeline.  Though we have been fortunate enough to establish the space, we are a long way from its success and even further from changing the St. Louis Public School system.

We would love to learn from the experiences of others as we continue our community gardening efforts. If any ideas come from our broader AFSC family, please contact us at or

In solidarity,

Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR)- St. Louis


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