November 27, 2018 / 3 comments
Doria Robinson on how urban agriculture can heal a community’s imagination
Doria Robinson is one of my heroes. She has lived her life in Richmond, California, a place which, as she puts it, “is a huge part of my identity”. She is the Executive Director of Urban Tilth, which began as an urban agriculture organisation but has since become so much more. She is also a founder of Cooperation Richmond, a worker-owned community developer, and she’s on the steering committee of Our Power Richmond. She is one of the finest do-ers of stuff that I know. I last spoke to her in 2014 after we met when I visited to the US. I wanted to talk to her now to hear her take on some of the issues that have come up through this research on imagination. I started by asking her what’s new in her world since we last spoke 4 years ago [sadly the audio of this interview wasn’t good enough to make a podcast].
“Four years ago, wow! So we have our new urban farm. We’re continuously building it out. But the biggest thing that’s happened in that whole world is that we actually have a CSA where we’re feeding 156 families every week from the food that we’re growing. We’ve created partner relationships with local farmers and have a way to continue to build out that offering. We’re in the process of developing a cooperative grocery store that would be locally sourced.
Basically we’re creating relationships with local farmers to create a local farmer cooperative that can supply local grocery stores and corner markets with fresh produce and really try and figure out what we mean by shortening supply chains and actually creating the means to do that, by creating relationships between our urban centres that need food and the semi-rural farmers who are growing food but are locked out of larger markets.
We launched the Cooperation Richmond, and now have our first and only worker-owned cooperative enterprise in Richmond, which is a bike shop, and are looking to do more conversions of a single owner business to a cooperatively owned business, and looking to do some more projects. We’re doing a lot of work collaboratively with the Our Power coalition as well. Some interesting stuff around creating an Energy Commission and doing some micro-grid solar, like having pilot projects doing micro-grids in Richmond.
I could probably talk a really long time about all the different things that are happening on policy, through the coalition, talking about land trusts. Land has been a real big thing right now. Just the explosion of, and the pressure on, housing in the San Francisco bay area is extreme. More and more people homeless, living out in tents, and in their cars. It feels like every highway overpass now has a tent city around it. It’s kind of intense, you know. So housing is way more in our minds and in our frame these days. Just wondering what other work we can do there, so we’ve been thinking a lot at the coalition around land trusts. And, yeah, just continuing on with the work…
One of the things that I’ve been doing a lot of research about is about the link with stress and anxiety and the impact of poverty on the imagination, and how when people are in states of trauma and high levels of stress and loneliness and isolation, that the parts of our brain that fire the imagination sort of shrink down and contract, and we lose that ability to look at and think about the future in ways that are hopeful and positive, even be able to see the future, even have the space to think about the future. I wonder how in your community you see that in practice, in a community that has suffered a lot with poverty and racism and exclusion? How you see that impacts the way people have thought about the future?
For the most part, you just don’t have room to think about the future. Most people here think so much day to day, hand to mouth. Like literally, “How am I going to get through next week, or tomorrow?” If you asked a lot of young people here, a lot of them don’t even have a conception of themselves getting old. You know.
It’s like to have any space to dream up a future, any kind of future, is abstract. It’s not even probably something that really probably crosses their minds. It actually makes it really difficult, right, to talk about things like climate change and extreme weather events and what not, because people are like, “I’m not quite sure I’ll have a place to live tomorrow.” Whether or not the temperature rises in some years is just not something that registers on the radar. It’s like, “I’m not thinking about that. When that happens, I’ll do that. I’m about to be evicted today.”
It’s a huge challenge, right, because what we know is that communities like this are going to be getting the brunt of climate, and are not going to be prepared. They’re not going to have insurance plans or savings or a back-up plan if something happens. They’re not going to be able to rebound. They’re going to get the brunt.
It’s an important conversation to have and it’s important to do planning and to put things in place so it’s not catastrophic, but it’s really hard to do when people are under so much stress and pressure.
How have you seen with people who have come into the Urban Tilth programme, and who have worked with you over some period of time, how have you seen that impact people in terms of shifting that, and that ability to maybe re-engage with the future or being more imaginative in that way?
Because we focused a lot on not just people from the outside coming in and giving services to those in need around food, and nutrition and what not, but rather people from the inside being trained and employed to do that kind of work. It actually creates space within the lives of people who are employed by our good selves to actually have room to dream, and have room to engage because they’re not as worried about where their next meal is coming from, or where they’re living because they have a consistent income and they have access to information, travel, exchanges with different people.
We just had this big soul to soul convening here in the San Francisco bay area that Urban Tilth co-hosted, with a whole slew of groups around Jerry Brown’s climate summit, the GCAS, just to say that grassroots food needs to be included in the discussion of solutions and that they have to be good for frontline communities, not just for corporations. And the crew at Urban Tilth, these young people, and sometimes older people, who normally engage in food justice and food sovereignty were on the forefront.
They were actually really thinking deeply on not just how all these questions on climate impact agriculture, but just impact their lives in general. That’s because Urban Tilth created the space in their lives to be able to contemplate these things. We actually invited in some people to do one-on-ones on building up to GCAS. Like, what is climate change? Let’s make sure we all understand it. Let’s talk about the impacts. What does it mean to be a frontline community? What are frontline communities across the world? What are the impacts going to look like? Let’s spend some time actually on the clock thinking through this.
We actually created space in our programme to have that so that these people who are out – you know, Urban Tilth folks are out in community gardens with community members five days a week, for hours and hours and hours. From youths in our school garden programmes to all different ages in our community gardens. And now they have this body of knowledge, so that when they’re out, growing food, meeting, whatever, they can actually pick up a conversation about this with other people, and open up a wider conversation, right? And have people when they’re in a space where they’re relaxed and they are thinking about taking care of themselves, and taking care of the planet, to engage in a deeper conversation on climate.
I feel like Urban Tilth has really created space in the lives of our staff. We’ve been able to develop their consciousness and give them space to build their capacity to understand the whole of that phenomena, and then they can be these ambassadors out in the community opening up that conversation with other people, in a space where people aren’t so stressed and impacted, right? That’s been the plan, and it’s kind of working.
Wonderful. In a context that’s very urban, and where people don’t get much time in nature, how have you seen that spending time in nature, connecting to plants, connecting to seasons and soil, how does that impact people? What does that do to people?
For the most part what we see, especially with the youth, but really with everybody, is that when folks first start engaging with Urban Tilth – so we teach a class at a local high school, ‘Urban Agriculture and American Food Systems’, where they’re in the garden part of the time and the classroom part of the time learning about the history of agriculture – that when they first start, folks are just so disconnected from natural processes, you know?
Nature is something that you get on a postcard. It’s something that you go and you take a photograph of. It doesn’t have any direct impact on you and your life. Like they’re separate spheres. That’s another difficult thing for folks who are trying to get people to grapple with climate change, to deal with this, that people don’t feel like they’re affected by nature at all. They feel like technology will take care of everything, and I don’t have to worry about it.
Engaging people in a natural space within an urban context where you can start to see that, “Oh yeah, it does matter what’s in the rain here that’s feeding the plants that I’m growing and I’m going to eat. It does matter what’s in the air if there’s some kind of a fire and it’s depositing ash from who knows what toxic materials on to the soil that I’m going to put things in the ground and I’m going to eat.” People start putting things together that our actions are impacting our environment.
We’re not somehow magically in separate spheres where we’re not impacted. People start to take it more seriously. The amount of time people spend on these machines, in social media space, on electronics, it’s a really distracted existence, you know? People are really in this mind frame, especially young people, where they can hold notions about worldview, notions about how reality works, where things are actually separate. You know, they’re not really connected, like it doesn’t really matter what happens. It’s not going to get me ever because somehow I’m in my magical electronic box and nothing will get to me.
Engaging people day to day and talking about the cycles and talking about water and air and how the nutrients get into food in the first place, it’s all just rock, and other things, and all these complex processes, opens people up and actually makes them vulnerable, right? You feel vulnerable. You’re like, “Oh, woah. We actually are dependent on interdependence. That’s how we keep going. That’s how we have the nutrition that we need.”
Then again it opens people up to, “Oh, well, we really should think about these larger questions.” Like we don’t actually live in abstract boxes where technology is going to take care of everything.
One of the things that I’ve been looking at is about ‘what if’ questions. Like, asking a really good ‘what if’ question. I went to Liege in Belgium where they started this thing four years ago where they said, “What if in a generation’s time, the majority of food eaten in this city comes from the land closest to this city?” And they invited academics and chefs and farmers and everybody who cared about food to come in to this question, and now they’re just on fire, and starting loads of cooperatives, and starting a whole range of different things. It feels like creating those kind of ‘what if’ spaces a, and holding those ‘what if’ questions – really ambitious ones – is so important. In the black community in the US, I’m always so inspired by things like the prison abolition – you know, “What if there were no prisons?” is the most phenomenal ‘what if’ question. What if there was no police, or a very, very different form of justice? I wonder if you have any thoughts or learnings from that experience of how to keep ‘what if’ questions alive and feeling possible. That’s quite a rambly question! Does it make sense?
Well, one, I’d say that I’d agree. I’m also really inspired by abolitions new movement and honestly I feel like we need to ask more ‘what if’ questions and in more communities. Being asked now in very rarefied spaces, you know, extreme activist spaces where day to day normal people aren’t really engaged. I don’t think that question has ever been posed to the youth that I work with at Richmond High! Any kind of ‘what if’ questions…
In fact there was a game that we play on one of our youth summer apprentice programmes, that’s just a game where you have to ask questions without answering them. It’s a little icebreaker game. Because people don’t ask questions in general. They just take what comes and are out of practice of asking questions.
As a side note, we need a civic space. A community space where we do that as an activity in political, civic social spaces more often. So we go to city council, and what people mostly do is deal with problems or just the day to day business. What contract is going to happen, what’s not going to happen, what are they going to move forward with? Or complain about things that are not right.
But very rarely is there a ‘what if’ question asked in that space, right? And that people get an opportunity to speak on it, dream on it, and then whatnot. I guess what I’m saying is we could use a lot more people engaged in creative thinking and productive thinking. I was on a conference call yesterday of all these different thinkers from across the United States. It was called ‘World Building’ and it was around trying to create, or trying to figure out, what is it that we want to see in the world?
I thought it was going to be a space like you’re talking about, where you have an open ended question and people start thinking into that space, right? So that you can have real projects, on the ground, that come out of that thinking. But it turned into what we normally do, which is showcase this pilot, and that pilot, and talking really big generalities about what we need in terms of a relationships with each other and what not, but was lacking in concrete vision.
It was like, “We need to be closer to each other… We’re feeling lonely… We’re abstract… We’re this, we’re that.” And then how do we manifest the answer in the world that brings us closer together? What does that look like? It was the complaints rather than, “Let’s have a city council session where it’s all just on one question and everybody’s going to bring in their ideas and we’re going to hear it all out and write it all down and see what comes out of it.”
Let’s change how we do business to be generative. Not necessarily that we’re going to follow every lead. But we’ve got a moment in time where we really need to think out of the box. We really need to pull in new ideas and if we keep going down the road where we’re only dealing with what is, complaints, or what’s not working, it’s difficult.
If in November 2016 it had been you that been elected as the President of the US, and not the current awful incumbent, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’ – so you had felt that actually at this time in history what was needed more than anything was a focusing on boosting imagination in education, in public life, in work, in everything, because that’s where the solutions are going to come from to get us through – what would you do in your first 100 days in the Oval Office?
Honestly, because I feel there is such a moral human imperative to focus just all attention on climate and new energies and reduction of consumption, I’d probably come on really heavy to say that, like the race we had around getting to the moon and the space programme, we need everyone in our country, everyone around, to focus their attention on reimagining every part of the way that we live on Earth.
That we need to focus all of our departments, all of our efforts – from energy to agriculture – on reimagining and retooling dramatically everything to have a dramatically reduced impact on carbon emissions, on climate. And we need to do it with an eye towards justice and Just Transition thinking. They have to come hand in hand, not one without the other.
When I think about what we were talking about earlier, about having these more public, civic conversations around what things could look like, maybe that’s what each community would need. Create some kind of system that would get each community within the United States to convene themselves to talk about what their impact is, review what their impact is, and then looking for ways to reduce it.
Maybe there’s exchanges between communities, maybe there’s an open period of dreaming, asking open ended questions together, and sharing those ideas across the country, using the media talking about what the ideas are coming up in each community and just marshalling resources to follow through on these plans. Of course this is off the top of my head and I don’t have a ten point plan prepared for this question but I would think that focusing on a pressing issue – inhabiting a collective national generative space and moment where people are asked to come together as communities and dream out what it is that they could do to make dramatic change, and how they could make it in a way that would be just to the people that would be affected, sharing those across communities, across regions, and then acting on them – I think would be really powerful and important. Just reimagining ourselves.
I’d vote for you.
I wish I had a month to think about that question so I could come up with a really great answer…
Well, if you wake up in the night with other ideas, do pass them on, I’d love to hear them. You do work in schools? When we last spoke you’d started 13 school gardens around Richmond. I wonder – so again, slightly with your President hat on – what could our schools become in terms of imagination and in terms of them being a driver for the kind of shift and the rethinking that we want to see? What would be the future of education? What qualities and skills would we be producing in young people that the gardens you’ve started really are just a first step towards? Hello?
I would like our schools to be a place where kids come in and their energy and their natural imaginations are understood as their superpower, and the school is a place where they’re trained to use their superpower, amplify their superpower, focus their superpower. Use it for good. Instead of control it and destroy it, really, and make it so they’re really just following somebody else.
I feel like there’s so much room for the majority of our education to be focused on critical thinking, on practising just creating things. But then questioning. Thinking of creation as a superpower where you could choose to use it, you can choose not to use it. That you don’t always have to create something. It can be a choice. Sometimes we create things that we really don’t need, or that are too much.
But if we could – I don’t know – just restructure the way that we raise human beings to have a certain amount of awe for their own potential, their own human creative potential, and to have an ethic. A strong training throughout the school years around ethics, on when to use your power, when not to use your power, in the same way when to use your voice, when it’s good to let other people’s voices to be heard, when to step back, when to step forward. How to work cooperatively.
It’s not just about your own singular unique voice but rather how are we living and doing these things together. I feel like you can run the risk when you’re only focusing on creativity of that kind of ‘nuclear power creative for creatives’ sake, ‘science for science’ sake, where we create thing that then are destructive, just because we can. That’s why I feel like we also need to be able to dream things out and some things maybe we need to have the power and the discipline and the ethics to say, “That’s a great thing to dream, and it’s a great thing to have a plan for, but some things shouldn’t be brought into the world. And that’s okay.”
So a school whose motto is, “With great power comes great responsibility”?
Exactly. And to think of ourselves as powerful, right? Each human being is an immensely powerful agent of change. A potential agent of change. And we could have a positive impact, we have a negative impact. We have a very negative impact, like we’re seeing now with climate. If we don’t have a certain amount of awe and reverence for the amount of impact we can have on each other and on the planet, then it can go awry, like we underestimate our destructive power.
You can presumably remember Richmond before any of the gardens or the farms that you’ve created existed, or very few of them. I wonder how living in a place where you can see this stuff rolling out, and it happening, and the world around changing as a result of that, how that impacts on people’s sense of what’s possible? How does it change how you now think about the future of that place?
I’ve heard it straight from youth in our programme and people who are in the city now. They have a distinctly different outlook than folks that were growing up when I was growing up. I feel like a lot of the people who grew up in my generation, we were just trying to get out. You don’t want to die there. You’re just going to die if you stay there, you know. To make it out, that was the goal. “Make it out, make it out, make it out”.
Now I hear a lot more people being like, “I want to live here. I want to be able to afford to buy a house here and make my life here.” And they’re dreaming out all kinds of other new things and feeling like it’s totally within the realm of possibility. They can be their own community developers, they can start these different businesses.
We have a big bike park in the middle of the city now next to one of the spaces – or not next to, it’s about 10 blocks away, on the same trajectory of the gardens that we started – it’s a major BMX bike park that a group of young people started. I feel like the realm of possibility is so much greater now.
But back to that school question, now more than ever, people really need to understand how to take a generative idea, take a vision, and move it through the process of creation, right? Move it through the project management process. So that when they dream up something, they actually have the skill set to make it real, and understand what kind of commitment, and what kind of other associated skills you need to bring something into the world.
That’s something else that’s not taught in a kind of education where you circle and cross out and you get tested on things. You’re not taught to nurture a project along and rise to the occasion of whatever hurdle comes up. That’s not the kind of education that’s available in schools.
The big challenge now in Richmond when it comes to what’s possible and what’s out there is I feel like people have definitely been turned on. There’s a lot more people getting involved in politics. There’s a lot more people with imaginative ideas. They want to start things, like new non-profits and other things starting up. But the issue now is that people with all the resources look at Richmond as this very exciting place. They want to live here, and whatever, and so a lot of the people who have been here are just being pushed out, priced out. And that is a real challenge.
We’ve made ourselves unfortunately really attractive to people with a lot more resources than us. We’ve done all this work and other people are coming in and buying it up from underneath us and pushing the people who did the work to make it happen out, to places like Richmond was twenty years ago, so we have to start all over again.
Hence your increasing amount of focus on housing, by the sounds of it.
Hence our increasing amount of focus on housing. And support for repeal of a law that made it impossible to do comprehensive rent control. It’s on the ballot next Tuesday.
When we talked about ‘what if’ questions before, at the beginning of Urban Tilth, or if you could sum up Urban Tilth in a ‘what if’ question, what would it be?
“What if we took all of the vacant lots and discarded spaces in Richmond, and used them as hubs of creativity where people could gather and heal and grow the healthy food that we needed in our food deserts, and actually sell that food so that we can employ people to do that work?”
Beautiful. Very good.
It would be like, “What if we took the places we discarded, or that have been discarded, and use those to create the things that we needed to thrive?”
Beautiful. In these difficult dark days in the US, how do you keep your own imagination, your own ability to hold on to a positive vision of the future alive? How do you do that given what’s happening on the political scale?
It’s definitely a challenge that I feel like I can’t express enough. When I wake up and see that crazy man in the White House doing more crazy things, every morning, every day, it’s such a relief to know that I can go to the farm. I can go there and there’s this group of 28 completely turned on young people and older people who are holding this vision with me. And people come to the farm, and come to the gardens, and they’re like, “Oh, I just need to touch base with you all because this is crazy.”
To know that we have created these spaces. And that they exist, and that they are a refuge for us, where we can circle up, and where we can use each other to remind ourselves that not everybody is crazy in the United States. It really can feel like that if you only listen to media, you know. And remind ourselves of who we are, and then engage directly in the work. Every single day.
I’m going to go shortly today out to the Greenway Gardens that I helped to create and engage in what are the next steps for this space. I’m going to have a conversation later today on how to move the cooperative grocery store the next steps forward. Just focusing all of my waking hours on engaging with people who are basically holding this ember of a different vision for the United States. A different vision for our communities.
And we’re protecting these embers together and guarding their flames and helping them grow. I feel like because we’ve had the 14 years before to create these really concrete places, where this kind of work can happen, we have a little bit of a refuge from the madness that is national politics these days. We’re just keeping it alive and continuing to grow this movement even under these circumstances, with just these protected places we’ve created.
Wonderful. Well, awful, but, yes, you know what I mean.
Yes, awful. I just don’t understand how people can allow what’s going on on the national stage to be. I don’t even… It’s hard for me to understand even for the people who call themselves Trump’s supporters, how they can’t see the road they’re walking on. You know. They can’t see themselves.
My daughter was watching this late night TV thing where they gathered together some Trump supporters and they brought them into a room and they were doing this fake focus group. They were asking them this series of horrendous questions of what kinds of things they would support Trump doing to immigrants. Would they support them putting on neck shackles that shocked them if they left house arrest or whatever. Everybody was like, “Yes, yes we would support that, that’s a great idea. They shouldn’t come to this country anyway.” It got more and more just evil and destructive and they just went…
This was normal people, these weren’t actors. They thought they were in a real focus group and the things that were being proposed were Nazi style stuff. And they were like, “Yeah, sure, we’re for it.” I’m just like, “Oh my god, people have lost their minds.” So I really need to circle up with people who are not crazy.
Yes, absolutely. Well that’s all my questions. Were there any other thoughts you had on that topic of imagination that I haven’t asked you the right question for? If there was anything you were hoping, “Oh I hope I get to say that…”
One of the things that we’re doing with the US Food Sovereignty Alliance is actually very similar to what you said. I hadn’t thought of doing it in the form of a ‘what if’ question. I’m one of the convenors of the western region of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance and we’re convening meetings, community meetings, of people who grow food from farm workers to farmers, small farmers, family farmers, to urban gardeners in each sub-region of California, like the Central Valley, the Bay Area, Washington State, and various places, to basically ask that question. What does Just Transition in the realm of agriculture look like?
It would be great to do that in the form of a ‘what if’ question. Because we’re not just to talk about it. The goal is to actually draw out some kind of a map. What are the physical infrastructural needs? How do things work together? How do we feed millions of people as opposed to – even if we’re starting with small amounts of people in communities at a time – how does that add up to the millions that are out there that need to be fed? It’s like this whole two year process of generative thinking.
Everyone says that they want to do this but no-one has spent time thinking about what it really looks like, and what are the pieces of the puzzles, and what role they could play. So I’m actually really excited about that. I really love this idea of the ‘what if’ question. Using that as a launching point.
I feel like just we thought a lot about how much they depend on the educational institutions that they created to have people who been primed and ready to be cooperative worker owner members of their cooperatives, and that they actually had to do that intentionally. It wasn’t going to happen by accident in existing cultural educational norms.
Another thought is really going to our friends who are working in education and saying, “What are we doing to make sure that that space is generative? To make sure that people are understanding this kind of human capacity to create is a really powerful magical thing and that we really need to nurture it. Build that muscle, hone it, and then also temper it with decision making, with ethics, and what not.