Planting seeds of change

Two-year-old Frida Cortez checks out the plant selection at the first annual Cesar Chavez Community Garden Day in Richmond on April 2, 2011.

Two-year-old Frida Cortez checks out the plant selection at the first annual Cesar Chavez Community Garden Day in Richmond on April 2, 2011.

On a day with a cool breeze and warm weather, gardening enthusiasts from the Coronado, Iron Triangle, and Santa Fe neighborhoods gathered for a day of planting trees and vegetables seeds on what would have been labor organizer César Chávez’ 84th birthday.

“Today, we are all farm laborers,” Tana Monteiro shouted. “We’re literally that today.”

Monteiro, along with a team of volunteers, worked for the past two months to organize the free event held in the schoolyard at Richmond College Prep Charter School. The day of gardening marked the city’s first annual César Chávez Community Garden Day in an effort to spark community outreach, encourage healthy eating habits, and recognize César Chávez as the leader of the United Farmer Workers Union and civil rights for farm laborers everywhere.

Peppina Chang, CEO of Richmond College Prep Charter School, addresses the crowd about labor activist Cesar Chavez and the significance behind his movement.

“The goal of today’s event is to build community, build gardens, plant food—pretty much what César Chávez stood for as far as building community, working together, uniting farm workers,” said Monteiro.

At least a dozen local organizations participated in Saturday’s event, which was organized by the school, the Richmond Community Foundation – an  organization that promotes community engagement, and Urban Tilth – a small non-profit committed to urban agriculture and healthy, natural food resources for those in Richmond. Supplies and materials, including plants, were donated from Annie’s Annuals in North Richmond. Richmond Public Library’s Seed Lending Library program contributed packaged planting seeds. Seeds for produce and fresh vegetables were provided by Urban Tilth, and fruit trees were provided by the City of Richmond.

Volunteers from from the Providence Baptist Church, and Coronado neighborhood council members helped staff the event, and school parents delivered refreshments including bottled water and Mexican hot chocolate, which paired nicely with the assortment of fresh Mexican pastries in honor of Chávez’ birthday.

“It’s all about greening the neighborhood and bringing people together from different backgrounds and experiences,” said April Suwalsky , director of Community Engagement for the Richmond Community Foundation. “César Chávez day is important because it’s really about representing growth and working together. We felt that it was a good way to honor that history and legacy.”

Suwalsky said that scheduling the event on Chávez’ birthday was a good way to show solidarity with the Hispanic community in the area. “It’s also important culturally to a lot of the people who attend the schools here and live in the neighborhoods,” she said.

On a high-rise platform, Richmond College Prep CEO Peppina Chang spoke passionately about Chávez’ journey through the educational system, attending 35 schools as a young adult.  She told students about his history in the U.S. Navy and ended by comparing his leadership qualities to those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “He was a great American hero. As well as Dr. King was a leader for all of us, not only for African Americans, same thing for César Chávez,” Chang said. “He is a leader for everybody, not only for the Latinos.”

Afterward, Chang passed out a children’s biography about Chávez and his accomplishments.

A United Farm Workers banner serves as a symbol for families, students, and community leaders as they plant produce and trees in the background.

The afternoon event brought nearly 100 people from Richmond and beyond, including families from San Pablo, North Richmond, and Berkeley. A brigade of shovel lugging, wheelbarrow-toting children filled the garden area inside the gates of Richmond College Prep.

National Park Rangers along with members from the Rosie the Riveters organization helped unload flats of plants and usher in garden necessities as more community members gathered around the budding garden. Within a few minutes, the barren boxes of soil began to magically sprout colors of spring.

LaKisha Hill, an Iron Triangle resident, brought her four kids—all Richmond College Prep students. “Community service is really something that needs to happen more often in our lives. I really wanted them to come out and participate in making their school look nice.”

Hill’s daughter, 8-year-old Amani, couldn’t tear herself away from the garden for a quick lunch break, packing down mounds of dark brown soil as her tiny hands struggled to keep the adult-size gardening gloves on and filling her bucket to the top with water. She looped around the medium-sized garden pouring generous amounts of water over planted seedlings.

“She didn’t want to stop, she was so involved. I told her, ‘Let’s get some tamales,’ and she loves tamales, and she still didn’t want to stop,” said her mother.

“The best part about today was the planting,” TaeSuan Jones, 8, said. “Helping can be fun. If you help people, you can have fun at the same time.”

The third grader had a smile spread across his face and dirt smeared on his orange and blue shirt as if to signify a hard day’s work in the garden. “I liked planting strawberries.”

“It was important to bring my son out today to help in the clean up and build community relationships with other people other than ourselves,” agreed his father, Jeffrey Jones. Since 2007, Jones has worked as an instructional aid assisting teachers in the 2nd grade class. He sees the benefit to community gardens. “If you have kids, it’s feasible to learn to plant and grow your own vegetables and save some money.”

Fruit tress, like this lemon tree, were donated by the City of Richmond for the first annual Cesar Chavez Community Garden Day in Richmond on April 2, 2011.

Urban Tilth volunteer and Cal alum Adam Boisvert, who was busy mowing lawns and planting trees at the school, said the nonprofit group is dedicated to promoting and proliferating urban agriculture and providing local food resources in Richmond. “It’s a food desert here in Richmond. You have a much easier time finding fast food or a taco shop than a fresh apple.”

75-year-old south Richmond resident Beatrice Walker agreed as she thumbed through the selection of seedlings at the event. “Plants can be a food, they can act as a medicine,” she said as she combed through the seedlings in her hand. “People eat too much junk food and too much artificial foods and that’s what makes them sick. If they eat more green food, green plants, they will be much better off with their health.”

Walker, who moved to Richmond in 1963, came to the event dressed in a red and white patterned jacket topped off with a ruby red scarf wrapped around her head. “I think this is wonderful for the community,” Walker said. “It’s a wonderful day for people to get together and everybody is so peaceful and participating, like it should be.”

The event was designed to help improve the greenery not only at the school campus, but in the surrounding neighborhood as well. Teams of community volunteers switched off between gardening and walking door-to-door, beautifying nearby front yards along 11th and 12th street. “Being able to knock on doors and say, ‘I want to help you out, mow your lawn, and take out your trash.’ It’s just a nice way of creating community,” Boisvert said. “You’ve got to knock on doors and break down borders to get into people’s mind and hearts.”

Amani Hill, 8, loops around the community garden inside the gated schoolyard at Richmond College Prep Charter School in Richmond.

Boisvert said that breaking down barriers was at the heart of Chávez’ own mission. Many attending Saturday’s event didn’t spend the leader’s birthday indoors but decided to get out and get their hands dirty for a good cause. “César was an amazing character. He really stood up for what is true and he didn’t stop and didn’t take no for an answer. He organized people and created a whole movement,” Boisvert said. “His birthday is a great opportunity to exhibit his principles—creating community and creating food for people.”

As the event wound down, many of the volunteers retreated to the canopy tent in the center of the Florida street in the Coronado neighborhood. Walker worked on filling small manila envelopes with seeds that would one day yield gardens of fresh greens. Opening a mustard seed packet, she grabbed a handful and fingered through the small kernels, as she recalled Matthew 17:20, a Bible verse that promises, “If you have the faith of a single mustard seed, you can move mountains.”

“I heard one guy say that he came out to this event by faith,” she said. “I’m sure he had the faith like a mustard seed.”

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