Richmond needs a Buddhist: Urban Tilth’s Doria Robinson
on February 20, 2012
Eighteen years ago, Doria Robinson, a third generation Richmond native, was studying Buddhism philosophy, and Tibetan language and culture in a monastery in Dharamsala, India. She was as far away from her hometown as she could be.
She had gone to study for a semester, but stayed longer, living in the guest house of the monastery, engrossing herself in meditation teaching and readings. Determined to become a Tibetan nun, Robinson shaved her head, and would occasionally hike forty-five minutes to an hour to visit a meditation mentor, who lived in a little rock house, nestled in the foothills. After her third visit to the little rock house, the mentor told her to go home to Richmond, that what she was looking for was back home and she was upset. He had pulled the rug out from under her without warning. She had been on a path toward becoming a Tibetan nun and, in that moment, she felt like she wasn’t good enough.
She grew up in the Iron Triangle in Richmond, one of the roughest neighborhoods in an already gritty town. She came from a big family and her mother struggled financially. Living wasn’t easy and, like many teenagers, growing up in that environment, she dreamed of leaving as soon as possible. When she finally left to attend Hampshire College in Massachusetts, she thought she had realized her goal. “I had no desire to ever come back. I really felt like I was escaping the weight of negativity,” she said. Now her mentor was telling her to return to Richmond, to go back to the negativity that propelled her to move as far away as possible.
That was a couple of decades ago. Now she lives on the south side of Richmond, raising her nine-year-old twin children, and works as the executive director of Urban Tilth, a nonprofit urban gardening project. Last year, the farms grew over 10,000 lbs of food for the Richmond community and this year they expect more. She played a key role in organizing Richmond’s first food policy council, which will help establish guidelines for growing and distributing food this kind of locally grown food. This is especially important in Richmond, where grocery stores are scarce and families living in poverty can’t afford healthy options, and where the obesity epidemic is on the rise.
Robinson didn’t go straight back to Richmond when she arrived in the States. She first lived in San Francisco and worked at Veritable Vegetables and other food activism nonprofits, while taking classes at SF State. But she never really settled into San Francisco. “It didn’t make sense what I was doing there,” she said, “The work I was doing didn’t really mean anything to anyone.”
For one of her classes at SF State, Robinson needed to investigate some nonprofit work in the Bay Area and took the opportunity to see what was happening in her hometown of Richmond. And when she saw many problems, Robinson realized that Richmond needed her more than San Francisco.
After living in San Francisco for seven years, she moved back to Richmond with her toddlers, where she worked for The Watershed Project, a nonprofit water conservation organization. Five years later, she quit her job to work for the Urban Creeks Council, while she also continued volunteering with Urban Tilth. Robinson volunteered increasingly with Urban Tilth and eventually, she picked up so much work at Urban Tilth, that she left the Urban Creeks Council and began working in an executive position.
When Robinson first stepped into the executive director’s role, Urban Tilth had three employees and money came mostly from individuals–twenty dollars here, ten dollars there. Now, three years later, with 13 new employees and larger, more dependable funding sources, Urban Tilth is expanding Richmond’s urban gardens and feeding more people.
Employing locally for Urban Tilth is a priority for Robinson, and she often hires Richmond youth. Of course, Robinson makes sure the youth she employs can garden and farm, but she also needs to know that they can arrange budgets, coordinate volunteers, and ask for donations and resources. “It is a travesty to put youth in a position where you call them leaders and then don’t really give them the skills that they need to lead,” she said one afternoon after a couple of hours pulling wild fennel from a hillside at AdamsCrest Farm near El Cerrito.
David Meza, a Richmond High graduate and former Urban Tilth employee, feels like Robinson wants her employees to be able to lead with or with out her. This was evident on that day at Adam’s Crest Farm. Robinson never talks over her employees, corrects them, or orders them around. She interacts with them–most of them about fifteen years younger than her–as she would with colleagues who are the same age as her. They manage each other, volunteers, the garden, and make many of the decisions that are crucial to Urban Tilth.
Not many kids in Richmond get these kinds of opportunities. “There weren’t opportunities for me to lead anything until I left the community and that was a shame,” she said. No one notices if Richmond youth don’t show up. No one cares if they aren’t totally present, Robinson said. Youth that aren’t held accountable for their actions, won’t understand responsibility. And kids raised in Richmond have enough distractions. The homicide rate in Richmond is the third highest in the country as of 2010.
“This is an alternative. Without it, it would be tragedy on tragedy,” she said while working at AdamsCrest Farm. A lot of her employees have hard stories and unbelievable pasts, she said. But that’s not obvious when they work in the gardens. They interact with each other, help each other, listen to music, and take breaks to lie in the grass in the middle of a warm afternoon, laughing and relaxing. They all carry themselves with an obvious sense of pride.
However, Richmond’s grittiness is hard to escape at times. Two summers ago, during the first week of working on a garden in Richmond, she heard gunshots. Robinson and all the other workers immediately stopped whatever they were working on and lifted their heads up to see a body in the street a few blocks away. One of the worker’s brothers had just been shot and Robinson had to physically hold her worker back. She called the boy’s mom and told her that her son was in the hospital. And then repeated to her worker: “It’s good that you were here, because you are still here.”
Robinson later found out that the boy didn’t survive. “It’s not that we are abstracted from that reality at all. It’s happening all around us,” she said while wiping tears from her cheeks.
Robinson doesn’t practice Buddhism in Richmond the same way she did in India. Or the same way that she envisioned herself 18 years after leaving the meditation mentor’s little rock house. Buddhism in America just isn’t practiced the same way, she said. But that doesn’t mean she has given up on it. She just opened her first yoga practice, Sanctuary Yoga Center at 322 Harbour Way, and she still takes the teaching to heart. It is evident in her work with food justice and youth leadership.
“It’s about people who practice what they preach. Who has compassion and can understand how to learn from their own past, to apply it to the future, without a promise of a reward,” she said. “In there somewhere, there are distinct Buddhist principles, as well as things you learn from your Grandpa.”
Between the food policy council and Urban Tilth’s increase in food production, Robinson and the youth she employees are changing her hometown of Richmond, just like her mentor in India knew she would.
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