Most people look at a vacant lot and see an eyesore; Shyaam Shabaka, Project Director of Earth Island Institute’s EcoVillage Farm Center, sees a place to change a life. He has been transforming empty spaces and troubled lives since the early 1990s through his work in public health with at-risk youth. These kids often encounter few alternatives to a dangerous life of crime and gangs. He wants to show them another path by teaching them skills transferable to the workplace.
It was while working in public health domestically and internationally that Shabaka helped start Strong Roots Gardening in Berkeley, California. Many of the youth in this program came from communities full of drugs and violence where young people face the very real risk of ending up in jail or dead. But here they worked together to transform a vacant lot into a flourishing garden. The work was hard, often taking two to three years to make the land productive, but it helped these kids find another path. Along the way they learned what it means to be punctual, treat people with respect, and resolve conflicts.
But the program was not sustainable – as soon as the abandoned land was cleaned up and producing, the owners reclaimed and sold it. After several such episodes, it was clear that something had to change.
Shabaka knew about a five-acre parcel of land for sale in Richmond, California. He talked with the owners about his plans to keep much of the land in its natural state and work to give troubled youth a greater understanding of nature, food production, nutrition, and cooperation. His proposal was received with enthusiasm, but the owners needed money for the land. And there was competition: a developer, armed with a full-price offer, was also interested. Moving quickly, Shabaka secured a personal loan to use as a deposit while he raised money to buy the land. He had only 90 days to complete the transaction.
First he contacted the California Coastal Conservancy and was awarded half the money needed for the land purchase. The Conservancy had just started a program to fund projects dedicated to restoring natural areas in urban settings. In order to secure further funding, Shabaka needed to establish non-profit status through an existing organization.
He searched for a community-based organization that would quickly understand his vision. He found Earth Island Institute, which had supported a similar project in Santa Barbara and whose mission was compatible with his own. EcoVillage Farm Learning Center was born.
All of this transpired through the rocky economy following 9/11. This made for a challenge, but Shabaka realized funding needed to be found immediately, even if everything was not yet in place. He calls this “being while we’re becoming.” In the end, he found funding for the programs as well as the land purchase.
Today, EcoVillage is a thriving 5.6-acre farm that works with over 20 local schools to give urban youth hands-on experience growing organic fruits and vegetables. Through farmers’ markets, workshops, events, and an open invitation to anyone interested in participating, EcoVillage is also providing the community with both fresh, healthful produce and a place to meet, interact, and build relationships.
“EcoVillage will be a model for growing healthy youth and healthy communities,” says Shyaam. “People are an important part of the environment and we want to broaden the range of people involved in environmental work to include urban residents and people of various cultural backgrounds.”
After years of work and dedication, Shabaka has the tools and resources he needs to show a broad array of people a path towards growth and creation, one hard to find in many of their inner-city neighborhoods. Because this farm has been developed with sustainability in mind, he will be able to keep transforming lives for many years to come.
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