Growing Power

Fenceline communities and POC activists still have a hard time having their ideas taken seriously, says Doria Robinson.

Doria Robinson doesn’t remember learning much in high school about Richmond, an industrial city in the San Francisco Bay Area where she grew up. Her school curriculum made no mention of the city’s four World War II-era shipyards, the history-making women who worked there known as “Rosie the Riveters,” or of the fact that Richmond was built on Indigenous Ohlone land. She never learned about the environmental impact of the 100-year-old Chevron oil refinery that still dominates the landscape.

Growing up in Richmond’s Iron Triangle, a neighborhood hemmed in by railroad tracks where drive-by shootings were not uncommon, what she did learn was that the city “was a terrible violent wasteland … and the best thing you could do was leave.”

Robinson — an urban farmer and the CEO of Urban Tilth, a nonprofit working to build capacity for a healthy and just food system in Richmond, California — says urban farms reconnect city folks not only to the land, but also to their own health and the health of the environment. Photo courtesy of Doria Robinson.

Eventually, Robinson did just that — she left for college and travel. But by then she already had deep ties to the land through the hours she spent with her grandparents working on their 320-acre ranch in nearby Fairfield. Guided by a new sense of agency, her grandparents had bought the ranch collectively with other sharecropper families from Louisiana who settled in Richmond. Her grandparents also bought land and property in the city of Richmond. This deep family connection to land led her back home. Today, Robinson is an urban farmer and the CEO of Urban Tilth, a nonprofit working to build capacity for a healthy and just food system in Richmond.

Urban Tilth operates seven school, community, and urban farms across the city. It also manages two community-supported agricultural programs run by Richmond residents, providing local, organic produce free to anyone in Contra Costa County. In addition, Urban Tilth builds community through training and employing residents and through educational programs at local schools.

Robinson knows the fight for food justice will be a long one, but has a sense that her efforts are a vital part of the vibrant, grassroots politics of the city. “The best thing we can do is help people grow their own skills, their own ability to think, and get them connected to the way that we make decisions in a democratic society,” she says. “And then show them the power of that. But it only works if we understand our power and then use it.”

Robinson spoke with me recently about her strong ties to Richmond, the transformative power of urban agriculture, and how fenceline communities and POC activists still have a hard time getting those in power to take their ideas seriously.

How does urban agriculture benefit the city of Richmond and other urban communities?

What urban ag does is confront really bad city design and say that, You all forgot something, that human beings need a connection to land. We actually need to be outside.

“[Urban ag] creates a space in the middle of a dysfunctional city to remember these really essential things about being human on Earth.”

Urban ag is that remembrance. It creates a space in the middle of a dysfunctional city to remember these really essential things about being human on Earth and about where our food comes from and why it’s important to have healthy soil, because the minerals in the soil are the same minerals that are in the foods, are the same minerals that our bodies need to function properly. The way we have structured our food system completely disconnects us from the process of growing food. Urban ag puts those pieces back together and reconnects people not only to the land, but also to their own health and the health of the environment.

Your grandparents were rural people who taught you the value of community, collective economics, and hard work. How did that knowledge influence your work at Urban Tilth?

It’s just such a blessing to grow up with grandparents and great-grandparents. Their ethic was that it actually is a beautiful thing to do work. They set up their life in the church and the ranch so that you looked forward to it every day. You got up at the crack of dawn because that’s the way they were raised. They were really rooted in a different space. And I embraced it.

My grandfather was a minister, so everything was also a learning experience. Work wasn’t something that you were forced to do, but rather a thing that you got to do. It was done with other people. It was done collectively. It was done because you’re healthy enough to do it. That ethic was just really powerful. In our culture, work is really seen as a bad thing, especially in the minds of youth. Everyone wants to do the least amount possible for the most money.

After years of travel, Robinson’s ties to the land through the hours she had spent with her grandparents working on their 500-acre, collectively-owned ranch in nearby Fairfield, eventually pulled her back home to the Bay Area. Photo courtesy of Doria Robinson.

Growing and consuming your own food carries cultural history and memories. How have people in Richmond been turned away from their own cultural connection with food?

I think it’s a slow process. People are pushed to work more and more, like working at Target or Walmart. Multiple shifts, two jobs, just to barely pay bills and to really live check to check. There’s no room to practice culture, to take all the time that it would normally take people to make jambalaya from scratch, and the money to do it. You have to buy it in the store and it’s super expensive in this kind of urban landscape and life.

You have to cultivate culture. You have to actually give it the hours of your life, the hours of the day. The long-cooked greens, the cornbread from scratch, all that falls away. People start making things from a box. That pressure towards hustle, to just make ends meet, destroys culture. It leaves in your life only survival, nothing that actually feels like living, the connecting with other people.

After college you spent time in India and Nepal. How did those experiences in Eastern cultures eventually lead you back to your hometown?

The time I spent in India studying Tibetan Buddhism with the Tibetan Institute in Exile was like this time out of time. I started to reflect on being born African-American. I remember going to one of the Dalai Lama’s annual teachings and I was pretty overwhelmed. I went to the bookstore after and bought the book Roots [by Alex Haley]. I sat in the teaching and read. I remember literally just crying and trying to understand what was my road, what was the thing that I needed to do. I just kept feeling this intense pull to go home. That was the first big turn that really started getting me focused on a sense of purpose.

In Nepal I did some transcriptions for a friend on an NPR project around the Arun dam. I really focused on watershed restoration and preserving village life and how this pressure of development destroys culture. Just listening to the words of the villagers who were trying to save their way of life made a huge impression on me and drove my trajectory from there. I could never have predicted that. And now we do watershed work in Richmond.

You’ve talked about how you didn’t get a real education in Richmond schools. What do the kids learn in Urban Tilth’s Urban Agricultural Academy at Richmond High School that you didn’t learn in high school?

There are so many basic things that are never mentioned in Richmond schools. There was no history. They didn’t say anything about the Chevron refinery, nothing whatever.

In the agricultural academy, students have a whole curriculum that places them in the landscape in a historical context, using agriculture as a map, a way to explore being humans on Earth, going through the whole development of modern agriculture and reflecting on historical moments, social movements. Then talking about environmental impact and our own responsibility to the landscape and ways you can mitigate your impact, and what’s happening with climate change and anchoring it in agriculture. None of that was even beginning to be taught in the classes that I took.

Why focus on food systems and education when there are so many other issues in Richmond, like housing, gentrification, and pollution from the Chevron refinery?

One of the things that I need in order to be in a long, long fight is a sense that you can make progress, that you can change your own conditions and conditions for people around you from your actions. Growing food, there’s an immediate sense of accomplishment. You’re immediately eating better. Within a few months you’re able to offer somebody some food. Not everybody’s a gardener. Not everybody’s a farmer. But it’s an important role. Our best way is to fall in line with the role that’s really akin to our spirits and then offer that up as a gift to people who are in other roles to help sustain them.

The Chevron refinery is a massive presence in Richmond. How does your work at Urban Tilth fight the impact of this fossil fuel giant?

Chevron thrives when we are ignorant. Chevron thrives when we don’t have access to education. Chevron thrives when we don’t understand where we are on Earth and how we’re all connected to everything else. The biggest way that we fight it is by helping people who grow up here, who live here, be able to understand what that impact is and then activate them and connect them to alternatives. To get people involved in actually living lifestyles that don’t require so much fossil fuel. To make a different collective choice around the way we manage our Earth and our resources and our life.

How does stewarding the land allow people to mentally shift and think about who they are in a different way?

In the spaces that we steward, there’s a transition from, Oh, the city takes care of that, to, Oh, this is our space. This is a communal space. If there’s dumping, we have to figure out what to do about it. If something is broken or dilapidated or the soil isn’t thriving, What are we going to do about it? It’s a complete transition of that notion of what it means to be a resident, a person living in a space. Even though you don’t personally own these places, there’s a sense of responsibility to the land for all that it offers.

“We cannot disconnect the work that happens in gardens from the biggest environmental threat that’s right in front of our faces.”

I think Urban Tilth really pushes people to expand their notion of who we are, really pushing towards a bigger “we.” It’s a complete healing of this rupture in our communities that keeps us separated and leads to a lot of mental illness — quite frankly, all kinds of mental illness, from racism to depression.

In 2012 there was a big explosion at Chevron and all of this toxic pollution was just dropped on your gardens. What was the impact of that explosion on Urban Tilth and on the kids in your program?

It just made it so clear that we cannot disconnect the work that happens in gardens from the biggest environmental threat that’s right in front of our faces. We had no idea what was in the black, greasy smoke that was over our heads for hours and hours. We were like, There’s no way we can eat any of this food that we’ve grown because we just don’t know. The youth were livid. They literally had to pull out all the food from all the gardens. It showed how much power the corporation had over our lives and how little say we had in it. They had a community meeting and our youth went to that meeting with the food that they pulled out and threw it on the stage and said, “What right do you have? Who owns the sky? You don’t have this right.”

And they ignored us. But we were changed. We’re unapologetically activists now, one of the anchors in the Richmond Our Power Coalition. You can’t grow the future that we need with such a negative force right in front of us not being addressed.

How does the work that you do at Urban Tilth address climate change?

Lessons about climate change are incorporated into all of our formal education programs. We look for ways that we can model solutions. Our CSA is a model of how you can shorten supply chains by supporting regionally local farmers and not getting your apples from Argentina. There are apple farmers here. Let’s get them local. Let’s take the fossil fuels out of farming and promote sustainable ag, not just in our own practice but in the farmers that we support and the people that we bring into our CSA. Even in the design of our new farm project we’re designing net zero buildings and alternative natural buildings, things that use solar energy to heat and to light.

We really have to stop thinking about climate as only existing within fossil fuels because we have to make adjustments in the whole way we run our economy in order to not end up in the painful, post-apocalyptic visions that people have.

In 2021 Urban Tilth bought its first parcel of land, which it had previously been leasing for its North Richmond Farm. What does ownership mean for the future of the farm and for your community?

Ownership means that if there’s any change in the political will of Contra Costa County, we won’t be threatened with losing our lease. So, we can continue our work. We can actually start thinking on a multigenerational, multi-decade kind of plan for the land and for our work, which is something we could have never really done before.

And then, honestly, the rest of what it means we’re going to find out because this is new for us. It’s really a journey, and it’s really interesting. How do you steward land in a collective way, govern what happens there in a collective way that’s responsible and responsive to the needs of the community? It’s a big question, and it feels like a new journey that just opened up. We’re going to figure that out. We’re going to live it.

The environmental and food movements started out as very White-led. As a Black woman from a frontline community, have you seen a shift towards more access to funding and inclusion in these arenas?

Even though there’s been a lot more airtime and a little bit more focus on people of color, frontline communities, and low-income folks leading in environmental spaces, I think still by and large the environmental movement is White-led, White-empowered, White-resourced. Actually listening to the things that we’re saying and resourcing the solutions that we have is not happening. Nothing except for kind of tokenizing support. It’s funding enough to fail.

We’re a part of the Justice40 Accelerator along with other groups across the nation that are POC-led and fenceline community-led, and [we’re] trying to access government grants that are supposedly for communities like ours. And we can’t. We don’t have access to even put into place the solutions that we are talking about.

People in positions of power do not believe in the capacity of fenceline community members and POC people to make change. They don’t think we’re intelligent enough to do this work. And they’re not going to fund and support and change laws if they don’t believe in us, if they don’t think we’re capable. They only do what they want to do, and what they want to do, as you have seen, has gotten us where we’re at.

As the busy CEO of Urban Tilth, you probably don’t get much time in the garden. What do you miss the most about the garden and what still brings you joy in your work?

I miss that moment where you just realized that you lost time for like an hour or two. There’s dirt on your face, and you’ve been talking to people and hanging out, and you’ve been working on a project. And you’re so deeply engaged that you just kind of lost yourself in it. I miss that feeling where you look up, and you’re like, Whoa, it’s been a couple hours. It’s more like, Wow, what a gift. I’m such a lucky person to have this life. I miss having that feeling on a regular basis, and it’d be nice to reorganize my schedule so that I have a standing meeting with the garden.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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