When I was in the US in October I met Doria Robinson, Executive Director of Urban Tilth. Urban Tilth is a non-profit urban agriculture organisation in Richmond, California, in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. I was blown away by the power of what she does. How can you even think about creating community resilience in a neighbourhood that suffers from poverty, gangs and guns, and which has, at its centre, a huge Chevron refinery which last year exploded, resulting in 15,000 people seeking hospital treatement of breathing difficulties? That’s what Doria does, and she does it with humour, passion, and a fire in her belly. It’s a remarkable story, with many lessons and insights for our month’s reflection on scaling up Transition.
Here is the talk she gave at the Building Resilient Communities event we both spoke at in Hopland:
… and here is the podcast of our conversation in case you’d rather listen to that than read the transcript below:
I had a conversation with her on Skype, and started by asking her to introduce Urban Tilth…
"Urban Tilth started as the dream of one man, Park Guthrie (see right). He was really interested in gardening and homesteading and wanted to help people grow food. It started off as just him offering technical assistance to people to start gardens, and schools and other areas.
He floated out a vision paper about this one section of out city that used to be an old railway track that goes 42 blocks down the centre of the city. It was just transformed through ‘Rails to Trails’, this 42 block long park. A huge park, 5 miles of park space.
Park wrote this vision of this whole greenway, it’s called the Richmond Greenway, filled with growing spaces, like it was actually going to become this urban agriculture mecca. It literally is the dividing line in the city. Our city has a lot of problems with violence, gun violence, drugs, gangs. It was literally the dividing line between gang territories.
He envisioned it as this space where both sides would come together and grow together. There would be berry gardens and orchards and open community gardens where anyone could come and harvest food. There’d be free food for all through 7 different neighbourhoods. I got that email that he sent out and thought "that sounds really good!"
I actually came on as a volunteer and kept helping and helping, and eventually Park got really tired as many people who start these things as a labour of love do. He needed to stop, and he asked me to become Executive Director, and I did. I grew up here in Richmond, I’m a third-generation Richmond resident.
For folks who don’t know Richmond, Richmond is this really interesting town in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have the Chevron refinery in our town, so I grew up about 5 blocks from this massive refinery. It has a really huge population of people of colour who came up from the South or from the ‘South-South’, from Mexico and other places to find work at various points in time. It’s really an interesting space.
One of the things that we really need is jobs. There’s an enormous unemployment rate here, 17% for young black or brown boys, really no jobs. If you’re growing up here and you don’t have a college track which most people don’t; most people don’t graduate from high school, your options for employment are Target, Walmart, Taco Bell. Working with Urban Tilth I kept thinking about how can we take this, what we’re doing, this small-scale thing and actually provide food, because that’s the other thing that we need. We have one grocery store for 100,000 people! We now have four gardens on that Richmond Greenway, four pretty massive gardens. But we needed to do more.
For the last 5 years I’ve been growing up this idea that there’s actually, even in a poor city, a lot of money that people spend on food because people have to eat. If we can get them to redirect those funds to pay people to grow food and get healthy food directly to people, that we could create jobs and have healthy food even if we don’t have a lot of money. So now we have 13 different school and community gardens that all are production gardens. They’re not museum gardens, not just for ooh and aah, but actually to produce food that gets distributed through markets and CSAs.
Now we’re starting with our first relatively large scale farm in the city – it’s a 3 acre farm in the middle of the city – to even scale up more. We’re just trying to grow as much food as possible and employ as many people as possible. We’ve gone from this one man show to now having 9 people year-round and 62 people during the height of the growing season.
You’ve no doubt visited lots of urban agriculture projects in other places as well around the US and other places. What specific challenges, what are the challenges that are specific to doing it in Richmond, do you think?
One of the biggest challenges is making sure that our soil is clean. Living in the shadow of Chevron, there are a lot of places where we just can’t grow because of historic contamination, either from deposition from the refinery or from other uses, people just dumping in and around the city. We have to be really careful about where we grow, and we have to constantly do soil testing to make sure that Chevron hasn’t done some sneaky thing and poisoned us all without us knowing. That’s a huge challenge.
But outside of that, only the fact that people don’t eat real food. People are really used to opening up a package, putting it in the microwave and calling it dinner. Getting people who don’t even necessarily cook, or even know how to cook, to buy and eat fresh food is a process. It’s a real process. We teach cooking classes in all of our gardens because people literally don’t know how to cook any more, and not just kids. That’s a challenge.
But outside of that, we’re really fortunate to have an amazing city government that is extremely supportive of all of these alternative efforts. They just passed a directive to staff to investigate this new urban agriculture law that has come down in the State of California to give tax breaks for re-purposing vacant land within urban communities for urban agriculture. Now the city government is taking that on in earnest to create urban agriculture zones throughout the city and they have sponsored an urban agriculture summit. There’s a lot of extremely progressive things happening in the city government because, I think, of a whole crew of people who are pretty progressive, who have been getting involved in various ways.
One of the things that you mentioned in the event in Hopland (see video above) was the solidarity aspect of what you’re doing in terms of standing alongside other communities who are experiencing the downsides of Chevron. You mentioned that you’ve been to Ecuador and were working with communities there. Can you tell us a bit about that?
That has really been a very helpful guiding thing. Chevron is this major player in our city. They dump millions of dollars into city elections, city elections that in our scale of city, when we have elections they would usually spend $50,000 on an election. They would put in $1 or 2 million a year just to get the candidate that they want elected. And other ways, just controlling regulatory departments, giving money to non-profits like hush money – "you can’t say anything bad about Chevron", and they literally write that into contracts.
So you feel very isolated if you want to say anything contrary to what they want you to say. Last year they had a big explosion and a fire at the refinery (read more about that here or see the video below). The skies burned for about 6 hours. The skies turned black and we were all covered in this toxic soot full of PAHs. Finally the city government was like, "this is ridiculous, we’re suing you. You just dropped our property taxes, everything". Everybody said, "you’re crazy, you’ll never win".
The mayor, who has always had contacts with different folks in Nigeria and even in Ecuador was very open to looking for other communities who can stand with us, so we’re not just these little guys picking a fight with the big guy in the bar. We had a march to commemorate the fire one year later, and at that march a representative of the President of Ecuador approached our mayor and said "we stood up to Chevron as well and in our courts we won an $18 billion judgement but they’re refusing to pay. Won’t you come to Ecuador so we can show you what they did and you can stand in solidarity with us?"[Here is a video about the explosion and how it happened]
A few weeks later they sent us to Ecuador. The mayor, myself and another reporter. We were able to see the damage they did to the Amazon first hand and meet with the affected communities, indigenous people whose lives were just ravaged by this multinational company. It’s pretty profound. We’ve always hosted different groups and shared stories, but this time it was different.
We actually made a point to talk about and take steps to create this International Union of Affected Peoples as a means to stand up to these multinational corporations that go beyond national governments and are beyond international law, beyond international government law, hoping that by standing with other communities that were affected internationally that we can create a way to hold these ominous entities of multinational corporations responsible for their actions. It’s pretty exciting. There are a lot of things that are moving on that front. It’s really helpful that communities, individuals to individuals can actually build power.
What does it mean for a community project that’s got 13 different gardens growing across Richmond when the sky turns black and all the soot comes down – you can’t eat much of that?
Right. We lost all of our produce that summer. We lost 4 months of work. 62 people working for 4 months just lost all of our work. We had to rip everything out and not even compost it. We had to just throw it away, and then spend the next 6 months rehabilitating the soil. We hope that there wasn’t any heavy metals in it because it would be game over. It was traumatic. It was intense.
Especially because a good group of the people we were growing with that summer and we grow with every summer are youth who are getting reconnected with the land and who aren’t used to nurturing anything. To get them to nurture something for so long, and then we’re literally at the end of our summer programme about to have the harvest festival, and then the fire happened. It cancelled everything and the youth were just devastated. We were all devastated.
It must have made people very angry.
Yeah. They were kind of pissed! Actually, the funny thing is that they were because it was their work and their love and their hope for not having to be stuck in this world with no future, with no promise, with no healthy things, they had really felt the possibility of being able to grow something that they could be proud of. Then to have that destroyed because Chevron decided not to repair some pipes!
They were actually found criminally negligent because they refused to repair pipes that they knew were corroded, that was the cause of the fire. To know that this company just decided that it wasn’t in their profit interests to care for all these 100,000 people who live around them, it was maddening. The youth of the organisation and other members of the organisation rose up. We’re not normally a protest organisation. We’re out in the gardens kicking around with horse manure and stuff, not out with protest signs! But this time, we were out with protest signs.
We actually took a good portion of that food that we had to rip out and brought it to the Chevron community meeting and dumped it onstage in front of them, saying "you poisoned our food. You need to be responsible for this". They didn’t like that very much. It wasn’t my idea either, it was the kids that we were working with, the young adults who said that we can’t be silent. None of them had ever done a protest before or a press release or anything like that, but it had touched them so they were just like, "how do you do this? Let’s do this".
When we were in Hopland and I was talking about the realisation I suppose that’s come through the whole Transition movement that actually that if we’re going to scale it up we need to be creating livelihoods for people, jobs for people, that we can’t do all of this through volunteering. You said "if this is a revolution that depends on volunteering I can’t be part of your revolution". How does Urban Tilth fund what it does, and what are your reflections on that conversation that we had then?
Just first off, I was so thankful when you brought up the concept because I think there is this overwhelming sense, in progressive communities, in the Transition movement, in permaculture that we can do everything for free. That we can just be a free society and we can barter and we can trade. It’s not that I don’t believe in bartering. It’s that I live in a community where people can’t pay rent. When they can’t pay rent, they end up on the street or in a shelter somewhere or stacked up ten people in a house with not much to eat, eating ramen noodles or something. And that’s unacceptable.
It’s unacceptable to assume that everyone has the same amount of security and wealth so they can spend a good portion of their day giving their time away and expect to have a shelter at night. It’s a blind spot in the movement. It’s not sustainable. The only way I can see that it is sustainable is if we have radical land reform. Radical land reform and radical reform around access to water and energy. When we’re generating energy locally and everyone has access to water, maybe then we’ll talk about barter culture. But until then, especially if we want to scale things up, we have to figure out a way where we’re trading so that people can still pay rent.
With Urban Tilth right now, we’re nowhere close to being able to support ourselves with our work, but we’re getting there. We’re about to scale up our CSAs. We have a CSA at the high school where we grow food for the families that sign up on ‘going back to school’ night. We’re about to scale that up by 4 times, into a for-profit entrepreneurial venture that supports the non-profit, and that will be completely self-sustainable in one year just from the food that we’re growing in partnership with some small farmers in eastern Contra Costa County, so that we can maintain the yield that we need to serve those 500 families. That’s exciting! We’re going to have something that actually is financially sustainable and can then support other activities.
That step for you as an organisation, from doing smaller things to be thinking, right, we need to be looking at this as a profit-making enterprise. How was that shift for you in terms of your thinking and in terms of skills. Did you have those skills already, did you have to get them in?
I didn’t have the skills already. I’m learning a lot. I’m learning a lot about how you construct a food-packing facility right now. But it’s awesome. I’ve worked in a food packing facility, I worked for a produce distributor run by women in San Francisco, a co-op. So I know how the work flow goes but I don’t know how to actually construct the space and pass codes and permitting and everything, so that’s what we’re working on right now. It’s exciting.
It’s exciting to think that we’re going to move from being a pilot project to actually serving people’s lives. They’re going to depend on us for dinner. That’s exciting. All of the exchanges around meetings being more structured and having an accountant to take care of the financial side and taxes, all of that worry and all of that work is so worth the thought that we’re going to be actually feeding people in a real way. It’s worth it.
One of the things the permaculture movement and Transition haven’t been great at is inclusion and diversity and having a diversity of faces and people involved. What’s your advice for groups that are starting up and really wanting to make that a central mindfulness as they’re doing Transition in their community?
Maybe from the start thinking about that one of the major barriers for low-income people or people of colour in entering into the movement is not having the financial security and all of the mind space that comes with that, they don’t have that. So as you think of projects to pitch or projects to get involved with, think about ways where if there is a job or position that’s in there, think about ways to hire somebody.
The best way to get people involved with the movement is to make it possible for them to do it and to hire them into those positions, train them up. I feel like there are natural allies in low income communities and communities of colour. In the US, whenever communities of colour are polled, especially African-American communities, around environmental issues or climate change, an overwhelming majority are in favour of all these things. But it’s whether or not we have the wealth to participate.
If you’re thinking about projects, how can you create these projects off the bat knowing that we’re trying to create an alternative economy, where people can actually make a living. Not just creating community amongst ourselves, or amongst yourselves, but creating an alternative economy. I believe that if we’re going to transition we have to create an alternative economy.
And looking at what that means: shorter supply chains, local generation, local growing. All of these other after effects of Transition that could include markets, but local markets where people could actually sustain themselves. What are the lines of resources that are running through the community and how can we redirect them to feed ourselves or to grow whatever we need to grow in a positive, sustainable way?
You’ve talked about how you’re looking to set up the CSA as a profitable venture and look more at the work of Urban Tilth in that kind of way. Can you identify the things that are stopping you from scaling Urban Tilth up to the extent you’d love it to?
Expertise I think, and then capital. In order to get the CSA off the ground we need this packing facility because we’re moving a lot more food around and we need to have cold storage to make sure it arrives to people in good shape and passes food codes, which are fairly minimal around fresh produce, but we still need cold storage. In order to create that facility we needed a good amount of capital. Of course, being poor people, we don’t have capital and we don’t have credit! Here enters the non profit, we can seek grant funding for capital investment.
Capital investment is a huge barrier to entry, but having this vehicle of the non profit to raise that capital has been the only way it’s been possible. We have very little money left to finish raising the funds necessary to finish the packing facility. And then the next chunk of that actually is the warehouse we’re working in is quite large, so half of it is packing for the CSA and the other half is building a commercial kitchen. This will be a low cost commercial kitchen so that people can start food ventures in a legal space that’s cost-effective so they can still make a profit as a mobile vendor or a catering company. People do really alternative food vendor stuff, like ice cream carts and whatnot. We’re creating this commercial kitchen.
It’s just capital. Capital investment and then trying to learn business. This is not something everyone’s exposed to, so people are trying to figure out how to do the budgets correctly and how to estimate expense and how to think about marketing and really target or narrow down on what we need to make it successful so we can actually sustain. The funny thing is we realised with the CSA that as soon as we’re really able to articulate that in the business plan, it’s not that hard. We need 500 families in order to create a living for 7 people. Growing food for 500 people supports 7 people plus all the farmers and everything, so it’s more than 7 people. It’s pretty cool.
You were talking about capital. One of the interesting things with 350.org and all their campaigning around divestment is the question about, if you divest out of something then what do you divest into? If we were able to pull together something whereby people were able to divest and then invest into this economy, into the new economy, what from your perspective what would that capital do? How would it behave? What would it demand of you, what would be available to you?
So many other ideas for things that we need in the community – we actually need spaces to create a manufacturing facility or have spaces to buy land or put land into a land trust in order to do these things. It’s just capital investment. Basically it would take us so we were totally out of the foundation world. Not getting handouts from well-off people in order to do this work.
Right now, we’re at a stage where we’re so happy that we’re getting handouts from well-off people so we can create this capital to create this venture. But wouldn’t it be nice if divestment instead redirected those funds to create the capital to do these things, so we would never need to have a population of uber-rich, very well-off people who schlop off a little bit of their money to you?
I would like to make the existence of very wealthy people a non-necessity. We don’t have to have them, we don’t have to have the scraps off their table in order to survive in order that we can actually take our pension funds and whatever it is and redirect them towards building this alternative economy. That’d be great!
There’s a thing that really struck me when I was in the US and meeting some of the different foundations, was how they like to think of themselves as benevolent and charitable and fantastic and making the world a better place, but many of them have maybe a billion dollar endowment which is invested in coal and gas and all sorts of shit so they can get a 10% return on it every year. Then they take a percentage of what they get as interest and give it out to everybody to try and clean up all the mess they’ve made with their endowment, and then like to think of themselves as being a good thing. It’s hugely negative, quite a nightmare. So my last question is really on that question of scaling up, if we look at all the different things that are going on across the US and across the world in term of local economic things and community renewable energy things and all those things that are going on, what do you see as being the potential of that, scaling up – the challenges of scaling that up and the opportunity of scaling that up?
Definitely one challenge is that we haven’t really identified all of the opportunities. What industries, what practices do we want to scale up? People have their eye on food things, they have their eye on solar, but what else is there? What else are the needs of human communities and how can we supply those needs locally in a sustainable way. I think that one challenge is just identifying those things, so we can start to really see in detail what this new economy would look like, what it’s composed of.
Two is working against this incredible flow of the other, the default economy. Having all of these systems already set up and everything flows so easily into that system, it’s hard to resist. It’s hard to resist not replicating it. It’s hard to resist not using parts of it to get what you want to get done, and in fact maybe not doing yourself a disservice by using part of it.
So resisting the existing default economy, resisting participation in it, and then just wrestling resources, wrestling that capital. Getting people to trust in alternative funding. Crowd funding or divestment, reinvestment, it’s a big trust factor. Those three things are the things that I think of: what do we want to build, what are the elements, what are we investing in? How do we not build it so it just replicates what we did before, or helps to continue the existence of what isn’t working and three, how do we build a system of trust around resources so that people trust that we can actually redirect those resources into something positive? I think that that to me seems like what’s up, where the challenges are, definitely.
I was reading about how Chevron and refusing to pay the fine, and how now they’re going after the lawyer who bought the case. How do those people look at themselves in the morning?
I don’t know! I was standing at one of these pits – they’re like waterbeds because they took soil and dumped it on top of this pit of water and crude oil and you can walk on them a little bit and they shake like a waterbed. You can put your hand on it and it reeks of fuel! If you put your hand in it you literally come back with crud and crude oil all over you. I just kept remembering the movie Crude where they’re saying, "we cleaned it up, we cleaned it up". Like, really? It was like a kid that’s got chocolate all over their face saying they haven’t been eating chocolate.
This RICO case is outrageous. It’s crazy. It’s like, we held you accountable, we went through this 20 year case, you lost. So now you’re going to call us "the mafia"!. It’s shocking. We’ve been doing report-backs here in Richmond. We showed the film Crude and after we showed the film and the lights went out, somebody came in from Chevron and left these videos on all the seats saying "the real story behind Crude" with these red letters. They’re so ominous, they’re like the bad guys in movies. It’s really unbelievable! My mum calls them ‘dead beat dads’, the only way they’ll ever do anything that’s right is if you force them.