Responding to the Prison Industrial Complex with Permaculture and Resilience

December 22, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Pandora Thomas is a teacher, writer, speaker and designer. She currently lives in Berkeley, California and is a board member of Transition US, a founder of the Black Permaculture Network,  a co-founder of Earthseed Consulting, and co-creator of the Pathways to Resilience programme.  We’ve been trying to get an interview with her many months, so we’re delighted to share this with you as our last blog of 2014.  We started by asking her to tell us more about Pathways to Resilience.  

"For many of you that might not be in the United States or specifically in California, there’s an opportunity that exists that’s grown out of what we call the Prison Industrial Complex. I’m not going to get too deep into it but there’s a high rate of incarceration in the United States in general and about 60% of people incarcerated in the United States represent communities of African-American, Latino, Asian, Native, and it’s disproportionate to the amount of people actually doing crimes.


There’s pretty much no way, when you look at the numbers, that 60% of people of colour could be doing crimes! There are lots of challenges in our justice system that have resulted in this inequity of incarceration rates. Also there’s overcrowding in the prisons. California are releasing people early, there’s a lot of legislation being passed because lots of people are waking up and saying this is absurd, we’re paying money to house millions of people instead of supporting their transformation and their healing.

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In California you have what’s called ‘re-entry’. Re-entry exists all over, but you have a very robust re-entry initiative that’s attempting to take people from prison, especially non-violent offenders, put them into jails and then release them. So the question is, why are they serving time? We need to really support them and really look at the economics of it. We’re spending about $47,000 to incarcerate them a year in the United States, and you could use that money in so many other ways.

My family, who are African-American and Native American, are also dealing with high incarceration rates, and so myself and another woman I work with are very passionate about re-entry and specifically looking at how the idea of sustainability or ecological design, how can we leverage this time where there are going to be all of these people coming back into our communities.

We’re also facing what’s happening, climate change, environmental justice, social justice, and to bring all of these together. When we work on the inside in San Quentin, this other woman, Angela, and myself ran a programme called ‘The Green Life’. The men inside were just as committed to sustainability as they were to their own personal growth, and they saw the link.

So we thought – wow, how about if we could make the argument that as people are coming out into our communities, into re-entry?  We can help lower the rate of people returning to prison and we can also educate them and support them in taking leadership around their own life paths and the way that we live on the Earth. That’s why we call it a Pathway to Resilience, because this idea of resilience being a path, the same path that you are taking as you’re re-entering the society and understanding the systems that are in place, some systems that are responsible for you being incarcerated, but also the natural systems and how can we align the lessons.

A lot of the men and women that we work with need everything when they come home. They might have been away for 20 years, so they’re just learning about technologies and communication, moving back into the flow and the world of work. So we thought this was a perfect opportunity to also highlight and teach them permaculture design, social entrepreneurism. Help them create a re-entry plan where they see themselves having people, the planet and making a profit in alignment as opposed to just coming out and having to piece together a life after coming out of an often very traumatic experience being incarcerated.

What are some of the different elements of the programme?

It’s 4 months training. It’s a pilot, and it’s for men and women coming back to Alameda County, which is the county where I live. They get their Permaculture Design Certification. They also get social entrepreneur training. More importantly, they get case management, wrap-around services so that each participant can figure out where they are at in this journey of re-entering their community. They also get linked to a network of leadership in non-profit and for-profit companies that are committed to their success.

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They also do these healing circles where they come together and really talk about everything from trauma to relationships to what we’re dealing with right now in the United States about police brutality and keeping yourself safe. So we’re trying to do almost the eco-village model. I call it the ‘Mandela Welcome’ because when Mandela got out of prison everybody was excited and hoping he was going to be victorious and gave him all sorts of support and resources. So we’re trying to create a Mandela Welcome for all these men and women coming back.

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After the 4 months of receiving all this training, what we’re attempting to do is not necessarily place them in full time jobs, but give them internships and apprenticeships at local either green business or social and environmental justice organisations so that they can then take the skills they’ve learnt and apply them to creating a career that’s really rooted in their ethics and their values.

You call it "a holistic pathway towards success". How is it received by the people who do it? How is it working? Is it something that people choose to do or that people have to do?

Right now we’ve had one cohort. A cohort is just 15 participants. Everyone has to apply, so you apply, you’re vetted and you show the commitment to be able to show up over 4 to 5 months. You go to permaculture. You’re getting your PDC, the Permaculture Design Certification, you’re meeting with other people, and we start the whole experience by what we call rites of passage, so it’s a ceremony in the redwoods where we bring out supporters – like the family of incarcerated folks – who really want to see them succeed and it’s a rites of passage thing that they go through.  They write something down that they’ve done, then they burn it, do the ceremony, there’s drumming, and this is a re-entry. They loved that because it was a way to start anew.

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A lot of them are especially excited about the Permaculture Design Certification because it’s a tangible skill that they can start to use right away. Several if not all of them have experience of some type of land-based practice, whether it’s just working in their grandmother’s back yard, being a landscaper, or having to do landscaping while incarcerated. What we’re trying to do is give it more relevance and help them understand where we’re at and what’s happening planetarily with sustainability, and also make it relevant to what’s happening in our own communities.

They love learning about patterns in nature, but also the patterns in their own lives that they can transform – seeing we’re having a drought in California right now and understanding that their bodies are made up of water. What is the relationship between their own health and the health of the planet? It’s been overwhelmingly successful in terms of the permaculture design education piece and helping them re-envision what they could be doing with their lives.

What changes do you see in the people who go through the programme?

We had one woman who joined the programme and she was like "I’m into fashion, I’m just trying to go to school and work", and wasn’t into "the environment". It wasn’t relevant for her. After the first day of the permaculture course, and we had our other events too, she was like "I had no idea how what’s happening around the environment impacts me and my community and my life, and how urgent it is, and how I can actually take leadership around it". So there are stark changes, that lens shift that I think everybody gets when you start to learn about permaculture design or Transition or any way of starting to see our relationship to what’s happening with the rest of the systems on the Earth.

We also have other participants who understand – wow, whatever job I get, I can bring this ethic of people care, earth care, resource share to that work. A lot of participants also say "now I feel like I’m serving my community. I don’t just feel like someone’s looking at me like he just got out and I’m afraid of him". Now people are looking at these men and women and saying "I can look to them as leaders and as a resource for improving our community". That’s been really powerful to hear from them. They also give us feedback on how to improve the programme. That’s been really good too, how do we make it more relevant or more empowering for future participants.

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Social entrepreneur training is one of the key parts of it. Why did you feel that you had to include that?

I consider myself a social entrepreneur. It’s kind of a buzzword that’s going around right now.  Someone asked me the other day "what’s a social entrepreneur?" I think it’s this opportunity we call the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit – just understanding that you can have a mission-driven life, that your work can be mission-driven. We wanted to offer that lens to these men and women coming back into our communities so again, they don’t just say – I’m going to go and work for whatever, but what’s their mission in life and how can they create that.

How can they not just see themselves as whatever one thing they are doing, but what are they passionate about. Is there an issue in their community that they can become innovative and creative about and design a solution that’s needed? So we worked with the Sustainable Economies Law Centre which is a local co-operative of lawyers in the area. They do a lot of training around starting co-operatives.

They also get to meet social entrepreneurs, specifically social entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds like Back to the Roots. They have used coffee grounds to grow mushrooms. They have mini aquaponic systems now and these are located in stores all over the United States. This was two college students who saw a need and that there is no waste actually and wanted to grow something out of it. For our participants to learn about their story and see how they designed a business and that it’s possible to design something, that you can be an entrepreneur and make a true impact in your community.

Last year Back to the Roots made $11 million growth. They’re hiring people locally, they’re committed to social and environmental justice. So for us, including the social entrepreneur lens makes it more holistic, so that the next step they take is what role do I play in creating a mission driven business, or bringing that ethic to whatever work I might do.

How would you rate the level of awareness around issues around race and culture within the permaculture and Transition movements? Is it improving? Is it worsening? What’s your sense?

I should say I have done a lot of work around bridge-building and creating relevancy and engaging diverse communities around sustainability. This is an area that I’m very passionate about and I’ve been working for the last 20 years around it. Firstly I think that Transition and permaculture, there are so many facets to them. In my mind, there’s no one permaculture movement. Permaculture is a discipline that shows up in many different ways. There are patterns that you see in California, how it show up in the Mid-West, in the South. The principles are based on the place where it’s rooted.

If you went to a Permaculture Design Certification in Northern California and you went to one in Malawi, the participants will look very different. Just as if you went to a Permaculture Design Certification where people had made an effort to actually bring people together and create access, like what we’re trying to do. In Oakland it’s going to look different to the Permaculture Design Certification just over the bridge in San Francisco. What I see now is that permaculture, Transition is a microcosm of a macrocosm.

We are still experiencing the legacy of racial injustice in a system that was designed to create racial disparity and foster racial disparity. So these movements reflect that, unless you’re actually using the principles to transform that. A lot of people talk about "diversity as a principle in nature", and "more resilient systems are diverse". OK, but we actually destroyed a lot of diverse systems, started monocropping and designing water systems that are not appreciative of how water actually needs to flow. It’s the same with people systems.

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We put people in silos and now have communities where certain races and cultures live, people identified as poor or rich. If we’re not designing opportunities to bring people together, heal and transform relationships then oftentimes it doesn’t happen. I feel like that occurs a lot.

How are we dealing with racial inequity in our society, the fact that race doesn’t actually exist, but yet these systems exist that reinforce disparities? If that’s not included at the forefront, you can’t take a Permaculture Design Certification and not talk about the people piece, or social dynamics and expect people to leave and apply the principles anywhere else but land-based projects. You guys in Totnes learned that, where you learned that Transition is more about the relationships of people and how you’re using and understanding resources.

It’s still very fragmented but people want to know what to do. We started the Black Permaculture Network and in the last 2 months we’ve given out 12 scholarships working in partnership with local organisations and trainings to get more people of colour trained and at workshops. I’m just writing letters to people saying "hi, would you sponsor 3 diversity scholarships?" People pay a range, and folks are like "yes, that’s a great idea". There is a lot of work to do, but it’s also relationship building and acknowledging the past and moving forward, and designing better ways of interacting across different cultures and different groups.

I mentioned at the beginning that our theme this month is around ‘less is more’. The impression one gets from the media is that within certain aspects of black American culture is that aspiration through music and culture is often a very material motivation. Particularly one would imagine guys coming out of prison would be wanting to take that path. How do you bring those permaculture principles around Fair Shares, around living with less, around simplicity and looking at abundance in different ways and introduce those ideas and make them resonate with guys who might be in prison because they were motivated by acquisition and wealth and those kinds of things?

First thing I want to say is that’s no means just a part of the black American experience. It’s part of the global design here, to accumulate more stuff. So again, black America is a microcosm of patterns that exist in larger society – partially.  I talk a lot to students in the South in historically black colleges and universities about our African-American legacies of conservation.

There is a huge history of conserving, making do, saving, sharing. There’s a huge legacy of the sharing economy in our communities. They still exist in the desires of all ages. It’s not just the old people. People who care about our communities and understand what it’s going to take to really distribute resources once they understand what to do, they’re like "yeah, how do we figure out how to do that?"  I just wanted to point that out, that we are dealing with a system that everyone’s dealing with.

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I’ve never been incarcerated, so it’s just want I’ve seen and heard, but when you are you are confined to small quarters. You do not have a lot of stuff. If anything, they’re probably living with the least, by force. You get very creative and you also become very observant. From what I’ve seen, you’re really understanding how to stretch the resources you have. The food they buy is sometimes not very healthy for them, so they have to be shown how to get enough fruit or just enough healthy things in their bodies.

So when I went inside, when I was working in San Quentin, a lot of the men I was working with were in all these classes and workshops in trying to improve their life. Also, in order to have volunteers come in, you have to be at a certain level, and you have to have proven that you’re not in solitary confinement. I was working with people who were on their P’s and Q’s, but they knew what they did was wrong and they were all trying to improve their life.

So the ‘less is more’ argument, they got it! They were all saying "I want a thriving life, but when I get out I don’t necessarily want the lifestyle I had before". You pointed out that some of them might have done things and had a lot more resources that when they got out and had this new environmental lens they were like "yeah, I want good things that are quality and support the health of the planet and the health of our community".

So the same way that you would think about this, or I would think about this, being incarcerated doesn’t make you not think about these things. You have to go through making it relevant. The men and women that are now out in our programme, once they’re understanding what’s going on, that’s why they’re like "wow, so you can use corn to make cups?" Or you can not use plastic cups. Or you can trace the fibre journey of your clothing, fibres that are made in these more sustainable ways. They still want nice things and nice clothes, but like we all do in this movement, rooted in a more sustainable process.

So it hasn’t been difficult at all when we talk about it in relevant ways and also when we build on their experiences of being incarcerated, and on their experiences of their cultures. Most of these people are anything from Filipino to Native to African-American. We talk about "remember that Grandmother you had", or your legacy. And they understand, this is where we come from and how do we reclaim that.

There’s always the question of "is Transition political?". How political is Transition, is it political enough? Is it more successful because it’s not explicitly political? In the current situation with the Michael Brown shooting and Eric Garner and the different things that are going on, permaculture, Transition in the context of all the protests and all the demonstrations that are happening all over the US, do you see that as something parallel? Does it have a role in that? For you, how do those things come together?

For me, the most sustainable thing a person can go is continue to live! To stay alive and thrive and create and support systems that help affirm their own life. The practices that resulted in Michael and Eric’s deaths were not life-affirming. So that is about permaculture design and Transition. We are the environment. Black men, and not just black men, anyone.

People are also the environment, we are our own ecological system integrated into the larger systems. It’s a no-brainer for me that we had to discuss this also again because it’s been designed as such. We live in a society that policing and the idea of valuing property or other things over a certain life, it’s been designed that way. There are many people who aren’t surprised. They’re saddened, highly saddened and disgusted, but when you look historically at how the system of policing has been designed and who it has benefited, and how black people are seen, dark skin, black men are seen globally and feared. All of these things.

For me it’s how are we designing. If anything, it’s so relevant for Transition because of this idea that we need to transition to communities where people can walk down the street, stand on the street without a question. The police will actually look to them, look to an Eric Garner and say "I know you are a part of this community, what have you observed?" Permaculture’s all about flow of energy, what if those police officers said to Eric Garner "oh hi, you’ve been standing out here watching" – instead of seeing and immediately fearing that he did something – "What are you observing? You’re helping us do our job, who are you?"

If we can design our communities in ways that take into account the injustice that happens, that lives are being taken early, that has to be part of Transition, that has to be part of permaculture design.  There’s enough people to be thinking of all these different parts. I speak a lot to permaculture designers and they’re like "we don’t know anything about racism or police brutality". But that doesn’t mean you need to be ignorant about it, or that it doesn’t exist! Once you start understanding that it is a part and has been designed in the society that you live in, and that you benefit and you have privileges, just like I do, as a black woman I have some privileges.

Moving forward the conversation, you won’t be surprised that I am frustrated because you can’t even have the conversation and you just want to talk about the diversity of your crops. I’ve had people say to me "let’s talk about the diversity of plants. I don’t see colour or race". And I’m like "but you have to! You see diversity in plants! What’s the problem with saying you also see diversity in race, diversity in people, and the beneficial opportunities that exist when you bring them together?" I said race doesn’t exist, but cultural diversity does exist.

Here is the podcast of our interview:  

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: building resilient communities, permaculture, permaculture design, personal resilience, social entrepreneurship, Social justice, Transition movement