USE Credit Union
$40,000 AHEAD Grant
Planting Justice co-founders Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi believe that sustainable and organic food production can boost local economies and spur job creation while improving the health of our communities and of the urban landscape. The Oakland-based grassroots organization has an ambitious food and social justice agenda, and a growing number of programs designed to demonstrate that guiding principle.
The nonprofit’s Urban Food Forest program works with local low-income residents to build cooperative gardens at schools, community centers, and affordable housing complexes. Through its educational programs, the organization engages middle school and high school students in hands-on gardening projects where they learn how to grow, cook, and eat nutritious food. Its door-to-door canvassing program is designed to expand awareness of sustainable food production, promote food justice, invite participation in community gardens, and raise funds for programs.
And with Transform Your Yard, Planting Justice is focused on clearing a path for the formerly incarcerated to reintegrate into, and also give back to, their communities. "After 25 years in prison, I got released on Wednesday, got married on Thursday, and went to work on Monday," says Anthony Forrest, one of the first men hired for the Transform Your Yard program, which trains and employs participants to design and build edible gardens for both paying and non-paying clients.
Planting Justice collaborates inside the prison walls with the Insight Garden Project. Together, they help men who will soon be paroled prepare for release by developing the gardening and landscaping skills they’ll need for a living wage job with Transform Your Yard. Raders and Zandi teach classes in the prison garden. “Sometimes we have a couple of years with folks, sometimes we have just 90 days,” says Raders. Prior to his release, Anthony Forrest participated in the 90-day course.
“One day I got on my knees and I prayed that I wouldn’t leave prison the way I came in: broken, with nothing stable in my life,” Anthony explains. When he got up, he happened to see a flyer for Transform Your Yard, and was drawn to the possibility of a post-release job paying $17.50 an hour. “I knew I needed to settle down, and this job was an opportunity to change my life.”
Raders sees the Transform Your Yard program as a core solution to lowering the barriers to employment for the formerly incarcerated, reducing recidivism, and promoting human rights, while at the same time creating healthier communities and increasing the access low-income communities have to nutritious and affordable organic food. Planting Justice also collaborates with a number of other organizations that provide transition support to participants. To date, 14 men have moved successfully from the Insight Garden Project to full-time employment with Planting Justice and have peacefully re-integrated into the community. "This work takes a lot of patience: it's hard work, but we expect it to be hard," Raders notes.
In his first year with the program, Anthony built many gardens and enjoyed the peace and serenity of being in tune with nature. “You find your inner gardener,” he says. “As I watched the plants grow, I was growing.” Then he moved into the educational program, sharing his own expanding knowledge with high school students: “You need to know what’s there for a reason and what’s not, like weeds.” But it is his latest role, as a canvasser going out into the community and promoting Planting Justice by talking to hundreds of people a week, that allows him to demonstrate, by example, the transformative power of its programs. “I’m 52 years old, and these have been the best three years of my life.”
Planting Justice partnered with FHLBank member USE Credit Union to apply for an AHEAD grant. “When I have time, I scour the Internet for these kinds of opportunities,” says Gavin. “It was the largest grant we had received for re-entry services and came at a critical juncture for us.” Since receiving the $40,000 grant, the Transform Your Yard program has designed and installed 80 edible gardens. According to Richard Ruiz, Assistant Vice President at USECU, not only is the program a good fit with his organization’s commitment to giving back to the community, but many of the newly employed participants have also become members of the credit union. “We are excited to be working with Gavin and his team at Planting Justice, and we appreciate the opportunity to support this jobs program,” he says.
But while grants have been hugely important to getting new programs started and raising capital, the ability for Planting Justice to generate its own revenue, as the Transform Your Yard program is designed to do, is even more important. “There aren’t many programs that are making the leap to providing living wage jobs for the community,” Gavin notes. “We want to create a model that is scalable and replicable, because we want Planting Justice to exist in cities and counties around the country.”