Green thumb teens build school gardens in East Oakland

Daniel Colello, 17, is spending his summer working with Youth Greening Oakland, which also gives him college credit.

Daniel Colello, 17, is spending his summer working with Youth Greening Oakland, which also gives him college credit.

It’s summertime and the classrooms inside East Oakland’s Stonehurst School are empty. But in the schoolyard, it’s a different story. Teenagers in bright yellow T-shirts walk back and forth, carrying hammers, shovels and pieces of lumber. They’re simultaneously working on several projects, like building compost bins, benches and irrigation systems for what will soon become the school’s new garden. For most of these 15 teenagers, this is their first job.

“I think what we’re doing is very awesome,” said Summer Nixon, 16, one of the student interns for Youth Greening Oakland, the group turning the Stonehurst schoolyard into a garden. “It’s good for the community and it shows that us youth aren’t bad. We can do good and help make the neighborhood look better.”

Youth Greening Oakland (YGO) is an eight-week “earn and learn” summer program that hires teenagers to work in urban gardening projects while also learning about environmental justice and food sustainability issues. Nixon said she’s appreciated not only learning about gardening, but also about food security and how to get the community involved. “It helps heal communities and creates unity,” she said, looking at the 100-yard square foot future garden plot next to the school which she helped dig, till and fertilize with compost, adding, “We went from nothing to something beautiful in two weeks.”

Nixon and her peers are planning to build two more community gardens at schools in East Oakland this summer.

Youth Greening Oakland started as a backyard fruit exchange program called Urban Youth Harvest in 2007 when East Oakland resident Rashidah Grinage, who was frustrated that the surplus of fruit in her backyard was going to waste, started thinking about ways to share it. Grinage had inherited all the fruit trees in her yard when she moved to her house 35 years ago. “At one time they covered the entire yard,” she said about her formerly out-of-control blackberry bushes, orange, pomegranate and apple trees. “It was like a jungle back there.”

Youth Greening Oakland student-interns are building several compost bins at Stonehurst Elementary School in East Oakland.

Grinage called the Alameda County Food Bank hoping their staff would come harvest it for her and then distribute it to the community. But with their limited staff, all they could tell her was, “You pick it, then we’ll take it.” She knew this was not an option for her. “I’m an older person not about to climb a ladder,” she said. “I thought, ‘OK, this is a problem. There must be more people like me.’”

At that time, she remembers, county and state-wide social services being cut for low-income people, which had a strong effect on seniors. Having lived in East Oakland for several decades, Grinage also knew about the difficulty neighbors—especially her elderly ones—had consistently finding and affording fresh fruit. People on a fixed income are not going to spend $1.50 for an apple or two, Grinage’s neighbors told her. “This is a real issue especially when you connect it to health disparities,” she said.

That’s when Grinage began to pay more attention to the fruit in other neighbors’ yards and in the public areas along High Street. Most of it would up on the ground going to waste. She started attending meetings in Oakland about food justice and urban gardening. Eventually she met Nathan McClintock and Jenny Cooper, geography students at the University of California at Berkeley. In collaboration with three Oakland nonprofits—City Slicker Farms, the HOPE Collaborative and Food First—the students used geographic information system software to do an inventory of publicly owned land to identify areas where food could be potentially grown.

Recognizing the massive potential for fruit production in Oakland thanks to the Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate, the students also helped Grinage by doing a walking inventory of fruit trees in the city, and the group also teamed up with the nonprofit People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO). In 2009, PUEBLO started using the mayor’s Summer Jobs program to hire Oakland teens to pick backyard-grown produce donated by Oakland residents. With bikes donated by Cycles of Change, a nonprofit that teaches bicycling education and donates bikes to low-income residents, teens participating in the Urban Youth Harvest program delivered the fruit to low-income seniors. Today, the citywide fruit tree inventory continues to help PUEBLO determine how much of Oakland’s annual estimated 66,255 tons of fruit are ready for harvesting.

A few months ago, Urban Youth Harvest changed their name to Youth Greening Oakland to better express their expanding mission of not just picking food, but also growing it on their own. This is the first year Youth Greening Oakland is working directly with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which covers the stipends for the interns. “They are doing a lot of the work that Parks and Rec don’t have the staff to do,” Grinage said. Interns receive $10 an hour for 16 hours a week over the course of the two-month program. “Our whole thing is that we want to provide jobs, but didn’t want to depend on volunteerism,” she said.

There are 15 interns working with PUEBLO this summer. They are referred by teachers from local schools and must go through an application and interview process. The interns are between the ages of 16 and 20 and most live in the neighborhood they work in—East Oakland. “It gives them more of sense of ownership in their neighborhood and gets them interested in community partnership,” Grinage said.

In addition to helping plant gardens like the one at Stonehurst Elementary, the Youth Greening Oakland interns also continue to survey and harvest neighbors’ fruit trees. In their weekly neighborhood outreach, they visit people’s houses to let them know about gardening projects going in the neighborhood and ask if they have backyard fruit they can help pick.

Last month, Grinage said, a neighbor in East Oakland called to donate 80 pounds of lemons. She sent the interns to go harvest them. “The aroma of picking fresh lemons is wonderfully overpowering,” Grinage said. “For a lot of the kids, they’ve never experienced what it’s like to pick fruit fresh from the tree.”

The California Endowment for Building Healthy Communities, a private, state-wide foundation, funds the majority of program’s operational expenses. Grey Kolevzon, Youth Greening Oakland’s director of development, said they’ve received a $40,000 grant for the next two years.

Kolevzon started Cycles of Change over ten years ago, but in the last couple of years he’s decided to continue pursing his passion for urban gardening. He facilitates many of the large gardening projects being built at three schools in East Oakland by Youth Greening Oakland. He is also continuously working to expand the program by creating partnerships with other local organizations, like Castlemont High School’s Green Pioneers program, where they recently started a propagation nursery.

Rafael Navaro, 18, spent his senior year working at farmers’ markets and is now at Youth Greening Oakland. “I’m trying to make the community a better and healthier place,” he said.

Every Wednesday, Kolevzon takes the student interns to Merritt College to earn college credit in classes he teaches on ecological restoration and urban farming. Kolevzon said he tries to plug the interns into green jobs by teaching them about the sustainable food industry as a whole. He has also taken them to events like the Santa Cruz Food System Conference and the Climate Action Conference to give them context for what they are doing with the goal of getting them into entry-level jobs in the field.

Daniel Colello, 17, is starting 12th grade at Arroyo High School in East Oakland. Last spring, a teacher recommended him for an internship with Youth Greening Oakland. He’d taken urban design and ecology classes before and said he wanted to take a step forward by working in this program, which also gives him college credit. Now in the fourth week of the program, Collelo said, “It’s been really great. It’s my first official job. I enjoy what I’m doing and I know I can apply it somewhere else.”

Rafael Navaro, 18, graduated from the recently closed Youth Empowerment School in the Eastmont Hills neighborhood this past spring. He’ll be starting at UC Santa Cruz this fall studying environmental science. “It’s something that interests me a lot,” he said, “I’ve been doing this work for a while now.” He spent his senior year working at farmers’ markets. “I’m trying to make the community a better and healthier place,” he said.

Residents interested in donating fruit or volunteering in urban greening projects with PUEBLO can learn about upcoming events and find contact information on their website.

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