Monday, November 28, 2005

Safety in School Gardens

For a short week, this has been a difficult one for me and many teachers and students of Urban Sprouts schools Luther Burbank and June Jordan. It was a big reminder of how important resources like school gardens can be for youth.

Tuesday afternoon there was a murder in the neighborhood that Burbank and Jordan belong to. At school we were told that the shooters abandoned their car in McLaren Park, the park that touches our garden. All afternoon the students remained in lockdown inside the school. I went outside to the garden, and helicopters hovered just overhead, searching, beating the air. I never before felt unsafe in the garden. The panic, not knowing what could happen next, was physical. And this is the second shooting near school just since September.

It tears me apart what faces the young students. Where can they feel safe? If school isn’t safe, then where?? They do find emotional safety, a sense of control and authentic connection, in the school garden: In therapeutic caring for other living things; in sharing the experience of growing, of life, with caring peers and adults; in personal growth, learning to care for oneself and to eat right, to nourish yourself. For young people so bombarded with tough stuff—how can they process the unending assault?—the garden remains a crucial, spiritual and peaceful place for youth development.

I want to let you know about the difference between youth development and other kinds of programs for children. Youth development means enabling youth to feel safe and supported, to build real relationships, to have real leadership and decision-making power, and to learn real skills that will help them succeed in life. Beyond school testing, prevention messages, or recreation, youth development is creating a place where youth can grow and develop, personally, educationally and professionally. Not every young person has access to these significant supports.

It breaks my heart at a time like this that supportive youth programs like Urban Sprouts are so undervalued and misunderstood. While we struggle to educate funders, politicians and school district players about the impact of school gardens, time is slipping away!

I think of the many breakthrough moments . . . When a young person feeling frustrated and upset is calmed by watering the lettuces; When a student’s father, in the US less than 4 months from the Philippines, coaches his daughter and other youth to transform our wild desert of weeds into nourishing, hand-crafted garden beds; When a student runs into class, ecstatic, inhaling a fresh, fragrant strawberry, candy tossed aside . . . I know this is what hope feels like! (Prince Charles knows what I’m talking about!!)

The media reduces urban violence to statistics; Tuesday's was just "number 88." But every incident touches many lives. We CAN’T wait for disasters like New Orleans to wake us up! If you haven’t already, please learn how you can support real youth development programs in your community. And spread the word!!

Urban Sprouts, I hope, is a great example. Support us anyway you can—spend time in the classroom, talk to me about how your personal or professional skills can give us a boost, or make a donation to Urban Sprouts. For a small, community-based force like us, your help will make a HUGE difference.

You can also find out about other youth development programs in your community. Organizations like the Youth Leadership Institute and CNYD set the standards for the field.

Thank you for reading this! And for doing what you can to spread the word about school gardens.

In other news, our gardens are growing faster every day, with all the sun and mild weather. Next time I’ll tell you all about how the students are harvesting and eating tasty fresh food they grew themselves!

Take care! Enjoy the holiday harvest!