We began forming relationships with the inmates and officers at the jail… We wanted to know what the inmates wanted out of the garden, what they were interested in learning, what they wanted to plant, and what types of projects they wanted to work on. We wanted this project to be a collaborative effort between all of us who were involved, and were especially intent on the garden not only being for the inmates, but by the inmates. As planting began and seeds started to sprout, we also saw growth in our relationships with the inmates and others…
– Ellie Gertler, Grassroots Change
Grassroots Change welcomes our new Program & Communications Associate, Ellie Gertler. As a junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2013, Ellie planned and led a project to build a community garden at the San Luis Obispo County Jail that provided practical farming education and a healthier source of food for inmates. In Part 1, Ellie covered the vision and implementation phase. In Part 2, learn about the Success and Sustainability of the project.
Part 2: Success and Sustainability
Our weekly visits to the jail always seemed to go by too fast, and as senior year passed we considered one of the most important aspects of the project: How could we make it sustainable after we graduated?
One of our major challenges was the budget, or lack thereof. Initially we were successful in having materials donated, but we knew that this would not always be the case and wanted to adopt a strategy that could provide funding for the future. We also wanted to make the project more interdisciplinary, with the intention that including multiple departments at Cal Poly would offer different skills and resources to benefit the garden, the inmates, and the community.
As our discussions of sustainability began, we received an email from the Warren J. Baker Endowment fund, requesting grant proposals for hands-on project-based learning opportunities for Cal Poly students. We immediately began the application process, as the grant would not only sustain our project, but could help gain recognition for its success in the broader community and serve as a model for future projects.
The application consisted of research, a description of our previous work, and the proposed benefits of an interdisciplinary project. After months of (impatiently) waiting, we received an email in May outlining the steps to move forward with the grant. We were ecstatic and could barely wait to tell both Sister Theresa of Restorative Partners and the inmates that there would be ongoing funding.
Now that it was feasible for the garden to continue, the next challenge was recruiting a student, or students, who would be interested in taking over the project. We presented about the garden project to different classes and departments on campus, explaining the benefits of the garden for the inmates, as well as the positive and life changing impact for us as program managers. Ultimately, we found a landscape architecture student who was enthusiastic about the project, interested in restorative justice, and had both landscape architecture skills and personal experience as a gardener.
In our final months, we were committed to handing over the project in an organized manner, ensuring that our successors were well equipped to run the project. We were confident that the $2500 grant would cover any necessary materials for the following year. We spent our final visits orienting our new student volunteer to her role as Garden Program Manager, and stressed the importance of building relationships with the inmates as well as with the greater community.
The SLO jail garden left me with many lasting impressions, but to this day I still think most about the relationships that were formed between the inmate and university communities. I had never been inside a jail before and it had never occurred to me that I would one day consider the inmates my friends. I also realized after working with these men and women that they deserve and need to be treated like everyone else, and especially to have their stories heard.
Programs like this that offer support, education, new skills, and professional relationships are essential for inmates to grow as individuals and community members. Our overarching goal was to bridge the broader community of San Luis Obispo with the marginalized community of the SLO County Jail, as well as provide useful education, skills, and a healthier food system for the inmates. It has now been three years since we started the garden project, and that goal is still being realized.
I recently contacted the student who took over our project and she is continuing to manage the garden today. She reports that the garden is still productive, although as always there are challenges. She says: “The most rewarding aspect is hearing from inmates about how much they appreciate the garden.” I couldn’t agree more. Starting at the grassroots level, we were able to create a garden that is still thriving. We hope that the SLO Garden Project can not only be a model for other jails, but can be a model for creating positive change for an entire community at the grassroots level.
Click here to read part 1 of The SLO Garden Project
Ellie Gertler is a passionate advocate for the City of Oakland (CA), social justice, the environment, and positive change. Following her graduation from Cal Poly SLO, she served as a fellow at Urban Adamah in Berkeley, CA, where she studied and implemented practices in urban farming, social justice, and food systems. Ellie was also the Run Director for Running for a Better Oakland, a local nonprofit teaching K-12th grade students healthy lifestyles through running.