Pedagogical Project “The Joy of Reading”
Seeds of Justice, Seeds of Hope
In the midst of the toxic atmosphere of Watts, seeds are sprouting, organic gardens are thriving, young people are discovering a vocation, and healthy, whole foods are becoming part of everyday life.
If you could imagine a place that has the highest crime rates, the largest drug saturation, the greatest welfare-recipient population, and the fastest growing HIV-positive infection rates in one of the richest cities, in the richest state, in the richest country in the entire world, then you could begin to imagine Watts, California ― a district in South-Central Los Angeles.
My name is Anna Marie Carter, but I am also known as “The Seed Lady” of Watts. I am a certified Master Gardener through the University of California. I practice direct action by building free, organic gardens for people who suffer from HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and other illnesses. My advocacy takes me to drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation centers, mental-health facilities, community centers, schools, housing projects and shelters that house women who are returning to our community from prison. I teach people how to grow their own food, organically. But that is not all I teach them.
The environment in Watts is toxic. We are told not to drink the water. The air is polluted, and there is not much rain. Multigenerational gangs, drug abuse, carnal value systems resulting from being institutionalized by the welfare system for generations and low morality all add up to no self-esteem, depression, overcrowding, crime and escapism through unprotected sex and drugs. Where it seems there is no hope, there also is no reason to be happy or to act decently ― or to dream.
External forces dictate here. I have yet to meet a drug addict who harvests his own drugs. There are no coca plants or poppies growing here. All this madness is imported by the tons to this community ― daily! The health of the community is further jeopardized by the lack of real food. The food available in South-Central Los Angeles is genetically engineered, pesticide laden, hybridized and irradiated. The majority of people here eat food that is bagged, bottled, canned, boxed or frozen. A majority of this food comes from South America and Mexico through free-trade agreements. We do not even get food grown in California. The pesticide DDT is still widely used in Latin America. There is no access to whole foods here. The highly processed food and low-quality meats affect the health, both physical and mental, of everyone here.
I had an organic vegetables, seeds and plants store many years ago on Crenshaw Boulevard. The first day I went to open the front door, I looked behind me, and there stood three little boys, lined up in a row, like they were in the army. I opened the door, and they came in after saying “Good morning,” and proceeded to take all my plants outside and set up the organic vegetable and flower stands for the day. They were sent to me by a higher source. I taught them many things. Out back, we planted tomato plants that grew over seven feet tall. The boys sold the tomatoes and used the money for school clothes and supplies. One even paid his mother’s utility bills. They are grown now, but when I see them, they kiss and hug and thank me.
After I graduated as a Master Gardener, I began my internship at the former Watts Family Garden. We lost the battle to save the garden from sale, so I took my newly formed garden club into the City of Los Angeles’s recreation center inside the Jordan Downs Housing Projects. Here, we taught a class called the Value of a Seed, taking the children to the gardens and planting the ingredients that go into pesto, salsa, coleslaw and other products. We taught the children how to design recipes and logos for their food products.
With the help of donations to the Watts Garden Club, we bought our own center in the heart of Watts in 2002. At the club, we have our own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, which provides fresh farm produce to the invisible populations here, and we operate our own produce stand and farmers’ market. We train youth in agricultural entrepreneurship (which includes classes in manners, grooming, hospitality and vendor relations).
We teach the Value of a Seed on organic gardening and creating value-added products. Participants in the Made in Watts class make their own bath products for sale to our community. The Organic Greenhouse class teaches people to grow lettuce, herbs and flowers indoors. The center will soon have a greenhouse in the courtyard. The Kitchen course covers vegan and vegetarian cooking. We also hold anti-drug/anti-gang rallies, HIV-support groups and holistic-health workshops. We involve the community in garden construction, and we network with other low-income communities of color. We have more than two hundred students at our center, and we go out to where the people are to plant gardens and teach classes.
One of the students in the Watts Garden Club is a young man we will call David. He has never met his father, who is serving a life sentence in prison. His mother is on drugs, and his stepfather is a drug dealer. David is hyperactive and cannot stop moving his hands. He is asthmatic, uses an inhaler and takes Ritalin. At eleven years old, he is a prime target to join a gang. He is talkative and likes to work with his hands. I taught him how to build containers and plant herbs, flowers and vegetables. He learned how to ask retailers if he can beautify their landscape with his creations. He has a portfolio of his work and is always very successful. Now, the biggest hurdle to clear is his inability to save.
We also offer think-tank sessions at the Garden Club. Here, we plant the seeds of change, knowledge and remembrance by facing our history and tasting the bitterness of slavery, oppression, injustice and self-hatred. We take these emotions, bond with each other like never before, and then, fast-forwarding to later on in the twenty-first century, we take a full assessment of where we stand today, here in Watts, California. In a circle, with the help of a facilitator, we have two-hour jam sessions that make the sweetest music - the sound of thinking people who are awakened fully to the calling of addressing our communities’ problems and creating viable solutions. We are networking and forming alliances to initiate direct action to expedite change.
If you look at history, you can see it takes only one person to change an environment - one person who takes a stand, an advocacy, an action. It takes only one person to change the entire world. Once upon a time, we were taught here in Watts, “Power to the People.” I have lived through that to tell you what I know for sure, and that is people are the power. And it only takes one: you!
Anna Marie Carter