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The Garden Project Grows Plants (and People)

Joi Sears headshotWords by Joi Sears
Leadership & Transparency
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The Garden Project doesn’t just grow plants; it grows people too. By training and employing ex-offenders and at-risk youth, the project's mission is to use agriculture to transform low-income, urban communities that are disproportionately affected by crime.

At age 17 and pregnant, the founder of the Garden Project, Catherine Sneed, ran away from home, hitchhiking from New York to California, determined to become a lawyer. It was her professional ambition since the age of 9. “I thought if my brothers ever ended up in jail, I could help get them out,” she said. Even back then, Sneed was aware of the significant social dangers that black men faced, including getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

Once in law school, she planned to become a criminal lawyer and worked several felony cases in the public defender’s office. However, after the third loss in one of those cases, her notion of what it meant to be a criminal lawyer changed. “I realized that my dream of being a criminal lawyer wasn’t based on reality but rather on this romantic notion that lawyers had a magic wand to get people out of jail.”

So, she shifted gears in school, studied prison law and landed a job at the sheriff’s office in 1980. Sneed described what she saw there as “horrific.” “The women were unskilled, uneducated, with numerous children. Many of them were addicted to different drugs, mainly heroin in those days. And they were very much like me.”

Then a 23-year-old mother, she recognized what made her different: She was brought up in a household that emphasized the importance of education and working. The troubled men and women she met at the sheriff’s office didn’t have that background and had few resources to boot. One day, her boss gifted her a copy of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and suddenly it all clicked for her. “When people can connect to land, then somehow they have hope.”

Sneed asked the sheriff if she could bring the prisoners to work in the farm outside the jail. He said that she could, and immediately she saw a change in the inmates. “In the jail, they were argumentative; they wanted cigarettes; they were fighting,” she said. But in the fields, they could take the time to look around and learn about the world around them.

So, in 1982, Sneed founded the San Francisco County Jail Horticulture Project for prisoner rehabilitation. But she noticed that even as the inmates became more cooperative, they still had trouble getting jobs after leaving the prison. She also noticed the same inmates, over and over again. Many of them were happy to return to the Horticulture Program, where they felt they had a community, support and a purpose.

Sneed recalls asking one of the prisoners why he kept getting in trouble and coming back to jail – and he simply said that on the outside he had nothing. He was poor, uneducated and he couldn’t find a job. At the farm, he grew beautiful plants and flowers; he cared for the animals; and he could help people though his work.

It became clear to her that she needed to work on the factors that led to incarceration and on to recidivism. This led her to create the Garden Project. From conception, the project employed ex-offenders, who were paid by the city to landscape public-works sites and grow vegetables for the community. The program offered structure and support to former offenders through job training, support for continuing education, and counseling.

The Garden Project became a place where at-risk youth and former criminal offenders could learn horticultural skills and grow organic vegetables that feed seniors and families in their community. It was a community-based response to crime, unemployment and underemployment, that linked the stewardship of the environment to the stewardship of the community.

The Garden Project’s Earth Stewards Program combines life skills, counseling and environmental education with a paid job protecting natural resources, including the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, which supplies drinking water for 2.5 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Crystal Springs Reservoir in San Mateo County.

The project distributes vegetables grown by stewards to local community agencies, including Project Open Hand, which each serves hundreds of individuals weekly. Rather than purchasing food or relying on local supermarkets, which often donate only their unsalable items, the Garden Project is able to provide local San Francisco agencies with fresh food from the farm.

The United States Department of Agriculture hailed the Garden Project as “one of the most innovative and successful community-based crime prevention programs in the country.” Through meetings, fairs and community projects, the Garden Project works to connect local governments with the communities they serve – improving relationships and bringing more citizens into active civic life.

In addition to gaining a greater appreciation for the natural world, through environmentally-based projects, participants learn discipline, responsibility, communication skills and leadership. Working on long- and short-term projects in a variety of settings, the program challenges participants toward self-growth and provides important life lessons. They gain support for their educational and life goals through the program’s positive environment.

Image credits: The Garden Project

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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