Spotlight: Salvador Mateo, Bilal Coleman, & Nicole Deane
The Planting Justice office is in a converted warehouse, so laughter and voices echo across the space between staff working on laptops and a small group of women bundling fresh sage. The sage was being dried to send to Standing Rock to support the prayerful resistance-- perhaps being burned as you read this. We spoke with three staff to hear their stories of finding food and freedom.
Note: These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Salvador Mateo, Planting Justice Permaculture Designer and Site Manager
Blue Heart: Can you tell us your story of becoming involved in Planting Justice?
Sal: In 2010, when I was starting out my senior year in Oakland, my art teacher contacted Planting Justice to change an empty plot at the high school into a garden. She wanted to show how to look at art in a more environmental way, that art comes in many different forms. There were all different ways to volunteer for the project and my friend, Julio, and I - we will filled out ‘yes’ on everything that that list offered.
My family was always low income, so we didn’t have money to do things like eat organic or purchase good meals every day. But soon after that class, my mom, who was undocumented, was deported. She was ripped away from me in one afternoon. When she was deported, I was left to take care of my little sister who was 14 at the time. I was taking care of her, people gave us food and clothes, but we were homeless so Child Protection Services ripped her away from me too. They told me I couldn’t be with her unless I had a job.
Then there was a grant opportunity announced at school. Ashoka Youth Ventures was giving out $1,000 to students that had ideas for solutions for environmental justice. We pitched our idea for a vegetable garden to our teachers and Ashoka Youth Ventures, and they approved it unconditionally. We called it EATGRUB (Enhancing Access To Gardens and Revolutionizing Urban Backyards). And then, I remember like it was yesterday, Gavin was driving me home and turned around in the car to ask “what are your plans after high school?” This was about a month before we graduated. We were like “none”. Gavin looked at me and Julio and said “well, we love what you’ve done with EATGRUB and if you want, we’d love to offer you jobs at Planting Justice”. So we started working with them in 2011.
Can you tell me about a moment or experience that really convinced you that food justice was what you wanted to commit yourself to?
When me and Julio created EATGRUB, we would build high-end gardens for those that could pay full price. For each garden we built, we also build a free one for a family that couldn’t afford to go to a grocery store, who couldn’t afford to get fresh produce. They would be able to have fresh produce in their backyard--peach, mulberry, and apple trees; vegetables, kale, arugula--whatever we can grow in the Bay Area, which is a lot. That’s really where my passion lies. Being able to help people that remind me of myself and my family. We are low income and have a hard time being able to stay away from a McDonald’s or KFC or a burrito truck because that’s what we can afford.
What does food justice means to you?
One of my favorite ways to say it is as a human right. The human right to eat healthy and be able to access fresh produce at a very affordable price. The more there is the more there is to share. For a family to know what it means to work the soil and work the land. To get a chance to see plants grow. To be able to share harvest, to share their experience and to actually know where their food comes from and to know where it was grown and how fresh it is.
What is the role of art in PJ’s work, struggle, and vision?
I see art in how we are able to speak a phrase, or canvass, or educate. I see art in being able to turn an empty plot, or converting a piece of uncared grass into something that gives food for a lot of people. It becomes more than a piece of empty grass or an empty plot, but creates a pathway to so much--to having an abundance of food, and pollinators, and trees and shrubs and groundcover. I see art in being able to transform not just someone’s backyard, but someone’s life.
What would you like to share with our subscribers about being an ally to your movement(s)?
Definitely follow our newsletter! It is amazing and has a ton of great information. Also, we do our best to be self-sustaining with our landscaping program, but for us to be able to educate people on the streets with canvassing, we need sustained donations. Becoming a recurring donor is so important for enabling us to give access to good food and jobs to people that can’t get it because of their status. At San Quentin, it’s really hard for an ex-con to get jobs when they are released. Planting Justice opens its doors to a lot of people, regardless of their status. I don’t know what else to say--just that what we do is amazing. I wouldn’t call my job a job, I’d call it more a lifestyle. It feels really good to give back to the community where I grew up. To turn around and see the folks I saw growing up and support them as much as they supported me. And to just keep giving. If there are specific ways people want to support, reach out. And if you see us in the streets, say hello!
What is your favorite garden vegetable?
It depends on the season! Snowpeas in the winter, and for summer, summer squash.
Sal tells his story
Bilal Coleman, Planting Justice Educator
Blue Heart: What were some of the most challenging parts of re-entry?
Bilal: The most challenging moments were re-connecting with my daughter. She’s a 16 year old child who has never had her dad there. She knows that I’m her father but there’s nothing there. We have no shared experiences. That’s a struggle because all I saw when I was thinking about preparing for my future [outside of prison] was like “Ok, I’m gonna do this and that with her and it’s gonna be like this.” But it hasn’t been like I hoped for and that’s a struggle. Asking her if she wants to go to the movies, “No? Ok, well I’ll try again tomorrow.” Call her the next day: “hey, you want a ride to school?” Whatever I can do to constantly show that whatever I can do, I’m there. And that’s actually paid out because now I can ask her to go anywhere and she’s willing to go. That’s great. That’s what’s good this year.
What has been the most surprising?
I’ve learned how to sneak vegetables to children through smoothies! Overall the most surprising thing has been how welcoming everyone is: “We heard a lot about you, we are so happy that you are here.” This is not really a job for me, coming from such a totally destruction environment. I can speak to whoever I want to in the office and not get punished. It’s been surprisingly awesome.
I’ve been in prison since I was a youth. I’ll paint a picture: Not only is it violent, but it’s the mental trip. They’ll wake you up one morning and say “the power’s out” – no lights, no air coming through the vents. Then they come around to take you out to feed you breakfast and you go into the eating area and all the food is hot so how did they go that if the power was off? Then they take you back to your cell afterwards and the power’s back off. It’s a mental game to break you from whatever you once were to whatever they want you to be. Then when you are let out of your cell there’s racial tension and violence. Everyone is trying to stab each other, for the most part. And when that happens then you are supposed to get down. But if you get down then the person will keep attacking you and if you stand up then you might be shot by the guards. And you really have to go outside because if you don’t you’ll be punished by other people for not participating. I spent my last 3 years at a low level security prison at San Quentin. I obtained a couple technical degrees and some college. It was free and it keeps you busy and wrapped up, out of some of that violence. You find ways to miss the madness.
How had the the world changed since you went into prison? What did you notice?
The Bay Area has changed a lot. East Oakland, where I’m from, everything is different. Housing projects turned into condos. And the attitude is different, too. People are friendlier now, especially downtown Oakland. I think Oakland is going to be upscale very shortly – but at a price. The people that have called it home are getting pushed out. If you have a small family you are looking at $2500 for a house. Plus food? No way you can afford that. Oakland is gonna be nice, but at what price?
Planting Justice—we grow food, grow jobs, grow community. That’s what we do. Me personally, I like to pass down my wrongturns and experience to the youth to help them learn from what I’ve done. I also like starting these gardens and giving the food away on the street--feels good to give back. “Hey how you doing? Would you like some fresh food?” That right there is growing community. And jobs—that’s huge. Planting Justice doesn’t just do one thing—it’s everything together and that’s what makes it work. It’s a big gumbo pot.
How did you receive the recent election results?
To be honest, I didn’t pay attention to it either way. As a formerly incarcerated person, I can’t vote. New president, no president--whatever happens won’t stop me from doing my work. And if it slips into some type of dictatorship, well then everything we are doing is even more relevant. Get your shovels, plant some food, prepare for the bad.
Nicole Deane, Planting Justice Media and Communications Coordinator
Blue Heart: What does Planting Justice mean to you?
Nicole: For me, PJ is an organizations that is actually concretely, creatively solving problems in our communities. I've been an anti-prison organizer for years. This is a place where we are not asking elected officials to let people out of prison or to stop sending them to prison--we are actually building an above-ground railroad out of prison to keep people out when they come out. And we are doing that by creating jobs and creating social enterprise businesses that are benefiting our communities in a holistic way. For me, I’m most excited about the re-entry part. That’s my passion.
Why is that your passion?
Mass incarceration is a huge issue right now. I think we are really grappling as a society with the question of what it says about us that we lock this many people up in cages. The recidivism problem [returning to prison after being
released] is a really tough one. There is a lot of work being done to get people out of prison, but if people keep getting pushed back in then we won’t see change. In 2015, the CA Board of State and Community Corrections spent $500 million on jail expansion - which they explicitly stated was needed because ;preventing recidivism is impossible’. But Planting Justices’ budget is less than 0.002% of what they were going to spend on new jails last year and we have a 0% recidivism rate over the course of 6 years. So don’t tell me that preventing people from returning to jails isn’t possible. Don’t tell me that our people are permanently broken or permanently criminal or aren’t capable of being positive members of our society. That’s not true. If we keep investing in incarceration and cages, that’s what we are going to get. Planting Justice represents an alternative model. It’s a different way to invest in our communities to totally transform the system.
What’s next for Planting Justice, in the next 10 years?
That’s the most exciting thing. We are in a big growth moment for the organization. We’ve tested this re-entry model for the past 6 years. We know it works and now we are trying to scale it up. We’ve hired 24 parolees. Thousands of people are coming out of the prisons system. We are starting to build projects that can rise to meet that level and sustain it at scale. One of the most exciting projects we have right now is this nursery and aquaponics farm. Super cool for a few reasons: one is that the nursery itself is the largest and most biodiverse collection of certified organic tree crops in North America. So it’s actually this treasure trove of heirloom varieties of plants that have been lovingly preserved and protected and propagated. We’ve moved this amazing collection from Humboldt County to deep East Oakland, to a neighborhood where this nursery represents the biggest economic investment that this neighborhood has seen in over 30 years. The nursery is almost entirely staffed by formerly incarcerated people who live in that neighborhood. So we’ve provided previously unemployed people who live there with good jobs and health insurance for their kids. And we are bringing healthy food to a neighborhood that’s a total food apartheid neighborhood. There’s only liquor stores, fast food joints, no grocery stores. Soon people will be able to buy produce with their EBT cards from our aquaponics farm. Not only that, they can also buy a fruit tree to plant in their own yard and get training and support on how to take care of it. That’s not something we’ve seen in a community like this before. It’s a pilot project for what’s to come. We are doing this aquaponics farm because it means you can grow food anywhere. You don’t need good soil; you can grow food on a parking lot. The idea is to build out this system, work out the kinks, make sure this technology works, and then help out formerly incarcerated staff members get access to more unused land and help them build these aquaponic systems that they can run as worker-owned cooperatives. We are trying to build a network of worker-owned businesses that are feeding our communities and providing living wage jobs for people at the same time.
We are also working on a tiny home ecovillage concept. The biggest problem that our staff face now is housing. We have this amazing re-entry program that we know works – it gives people a living wage, health insurance, positive peer support, and meaningful work. But that success is being threatened by the housing crisis because if you don’t have housing it’s really difficult to come to work. It’s difficult to stay sober and build health and wellness. So, we are working on this idea of a tiny-home ecovillage where we can house people in a way that is cost-efficient and affordable and environmentally sustainable. And we are incorporating food production so that people can both house and feed themselves.
What are the biggest barriers for PJ to get to scale with its vision?
We need to cultivate larger sources of fundraising. There are people and institutions in Silicon Valley that can write one check and allow us to create that eco-village. That’s the support that we will need to make some of these experimental projects happen. Our challenge is to learn how to do that kind of fundraising and venture capital-raising, while holding on to our values and keeping true to our mission.
A second challenge is the fundamental barrier of racism and capitalism. What we are trying to do is really difficult. It’s been a big learning experience for me in watching what our formerly incarcerated staff members experience every day and what they have to deal with. A parole office who is nasty and who is trying to catch you slipping up--you get the feeling that someone is trying to get you back into prison. Getting harassed and pulled over by a police officer because you are smoking a cigarette out of your own car, and then the officer realizes that you are on parole and so they threaten, degrade, and demean you and say they are going to send you back to prison. I’ve seen grown men come in here after having experiences like that just devastated--it brings up all this prison trauma. We can’t protect people from those forces. We can’t protect people from being discriminated against when they apply for housing because they have a record or because they are black.
I think another thing that’s a priority for us is building out organizational infrastructure to invest in the leadership potential of our formerly incarcerated staff and people from the communities that we serve. We have a mix right now, but most of our leadership is highly educated white/white-presenting people. We have some great examples formerly incarcerated people stepping into leadership, and we would love to see more of that.
What message do you want to share with our subscribers about mass incarceration?
The US prison system is the most violent, racist system with the broadest reach and impact that may have ever existed in human history. That sounds hyperbolic but we are really talking about a machine that eats people and tears families apart, and then sells us a very incorrect idea of what safety is. I don’t believe that keeping people in cages keeps us safe. We are so busy investing in that false hope for safety that we aren’t investing in the things that would actually make our communities safe: affordable housing, education, good jobs, healthcare. Our role as people of consciousness in the United States is to really push for a dramatic shift from a system that eats people to a system that nourishes people. Every dollar that gets invested in police and prisons and surveillance is money that we should actually invest in making ourselves healthy and safe.
What is the role of our subscribers in your work?
Consider giving $17.50 a month – that pays for one our of a parolee’s time at a living wage level. You will know every time you see that on your bank statement that that money is going to someone who is using it to take care of their kids and stay out of prison. That’s a beautiful and very doable way to participate in what we are creating. Also, to any subscribers that are employers or have influence in who gets hired at your organization: take a chance and hire a formerly incarcerated person. We need to get rid of the stigma about hiring people who have been criminalized. Black workers in Oakland have 3x the unemployment rate of white workers. Hiring people of color and formerly incarcerated people is just as, if not more, important than giving to charity.
What is your favorite vegetable?
A tomato right off the vine. I just had one from a PJ garden…so good.