- Terelle Jerricks
Connecting the disconnected, mending the broken
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Editor’s Note: In the spirit of the holiday season, Random Lengths News will be highlighting unsung individuals that serve their communities behind the scenes often unnoticed, working to make miracles happen. Sustained by faith or their determination to give back, these change agents aim to improve the lives of others.
Rushelli Luna and Rhonda Webb, the driving force of Make a Green Noise, make things come alive like the vegetables and flowers they planted in the vacant lot on Compton Boulevard at Central Ave. Before we began the interview, resident Larry, “the Apple Tree man,” walked up to greet and chat up to the two women for a bit about planting an apple tree. Then he was on his way after offering a word of encouragement.
“Larry (who) just passed by, always (has a) kind word to say,” Webb noted. “ If it wasn’t for the garden, I don’t think we would have friendly conversations, going back and forth and with him telling me on a regular basis that he’s watching it grow and making sure no one harms it. Here is someone I wouldn’t ordinarily have relationship with, but I do.”
Forging Bonds, Drawing Connections
Community gardens in Southern California are not a new phenomenon, but the potential solution to solve multiple social and economic ills that afflict working class communities, particularly communities of color, is tremendous.
In Compton, Make a Green Noise, has picked up the gauntlet thrown by the South Central Farmers group that fought the City of Los Angeles and developers to stay on the land they’ve cultivated within the past 10 years.
Webb and Luna’s mission was a little more modest, yet more audacious: getting the city to turn over to them, and by extension, community residents, as much unused vacant land as possible to be cleared of blight to make it productive until that property is developed.
Climate change and globalization were issues that concerned Webb. She took classes at UCLA for waste management and waste reduction to find solutions that “will make our communities less polluted.”
Webb is the founder and director of the LEAP Action Center (Leadership Environment Advocacy Partnership) a 3-year-old youth environmental stewardship program that aims to promote greater awareness of environmental justice concepts. Before that, Webb was a dean at Aviation High School in Oakland for a number of years, and prior to that, she worked side by side with her mother, Mildred Ford, the founder of Multicultural center private school in Compton.
Aside from education, Webb also traces her passion for gardening to her mother, who is and has been an avid gardener since she became a Compton transplant from Arkansas.
“My aunt tells me that blood has memory and I believe it does,” Webb said. “Though I’ve watched my mom garden for years, when I started gardening and started doing organic waste and enhancing the soil, I discovered this was something I could do and it was something I was pretty darn good at, too.”
Luna is a graduate of Cal State Dominguez Hills. Webb interviewed Luna for grant writing and fund development. The two immediately clicked and began brainstorming ideas, sessions from which their idea of transforming alleyways into green spaces emerged.
“From the onset of this, I always saw green tool as an opportunity to improve the community, not just to improve the environment,” Webb explained. “We saw it as an opportunity to address the social problems that ill us, such as heart disease, obesity and then we get into the whole idea of transforming our communities and creating jobs. So this a great tool that would allow us to solve a lot of problems in our community.”
Webb and Luna partnered with Compton Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux and the Compton Community Redevelopment Successor Agency.
“She actually got us started by turning over to the city manager at that time, who then turned us over to the (Community Redevelopment Agency),” Luna explained.
After some months of working the CRA to fulfill various requirement, the CRA granted Luna and Webb a six month lease agreement for the Compton Boulevard property.
Webb and Luna envisioned Make a Green Noise as an Adopt a Lot program where they get the city to turn over as many unused vacant lots as was possible so, they could convert the blight stricken location into productive green spaces, for however long they would be allowed to before they were sold and/or developed. Luna believes that it was this feature that persuaded the CRA to give the duo a chance.
“This is a pilot program,” Webb noted. “I don’t believe they’ve ever partnered with a community organization before.
“We are in alignment in terms of what their mission and objectives are in removing urban blight and urban revitalization and transformation. They do go hand in hand. But there’s this huge disconnect in the working relationship between the city and smaller organizations, where we get lost and shuffled around.”
Much has been written about Compton’s racial divisions and political dysfunctions. Luna and Webb are too familiar with images of Compton peddled in the mainstream media.
Mending Distorted Visions of Compton
“I spent most of my life serving children in Compton, taking children to and from the park,” Webb explained. “All parents come to the aid of a child that’s fallen down. All parents offer a child that’s hungry something to eat. So this huge idea that black and brown communities not getting together, I have not seen that firsthand at least to the degree that is reported in the media.”
Webb noted that she has Spanish speaking neighbors on either side of her, and are often the main ones that leave food grown from their gardens on her porch. This example refutes the suggestion that divisions are so deep in Compton that residents don’t help each other.
Luna and Webb are currently working on securing a site on Alondra Boulevard, build a reentry program for ex-felons and provide job training .
“Rhonda had also taken classes on re-entry programs and job creation,” Luna noted. “Every aspect of the community will be involved with that site.
“They would able to come find jobs, develop new skills at that site. We would also have workshops, training classes and outdoor education for our students because we have a couple of schools in the area.”
Even with the functioning of the community garden, Luna is looking to partner with other, larger nonprofit organizations to address food insecurity in Compton.
Whether the vision for the Alondra site comes into fruition depends on the success of the Compton Boulevard site. But they hope they can open the garden by late 2013.
“In order to do something good, we need resources,” Webb explained.
She noted that the nonprofit got some small businesses to buy in, but that it’s been tough to get the owners of the numerous shipping companies and warehouses based in Compton to take their calls or meet them at the door.
While Luna and Webb appreciate the support they get from the city, they note that their presence could go along way in carrying the vision forward.
Luna noted how much of the top Los Angeles leadership turned out events in San Pedro, whether its a groundbreaking ceremony for a new project or the celebration of a cultural asset. The city councilman turns out, the mayor, city attorney, a congress person turns and cheese for the cameras, showing the world by their very presence that those groundbreakings and those celebrations of cultural assets are important.
“Compton doesn’t have in place where you can just go to one store and say, ‘We need funding and volunteers’ or where government would be in charge of implementing some type of giving program for the larger corporation,” Luna explained.
She believes that if these companies’ operations are going to based in and impact the community, then they should give some percent of their profits back to the community.
Luna and Webb are all too aware that this in direct contrast to how San Pedro residents are able to leverage community power against a single most powerful entity, the Port of Los Angeles, and achieve community objectives.
“We have the steel industry in Compton; we have the Koger’s warehouses down the street; Yoplaits warehouses down the street; we have Nissan warehouses down the street,” Luna noted. “We have all of these really big name businesses in the area, but yet a lot of them don’t give to the community… I don’t believe they see Compton as a place where they want to reinvest their funds. They reinvest their funds in other communities but not in communities where their warehouses impact directly.”
In fact, Webb and Luna note that these companies often don’t even want to hear them out and slam the door on their faces. They believe that if elected officials got behind community efforts such as theirs, these companies would not so easily ignore community voices.
The pair have noticed that they received the most traction when they worked from the grassroots on up by attracting volunteers from labor unions and employees from the warehousing companies, Luna noted.
As much help as Luna and Webb get from local volunteers, they receive a lot of help from outside sources, particularly San Pedro-based organizations such as the Adopt a Storm Drain and Clean San Pedro, both of which have donated their time and resources in furtherance of Make a Green Noise.
Webb said they look forward to working other community organizations and community members. She noted that community so often operate from a position of isolation that they don’t realize that one problem actually impacts other aspects of their life.
“They consider them isolated incidences, but they’re not,” Webb noted “If you’re homeless, it impacts all areas of your life. If you are ill or sick, it affects all areas of your life. If you’re jobless… it affects everything … So why not reach out to other organizations and make this a one stop center. That’s just how we see it.”
Before the interview is wrapped, another gentleman, perhaps 70 years old, mosied over to introduce himself to the two women. Himself a fellow gardener, he inquired about the community garden. He noted that he helps tend to four 24 by 10 foot plots in his community’s garden, growing everything from cauliflower to corn. And with that, another connections was made, another bond was forged.
On Dec. 7, the Make a Green Noise will host “Tea with a Master Gardener,” who will discuss soil, composting and techniques in maintaining and harvesting a healthy backyard garden. The long term goal is to establish a Farmer’s Market on the lot of the community garden. In January, they are partnering with TreePeople to give away fruit trees.