Shabaka’s Seedlings

We often talk about sustainability without thinking about what it means: securing what’s needed now without harming the ability of future generations to do the same. But how do you get kids to care about treading lightly on the earth for the benefit of an elusive future—especially if today doesn’t look so bright?

This is hardly a new question for Shyaam Shabaka, a 64-year-old former public health worker devoted to solving the paradox of Richmond’s inner city: in a community “totally inundated with environmental and social problems,” he says, the low- income populations most adversely affected are usually “the least engaged” in finding solutions.

“The work I’m doing now is public health work,” he explains. “I don’t think people have yet understood how things like asthma, obesity, and lack of education parallel poverty.”

Earlier, at an Earth Day celebration of 2,000 people, Shabaka demonstrated his beehives and planted a host of veggie crops. Our destination now is EcoVillage Farm Learning Center, almost six acres of creek-bordered land Shabaka has spent the past three years developing into a hub for youth to learn about growing food and the local ecology.

As we pass through central Richmond, Shabaka points out the lawn in front of Kaiser Permanente Hospital where he sells organic produce to health care professionals and patients. We drive on through the Iron Triangle, an area denoted by rusting railroad tracks and a high concentration of pollution—the combined efforts of ChevronTexaco, General Chemical, and other industries that have moved business elsewhere but left their toxins behind. Shabaka’s other farmer’s market is here, in this home to poor blacks and immigrants, many of them Southeast Asian. As we roll through streets bordered by one-story houses where few flowers—or anything green—punctuate the gray of the sidewalks and blur of hazy sky, he draws my attention to a pair of sneakers hanging from a telephone wire.

“Those shoes are to mark territory,” he says, explaining that neighborhood gang members are kings inside their boundaries, yet know little of the opportunities beyond their hard-won turf. “Right now they’re like dogs fighting over a fire hydrant. I want to show them the whole world is theirs, that they have a responsibility—to the birds, to the trees, and to other people in it, too.”

Shabaka’s EcoVillage Farm, a couple of miles east of the inner city, offers urban residents an altered reality in which food is pulled from the ground (not plastic-wrapped on liquor store shelves), water flows in tributaries across the land (not from leaking faucets), and as much attention is bestowed on cultivating community (not maintaining deadly sidewalk wars) as is given to growing the squash and the peppers and the beehives. Though teenagers already attend EcoVillage workshops ranging from creek restoration to social justice, the site is still in its early phases. As Shabaka puts it, “We are being while we’re becoming.” Part of being includes birth; in late April, EcoVillage Farm had two week-old black lambs frolicking among its well-established rare heirloom fruit trees and the tall, soft grass.

The process of acquiring the property began almost three years ago, when the former owner preferred Shabaka’s proposal of using the land to work with kids to a housing development. After transforming multiple Bay Area inner-city lots into community gardens, only to have the owners decide to sell the newly productive soil, Shabaka realized that securing a permanent swatch of soil was a necessary step. “Building one community garden after another was certainly not sustainable,” he recalls. “I had to reflect on what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing—transferring knowledge and experience to youth to help them.”

Now, bolstered by a loan from the Trust for Public Land, a grant from the Coastal Conservancy, and a recent grant from the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Shabaka can proceed with his vision: creating a butterfly garden, a wetland, and an agroforestry area; removing the ivy suffocating the native buckeyes and laurels along San Pablo Creek; making earthen structures and constructing a classroom yurt, building a bigger greenhouse and carving one continuous trail along the creek.

“We’re working on a timeline of five years, but 90 percent of the work will be done in two,” Shabaka says. “Each new thing will be an educational project that will enhance the area and the community.”

The approach is straightforward: rather than bombard kids with an onslaught of eco-buzzwords—”sustainable,” “permaculture,” “organic,” “watershed”—these vital concepts are demonstrated through hands-on doing. “People take a situation that is very simple and complicate it. It’s just growing food.” Shabaka smiles. “These kids on the corner in North Richmond? They are very, very bright, but using big words is intimidating, so we have to find points of relation.”

To teach about watersheds and agroecology, for example, Shabaka and a Richmond High School biology class are trying to figure out what’s behind the fish parasite explosion in the Sacramento Delta. To test their hypothesis that pesticide runoff is a major factor, students caught sample fish and sent them to a pathology lab at UC Davis.

“The learning that will take place around this is incredible,” Shabaka says, noting that this one project is not only a lesson in chemistry, watersheds, and the disaster of monocropping, but it’s also about environmental justice. The parasites affect bluegills, a species commonly caught by Asian and African-American subsistence fishermen and taken home for dinner. The parasite devastates local bluegill populations but doesn’t harm the black bass, another Delta fish species—one that, unlike the bluegill, brings in large amounts of money from sport fisherman. If the parasite affected the black bass, Shabaka argues, the problem would have been solved long ago.

After exploring EcoVillage Farm, we travel northeast towards De Anza High School. Burnt rubber “donuts” decorate the parking lot; 20 feet away lie 12 acres of meadow, fertile soil ready for student-led food production, one of Shabaka’s many ongoing projects.

EcoVillage is visited daily by De Anza students fulfilling their “civic learning” requirement. Though many, particularly Latino and Asian students, have recent connections in their families to farming, they still must be “reintroduced to the land and environment from a different perspective,” not as hired hands working for a profiting boss but as engaged decision-makers cooperating to help crops grow. This is especially true, Shabaka says, for African-American youth, whose grandparents often carry demeaning, violent associations with working the soil.

Amidst the farmer’s markets, workshops, lamb-birthings, and fish experiments, Shabaka is organizing car washes, bake sales, and general “beggings” with junior high students to raise money to attend the World Summit for Children and the Environment in Japan at the end of July. “Kids are seedlings,” he says, and just like the starter plants in organic soil in the EcoVillage greenhouse, they require healthy surroundings in order to survive and, better yet, thrive.

Back in the Iron Triangle, where North Richmond residents deal with the death of community members daily, there has to be a reason—something to care about—to want to stay alive. “If today is hell, you might as well check out of here today. And the youth,” Shabaka shrugs knowingly, “suffer myopia anyway. But if you can get them to see how a seed is growing, you can translate that to our selves, our lives.” In the end, EcoVillage is about something greater than how to grow food or identify native plants.

Shabaka sums up the vision: “Basically, it’s instilling hope.”

Learn more about EcoVillage Farm at

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