Growing a Revolution in a Community Garden

The DSA San Diego Ecosocialism Working Group’s organizing at Mt. Hope Community Garden did not have a tidy beginning. Rather, the work started in September 2018 with members who lived close by and had the time on their hands, a desire to produce food in a communal arrangement, and an interest in food justice. Our involvement in the space has evolved organically over the past six months, culminating in the articulation of a long-term strategy that connects food justice work with other intersections of political organizing.

The San Diego area saw a 12,000-year period of uninterrupted and sustainable living until colonization projects, first started by Spain, continued by Mexico, and then accelerated by the United States, formed the region’s ecological, cultural, and social landscape. The Kumeyaay people of present-day San Diego and Northern Baja California trace their lineage back 600 generations. Their food system was characterized by a hunting and gathering arrangement, with a heavy emphasis on gathering acorns in the mountains and mesquite beans in the desert. Overall, the population density of the region was probably less than one person per square mile. Unfortunately, many of the recipes and processing secrets that made these wild foods safe and palatable to eat have been lost.

Beginning in 1769, waves of Spanish and then, after gaining independence, Mexican colonization resulted in the displacement of the Kumeyaay from their land. This trend only accelerated in the decades following the United States’ annexation of the region as part of the spoils of the Mexican-American War. The newly-founded city of San Diego grew from 500 in 1850, 333,865 in 1950, to an estimated 1,339,000 in 2018. The present-day city, then, is the synthesis of many contradictions: a center of the American military-industrial complex, a multicultural landscape cut off by the militarized US-Mexico border, and an affluent coastal enclave of suburban sprawl.

A neighborhood located in southeastern San Diego, Mt. Hope is more racially diverse and working class in character than many of the city’s suburban neighborhoods and cities. The community garden itself is run by Project New Village, a nonprofit organization that embraces “urban farming and community engagement as [the] primary tools to improve food access, food security, and environmental wellness.” Diane Moss, a community organizer and Project New Village’s Managing Director, envisions using cooperative agricultural arrangements an an engine of political and economic transformation to combat food insecurity. With an explicit food justice orientation, this black-led community space drew our working group to show up on a weekly basis in groups of 1-3 organizers. Simply listening and following through on our work have proven to be crucial organizing tools, as we have gradually learned the basics of organic urban farming and the interconnectivity of food sovereignty, African American history, and anti-capitalist movements for social justice.

Empowered by our experiences at Mt. Hope, the Ecosocialism Working Group’s involvement at the garden grew and, by mid-February 2019, we transplanted seedlings into our communal plot at the community garden; the first step in a long-term campaign to not just build up our chapter’s capacity, but to serve in solidarity with the working classes of San Diego.

By early 2019, the campaign’s scope had expanded due to a sustained interest in activism through communal solidarity work and the need to build up DSA San Diego’s organizing capacity (both in terms of deepening organizers’ skills and expanding membership). At its core, this campaign is premised on demonstrating solidarity with marginalized, working class people and empowering them to take political control over their own lives. A base building strategy was identified as the campaign’s mover because community gardens provide an effective public space around which socialists can organize socially active members of the working class. Community gardens also provide an effective setting to empower people and give them the space to grow food for themselves and others, especially when sunny growing spaces can be an impossibility for many apartment dwellers. To reach its more lofty goals while avoiding burnout, our strategy was crafted with the input of other DSA organizers and members of Project New Village over the course of several weeks; it is built on a series of progressively more involved and expansive objectives, providing actionable steps along the way that help feed into subsequent achievements.

At the same time, DSA San Diego passed new bylaws in late 2018 with language outlining two annual major campaigns. Members were encouraged to think strategically and formulate campaign proposals to present at the chapter’s first annual convention in March 2019. After gaining consensus within the chapter’s Ecosocialism Working Group, this ecosocialist major campaign was presented to the general membership oat the chapter convention. The campaign was endorsed unanimously along with a major campaign focused on strengthening our direct aid trips and international solidarity ties across the US-Mexico border.

The campaign work ahead will be long and challenging, but, there is much that has already been accomplished that brings optimistic. Already, we have become integral to Project New Village’s operations and have subsequently gained a meeting space, urban farming skills, and more from our relationship; we have delivered some of the fruits of our DSA plot’s harvest, however symbolic; and we are heading into the summer with organizer trainings in the works that will help us more effectively engage in the campaign’s later stages.

The winter season crops we chose to grow at Mt. Hope Community garden are Cosmos bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), arugula (Eruca sativa), and Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris). Their cold and drought-tolerant characteristics made them ideal candidates for our resource-friendly crop plan. This spring and summer, we are cultivating Italian basil (Ocimum basilicum) purple Cherokee tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), glass gem corn (Zea mays), Hungarian yellow hot wax peppers (Capsicum annuum), and padrón peppers (Capsicum annuum).

The types of challenges presently encountered in this project are a mix of what is typically common among community gardens (e.g. pest management, infrastructure upkeep), to an irregular wet season characterized by frequent stormy weather.

Soon after transplanting our first crop, we encountered signs of rodents foraging into our bed (one arugula was uprooted, and some of the leaves of other arugula were nibbled on), and a small amount of pill bug damage was found on a couple arugula leaves. In order to minimize damage done by rodents, our working group decided to build cages made of hardware cloth one foot in diameter, and will make landscape staples made from wire coat hangers to keep the cages firmly secured to the ground. However, addressing the pill bugs is a more sensitive issue because we are cultivating food in a community space, and it is especially important that we are mindful of what pesticides our working group uses for the garden, gaining the necessary consent of the community before taking action. This requires a great deal of trust, which can only be built over time by open communication and transparency between our working group, and the community that has accepted us.

Our wet season was a turbulent one – the exceptional storms we experienced may have brought in much-needed rain, but also interfered with both our weekly volunteering and transplanting our seedlings into the garden plot. The weather delayed our planting day to the following week, and as a result, the arugula starts experienced some root compaction. A few days later, we noticed the leaves of our newly-transplanted arugula were becoming chlorotic. Initially, we believed the iron deficiency was due to our untested soil. Soon, however, we realized that the chlorosis was actually due to root compaction and damage incurred during transplanting. Over time, the arugula leaves started to absorb iron within the soil and the color reverted back to its typical green hue. Upon administering a soil test, we discovered that our soil is highly alkaline and deficient in nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, all problems we plan to address after removing out winter crop and amending the soil. Despite these challenges, much of our winter crop has thrived!

Expanding beyond our first plot, we plan to experiment with cultivating crops friendly to San Diego’s particular climate. With an average annual rainfall of less than 12 inches and over 260 days with sun, the region is more arid than the typical Mediterranean climate it is associated with. Due to these factors, cultivating drought-tolerant plants such as rooibos (to produce tea and/or kombucha), amaranth (for its grains and leaves), and nopal cactus would ensure that people have a crop that can be depended on to produce yields while using far fewer resources than commodified produce found in the traditional American diet. Already, a comrade donated 18 nopal cactus pods to Mt. Hope Community garden to transplant into a communal space that our members cleared out during a garden improvement day.

We have used the produce harvested from our plot at Mt. Hope Community Garden primarily to supplement ongoing mutual aid efforts by our chapter’s Immigration and Housing & Homelessness Working Groups. The idea came organically as a result of our group’s work in October when our organizers were gifted large bagfuls of spicy greens in thanks for helping harvest at the community garden. Two members took the initiative to independently season the surplus haul with salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar, distributing the resulting salad to some of the city’s houseless. We hope to replicate and build upon the ad hoc creativity of our members by organizing regular cultivation, preparation, and distribution of our own plot’s produce.

Our first such direct aid trip took place in mid-March, where two members brought cultivated arugula from the DSA plot across the border for a migrant-run aid kitchen in Tijuana. Another batch of arugula and Swiss chard was cultivated by comrades and gifted for the springtime opening of Project New Village’s farmers market in southeast San Diego, where it was distributed for free with other produce purchases and also sold to raise funds for the organization. The last harvest of arugula (before the crop started bolting, creating a stronger flavor) was divided into small baggies and used to supplement the a run in early April as part of the weekly efforts led by the Housing & Homelessness Working Group to distribute food and water aid to the homeless of San Diego’s East Village neighborhood.

While the limited output of our garden plot (approximately 4’ x 12’) means that the material outcome of this goal will largely be symbolic, we view the work as both a prefigurative example that can possibly be scaled progressively as our group’s capacity expands, and a means for our working group to acquire practical experience in crop cultivation. Meanwhile, this work will provide some healthy, organic produce to those in greatest need, while expanding our chapter’s footprint and showcasing the promise (at least at an embryonic level) of a “farm-to-table direct aid”-type system.

Alongside participating in community garden work and direct aid distribution, DSA San Diego aims to contribute to the long-term success of Project New Village and help organize the unorganized working classes of southeast San Diego. This solidarity work has largely entailed weekly volunteering at the community garden. Over time, our organization’s commitment has gown, with our comrades improving significant areas of the garden to allow for expanded cultivation space as well as experimenting in other prefigurative ecosocialist projects such as building a solar oven (we’ve so far hit 200° in sunny 73° weather). The benefits of this type of solidarity work have been twofold: we’ve gained trust and credibility with Project New Village while our members have been enriched and have gained practical experience in urban farming. We envision these improvement and sustainable infrastructure construction efforts to continue over the course of the campaign.

Outside the garden itself, our campaign will involve outreach and base building efforts in southeast San Diego. This type of organizing includes tabling at Project New Village-affiliated farmers markets in the region, canvassing portions of southeast San Diego, holding political education and cultivation workshops for the public, and engaging in solidarity fundraising for Project New Village. To prepare for such activities, we are holding organizer trainings for our members to gain the skills that will be germane to this campaign. The hope is that these trainings will improve the effectiveness of DSA San Diego members in engaging in the campaign’s related activities as well as in broader organizer efforts.

Thanks to our connections with Project New Village, DSA San Diego has the opportunity to table at the farmers markets the organization runs in two southeast San Diego neighborhoods. Beyond providing organic produce and political literature, we can actively engage with working class people, listen to their needs, and build relationships within the region. In a similar vein, canvassing portions of southeast San Diego will help us as organizers learn about working class people's’ most acute material needs and make connections who would be interested in other public events DSA San Diego may hold.

To reach a more mass audience, the campaign will hold a handful of public combined cultivation and political education workshops. These classes will serve to impart valuable basic cultivation skills (example: how to germinate, care for, and harvest a basil plant) with rudimentary political education (example: why food sovereignty is so important), providing materials that participants can take home (mini homemade planter bag, potting soil, and seeds). The publicizing, preparation, and teaching that will go into such workshops will be more intensive, and will serve as an opportunity for a larger portion of the chapter membership to engage in meaningful organizing work in a variety of roles. Beyond expanding our organizing capacity, the classes will give working class people a sense of a cooperative values system and the political vision that informs it. We gift others a small plant to grow and teach them how to best cultivate it while providing food sovereignty-focused political content in the hopes that these actions and ideas are truly revolutionary, and will grow within people.

Fundraising is an essential organizing skill that our chapter has engaged with only on a limited basis (namely with its participation in the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon). To help build up our chapter’s capacity for this type of important work, the major campaign will work to publicize and organize a solidarity fundraiser with Project New Village to help fund projects that empower working class people, build local food sovereignty, and deliver tangible material benefits in southeast San Diego. In addition to the funds we hope to raise and the experience our DSA chapter will gain from planning such an event, fundraisers are an excellent vehicle for spreading a political message (in this case, one of social and food justice) and building awareness and goodwill towards positive organizations (in this case, Project New Village and San Diego DSA).

With the connections and relationships our chapter forms over the next year through community garden work, tabling, educating, fundraising, and canvassing, our end goal is to play a role in organizing a coalition of working class people, sympathetic activists, and organizations with the goal of articulating and politically organizing towards a tangible revolutionary reform around a social- or food-justice adjacent issue. One example of such a potential reform is the expansion and/or the abolition of fares for San Diego County’s public transportation network, the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), which would greatly reduce the region’s greenhouse gas emissions and drastically improve the mobility and livelihood of many thousands. Ideally, we will reach this coalition building stage in time to impact the 2020 campaign season locally, when people will be most aware of and willing to engage in political action. Achieving this vision will not be simple, and will require chapter-wide support to succeed; but a heightened class consciousness in southeast San Diego, potential material benefits for San Diegans, and the enhanced capacity of DSA San Diego to become an effective driver of political change in the region are certainly worth it.

Because the current corporate-owned market system denies the marginalized and working classes access to organic, healthy food, our task as socialists is to fill in the holes capitalism’s systemic immorality refuses to ameliorate. From the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program to Cuba’s organopónicos, democratically produced and distributed food systems have played a substantial role in the left’s history. Faced with widespread ecological collapse and the human immiseration of the present, we must strive to connect and organize with sympathetic people and organizations to build localized working class movements that will effectively fight for food justice and its intersections.

To build a revolution as expansive as what our planet and its people deserve will in part require a complete reorganization of the present system’s unsustainable production-consumption agricultural model. A left movement, then, should seek to construct alternative institutions that actively establish working class food sovereignty and develop class consciousness; in short, we need to feed the revolution.

To learn more about San Diego DSA, visit the chapter’s website. Follow their Ecosocialist Working Group on twitter.