“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
—Bill Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture
Getting to Fair Share
By Troy Horton | Introduction by Joshua Burman Thayer
Standing under a stoic-looking oak tree on the Adams Point side of Lake Merritt, Troy Horton is ready to do the work. Dressed in Carhartt jeans, work boots, and a flannel shirt, he is ready to do what it takes to produce good food for local people.
Most of us only have to look back a generation or two for family members who had close connections to food production. For Troy, this is his grandparents, who grew food in their East Oakland gardens. Troy says growing crops is in his DNA, and ending the modern amnesia around how food comes to our tables is part of his work. Back in 2008 when Barack Obama became president, Troy began to reflect on how patterns of colonialism around the world have led to systemic injustice, and he realized the same injustices exist in the Bay Area. His interest in finding solutions led him to Christopher Shein’s Merritt College Permaculture Design Course, where he met Sasha Shankar. Both people of color, they noticed that permaculture principles could be used as tools to help address food injustice, and this was front of mind as they founded their nonprofit, naming it Town and City Permaculture to incorporate local pet names for San Francisco (the City) and Oakland (the Town).
What follows is Troy Horton’s account of the path he and Sasha are traveling.
—Joshua Burman Thayer of Native Sun Gardens
The Problem is the Solution
In the East Oakland food desert, I see a crisis similar to what we hear about in places like Haiti, poverty-stricken parts of Africa, and Venezuela, where extreme food shortages have been going on for over a decade. In these places, undernourished and underrepresented global communities are trapped in economically poor geographic locations, yet their members are some of the most resilient people on earth. They—and I mean we—could be tapping into our full potential and power if we work collectively.
How did I come to this belief? Let’s jump back in time to when I was learning about permaculture at Merritt College. On reading the three ethics of permaculture—Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share—my initial reaction was “Uh huh, yeah ok, sounds good.” I was intrigued and immediately saw the power of this whole-systems design science. But the little Deep East Oakland boy inside me was quite skeptical. I’m hearing this in Fillmore, a gentrified area of San Francisco, and I’m thinking, “Yeah right, how are you going to get people to care, let alone share?”
Thinking of our East Oakland food desert problem—our Haiti, Africa, and Venezuela problems—the issue is that we’re not caring for the earth or caring for people, and we’re definitely not sharing. This thought was on our minds as my partner Sasha Shankar and I completed the Permaculture Design Course at Merritt.
Sasha was born and raised in Fillmore before the progressive renovations and high housing costs. At Hayes Valley Farm—which, tragically, has now been replaced by condos—we saw what just a little earth care could do to transform some of San Francisco’s coldest concrete catastrophes into a shining example of good environmental and social stewardship. We looked at crime-plagued parks in East Oakland and asked, can they be made into safe spaces as gardens and micro-farms like Hayes Valley Farm? Can East Oaklanders create urban ecovillages? And we thought, “Hey, we might be able to do some things with these permaculture ethics and design principles!”
So we founded our nonprofit, Town and City Permaculture, in June 2015 and let the rubber hit the road on our journey to use urban permaculture as a tool for activism and aid in building resiliency into Bay Area communities.
We began training urban farmers and permaculturalists, and we began teaching community members how to grow their own food. But with this second part, we hit “The Wall” early on as we smacked up against the reality that our community has limited land access and resources.
The Wall is constructed by social and environmental injustice. We realized a mission of building a permanency culture is a long game, and as the late, great rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle might say, “it’s all money in.” This is a hard concept for people in these communities—our communities—which basically have succumbed to “the Systems,” like the system that allows approximately 11 corporations to control the global food chain. The work is to create alternative, local food economies that produce socioeconomic enterprise networks, but looking around, we can see we are far from the goalpost on this one.
Putting Permaculture Ethics to Work
When Bill Mollison (known as the Father of Permaculture) talked about formulating the permaculture ethics, he said he had about 17 ideas before he whittled the list down to Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share. He said he actually felt he could have pared it down to one, Earth Care, since if we can get people to care for the earth, quite naturally the other two will be accomplished. At Town and City Permaculture we agree and we disagree. Our thought is that we’ve taken this only so far as local and global communities, but with the increasingly unjust land access, lack of fair housing opportunities, and morbid wealth gap worldwide, we are at the cliff’s edge, and Fair Share might need to be pushed to the top of the pile. What steps can we take to accomplish this?
For positive examples, we see a handful of Oakland organizations actively working to eradicate the food deserts. Acta Non Verba (their name means Deeds Not Words) has created a safe space for the community’s children to learn about growing food. There’s consistently boots-on-the-ground work being done at Phat Beets, where for over a decade Max Cadji and his cohort have been growing an abundance of food and training youth in farming/social entrepreneurship. At Castlemont Farm and Gardens, the work is to build farm, food, and environmental justice into the school curriculum with a focus on direct career pathways into food production.
Permaculture principle #9 says, “Use small and slow solutions.” If the community, our partners, and aligned organizations can root and focus to create small and slow solutions, we could make Fair Share happen. One way to do this is by teaching permaculture design courses to those who are typically underrepresented, i.e., disadvantaged youth, community members in re-entry, and BIPOC.
At Dig Deep Farms (DDF) and the Dig Deep Farms Permaculture Collective (DDFPC), Sasha and I are helping to build out a model for an alternative food economy with farming and food systems that provide for community members’ basic needs: healthy food access, preventative health care, and opportunities to enter careers that provide a livable wage. These successful local farming and food-as-medicine programs hold the ambitious goal of scaling countywide, regionally, and nationally. People and organizations doing these types of great work is what will help us remove the chains.
Town and City Permaculture was an instrumental partner in organizing and establishing DDFPC as a entity. We are actively training our members to use permaculture and regenerative ag methods to build sustainable incomes and businesses. We are building partnerships not only with DDF, but also with other organizations in an effort to introduce permaculture design curriculum into the county jail.
When Town and City Permaculture brought Permaculture Design Courses to DDF/DDFPC, we advocated for and made it a reality that people in re-entry and urban youth from our community be paid a minimum wage of $15 per hour for participating in the course. It’s a revolutionary act when you consider that most permaculture design courses cost upwards of $1,000 and the attendees are 90% white. Town and City Permaculture spoke to this need for inclusion at Bioneers, the Northern California Permaculture Convergence, and to a multitude of community garden organizations around the Bay.
12 Principles of Permaculture
1. Observe & Interact
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
2. Catch & Store Energy
Make hay while the sun shines.
3. Obtain a Yield
You can’t work on an empty stomach.
4. Apply Self-Regulation & Accept Feedback
The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation.
5. Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services
Let nature take its course.
6. Produce No Waste
Waste not, want not. A stitch in time saves nine.
7. Design from Patterns to Details
Can’t see the wood for the trees.
8. Integrate Rather than Segregate
Many hands make light work.
9. Use Small & Slow Solutions
The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
10. Use & Value Diversity
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
11. Use Edges & Value the Marginal
Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path.
12. Creatively Use & Respond to Change
Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.
—David Holmgren, Permaculture cofounder
Permaculture principle #8 says, “Many hands make light work,” and establishing cooperative/collective enterprises is another way to achieve Fair Share. The understanding is that “we the people” have to come together to improve our situations, our neighbors’ situations, our environmental situations. Most of the collaborations Town and City Permaculture is involved with tend to focus around life’s key necessities (e.g., food, shelter, health). Our Dig Deep Farms Permaculture Collective, for example, was formed by several farmers of color deciding to come together in an effort to improve their own quality of life along with that of their community by offering regenerative landscaping, permaculture education, and organic, farm-based catering services. We also focus on creating land access, land reconnection, and land-based career opportunities. We know that people need to have something to share before we can truly relearn how to share as communities.
Of note is Town and City Permaculture’s partnership with Bellot Idovia, which we consider our legacy project. This organization was founded by Haitian-born, Oakland-based Antoine Bellot and his partner Denise Pittman, a native Oaklander, community organizer, and healer. The organization’s focus is on reconnecting people in general, and those from the African diaspora specifically, to the land. Their major project is to assist community members of Haiti’s Île de la Tortue commune with access to clean water, reforestation, and socio-economic enterprise opportunities. Town and City Permaculture’s partnership with Bellot Idovia is foremost an effort to increase the number of Black farmers in Oakland and across the United States (as well as globally), so they can be gamed up with enough regenerative ag, permaculture design, and business skills to help Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share become tangible realities. ♦
Acta Non Verba Youth Farm Project
I first met Kelly Carlisle, founder of Acta Non Verba, at the 2015 BUGs (Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners) Conference at Oakland’s Laney College, where she was the event organizer. This is also where I first heard about the organization’s mission to teach youth from the urban community how to grow food that is healthy to eat. At Town and City Permaculture we saw—and still see—their mission as extremely valuable to the Deep East Oakland community. Acta Non Verba is one of the partnering organizations helping to power the DEEP Grocery Co-Op in its efforts to become a BIPOC worker-owned healthy food resource. This is drastically needed within the East Oakland food desert terrain. We feel in alignment with organizations like Acta Non Verba, whose active work exemplifies Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share.
Meet Jameelah Lane, who founded Melan-Aid, a Black women–owned mobile juice bar founded four years ago.
“We are dedicated to educating disadvantaged communities on the importance of healthier drink options,” says Lane. “Our mission is to regenerate bodies cellularly and molecularly, and our vision is to create transformative healing through plant-based lemonade, food, and treats. We work to provide local Bay Area communities with tools of self care.”
Lane is also a founding member of an upcoming project in Oakland called the DEEP Grocery Cooperative (Deep East Oakland Empowering the People), which she is creating along with three other Oakland natives.
“We started this project in March,” she says. “Our mission is to restore the East Oakland Community through fresh organic produce, community education, and cooperative economics. We will operate a retail grocery store emphasizing healthy and culturally recognizable foods and locally made goods.”
Learn more about Melan-Aid on Facebook and Instagram @melan_aid, and watch for their website coming soon.
Visit the DEEP on Facebook and Instagram @thedeepgrocerycooperative, and watch for their website coming soon.
Ton Ton Tony’s Cuisine
Meet Antoine Bellot, founder of Bellot Idovia, a nonprofit that is helping to build sustainable communities in rural Haiti.
“I learned to cook from my mom in Haiti,” he says. “Since cooking is one of my passions, I began to use Haitian cuisine as a way to fundraise for my nonprofit’s clean water and reforestation projects. At the popups and catering events, the Haitian meals were always a hit, with the highlight being the pikliz. This is how Ton Ton Tony’s Cuisine was born.
“Pikliz—pronounced PEEK-leez—is a pickle coleslaw, an all-purpose condiment used to enhance flavor on just about any food, especially on fried foods, which are known as ‘fritay’ in Haitian Kreyol. The proceeds from our catering, pop-up events, and purchases of pikliz support our nonprofit.”
Learn more at bellotidovia.org
Farmer and herbalist Sasha Shankar (above with Troy Horton) founded her natural wellness brand, Root Nectar, out of love and passion for Mother Earth and for healing others. She makes tinctures, salves, body butters, facial scrubs, aromatherapy oils, pain creams, and handcrafted sage bundles from sustainably harvested, wild, local, and fair-trade raw ingredients. A percentage of Root Nectar proceeds supports local farming programs and related socioeconomic initiatives in Oakland and the Bay Area.
Learn more @rootnectar on Instagram.
Castlemont Farm and Gardens
At Town and City Permaculture we know that “many hands make light work,” and this is especially the case when considering the battle to eradicate the East Oakland food deserts. In this effort we see Castlemont Farm and Gardens as an organization that is fighting the good fight. Located in the back forty of the campus at Castlemont High School, the farm sits, in part, on top of asphalt, where some of the school’s old basketball courts still stand. The farm employs typical urban permaculture techniques such as composting and keeping biowaste on site to build up soil regeneratively. The rest of the farm grows towards the back field and gate that butts up against a residential neighborhood. There are two key farming methods used here: the market-garden method, which concentrates on row crops, and a permaculture food forest, which includes a high concentration of perennials including fruit trees. Castlemont Farm and Gardens is using its farming site to build out a whole-systems educational program to help youth in East Oakland reach their leadership potential as future food and environmental justice changemakers, land stewards, and yes, farmers.
An East Oakland Family History
Dixie Robinson, my maternal grandma (pictured below right), is a proud member of Allen Temple Baptist Church, which is located on 85th Avenue in East Oakland just a short distance from the Acta Non Verba urban farm site.
My paternal grandfather, Charles T. J. Horton, passed away recently at the age of 93. He came from a large Southern family with 11 siblings and was born in Arkansas in a town so small he said he couldn’t remember the name of it. When he was 15, he ran up against the police while trying to help and defend some other Black kids who had been falsely accused of writing on some storefront windows with soap bars. My grandfather was jailed, and a mob formed outside the jail. He said he was sure he was going to be hanged. One of the town officials, with whom my grandfather’s father was in good standing, procured my grandfather’s release, but he told the family that they had to get my grandfather out of town. So, my great-grandmother signed the papers saying my grandfather was actually 16 years old, allowing him to join the Navy and serve in World War II. He was subsequently stationed in the Bay Area in the 1940s, and this was the beginning of my family history in Oakland.
My grandfather kept a garden in his Oakland backyard, and he used the produce (along with what he caught fishing and hunting) to help him fight against the East Oakland food deserts that were beginning to appear back then. He’d add vegetables and herbs from his garden to his rabbit stew or use them as a side salad with fried fish.
My grandmother brought my mother to California at age 2 with her other three siblings as part of the Great Migration from the South. They arrived in Oakland in the late 1950s. When I was a child and nearly sliced my finger off trying to cook with a sharp kitchen knife, my grandmother cut an aloe vera stalk from one of the plants she kept on the side of the house to help stop the bleeding. She told me that people could also use it to help with their stomach, but warned me with a little laugh, “But you bet’ not eat too much of it, honey.”
My grandmother had a huge—and dangerous—blackberry bush in her backyard. I still bear some of the scars, but I am hard pressed to ever find sweeter blackberries anywhere. She made blackberry cobbler and tarts from this bush. Those things went crazy, do you hear me? She raised collards and summer tomatoes too, but she also taught me how to pick good fruits and vegetables from the market, and she taught me the value in cooking and eating them, explaining that they were “not junk food.” When I was a child, I also heard her say what a shame it was that we had to go all the way to San Leandro to get fresh vegetables at an affordable price after the Emby Foods market in East Oakland was closed and demolished in the late 1980s.
Learn and Build with Town and City Permaculture
In the coming year, Troy Horton and Sasha Shankar will be offering community empowerment courses under the structure of the Permaculture Institute’s Permaculture Design Course, a 72-hour comprehensive design class that helps students restructure how they view the planet and its resources. This is a grassroots opportunity to learn from regional food producers and educators about best practices and ways to get into the plant-based economy.