Home > Building Resilience > Talking Resilience with Doria Robinson: Living Within a Limit is OK

Talking Resilience with Doria Robinson: Living Within a Limit is OK

July 8, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience.

Doria Robinson is the Executive Director of Urban Tilth, based in Richmond, CA. Urban Titlh works to build a more sustainable, healthy, and just food system, by hiring and training residents to work with schools, community-based organizations, government agencies, businesses, and individuals to develop the capacity to produce 5% of food supply locally.

Richmond, the site of a former Ohlone comunity, grew up across the Bay from San Francisco as the Western terminus of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad railroad, and the home of the Chevron oil refinery. It was later the site of the Kaiser Shipyards, “Rosie the Riveter,” and massive growth and population influx during World War II. More recently known for its high murder rate and toxic industrial sites, Richmond is making a serious turnaround as a vibrant and diverse community with lively politics and strong grassroots activism.

Ken White, Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute, and a neighbor of Doria’s in Richmond, shared this conversation with her.

Ken: How did you end up back in Richmond?

Doria: I grew up here in Richmond, a few blocks away on 5th Street. Third-generation Richmond resident. My great-grandparents were the first to come here, and they moved in a few blocks away. I still live here today, on 12th street with my kids, and went a really crazy route to get to this work….

I grew up in a church family. My grandfather was a minister at the church on Ohio and South 13th, and they kind of came up from Louisiana with about 15 other families, and they started this church together. So I grew up here with this very extended family. All these people who know me and keep me in check, but…in hindsight, even though I’m not religious these days, I really learned some important things around community economics, collective economics.

These were not well-off people, they were sharecroppers, they were living in really small towns. Shady Grove, Louisiana is not like New Orleans people! And they came up together and they started buying things together, pooling their money.  They bought property here, they bought the property for the Church, they bought the property for people to have houses, and then they pooled their money to get people to get an education, to send different people to school to get degrees at academic institutions, but also to send people to training in unions, to be in the carpenters union, or learn to be an electrician and whatnot.

So when they bought the land for the church, they also built the church themselves. It was kind of like a co-op almost, [without] all the accoutrements of actually having all the documentation. But that’s in effect what they were doing. Kind of pulling themselves up to the point where now there’s a family trust that these properties are in, and I live in one of the properties.

It makes it possible for me to do this work. So if money isn’t flowing, I can just be like, “Sorry” this month and I can float. And then if somebody else is having a hard time, and I’m not, then they can float.  Pretty forward-thinking. The elders in the church came up with this—said, “Let’s do this thing together.”

The ultimate expression of this is that the church bought a 500-acre ranch in Fairfield when I was little, and [they] still have it to this day. There’s cattle, pigs, horses, and whatnot. They collectively run it, the church technically owns it and they bought that together with all their tithes, and they do projects and whatnot together.

Looking back, it was a huge impact on me. Does it matter if you’re technically poor if you have community? If you have access to education, or access to ways of thinking that [allow] you to plan your way out of a situation?

The community piece is just big. Being able to create community where you can trust each other, so that you can build together. Build assets together and then hold them together, because that’s another thing: you’re able to see what happens when people who don’t have trust sell off assets, and then they’re struggling, and their family is struggling, the whole thing is struggling. Whereas the families who kept it in the trust, they’re fine.

So it’s a huge lesson for me, kind of also deeply engaged me in growing things, and having a real hand in your food. Kill your own turkey for Thanksgiving…it freaked me out as a kid. [I was thinking], “Why do you do this? You guys are so ‘country.’”

But now it’s a huge positive impact of feeling accountability in the situation, and having a sense of how much resources you need in order to sustain.

So I’ve been all around the world by now, just having a bunch of opportunities I’m really thankful for throughout my life, even though I grew up here in the Iron Triangle [a Richmond neighborhood bounded by three sets of railroad tracks]. I was able to go to school on the east coast at Hampshire College and work on the farm there, and be a part of the Mixed Nuts food co-op, and have these other ideas. I didn’t really realize that they were already kind of seeded by this church community that I was rejecting at the time. But it was pretty interesting to see how it all comes together when you get a little older. From there, I spent some time in India, got involved with Tibetan Buddhism, had a whole kind of realignment around that, and then spent some time in San Francisco working for Veritable Vegetable and Real Food Company, and again, seeing this role of food.

Then I got involved and really interested in greening urban spaces. [A]t that time, I just started thinking a lot about Richmond, and how it is, and how [there’s] not a lot of beautiful spaces like you see in other places around the world. It could be—we’re all living in a natural place—it’s just covered up with things that we’ve decided are better than natural space….

I was already thinking a lot about that, and getting more into environmental education, ecology. I was always studying it through school, I actually went to Hampshire for Natural Science, and started volunteering at Crissy Field [in San Francisco], and working in the plant nursery, and getting more involved with watersheds. When I was in India, I spent time in Katmandhu working on a dam project, and learned a lot about watershed ecology.

So I ended up coming back here to Richmond to work for the watershed project, and doing watershed restoration work, community engagement  I felt kind of challenged by the model of community engagement of only volunteerism, people from outside coming in to do a service for a community, and then wondering why [the project] didn’t stick. Why you go back to the creek and…it almost seems, the same trash that there was there last time, it’s there again! How did that happen, didn’t we pull that out last time? [I]f there was anybody involved from the community on these volunteer days, it’s few and far between, and it’s abstract. There’s not a connection, they’re not seeing themselves in it, and they definitely don’t connect with the people who are running the projects.

So I started thinking more and more about how do you make these things really sustainable, and more and more it came down to: the people who are doing this work have to be the people from the community, and then the community can see, “Oh, not only is the creek being cleaned, but that person gets a job.”

And I started thinking a lot more about nonprofits and the nonprofit structure, and how 70% of nonprofit funding that’s going to try and improve a problem or transform a neighborhood or a community, goes to salaries. And if those salaries [go to] people who actually don’t live in the community, then 70% of the money that is going to improve a problem is actually going out [of the community].

And usually the base of all our problems is financial. Even with climate change, in my opinion, it’s capitalism that’s driving that…..

OK, what if everyone who worked for an organization was from that community? Then 70% of the money that was going into that organization would…have a very good chance of…improving the situation on the ground, not just [through] the work they are doing, but also [through] the money they are cycling through the community, the example they are sharing as people doing this work, the opportunity for connections, connecting them to different resources, different communities, different people, different disciplines.

I started thinking about it a lot, but I couldn’t do a lot about it as just a coordinator/manager at different nonprofits. I started volunteering for Urban Tilth, which was started by a friend, Park Guthrie. He’s just one of these guys that’s all heart, and really wanted to do something for community. He wasn’t really from the community, but he really had his heart in all the right places—but I don’t think the struggle of nonprofit life was for him, it’s really stressful.

Ken: It’s such a day-to-day thing.

Doria: It’s day-to-day; it never goes away. [He just said], “I can’t do this,” so he asked me to be co-director and then director, [and then he said,] “I’m done.”

I got the first opportunity to kind of try out some of these ideas. At the time Urban Tilth really had no staff, it was just Park and me and one friend, Jesse Alberto, the first apprentice from Richmond High School. And from then until now, we’ve grown this organization to 17 different Richmond residents who run it. They are the staff; they are the people. We deeply invest in their professional development, whether it be trainings, whether it be collective management. We have a really horizontal management system for making decisions, day-to-day decisionmaking, as well as strategic planning. We do it collectively, which when you’re talking about youth from this community being involved in it, knowing what a strategic planning process is, and actually leading in it, and having a meaningful role, [it’s possible] because you took the time to do the professional development, so they understand what we’re trying to do, and how to do it. It’s pretty impactful. So now it’s six years later after I took the helm.

I was at UC Berkeley two days ago, giving a presentation for a class,…and a young woman came up to me after the class, and [said], “I was in the Richmond High class, I told my professor that you needed to be invited here because there was no other thing that impacted my life more than participating in the program.”

It was a class for people going for their Masters in Public Heath, so she started at Richmond High, [and after] transferring from Contra Costa College, she wants to do so much. And she’s like, a lot of these ideas came from that summer. So the impact is pretty broad and wide.

Image RemovedWe’re growing people who are actually beekeepers, and they have started a honey business, Jesse and Adam. [We have] people who want to start small farms, and people who are running our farm operations, and people who are running market stands and want to run their small businesses, who are also influencing on a whole other scale.

I say that one of the things that we do is promote systems thinking, and resiliency, which is like self-sufficiency—not “I’m an island,” but more, “I’m accountable.” And because I’m accountable, I can work collectively.

I feel like that has been my work, and what I’m proud of, and what I keep working on.

That was really long-winded. [Chuckles.]

Ken: No, it’s great…actually, I grew up in a mainline Protestant church, and the church had been built by my grandparents and their fellow parishioners. They were tradespeople who built it themselves because they could, right?

Doria: Why would we pay someone when we can just build it?

Ken: And it was that tradition of community. But it wasn’t as deeply embedded as what you’re talking about, the idea that everyone is actually pooling money together and going in collectively on ownership.  [My grandparents and their neighbors] “owned” the church together, but they all owned separate houses. That’s a very different form of community.

Doria: I mean, people would own or rent separate houses, but they would actually like wait their turn to get their house built. I remember there was a moment in church one time when there was this line of people who were going to work on the next house. And one of the sister’s house…had burned down that weekend, and she was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” And everyone was like, “We’re going to do your house next. We are just going to rebuild the whole thing.”

And they did, and [other] people just waited.

My grandfather was extremely committed to his faith. He was one of those people who was like, “The Lord will make a way,” we’re going to do this, and it’s going to happen, and the seas will part. He was a pretty powerful figure.

But I think what I like to come from, especially when I’m thinking about resiliency, is how do we, as we move forward, especially given all the challenges that are happening today, encourage people to be in situations where they can develop the skills so they can trust each other? Develop the social skills, develop the collective decisionmaking, develop a real sense of economics and a value for work, so that they would want to have the skills to do for themselves, to be the electrician, or the carpenter, or the whatever, and know what roles you could play, and really make beautiful things together.

There’s such an overwhelming influence of this myth of convenience that makes people addicted to not knowing how to do anything, you know? Really having no skills.

I feel like moving forward, whatever we’re doing, has to include changing culture around having pride, and having skills and being able to do, and being able to understand systemically how things work. Not just your device, but how that device came into the world. What were all the things that were necessary to make that happen? Not just how to build a garden bed, but how you would translate that into a much more complicated building project of building a house or a barn or a cold storage facility, and all the things that go into that. I think that we’re being trained and have been trained to only think of the role that the economy, the current economy, the extractive economy, has made for us, which is basically operators of cash registers, or these days not even cash registers, just a device. And it leaves us really vulnerable because we are really at the whims of whatever’s happening.

Ken: So much in there I want to pull out…. You really hit on two themes: community and resilience. Community, in the sense that there is no resilience without community, and resilience, in the sense that we have to have roles that are beyond cogs in the machine, we have to be able to think for ourselves and do for ourselves—ourselves plural—not just ourselves “Me.”

Are you working with a formal definition of community resilience? Do you have in your head, “community resilience is…fill in the blank?”

Doria: I don’t know, I mean I’ve never wordsmithed the definition. I’ve been in so many different conversations around, “What is resilience?” I don’t have a nice sweet answer for you, unfortunately, but definitely I think resilience is based on systems thinking. Understanding yourself as a part of a whole, and not necessarily [as] only one part, but you’re shifting, you [play] different parts at different times. You have roles instead of jobs, and you can play different roles depending on what the need is at the time….

Ken: So, redundancy.

Doria: Right, right. Looking at all of our different roles, and kind of thinking into them. Like, there’s a role of a leader, and sometimes being a leader means actually being a follower, or somebody who is in support, or whatever, just being able to shape-shift into what is needed at the time. That’s resiliency, you know? Where you don’t always have to be the leader every time. And in that being unafraid to be corporeal, to be embodied, to have real skills, to go through the trouble of learning how to do something, and do it right, and [to] think of those skills as really art, as craft. Not just to get by, but that it’s important how it’s done, not just that it’s done.

Ken: You said earlier that you kind of rejected your parents, resented your parents a little bit because they were so “country.” And yet you went to Hampshire, which had a farm, and now…?

Doria: [Chuckling] Well, you know. I didn’t see it at the time. It wasn’t my parents, more my grandparents. My mom was definitely not country, but yeah, I didn’t see at that time how brilliant they were. How capable they were. It didn’t clock in my mind that my grandmother could raise a chicken and cook it and do the books and have two different degrees that she got at the age of 60. I didn’t see how bright that was, and how shiny and how unusual. I didn’t see that my grandfather was an architect, and he ran a business, and he was in real estate, and he was all self-taught. I didn’t see. I didn’t understand how difficult that was, and how unusual that was. But at the same time, I was attracted to people who were doing that sort of thing, I just didn’t see it in my own world until I got to a place where I could look back and be like, “Oh.”

Ken: And was that when you came back here to Richmond?

Doria: I think actually in India. I spent a lot of time thinking about Richmond. I actually read Roots in India [chuckling]. I was actually at the Dalai Lama’s teaching,…and I was really into it, and I started to look at his face, and I started to think…I started to think a lot about home and Richmond. And I was thinking a lot about a lot of the kids that I grew up with didn’t make it. [Pause]

Literally, the kids that I grew up with on the block who were one after another just mowed down by drive-by shootings and whatnot, until…there’s literally, there’s really nobody left. [Pause]

And I just thought about that a lot when I was in India, because I was like, “I have all this opportunity, here I am sitting with the Dalai Lama and blah, blah, blah.” And it was just like that kind of guilt thing. So I left the teachings, and went to a little travelers bookstore and got Roots. I’d never read it, I’d just seen the video on TV, and it was so goofy,…but it was pretty profound. I was staying at the monastery there, and I was just sitting on the back deck just crying, feeling like we have so much work to do, especially in the context of Buddhist teachings and samsara and what do we do. It was pretty intense.

I was studying with a practitioner there, who lived in a rock hut outside of Dharamsala a little bit. and I would go hike up with my friend and I’d ask him silly questions, well, not silly questions. I was really trying to figure out my meditation practice., And one time, actually the last time I went up there, I asked him about some aspect of meditation, and how I should move forward, and what I should do, because I felt kind of stuck. And he was like, “You should go home.” And I was like, “What do you mean?”

“I was such a loser I had to go home!” That was my immediate thought. It was kind of shocking and embarrassing and whatever at first. But then it had come up in conversations, all the other things I had been thinking about, and he was telling me what I really needed to do. And it had a huge impact. I did go home actually, pretty shortly after that. It was always spinning in my head, “You’ve got work to do here, what is it?”

I don’t know how I got on that track, but…

Ken: No, it’s a good one. There’s a line from T.S. Elliot, something like, “And at the end of all our exploration, we shall arrive at the place we started, and know it for the first time.”

Doria: I think that’s where it happens. I just had new eyes. I just kept remembering everyone [from Richmond who had died], in particular, Tasha and MoMo,..and all these people. And I just had new eyes, you know? It was like…just not necessary,

I could reapply basically all of this that I’ve been allowed to access, allowed to be a part of, and I can take it and I can redirect it back to where I came from. There’s all kinds of kids like me who are here, who are brilliant and capable, you know? Strong. Who are just not being nurtured. They don’t have access, and they’re supposed to think of themselves as waste. Maybe they can get a job at Starbucks if they’re lucky. Maybe Target, WalMart, for the rest of your life. Or get in a union if you’re really, really, lucky….. So I think that was really the moment where I started to consider, and being able to see this place for what it is.

Ken: I read [an interview] where you said something along the lines of, “There are only two things I could always see [where I grew up], the mountain and the refinery”.

Doria: It’s true! I grew up on 5th Street, and out the second-story window I could see both. Tamalpais, although I didn’t know it was called Tamalpais. I literally didn’t know that that was the same mountain that I had been hearing about, as the “Mount Tam” that everybody was talking about. And, you know…the refinery [waves her hand in the direction of the Chevron refinery].

Ken: You were talking earlier about how Richmond doesn’t have a lot of the beautiful natural places,…

Doria: We do have them! Again, there’s this disconnect between what is, and what is accessible. We have an amazingly beautiful marina, but people who live right on the south side, in order to get there…

Ken: Have to go under or over the 580 [freeway].

Doria: Right, and one of the things I did for the watershed project was lead marsh walks for local school kids. When I started working there I was charged with working with…schools that [were new to the program]. We took a group from Nystrom [School] to the marina, which is literally 5 minutes away, and none of them had ever been. They all live here, and they had never been. They had no idea it existed. And they were like, “How come we don’t know…how do you get here…what is going on?”

So, yeah we can have 32 miles of shoreline, the most shoreline of any city [in the Bay Area], but the people that live here in [central Richmond] just don’t have access to it. Either because it’s just difficult to get there, you don’t have cars or whatnot, or because you might not feel comfortable, or you just don’t even know about it. Which is crazy to be five minutes from something you have no idea exists, and it’s something as big as the Bay, you know? It’s not like a little something!. They would always ask me if it was the ocean [shakes head slowly].

Ken: That’s even bigger.

Doria: Right, that’s even bigger! So, we have this program that we are starting actually this year, a watersheds program that we’re doing. It’s a program to train youth from North Richmond [and] other people to do water restoration work for the Flood Control District maintaining these natural areas that they’ve created. And also helping [out], as Contra Costa [County] is going to be one of the first counties that is mandated to change all of our storm systems to green infrastructure. [County officials are] kind of freaking out about it, because there’s not really any money to do it, but it’s getting mandated. So we had this great conversation with them, because if you make a bunch of raingardens in every single system you need someone to maintain them, and that’s natives and planting and whatnot, so we’re building out this crew.

We’re doing our first one this year [with] folks, young people from this area, who’d be trained with the basics and a little be more about what is a watershed, watershed ecology, definitely being able to identify native plants, how to care from them, how to propagate them, have a nursery running out on our farm site. And they’re also going to be trained on how to engage with community members to bring them out on excursions. So we’re taking them on a headwaters trip, bike trips, kayak trips out on the Bay.

Nobody should be living on a Bay and not know it’s there. It’s madness. When people are that disconnected, they can’t care for something that they don’t even know it’s there. You can’t advocate for something, you can’t vote for something, there’s so many things you can’t do. You can’t be afraid about the impact of climate change on something if you don’t know it exists. So this crew is going to be ambassadors and leaders in the outdoors, as well as actually physically connecting, working, and maintaining and nurturing these spaces.

Pretty exciting.

Ken: If you don’t mind, could you talk more explicitly about the connection between community resilience and justice?

Doria: Naomi Klein at that “Othering and Belonging” conference said the most profound thing. She said that climate change is just the physical manifestation of class warfare. I just keep seeing more and more that…it seems that injustice is rooted in the destruction of resiliency, you know? It seems that injustice comes from dehumanizing, disconnecting people from each other, from their families, from their cultures, from their land. So it becomes OK when people are disconnected from land to poison it, because people [say,] “I didn’t use that land anyways, it was dirty….”

Ken: Or, “’Nobody’ lived there, so we might as well just [forget] it.”

Doria: Right, so you actually have to destroy people’s capacity to be engaged and in a reciprocal relationship with land in order to create the conditions for injustice. It seems to be almost the very definition—even if you look into the history, the line, of what’s happening around the #BlackLivesMatter movement and people coming to the surface again around so many young black men and women being killed—there’s a line of thinking that supports [the notion of] degrees of people being human.

Ken: And worthy.

Doria: And worthy. Which is all tied up and rooted again in their disconnection: disconnection from self, from education, from resources. Which is again, they are being stripped of resiliency. It’s like the un-making. And the more you un-make people, make them more dependent, the greater the capacity for injustice.

I should say co-dependent. Missionary style, like, “You better come back here every time for your food, or else you starve!”

I tend to preach [that] where we want to be is utterly interdependent. That we want to be interdependent on each other, not the other type of thing, where you have to go to someone in order to get something done and it’s like this….

Ken: Dragging your feet.

Doria: Right, but you know we want to be vulnerable. Which is not what people usually think of, right? You don’t want to be vulnerable…but actually you want to be vulnerable, you want to be vulnerable in community where it is safe to do so, where people have you, where there is somebody who knows [you],…you can trade services, [and] people will care about you when you’re sick.

Ken: And there is a sense of, I think you used the word earlier, “accountability.” It’s not just like, “We’re going to put it out there and hope for the best.”

Doria: No. I feel like we should be moving towards a kind of cultural change that really upholds and champions accountability: accountable to each other, and accountable to self. Not just organizations, but people should be mission-driven. But the mission should be this interdependent thing of, “It matters how I impact others, it matters what I do.” Limits are OK. Living within a limit is OK. Most artists will say that giving yourself limits actually stimulates creativity.

Ken: If you have a huge blank canvas with no boundaries, what do you do?

Doria: Right, and I think the culture we’re in now really encourages the idea that the optimum state is to have no limits. Like there is no such thing as carrying capacity, like, “Come on! We can just invent our way out of a problem!”

And I think we could actually have more creativity, more ingenious real solutions with limits, within a carrying capacity. With, “I will impact someone else with my actions, and maybe I will decide not to do something. just because of the impact it may have. Or do it in a different way.”

Ken: It is so funny that we equate limits with physical limits, and that is I guess a part of the history of this county. We got to the West Coast and…oh, there’s an ocean, and then oh, Alaska and Hawaii, and then we’ll embark on a colonial experiment because we haven’t done that yet, and now we’re finally running out of physical room to expand.

Doria: Well, some people would say Mars is next. Some people haven’t given up.

Ken: There’s actually a few people who have signed up for that…. We’re uncomfortable with limits, as a culture.

Doria: Oh yeah, that’s the other thing…just the way we use our resources, it’s as if things don’t really come from anywhere, and then that thing don’t really go anywhere, because it’s limitless. You can just throw away garbage forever!

Ken: Until that mountain of garbage over here [waves hand in the direction of the local landfill] is the same size as Mount Tam over there.

Doria: Exactly! “How’d that happen?” I think there’s just some problems, such serious problems in the way that we’ve created or constructed—consciously or unconsciously—our culture. That, I feel, is the work that we need to be doing now. Remaking culture.

Ken: How do you, not necessarily teach, but how do you bring people into the systems thinking awareness, from experience?

Doria: Gardens are a great way to do that. It’s an optimum place because it’s not too big where you can really mess things up—you can fail. One of the things that is really important is failure. Because that’s when you feel accountability, when you’ve killed something, and you’re like “Oh!” When it’s just some plant, say your mustard plant, it’s not such a big deal—but you can extrapolate. So Nature and the natural world gives so many optimum opportunities for metaphors and talking about things on multiple levels very directly {and indirectly]. Talking about one thing, you can be talking about many things.

Ken: So do you explicitly talk about systems thinking?

Doria: I don’t say “systems thinking.” I say things like, “It’s really curious endeavor to try to restore our native landscape. Because there’s all these invasive species that have been brought here, and they have no competitors, and they’re just all about me. ‘Me, Me, Me, Me, I’m just going to reproduce!’ And they try to take up all the room and limit the diversity, and it becomes really difficult for some of the native species to have space to live.”

And so the question is, “Do you kill all those invasives, wipe them out, and create a buffer zone where only natives can live, and just give them some space for a little while, so they can…re-establish themselves, and get enough nutrients, and get enough attention? Then you can kind of pull the buffer zone back as they grow, and then after while they might not need that buffer zone anymore. “

And now, let’s have a conversation about migration. [Long pause.]

Seriously. we honestly do that with kids, and the kids get it. They get it, and they’ll talk about gentrification,…they’ll extrapolate, and it’s not a straightforward answer. There are consequences either way from your actions, and you really have to consider what is the mission that you’re on: “What are you trying to do, and what are the consequences?”

To me, that’s systems thinking. It’s thinking about how one action here affects the whole, It’s taking responsibility for taking actions. And we’ll bring things back and refer to them in metaphor. We talk about our teaching style here is using metaphor, using storytelling, to actually open up peoples’ minds and thinking around larger social issues. If we went straight in and started talking about gentrification or climate change…they don’t get it. It’s just overwhelming, almost. “I’m going to turn off, this problem is too big, it sucks, everything sucks, we’re never going to get anywhere with anything. It’s all for naught anyways.”

So if you can start somewhere where people can see agency, like we’re going to bring back the natives in this little spot, and then use that as a way to talk about how you can have a much bigger program, a much bigger mission, but it will have consequences. So how do you figure that out? How do you negotiate? How do you make decisions? How do you live with your impact?

Ken: I was thinking about that in the context of Richmond, where you’ve got people from such an incredible array of backgrounds, and such strong communities. You’ve got kids and adults from all these different communities participating in programs. How does that hit people?

Doria: That’s another thing that is kind of unusual about us. We don’t focus on one particular population, we’re not like the Latino thing or the African-American thing, we kind of proud that we mix people up, not just from communities, but from neighborhoods. Everyone always told us, especially when we were first starting, “You can’t take kids from North Richmond and put them together with kids from Central.”

And we’ve done it every year in the summer program, and have never had a problem. But we do it under certain circumstances, right? Because we’re not stupid, we know that they really do have beefs [with each other]. There are some kids who really can’t go from one place to another because folks will roll up on them and whatnot. But we still get them to mix. And I think that it’s just ground rules, it’s remaking the culture. We’re pretty strong, we have a mandatory conflict resolution [and] emotional literacy training, which all apprentices have to do before they can enter the program. If you go through all the trouble and you get selected to be in the program and you don’t do the training, you’re not in the program. Before we started doing that, people would be at each other, there’d be all this weird stuff….

We make a real effort of having, “This is our house, this is Urban Tilth’s house, and in Urban Tilth’s house, we’re family, and we’re going to get to know each other.” [So we have a] whole day where you go through stages of creating safe space, so that by the end of it, kids are sharing with each other all kinds of things about themselves and what their struggles are that they would never share, would never think of sharing, and everybody’s crying, and it’s kind of like taking that “Other” out of the room. “That person doesn’t know where I come from, they don’t know what I’m doing, they have no idea what I’ve been through.”

By the end of the time, they are just transformed. They’re like, “Oh, there are other people like me, it’s us here, there’s a ‘We’ here.” That’s literally Day 3, and then they have six weeks together. Day 1 is rules, code of conduct, absolutely what are deal breakers, like any attacks. We say things like, “We’re all family here; it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is, what country you came from, what language you speak, what accent you speak with. It is absolutely unacceptable to attack people on those grounds…you’re out. No questions asked, we love you, but you’re out. So you’ve got to make a choice.”

And that’s Day 1. And Day 2 is this training, and from there it just gets deeper. In Week 4 there is a pretty intense camping trip. Most kids have never gone camping around here, and we bring them out to the redwoods…. A lot of things that we practice in urban ag come from natural systems like forests, understories, mulching,… So, we basically bump around the forest for three days, looking at all those things. Looking at a lot of natives that we’ve been abstractly planting on the outside of planting beds, in their natural place and talking about, “What is our natural place, why can’t we have an environment like this in the city, why have we chosen so much hardscape, and so much houses, and separate houses?”

And after four weeks of learning intimately about all the different ways to grow things, and all these different strategies that plants have, and really talking about them as strategies/games or whatever—that program is an example of how we are trying to teach about systems thinking and about resiliency and about interdependence.

Ken: What’s a story that comes to mind from all the years of doing this?

Doria: Oh my God, there’s so many…. it’s just been,160 kids, and all of them are just…. We have small crews, so even that’s 40 kids per year, they’re usually working on five sites, eight per site, at least two staff members so it’s a 1:4 ratio. It’s really a pretty tight mentor-type of relationship.

So…a lot happens. And oftentimes I think some of the kids that come through just haven’t had that much attention and access to somebody who is a little bit older than them, and who is actually interested in them. And so a lot gets shared, sometimes we wonder if it’s too much being shared [Laughs.]

The fact that the people who they’re sharing with actually live right around them, we all live around here, so it’s not like we’ll never see them again, we see everyone still. And they come back in, there are some that are working with us now on the community park project. People float in and out of Urban Tilth, it seems like they always come back to do different things, and some of them come back to teach the program. It’s pretty crazy. We don’t advertise the program because we have too many applicants already and not enough slots!

But there’s things like, I was in Target maybe a year or two ago, and the guy behind the counter was like, “You’re that woman from Urban Tilth! I’m gonna sign up for your program this year, my friend told me and he was in it, and he did this and this, and I want to do that. And we make more money that we’d make working at Target!”

Things like that, where it seems like a silly little story, but it’s like word of mouth. People are talking about their experiences and sharing it with each other, and [saying], “This is what you need to do.” There’s a million moments when somebody realizes certain things for the first time.

I remember two years ago when we were doing something around nutrition. We do something around nutrition every year, but that year I focused on how many calories really were in fast food and what’s the equivalent if you were just eating whole foods. [It was] just like shock and awe, like they didn’t really get exactly what they were putting into their bodies! I remember the look on people’s faces, they were just like, “Man, you’ve ruined it for me!”

Of course, I didn’t, they probably went back and ate the same things that same day. But it creates a moment. You need multiple moments like that to encourage you towards doing something different, you know? So I feel like throughout the course of the program there’s just multiple moments that are kind of building up, building up, and shifting the weight so that it leans towards change. For each one of them, it’ll just topple at their own time.

Ken: So I want to be mindful of your time, just a couple of topics I wanted to cover if you don’t mind. First is, paraphrasing a famous line, “How do you know community resilience when you see it?” How do you know you’ve got it?

Doria: I don’t know. I mean, what do I look for? [Pauses.]

I think I look for the capacity for people to not have to go through extremes, or if they are going through extremes, to be able to bounce back. They have systems for dealing with things. I would say that open lines of communication of people…regular people, who know something about where they are and what’s around them, and who’s around them.

I would say that if I came into a community no matter what income [level], and one family knew nothing about where they lived, and who lived next to them, and what was close and what was not. and another family knew their neighbors and knew what the resources were and where they were, I would say that the family that’s connected is probably more resilient.

But there’s all these different types of resiliency, right? I don’t know how you recognize it from the outside [reliably]. But for me, it’s evidenced in being knowledgeable, and having capacity to do something, to change your circumstances. The third chunk of that is that there’s some kind of structure or understanding around self-mastery, of how do you manage yourself in conflict, and outside of conflict. If there’s culture built around that—and preferably a larger culture…. [Because] if the community knows how to deal with somebody who is freaking out, and it doesn’t destroy them, that also is resilient, right?

So I think those realms of abstract knowledge, lay of the land, you know where things are, you know how things work, and then concrete knowledge of how to do things and how to manage.

Ken: So, this is kind of a funny question, but, outside of more money, what kind of support would make a big difference to you?

Doria: Connections to other communities that we are not currently connected to. Whether it be knowledge-based, or…one of the things that is not actually annoying, but is becoming annoying, is that we are talking so much about transition from petroleum-based economies, Just Transition and whatnot, and not a lot of people have spent time thinking about what that looks like. At a scale that is going to support the living beings that are here. It would be great to have connections to people who could think out some of these things, and think forward about what are the implications for what we’re proposing. What does this new system really look like? How would it function? Like these futures, where are they?

Ken: And is that something you could do in Skype conversations, or face-to-face?

Doria: You know, because usually community is working in person, kind of leading community-based dreamout sessions like, with some givens, it’s almost like a game. Let’s play “Civilizations” together.

Ken: Like Sim City.

Doria: Yeah, but here there are restrictions. Like you can’t use petroleum or whatever. “How are we going to build this thing forward, and taking ideas from folks so they are not left out of the equation, but also bringing in cutting-edge expertise and old school [knowledge] of what people have done.

I remember we were talking with Lawrence Lab scientists who were working internationally to solve problems of poverty. Some senators had asked them to work with underserved communities here to help solve some problems. We said, “One of the biggest problems with scaling up food justice operations is no access to cold storage, it’s expensive, we don’t have land. We mostly just need to hold vegetables at proper temperature and we need a space.”

And we started talking it out and they were like, “There’s these space-age fabrics, and all these things you could do.” And someone said, “What you really need is a root cellar and some land.”

So how do we negotiate an appropriate technology, because not all technology is bad, some of it is really good. It’s good to be able to make a choice, and then also not make up things just to be making up things because we’re bored and we like cool gadgets….

It’s be great to be able to convene these conversations, even nationally across different communities and just say, “Given these set restrictions, not being able to use certain things that we don’t want to have in the environment anymore, how would we remake this?”

And we would need some experts in the room to help guide that conversation so it’s not weird or ungrounded. That would be amazing.

That and a lot of sizing-up questions, we were just talking about…we have this part in our mission of growing 5% of the food supply [locally], but we don’t even really know how to calculate that 5%. Things like Richmond has a whole bunch of brownfields, and I still have yet to hear of anybody working in Richmond who has an approach to brownfields. But we got ‘em!

I know there are people out there who are working on that, who have ideas about what works and what doesn’t work, I’ve heard tales of the Bronx, but we’re not connected to people like that. So it’s kind of like connecting to knowledge bases.

Ken: So this is the kind of thing that we like to work on. We have a project going on right now called, “Our Renewable Future.” Because definitely the future is going to be close to 100% renewable energy. What’s the world going to look like when we’re doing that? Are we going to cover half the earth with solar panels, or are we going to live in a world where you don’t have unlimited energy on demand? That’s a different way of living. It’s not really about the technology, it’s about how we’re going to live.

Doria: It’s also about choices. Yeah, you could propose a world [where] every surface is solar panels [laughs], again entertaining that silly thought that we should have everything we want exactly when we want it!

Ken: What’d you call it earlier? “Culture of convenience?”

Doria: Yeah, I would love to hear thoughts on that, “What would that really look like?” Then in support of that,…you need cultural expressions that support people really trying on these ideas of not having everything be electric. Whatever it is: not doing certain things, not eating things out of season (that’s a basic one that we talk about a bunch).

Ken: So that leads me into my next question, “What would be one social/political/cultural change that would really support your efforts?”

Doria: My mind went directly to the farm bill. If the subsidies for commodities…that’s just wishful thinking. I don’t know, something practical? That will actually happen and there’s a political way to do it?

I keep thinking about…the drought, of course. It’s a huge opportunity to get people thinking about closed systems. The Earth is a closed system. And so, if these shocks—these massive changes we’re going through, or these moments like the drought—are taken as an opportunity to really talk about closed systems, and how do you live well in a closed system?

To get people thinking about not just the obvious uses of the resource—where you turn your water hose on and water a plant—but all of the varied uses within our infrastructure and within our economy. Fracking and other things that use tons of water. If it was a real will to uncover how water is really being used and to think into it in terms as an opportunity to make different choices economically, I think that would be really good.

There’s so many different things. You could look at if people divested from petroleum and reinvested in efforts that were remaking where people live, so that people would want to be local.

One that I’ve been thinking about lately is public-owned land. If there was some thought about the importance of taking some of that land and creating community assets, whether it be open space or cold storage that is limiting the capacity for local or regional agriculture. And thinking about it, not in terms of government management, but rather holding that land in a trust. Or that asset in a trust—taking it out of the system of politics where it can go back and forth depending on the administration, you know? Still held for the public good, but…I think that would be a huge game changer, especially if included in those public assets could be housing solutions, instead of just having all public land be a part of the economic equation of the city.

Ken: Yeah, I think of all the public lands that are in dispute in the West now.  All the BLM-managed lands and whatnot. If they were actually held in trust and put to community use instead of just somebody comes along and wants to do mining.

Doria: We’ve been talking a lot lately about the role of land in liberation and justice. People are so enslaved by not having a place—driven to do all kinds of things because they’re just not in control of “Home.” Either as renters or even with the mortgage or whatever. With a mortgage you’re a little better off but, then you’re confined within this idea of single ownership. It’s a little bit better than nothing, but at the same time it’s confining.

Ken: Tying yourself to a 30-year mortgage.

Doria: And what would happen if there were more spots like I have, or situations freeing people up to be able to think and do outside of the box because…there’s not a necessity to make that crazy rent according to whatever the market can bear at the time. [Instead], there’s places distributed [where the total income is] capped. The trust doesn’t need any more money than “X.”

Like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative—they used eminent domain as a nonprofit, which is pretty intense, to take back just blocks and blocks and blocks of land and housing. They created cooperative housing. We went there and heard the story, and toured the spots, and it was just like, “What if your house is not at the mercy of the market?”

I feel like so many people are just shackled with the burden of economics in our market-based system. What ideas are out there, what initiatives would happen if people could do something and they weren’t just day-to-day trying to stay alive. I think that would be pretty revolutionary.

Ken: That would be very cool. It’s funny [my wife and i} were thinking about that about ourselves, and how can we move someplace where we had that kind of situation and lived in community. It’s really hard to find, especially in the Bay Area with real estate prices…

Doria: But what if there was a land trust that was just all about that. Bringing people into cooperatives.

Ken: We have a land trust movement going on around agriculture, so maybe housing is next.

Doria: I’ve been talking with Brentwood folks about what an urban land trust might look like….

Ken: I know you’re needed [for another appointment], so we’ll have to talk about that another day. Thanks for the conversation, and thanks for all your good work.

Doria: Thank you.