I was excited and anxious to come back to the Garden of Tomorrow last weekend. My experience there last November with Jay’s dad was one of the most transformational volunteer experiences I’ve had so far. When I left the garden last Thanksgiving weekend I wanted to tell everyone about my experience there. But one of the challenges of such a transformation is that it is incredibly difficult to explain the significance of what you saw and felt to anyone who has not been through the same experience.
Having tried and failed once, I will try again now to describe what the garden is and why it is powerful.
The Garden of Tomorrow is a fitting name for this community garden, because the crew there is making the tomorrow they dream of exist today in one small city block in south central Phoenix. Darren Chapman, the man behind the garden, has a vision for a neighborhood in which all residents have healthy food to eat that is grown locally. He has a vision of a community that values all of its members, young and old, of all backgrounds. These members have the opportunity for meaningful work, both paid and unpaid. People who live in this community gather to share stories, discuss the challenges they face, and problem solve together. When members of the community make mistakes, break the law, or take a bad path, they are not banned for life from civic involvement. Instead, when they are ready to make healthy choices, they can find a home and a support system.
On this bit of fenced dry land, they have created a community that takes the best of what is in South Central Phoenix (corner of 18th Pl and Broadway), and brought it together to create a safe vibrant space of belonging. On paper it is a garden. It is only one city block long. The land is actually owned by the HUD housing development next door, Darren’s group has an agreement to tend the land and take care of it since it was not being used. The produce from the garden goes to the local community and surplus is sold to raise funds for projects. Every Saturday they host a garden work party open to anyone who has an inclination to see what it’s all about. Speaking about the garden in this way does not describe what it is really about.
The garden is as much about people as it is about plants. It serves as a place to envision a new way of being with each other in which we can peacefully coexist and even pool our resources to solve problems. Last time I visited the garden, as joyful music played, kids danced, and families got their hands dirty digging up yams, we were also faced with the reality of the city outside. Two families were in the garden that day, mourning the recent violent deaths of their young sons. The Phoenix community was divided on all of it’s fracture lines, with vigils being planned and extra reinforcements being brought in to protect the mourners against further violence. As the Marco family worked in the garden alongside former gang members not so dissimilar from the two who shot their boy Zachary, we could see both realities. Within this city block we could work together as equals and empathize with one another. Dan Marco (whose son was killed weeks before) was in an environment in which he could have an open discourse about all of the factors contributing to violence in the city. He spoke to us about how he, as a criminal defense attorney had defended gang members, but had never before asked about their families, their neighborhoods, or the situation that led them down that path. Instead he had bought a home in a gated community where he could be closed off from other parts of the city.
I once heard that in order to be truly thoughtful, you have to be able to hold two opposing viewpoints in your head at the same time and appreciate the reality of both of them. In the garden we experience two opposing versions of reality, and the tension between them is what draws this community towards reconciliation. I was relieved to find that the garden is still creating this opportunity every Saturday. My experience with Jay’s mom Cindi was less intense, but all of the same ingredients were present. I can’t wait to go back and to finally bring Jay along to participate.