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Grassroots Change


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Although I had met her twice before, I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the 2010 BAodn conference with Beth Waitkus, the director of the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison, and I was struck by the profound nature (no pun intended) of what she and the program’s volunteers, supporters and inmate participants are doing.

Beth is a quiet, dignified and unassuming person, but I had the distinct impression that she is completely present to whatever she is doing and whomever she is with.

We were in an “open space” discussion group that had been convened on the subject of getting “regular people” involved in processes. Beth spoke eloquently about the participants in the IGP and the stages they go through in becoming involved and engaged in their classroom and “business” discussions. It seemed to me that an important aspect of the process was the earning of the participants’ trust that it was safe to speak honestly and that their input was valued. A transformation occurs as participants learn to not only value and respect their own input but also that of others.

This would be a significant accomplishment in a business setting, where there can be many obstacles and barriers to engaged participation, but in a prison setting it is nothing short of astounding. And it shows us that even when there are significant constraints, amazing things can be accomplished – like a dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk, or a lily growing high in the crotch of a tree.

What, you might be asking, IS the Insight Garden Program? The Insight Garden Program (IGP) operates a 1,200-square foot organic garden in San Quentin’s medium-security prison yard. The IGP website says:

“The Insight Garden Program (IGP) provides rehabilitation to self-selected prisoners through the process of organic gardening. Through the act of caring for plants, the qualities of responsibility, discipline and mindfulness transfer to the interpersonal realm – by growing plants, people also “grow”… In our classes, men learn about landscaping and gardening, including (but not limited to): Planning, budgeting and design, irrigation, soil amendment, seasonal garden maintenance, and plant ID and propagation. By working in an organic flower garden, men also … (develop) an awareness of their connection to and impact on the world around them. They learn about the interconnectedness of human and ecological systems and how the principles of the natural world, such as diversity and cooperation, transfer to all levels of human systems.”

Pretty neat stuff, isn’t it? But it relies upon a fairly radical basic assumption, that the participants in the program can learn, can change, and have something worthwhile to contribute. That is radical in many organizations, let alone in a prison setting.

Has Beth made a significant change to the prison system? Hard to say. But programs such as this certainly give Sacramento something to think about. Has she made a significant change to one aspect of that system and, perhaps most importantly, to the lives of program participants and the systems they enter upon release? Yes, indeed.

Now that’s what I call a grassroots change.

If she can do that in a prison, perhaps there is hope for other organizations as well. I wonder…

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2 Responses to Grassroots Change

  1. Sarah Patterson July 12, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    I wanted to let you know about another prison garden project that we started in Oregon two years ago. Last year Lettuce Grow Garden Foundation had one garden in Oregon’s women’s prison. This year were were given the opportunity to expand into six other prisons, and are working actively with four of them now. We focus on organic vegetable gardens, first grown to supplement the kitchen’s limited fare. This year in addition ,we were given dedicated land to grow for the Food Bank. Inmates are appreciating the chance to give back and we find them as interested in sustainability issues as the average ‘awake’ person.

    Like the Insight garden we provide classes, which are received with great enthusiasm. We are partnering with Oregon’s Master Gardener program, which provides some of our garden volunteers and is giving us the university-level course on a DVD to use inside prisons. We are working toward vocational training, several of our volunteers have run landscaping businesses and have encouraging words for inmates who decide they want to continue their horiculture and sustainability studies after release. I cannot describe the joy and attention they bring to the classes we teach. It is a gift to do this work.

  2. Susan July 13, 2010 at 7:46 am #

    Sarah, thank you for the comments and the terrific information! Congratulations on the success of your program! If you haven’t already connected with Beth I hope you will do so.

    It seems from your description that you started small, focusing on addressing one need, and it was recognized along the way that you were and could focus on more fundamental needs. Would you agree?

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