Community activist helps turn Sacramento neighborhood green

June 21, 2011

By Jenn Walker

Charles Mason Jr. is helping to turn a South Sacramento desert into a verdant oasis.

In September 2009 a flare was thrown into the front yard of Mason’s Oak Park home. Though no one was harmed, Oak Park is a neighborhood beleaguered by a reputation for drugs, violence and prostitution, and this might have seemed like a good time for a family man to move on.

But Mason had something else in mind. He repaired the damage to his home and remained in Oak Park with his then-girlfriend and son.

Instead of using fiberglass to reinsulate the wall that had been burned, he used recycled blue jeans. This is just one of the many ways he had been making his home more environmentally sustainable since he moved there in 2008.

Rafael Aguilera and volunteers arranging plants into a garden box. Clockwise from left to right: Bonnie Villaneuva, Rafael Aguilera, Miguel Marmolejo and Ming Lai.

While tearing out his front lawn he lifted sex paraphernalia and at least three gun shells from the soil. The lawn was replaced with mulch and native, draught-resistant plants. His walls are painted with non-toxic paint and the floors are made of bamboo. There is a large shade tree planted in his front yard and several garden boxes filled with vegetables and flowers built during gardening demonstrations he held there in 2009.

By making his own home an environmentally-sustainable structure, he is striving to set an example within his neighborhood. He invites conversations with curious neighbors who stop to admire the waist-high flowers growing in the front yard. He sees this as a golden opportunity to create bonds with neighbors and encourage them to plant their own gardens.

And he shares what grows in his front yard, offering greens and peppers to passing neighbors or the family with the tamale business across the street.

This is part of the community-building process as Mason sees it, and it is the fundamental concept behind Ubuntu Green, the non-profit organization he founded in 2009.

Local agencies have deemed South Sacramento a food desert — a region deprived of access to healthy and affordable foods. Mason describes it as an area lacking in adequate public transportation, scattered with vacant lots and corner stores selling junk food and liquor.

He sought to address these problems by creating Ubuntu Green, with the mission of transforming South Sacramento into an equitable, politically active place with interconnected communities, a cleaner environment and healthy food access.

To accomplish this, Mason has recruited likeminded staff and advisors over the past two years to join him in reviving South Sacramento through various projects that involve building edible gardens, training youth in leadership skills and forging cooperative relationships between the community and powerful local decision makers.

Since 2009, Ubuntu Green has also organized Green Oak Park and South Sacramento!, an event held annually to educate and encourage people to “go green” by reducing energy use, consuming organic food and participating in community gardens and farm stands.

Building gardens, harmonizing people

By 2013, Mason hopes to turn the South Sacramento food desert into a green food oasis with the creation of 6000 edible gardens.

Why gardens?

With each garden planted, one or more families have immediate access to fresh, healthy food. Garden access means one less trip to a grocery store, resulting in less carbon emissions. It means less reliance on produce that is sprayed with pesticides and requires mass quantities of water. Each garden planted results in direct relationships between people and their food. And, as gardens are planted, people foster relationships through sharing their harvest with each other.

“Gardening is the simplest thing in the world,” said Ubuntu Green’s gardening subcontractor Rafael Aguilera as he guided an audience through a gardening demonstration in Oak Park early this month. Within minutes, he and several volunteers had drilled together pieces of lumber into a rectangular garden box, filled it with soil, and planted an edible garden filled with tomatoes, peppers and squash behind Old Soul Café.

Ubuntu Green holds these demonstrations in order to teach people how to plant and maintain their own gardens. This demonstration was held at the launch of Grow Together Sacramento, a newly-formed coalition of Sacramento organizations striving toward healthy food access within the region. Ubuntu Green was one of the many organizations involved.

The organization has already been contracted by the California Endowment to build 60 edible gardens by September 2012 in part of the Sacramento Building Healthy Communities project. As of June 1 of this year, 27 gardens have been built on the organization’s behalf.

Ubuntu Green has also partnered with other organizations on the Edible Garden Campaign, which establishes a goal of 350 gardens planted in the Sacramento
area by February 2013, targeting a minimum of 150 low-income households.

Within that same timeframe, Mason hopes to have encouraged the community to build an additional 650 edible gardens, bringing the number of garden installations to 6000 within the region.

This is an impressive goal for an organization with a staff of four. But Ubuntu Green has a large support base, including Aguilera and 14 others on the advisory board, in addition to about 50 volunteers that offer their support at any given time.

The organization receives funding for its projects from the CA Endowment, in addition to groups such as UC Davis, SMUD, CA Wellness and Sierra Health.
Meanwhile Aguilera has and will continue to facilitate garden builds throughout the year. Like Mason, Aguilera sees edible gardens as a solution to social problems, in addition to environmental and health problems.

“[Gardening] is probably the most multi-layered solution,” he said.

It allows engagement in a human economy, returning people to natural awareness rather than relying on food that comes from as far as 15,000 miles away, he said. Gardening has the potential to harmonize communities and bring a city together.

Creating leaders and building bridges

Planting gardens is just one approach the organization has to reviving South Sacramento. Inspiring youth to become leaders within their communities is another.

Each year Ubuntu Green recruits youth between 12 to 17 years old to participate in the Green Youth Leadership Team under the guidance of a program director. A new team is being assembled this month.

The program is focused on environmental justice, providing leadership skills and training on how to become advocates of the environment and communities, with the expectation that participants will influence fellow students and family members.

And they have, Mason said.

In addition to installing community gardens, participants join forces with youth across the state to advocate the environment and work on organizing events within the community like Green Oak Park and South Sacramento!

In addition to empowering youth, Ubuntu Green also strives to affect legislation involving the environment, healthy food access, transportation and equity on both state and local levels, acting as what Mason calls bridge between communities and power structures.

Many of the challenges faced by disadvantaged communities like Oak Park and surrounding areas involve decisions on how land will be used, he said.

“And 90 percent of the time, when those issues are addressed, decisions are made without the input of the residents.”

On the state level, the organization has been an advocate of AB 650, which would create a task force to examine obstacles preventing accessible public transportation in the state.

On the local level, the organization has encouraged the City Council to support an ordinance that allows use of vacant lots for building community gardens, said
Alvin Vaughn, the organization’s policy and communications director.

It also pushed the Council to approve the installation of 8,000 solar panels on buildings throughout the city, he said.

The organization is working to increase community awareness and involvement in local politics as well. This includes using mapping tools and a geographic information system, conducting surveys and identifying community leaders.

South Sacramento residents know first-hand which places lack traffic safety or healthy food access, Mason said, and the objective is to engage them in a dialogue,
asking them important questions like, “what do you want to have happen here?” and “how do you want to see change?”

Most importantly, Mason emphasizes that the organization is striving to create partnerships between community members and those empowered with making decisions, whether they be politicians, Regional Transit or the housing and redevelopment agency.

“We want to cooperate with agencies, not be at war,” Mason said.

The meaning behind Ubuntu

When asked why he is doing all this and why he left his career to take on Ubuntu Green as a full-time job, Mason responded with a laugh.

“Some people think I am trying to save the world,” he said.

Others have been skeptical, telling him it was a big risk to take during the worst economy in 60 years.

“But I knew it was something that needed to be done,” he said.

Rather than viewing Oak Park as nothing more than a neighborhood of vacant lots, poor transportation and corner stores selling terrible food and booze, Mason said he saw it as a place of ethnic and economic diversity. Instead of removing himself and his family from the neighborhood due to its challenges, he chose to immerse himself into the community and focus on how he could make a lasting impact.

This is the meaning behind the African philosophy Ubuntu, to approach life with a sense of shared existence rather than focusing on the individual’s journey through life alone.

It is a philosophy Mason has chosen to embrace wholeheartedly.

Note. An earlier version of this article referred to Mason’s housemate as his wife. She was his girlfriend.

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