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King's legacy inspires urban farmer-second try

  • Subject: [cg] King's legacy inspires urban farmer-second try
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Sun, 30 Jan 2005 10:23:17 -0800 (PST)

Hi, all,

Sorry, I must have posted this incorrectly, so all the
good inspiring stuff about urban agriculture got
chopped off. I'll try again - if it gets cut again, go
to the Chronicle website and read it there - it's
really good.

Don B., Charlotte, NC

Chronicle, San Francisco, California

Activist honors King by farming in the city

Rick DelVecchio, Chronicle Staff Writer

Shyaam Shabaka, the urban farmer of Richmond and a man
planning an unusual way to celebrate Martin Luther
King Day, drove through the city's tough northern
district last week on a humble errand.

Along the way, he met some discouraging sights: a busy
drug corner across the street from a city recreation
center shut by budget cuts, a grocery store where a
man had been shot a couple of weeks earlier. Further
on, there was a metal scavenger, dressed for the
weather in a wool cap with ear flaps, bearing down on
his knees on the roof of a junked camper trailer and
tearing off strips of aluminum.

Wondering aloud if the scavenger was making himself
sick from breathing dust from the camper's ripped
insulation, Shabaka wheeled up in front of his
destination: the Sunnyside Feed Store. "How's your
alfalfa today?" he asked the man behind the counter.

He needed two bales, but the hay wasn't in yet. So he
bought a sack of chicken feed and one of oats, hefting
the load into the bed of his Chevy pickup. Then off he
went from the broken pavements of the north side to a
hidden, moist and verdant corner of the city, the site
of his mini-farm.

A spot promising in the most basic sense of the word,
because it's a place where things grow, Shabaka's
EcoVillage Farm Learning Center on Monday will welcome
anyone who wants to experience the King holiday in
hands-on fashion. There will be a speech or two, very
short, and then it will be down to the chores of a
farm in winter: pruning fruit trees, improving paths,
setting out California buckeye tree seedlings so they
can be planted in the spring on the banks of the two
streams running next to the farm. Volunteers, who are
invited to come as early as 10 a.m., also will join
hands in the tough and mucky work of cleaning up the
stream banks to allow new growth.

In addition, the curious will have the opportunity to
learn from Shabaka and his helpers about beekeeping,
sheepshearing and caring for hens. And after the
chores are done, participants may take part in
workshops on such themes as sustainable agriculture.

As a reward, King Day farmhands perhaps will be
allowed to pluck a sweet orange from the tree growing
next to the little ranch house that serves as farm

Although the typical King retrospective focuses on the
slain preacher's "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963,
Shabaka has always found inspiration in a lesser-known
oration that King gave on April 4, 1967, a year to the
day before he was shot dead in Memphis. Called "Beyond
Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," it was a challenge
to war protesters to see themselves as part of the
broader struggle for a universal ethics. (The text of
the speech is online at

In his prescription for spiritual well-being, King
spoke of poison and of health in terms of a person's
and a nation's soul and in view of the environment. To
protest war, according to King, is to stand against
the poisoning of the American soul and stand up for
healing the land.

"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right
side of the world revolution, we as a nation must
undergo a radical revolution of values," King said.
"We must rapidly begin the shift from a
'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented'

It's an ideal that made sense to Shabaka long before
he first heard the speech. Raised on a farm in
Arkansas, one of 10 kids in a family that had to grow
food for survival, he learned the connection between
the health of the land and the health of the people on
it. At the same time, as a young man out of high
school, he experienced exploitation as a field worker
paid $3 a day to cut cotton.

He joined the Peace Corps and later became a public
health worker in Berkeley, using his farm background
to promote community gardens. With the help of the
Earth Island Institute, the Trust for Public Land and
the Coastal Conservancy, that effort led to the
creation of EcoVillage three years ago.

A project of Earth Island Institute with Shabaka
serving as founder and executive director, EcoVillage
is a 5.5-acre oasis alongside Wilkie and San Pablo
creeks where the eastern edge of Richmond meets El
Sobrante. It has a produce garden, a barnyard with
three sheep and a small orchard that grows heirloom
apples. Paths lead through brambles to the creeks,
which run year- round and support wildlife but require
years of work with saws and crowbars to remove the ivy
choking the banks and many of the trees.

"It's a real pleasure to see Shyaam doing such good
work in an area that brings together a bunch of very
important issues," said Chris Clarke, the institute's
publications director. Bringing fresh food to Richmond
and creating open space in the heavily residential
watershed are among the project's boons, he said.

Shabaka needs help to get the site into shape. He
collaborates with Richmond High School, the East Bay
Conservation Corps and other groups to create
activities that invite young people to learn new
things while working on the farm. The idea is that the
youth will become academically, socially and
physically fitter while taking to heart the wisdom of
making their community healthier.

"If you take good care of the farm and the environment
and your neighbors, " said Shabaka, a vegetarian who
looks 20 years younger than his nearly 64 years,
"that's an extension of yourself. You're taking care
of your own health by doing so."

Shabaka, a long-time Oakland resident, admits that the
message meets with resistance among some African
Americans. Some equate farming with exploitation.
Others have had no contact with anyone who has worked
the land. They're incredulous when they learn that
Shabaka cut cotton as a young man.

"They look at you and say, 'You are lying,' " Shabaka
said. "They do not believe it."

One of Shabaka's goals is to educate youth on the
history of African Americans and farming and expose
them to some of the latest thinking in sustainable
agriculture. He will have an exhibit on blacks and
farming at the Bay Area African American Health Summit
at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Oakland on Jan.

Shabaka hopes that others will learn, as he did at an
early age, that the work of farming is its own reward,
and that they will experience what King meant about
cultivating a healthy body and spirit in large and
small ways.

"I like to say we're being while we're becoming,"
Shabaka said. "It's the journey that's important.
We'll never be fully done." 

EcoVillage Farm Learning Center, 21 Laurel Lane (at
May Road, off San Pablo Dam Road), Richmond.
Volunteers may participate in a community service
event from 10 a.m. on Monday, Martin Luther King Day,
involving farm chores, creek cleanup and environmental
workshops. (510) 223-1693. www.ecovillagefarm.org.

Contact Rick DelVecchio at

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