Surrounded by crime, inequality and a lack of opportunity is a quarter-acre farm in East Oakland, California. U.S. Navy veteran and Oakland native Kelly Carlisle is trying to change all that by inspiring a young group of local children through farming.
Growing up in East Oakland, Carlisle said she remembers feeling hopeless at a young age.
“At 9 years old there’s nothing to do, there’s nowhere to go, no program that my family can afford, or for me to engage in,” Carlisle said. “It was hard, you couldn’t go outside, we had a one-block radius that we can play in and I remember feeling and asking, what I am going to be and where I’m going to go?”
The former Navy Operation Specialist said she wants to be able to give “her kids” a chance at working towards a better future. Back in early 2010, Carlisle remembers hearing news reports about Oakland’s high crime rate, childhood obesity, school dropout rates and teen prostitution.
“My initial reaction was, thank God I don’t live there. Then the more I thought about it and the fact that I have a young child, it occurred to me that there’s one population that has no choice to decide where they live or what their community looks and feels like and that’s young people,” she said.
As a result, Carlisle founded Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, a nonprofit urban farm that focuses on serving at-risk youth from kindergarten to 8th grade, and their families. She launched Acta Non Verba to teach children how to invest in themselves and ultimately invest in their communities.
Children plant, harvest and sell produce and 100 percent of those proceeds go to savings accounts to pay for their education.
At first it was a lot of raised eyebrows and challenging to get others on board with the idea, she said. “They weren’t use to talk about farming in Oakland. But eventually people were really happy with the idea to have an urban farm in their neighborhood,” she said.
One of the ongoing challenges is to get people engaged, she said. “This is our third year of camp, fourth of growing and it’s still a challenge,” she said.
Last week, President Obama honored the work Carlisle is doing in Oakland at an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan in the State Dining Room at the White House. “Thanks to Kelly these boys and girls are not only learning the value of hard work at an early age, they’re changing how they think about themselves and opening their minds to what’s possible in their lives,” the president said.
Carlisle doesn’t come from a family of farmers but from a military family. Her father and grandfather both served in the military. She joined the Navy in 2001 shortly before 9/11 and was stationed aboard the USS Essex. She left active duty in 2005 and her transition was difficult, she said. She landed a corporate job and got married. But in 2009, she had to join the U.S. Navy Reserve after she ended up unemployed during the economic downturn. She left the Reserve in 2013.
Her first farming or growing experience was with a lemon tree she planted at home and that’s when she felt in love with growing, she said. Carlisle took a master gardeners course and it was there that she ran into the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a veteran outreach organization offering veteran employment and farm education programs. Carlisle is a recipient of the organization’s fellowship fund was instrumental in giving resources to Carlisle to become not only a farmer but a person with a mission to change her community.
“Most of the children here think that food comes from the grocery store. We’re giving the kids the whole experience, from seed to table, from raw to sandwich,” she said.
East Oakland is considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture a food desert, where liquor stores and fast food restaurants outnumber supermarkets.
The City of Oakland Parks and Recreation leases the land to Acta Non Verba. The farm has cultivated beds of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, green beans, cabbage, fava beans, sun flowers and tomatoes. It has also built a beehive.
“We like to work with kids because the excitement of seeing these seeds turn into actual fruit is magical for them and they don’t see it coming. The kids go wild,” she said.
For Carlisle, farming and providing a better future for these kids has become her life’s work. Carlisle said her dream for the farm is that children learn how to nurture the earth and themselves.
“As Oaklanders, I want them to be forward thinking about their future. I want them to remember this experience as something that at least gave them a window into something better and a different way to live,” she said.