Not everyone can see the potential in a humble patch of dirt. But for Raquel Garcia, any parcel is an opportunity for progress with the right kind of nurturing. With this perspective, Garcia is helping to revitalize her own community at the ground level. By overseeing two public gardens, teaching residents how to put down roots—literally—and working to provide safer air and water for the people of Southwest Detroit, Garcia is driven to not only re-green the area but bestow its inhabitants with the knowledge to grow themselves. We had a chance to chat with this inspiring advocate, organizer, and environmental steward, who serves as Executive Director for nonprofit Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, to learn just how she helps to cultivate a better community in every way—and in turn, maybe you can, too.
Tell us about Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision.
Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision strives to improve the environment and strengthen the economy of Southwest Detroit. We are part of a larger group of nonprofit partners that monitor air quality and pollution and emissions by local companies. SDEV’s EPA Clean Diesel Initiative invests in clean energy technology and reduces diesel emissions in our neighborhoods. But the heart of our work is sharing all of the sustainability opportunities and resources that are available with the community. We have produced more than 3,500 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables for the community, and even during the pandemic, we've led more than 25 volunteer cleanup projects, mobilizing over 500 volunteer hours in Southwest Detroit.
What does your role involve?
I joined Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision in 2019 as executive director to grow the outreach program, to engage residents, and to make sure all the resources we know about reach the community. Our three pillars are land, water, and air, and I lead administration, community outreach, and engagement. We're really interested in engaging the residents so that they can work with the City of Detroit by letting us know what’s lacking in their neighborhood.
I knock on doors to try to spread the word about our programs and important things that are happening in the city. We do a lot of cleanups and beautification. We have a huge community garden that feeds about 200 families. We’re always striving to do a better job of communicating, educating, and including community members in decision-making because when community members know what is happening in their neighborhood, they immediately want to join in and get to work!
In the next couple of years, we are planting 10,000 trees in response to some deforestation in Detroit. We have this opportunity to re-green Detroit because we're interested in providing food not only for people, but also for wildlife. We want to plant trees that bloom, that make the air smell really nice during the season, and that also have fruit for people to eat.
How does your community garden impact its residents?
The garden is our first face to the community. A lot of people will stop and pull over to see it. Once we engage that person, we ask them to volunteer. We invite them in so they can pick peppers or whatever they're interested in. And, if they are not gardening now, we encourage them to grow with us or to grow at home so they can start reconnecting to their roots or to the earth. We’re not just growing plants and vegetables in the garden, we’re growing something deeper in community.
When we are in the garden, people will slow down. We talk about issues and solutions and connect with one another. It’s where people laugh together and spend time together. We've had events there, and we've had weddings—we've had love stories at the garden. People own the memory and the space collectively.
How do you engage and empower young people?
We are growing the future leaders of Southwest Detroit and the region. In the summer, we had 11 young people in the land and water program learning about the garden and how to maintain it hands on. They are not only learning about plants, but why it’s important to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. . We like to grow healthy food for the community, but we're also growing young people who may not see their representation out in the world. And so, we’re connecting them either to us or to their future or to education.
We become their surrogate space. Providing a space where they can come in and finally exhale, and just be with us without judgment, is really important. We've encouraged them and supported them when they went on to higher education—and they've come back as staff. We've seen that happen at least 10 times.
My belief is that one person can change the world. We don't know the next person who’s going to walk in and innovate a way we grow something or change the way we power our vehicles or design roads. There's still so much work to do. Everyone has an interest or a passion or an idea. At the community garden, we are creating a space to cultivate young people and their ideas. When we open the door for people to be who they are, it's extremely powerful.
Why is it so important to build something like a garden from the ground up?
When people sit at a table and they're pulling seeds from a plant together, and the next year they see it and say, “Remember that day we were pulling seeds together?” It's an old practice that’s been forgotten; it's a complete cycle from a plant to a seed and back to a plant that we forfeit when we go to the store. It's a way of reconnecting to the earth. If you walked into my house right now, the kitchen table probably has 50 plates full of seeds from my travels, and fruit that people give us. We're constantly seed saving. A lot of my friends have said, “Why don't you just go to the store and buy the plant?” But I can say, “That tree comes from Maine; I went to a festival in Maine and picked apples and brought them back and then nurtured a tree from Maine.” It's a form of placemaking when you can look at a plant and know where you've been.
What can we all do to live more sustainably?
Climate change can seem intimidating because it seems to be the landscape of scientists, but if you get involved, you will find passionate everyday people who are making change—and you can be one of them! You can join an organization or group in your city, learn about the topic, engage your neighbors, friends, and lawmakers, and VOTE your values! Every person can make an impact by conserving water, conserving energy, weatherizing their home, planting a rain garden, and lessening their dependence on fossil fuels. Concentrate on learning one strategy that resonates with you. This is a very important time.
What’s been the biggest hurdle of your career?
The hardest obstacle was fighting against the expectations of what a Latina woman was supposed to do. There's a lot of pressure as a young Latina woman—expectations about family, traditions, and gender roles. You're fighting your truth in a very complicated space where you love your family and you don't want to hurt them, and you don't want to reject their ways. Ultimately you have to choose your own authenticity and what is true for you over societal expectations. You have to write your own story, and sometimes that means pushing back on those ideas.
What drives your passion forward?
I'm passionate because I’m an outcome of all of the effort and attention and thought from mentors and people who stopped along the way to show me something, or to open a door, or to give me feedback. It's my job now to show people how to do that. It’s what was given to me, and so it's not mine. I have to share it.
When we ask a question and the city says, “Oh, we didn't know we could do that,” or “People wanted this?” I see people wake up; I see people turn on. I've seen the incremental change that people make, whether it's with their city or writing a letter or an op-ed; we've seen so much change. And we just know that everyone makes a difference. Even when times are hard, or something seems insurmountable, I know we're going to get through it—we even make memories in those times together. And so, for me, powering forward is having the faith that it's going to be okay.
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