Interview with Matt Mihm: Milagro Allegro Community Garden

Matt Mihm.jpgYoung Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Urban Sociology course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities.

Matt Mihm is a fifth grade teacher here in Los Angeles, who has been instrumental in the founding and development of Milagro Allegro Community Garden. Matt sees this garden, located on Avenue 56 in Highland Park, as a valuable asset for his students and other youth. Milagro Allegro has a unique lottery system that awards lucky and interested residents of the 90042 zip code their own plot for a two year period. This means that the garden is always in flux and evolving as the gardeners are always changing. I have also spoken with Oscar Duardo, one of the co-founders of the garden, who emphasizes the need for conducting community "inreach" instead of outreach. This interview with Matt Mihm, who happens to be an Occidental College graduate, reflects this same intention with regards to the garden: serving the community of Highland Park.

Emie George: How would you describe the particular identity of Milagro Allegro Community Garden?

Matt Mihm: I think our identity comes from our mission to be a community space more than just a community garden. When you look at other "community gardens" you just see an exclusive group of neighbors. At Milagro we really wanted it to be a community gathering space. We wanted classes, art, school programs and obviously a space where community members could plant and cultivate fresh produce.

When I first bought my house in July 2001, I was very intrigued by the empty lot next door. I made several calls and finally was told that it was owned by the LA Department of Transportation (LADOT) and that it was slated to become a parking lot. After talking with neighbors I found that it had been vacant since the late 1970s, and over that time many groups had petitioned the city for use of the land without success. In 2004 my friend and I decided to try again with the concept of a community garden modeled on the Crenshaw High School Garden. Again we were stonewalled by the city and told that the local businesses were in support of the parking lot.

Then in 2008, I got a knock on my door and it was Oscar Duardo, a neighbor I had never met. He told me he had a petition to make the empty lot into a community garden and that my signature was absolutely pivotal since my property was adjoining the lot. I sort of laughed and told him that it wasn't going to happen because I had been down that road. He replied, "things have changed." At that point another neighbor, Nicole Gatto, invited me to coffee to see if I would be interested in being on a volunteer garden board. I said yes without really knowing what that involvement would look like. Since I'm a public school teacher I was particularly interested in getting students to the garden.

I would say that the board for the garden isn't defined by specific roles but more governed by consensus. Nicole and Oscar were definitely the leaders and co-founders.

What would you say are your inspirations or influences on your work? Not necessarily just role models, also inspirational forces or a vision you are working towards.

I've definitely used the lessons about social justice I learned at Oxy and the pedagogical lessons I've learned in my teaching development to guide my vision for the garden. My vision is to always keep the garden inclusive. Every other community garden that I've come in contact with allows gardeners to renew their plots ad infinitum. That means once a gardener or family get a plot they have it for life. Then there is a waiting list that takes years to get through if ever. To me, that's an exclusive club, not a community garden.

While working and teaching impoverished youth for the past decade, I've come to understand that you should never arbitrarily close a door on someone if there is a possibility that you can keep it open. My work with students has guided my work in the garden insofar as I believe we should always keep the garden open for everyone who is interested.

In our class we have discussed social media and its role in modern society. I know the garden has a website, and probably a blog of some sort. Do you think these social media outlets are important for your work? Or for the garden?

This question belies a certain white middle-class perspective that can be very dangerous as we have learned in regards to the garden. Most of our initial outreach was through our website and e-mail lists. Most of our first gardeners were white and middle-class because our outreach was targeted towards them. The neighbors in the immediate area of the garden are low income, Spanish-speaking, and don't have Internet at their homes or apartments.

Oscar was adamant that we needed to bring the information in to the people and tell them that the garden was for them, as opposed to putting it out there. Social media is mostly passive if you think about it. You put information out there and you hope people discover it. Low-income folks are more disempowered and less likely to discover things because they don't carry with them the same feeling of entitlement that middle-class people embrace. Even people who walked by the garden every day didn't feel it was for them until we told them, "this is for you, please come in!" On the other hand, the people who see a class offering on the Internet drive their hybrids from their middle-class neighborhood and stroll in without hesitation -- because they saw it on the Internet. media and the Internet have been a source of tension for the garden. On one hand, we do want everyone to know about the things we are doing, but we must always consider how people without Internet will know and feel welcome.

Alright, so now could you reflect on your role within the garden and discuss how you think the garden benefits youth? Do you feel that your social role as a younger adult helps you reach out to the younger generation?

I think the garden is crucial for youth. In some ways, the youth are primarily who the garden is for. The adults who come to the garden are already sold on the idea of healthy food, but the children may not be. Many families with kids walk by the garden after watching a movie at the Highland Theater. That exposure alone is a gigantic leap forward. To see that a community has a green space and to see people gardening can leave a lasting imprint. The garden is a living, breathing lesson about food access and it provides a connection for urban youth who literally don't know where the food in the grocery store comes from.

I don't think being a younger adult helps me reach out to youth, but being an educator does. I think youth generally crave hands-on experiences despite the hand-held device saturation. My experience tells me that young folk get tired of Facebook after six straight hours and given the opportunity to be in the garden, they might seem reluctant, but they actually love it. I think not having a cynical view of children broadly helps me connect most.

As a fifth grade teacher, how much does the garden collaborate with your school? Do you hope to see that collaboration increase, how? Additionally, what other organizations or people does Milagro Allegro collaborate with?

Well, unfortunately I moved schools this year because of the crazy district bureaucracy, so I now teach way down near USC, but the collaboration continues. Before I was at Loreto Elementary, just down the street in Cypress Park.

The huge collaborative project we did was called LA Sprouts. It was an after school program where the students took the Metro Gold Line to the garden and had nutrition and gardening classes. It involved the USC Childhood Obesity Research Center (CORC). I convinced my principal to bring it to our school and I personally talked to my colleagues and parents to get them to sign up. What made it difficult was that CORC wanted to take biometric measures of all the students, like height, weight, blood pressure, and body fat measurements. This was a tough sell for parents who were weary about their children being guinea pigs. But, it was the first time a youth gardening program tried to see if the process made kids measurably healthier. Whole Foods donated fresh produce and kitchen supplies, and the Cypress Park Neighborhood Council gave us money to ride the train. It was a collaboration of the highest order with every possible type of community group. At the end of the program, the results were very positive and paved the way for a huge National Institutes of Health grant to expand LA Sprouts to many schools around Los Angeles.

The expansion of the program will include building gardens on the school campus; Milagro is just too small to host 20 schools a week.

As a self-declared "community" garden in Highland Park, to what extent do you think the garden reflects the local cultural scene?

Well the local cultural scene has changed quite a bit in the last few years, but I think we've done a great job of outreach and the garden and gardeners truly reflect the surrounding community. I would say that at least half of the gardeners are native Spanish-speakers and it's a really diverse mixture. We have one plot that is being used by the Youth Group at the local church and another by the Wellness Center. Additionally, little details in the garden reflect previous projects and collaborations that represent the community. Our big sign was designed by high school artists from Franklin High School. Our tool shed was painted by my 5th grade class and volunteers from Occidental College during the MLK volunteer day.

What do you see as Milagro Allegro's impact on neighborhood identity, the community and public life?

Good question, I think the impact has been huge. The neighborhood has really embraced the garden and has had a softening effect on everyone. On a personal level I now know everyone in the neighborhood. I lived in the neighborhood for seven years without meeting anyone and suddenly we all know each other. It's quite amazing.

Another interesting example is that, when we opened the city suddenly decided to redo the sidewalks around the garden, even though neighbors had been requesting new sidewalks for fifteen years. Since we had a direct line to Councilmember Ed Reyes, suddenly our once neglected community was being fast-tracked. We felt like the garden put us on the map.

To what degree is your work within Milagro Allegro connected with or affected by class and racial/ethnic conflict OR transition in the neighborhood?

I think I touched on this in the social media question, but this neighborhood has been changing rapidly in the last decade. When I bought my house in 2001, I felt I was the only white person in the community. There was a strong Latino presence and Asian population. With the light rail and the housing crisis, the community is really in flux. It's now a strange amalgamation of races and classes all in one place.

I wouldn't say there's conflict; a separation. The white hipsters are in one sphere while the Latino families are in another. I think as the garden moves forward it will be a space where those disparate groups come together and find common ground. Additionally, the garden can serve as a stable anchor as things change around it.

What, if any, are your plans for the future with respect to the garden?

I think the main focus for the garden is to make sure we are consistently serving our mission and seeking opportunities to bring people to the garden.

On a personal level, I'd like to develop a program to bring students to the garden. I've already sought and won approval from LAUSD to make the garden an official field trip sight.

My thinking is that over time everyone in the neighborhood will be connected to the garden in some way, whether having a plot for a season, coming to a class or tree give-away or through any other event. I would hope that the people in the community would say to someone from out of town, "You've got to see our garden."

Milagro Allegro garden2.JPG


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