Cathrine Sneed: Helping San Franciscans Grow Their Own Future

Cathrine Sneed | Photo: Nolan Calisch


Hear the phrase "Environmental Justice," and — if you've heard the phrase before — you probably picture communities of color forced to contend with more than their share of pollution. It's a pervasive and important problem, but sometimes it's hard to figure out just where the justice comes in.

But one innovative San Francisco program offers another possible definition of the phrase, in which the environment becomes a path for people to create their own restorative justice, building a healthier community by coming together to work in nature — and to learn from nature.

It's called the Garden Project, and it was conceived by a visionary San Franciscan, another of the notable Californian environmentalist women we're profiling this week to mark International Women's Day.

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Working in the San Francisco County Jail in the early 1980s, attorney Cathrine Sneed — her first name "spelled the way my grandmother spelled it," she explains —had been watching a distressing social trend play out in front of her for some time. Two decades of cuts in social services from education to job development, along with mounting unemployment and the beginnings of a drug epidemic, had increased a perennial problem: San Franciscans who found themselves in lockup for sometimes minor infractions tended to return.

In the early 1980s, Sneed read John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as she recovered from a potentially life-threatening illness. The book suggested a way out of the incarceration cycle for her clients. “When people can connect to land," Sneed later said, "then somehow they have hope.” Inspired by Steinbeck's prose, Sneed wondered whether connecting with the living world outside the jail might not provide inspiration, giving her clients a vision of a more hopeful future for themselves and their families.

So in 1982, Sneed founded the San Francisco County Jail Horticulture Project, which put garden tools and living, growing things in the hands of inmates. Using vacant lots near the Jail, incarcerated San Franciscans working in the Horticulture Project grew organic vegetables that were then donated to the neediest people in the community. Young people who'd seen little to be hopeful for began to think of themselves as capable of positive, creative work. Not only did they nurture vulnerable vegetable plants in a highly urbanized part of San Francisco, but their work helped others who, if anything, were sometimes in even worse straits than the inmates.

Sneed's program won wide recognition for helping turn participants' lives around, but the problems her work targeted didn't go away. Even the most enthusiastic participants in the Horticulture Project, after their release, often found the lack of opportunities for constructive, fulfilling work on the outside too much to handle — let alone the pervasive social prejudices that often propel young African-Americans to jail rather than to Yale. Too many found themselves back in jail.

Working in the nursery | Photo: The Garden Project

That's why in 1992, Sneed extended her work outside the Jail to serve the broader community. Her Garden Project, based in the traditionally African-American neighborhoods of Bayview and Hunters' Point in San Francisco, aimed to provide opportunity for released inmates — and locals who'd never gotten so much as a parking ticket — looking for alternatives to the cycle of poverty, arrest and incarceration. 24 years after its founding, the Garden Project thrives like the plants its employees nurture. An unlikely partnership among dozens of local community organizations, the San Francisco Sheriff and SFPD, and the S.F. Public Utilities Commission, the Garden Project has literally changed the lives of generations.

In addition to growing food at the project's 15-acre farm at the County Jail's San Bruno facility, Garden Project staff are also paid under contract with the City of San Francisco to landscape public areas, and have planted more than 10,000 street trees over the years. Hundreds of San Franciscans a week eat food provided by the Garden Project, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has lauded the group as "one of the most innovative and successful community-based crime prevention programs in the country.”

Sneed talks to Garden Project gardeners | Photo: The Garden Project

Under the Garden Project's Earth Stewards program, an initiative started in 2004, young San Franciscans aged 18-24 and enrolled in college extend their horticultural skills from the garden out into the wildlands. In addition to managing the San Bruno farm and the Garden Project's California native plant nursery, Earth Stewards work with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to restore natural landscapes in San Francisco, San Mateo County, and as far afield as Yosemite National Park. Many Earth Stewards go on to complete degrees in fields ranging from STEM to the arts to public service.

A complementary program offers summer jobs for high school students, who get hands-on and hands-dirty experience in the garden, and deliver boxes of produce to people in need at about two dozen distribution centers in San Francisco. As Sneed told me this week, the Earth Stewards Summer High School program is about to take on new summer staff numbering in the hundreds of young people, some of whom have parents — or grandparents — who are alumni of either the Garden Project or its predecessor, the SF Jail Horticulture Project.

It all underscores the wisdom of Sneed's original and evolving vision: connecting people to something bigger than themselves provides a sense of purpose and perspective, and a reason to try to save at least a small part of the world. 

"The work of the Garden Project proves that change can happen," writes Sneed. "Garden Project participants are 25 percent less likely to return to jail than those who didn't participate in the project."

"We're not just growing plants. We're growing people."


For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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