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An Oakland Urban Farm Gives Ex-Prisoners Another Chance

Lead by an ex-Black Panther, ex-inmates try to break the prison cycle—with a hoe.

via Flicker user Rosana Prada

It’s not quite a traditional farm. First, it is just three-quarters of an acre, currently hosting 40 raised beds. It’s also smack dab in a city, in a struggling western section of Oakland, California. The farmhands are untraditional too: They’re all former prisoners. And the farm owner? That’s 72-year-old Elaine Brown, who chaired the Black Panthers from 1974 to 1977.


But one year into the project, West Oakland Farms’ raised beds are already overflowing with tomatoes, corn, peppers, kale, and squash, Civil Eats reports. And the ten former inmates who work here, all part-time, are making $20 an hour.

“I’m not in the farm business,” Brown told Civil Eats. “I’m in the business of creating opportunities for black men and women who are poor and lack the education, skills, and resources to return to a community that is rapidly gentrifying without economic avenues for them in mind.”

The farm has already landed a contract to provide fruits and vegetables to Picán, an upscale restaurant in Oakland’s Uptown district.

Brown says the small farm is just the beginning. She wants to add affordable housing, a fitness center, a tech design space, and a juice bar to the city-owned land surrounding the plots, with the help of the nonprofit organization she founded last year.

Of course, Brown will have to raise money to make that possible. Currently, she’s received just $300,000 in grants and government funding; she estimates she will need $30 to $40 million.

For now, though, it appears that her small team is learning a lot. From Civil Eats:

In a matter of months, the team has built an obvious rapport. GaQuayla LaGrone, 32, began working at the farm in April. She had never farmed before and it took her a few weeks to get over her squeamishness around insects. LaGrone hopes to eventually start her own business making natural hair care products for African Americans. “I might even be able to use herbs or flowers from the farm in the products,” she says.

“Every day I come here I learn something new. I didn’t know that a lot of fruits start life as a flower; that just blew my mind,” says Ray Kidd, 26. He was incarcerated from age 16 to 23 for violent crimes, and wants to break free of the prison cycle: Both his biological parents are in federal prison.

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