Building community, growing food, co-creating change: An interview with Crystal Gonzalez

Crystal Gonzalez is the Director of AFSC’s Roots for Peace Program in Los Angeles. Prior to joining AFSC in 2010 she had 10 years of experience as an organizer and educator in the Los Angeles area. I interviewed Crystal about her life and values and how she lives those out in her work with the Roots for Peace program. The following is edited excerpts of our conversation. - Genevieve

Genevieve Beck-Roe (GBR): How does your experience having grown up in a farmworker community inform your current work with Roots for Peace?

Crystal Gonzalez (CG): My grandparents worked as farmworkers in the grape fields in the Coachella Valley. I knew from visiting Mexico that my grandfather had a plot of land that he owned and worked, and he had some cows. It seemed like a very harmonious process. He really valued the land that he lived on. He came out of the Mexican Revolution with the idea that “land is liberty” and so he always thought, as long as you have a piece of land you'll be okay because then you have the land to grow food and raise your family.

But then they came to the US and sold their labor as migrant farm workers. My grandfather developed skin cancer, and we think it was tied either to the pesticides in the grape fields or also the sun exposure. Despite all this, everybody still loved to grow food at home. It was weird, a strange cross. There was a lot of oppression involved. Farming as a migrant worker involved pain and hard labor. At the same time, there was also a love for the land, for growing food, and for farming.

Now I see how food and relationship to the land are important in urban environments as well, if not even more so. A lot of immigrant communities come from areas that are connected with the land. Then they get here, to the United States, to Los Angeles, and they have a small apartment and no access to land.

Having a community garden is about building community, having shared space, and having food. Land is an important nucleus for people coming together. We have a community garden and a Food Growers Network. There are individuals who live in apartments who garden in the community garden, and then there are people who have land in their own homes – like in their backyards or front yards – and the combination of those we call the Food Growers Network.

One of the monthly workshops is a Recipe Sharing workshop. They make a food from their culture and add fresh vegetables to it. For example, say we're doing cabbage, which you put on top of pozole. We’ll talk about the cabbage and the season and the different types of cabbage there are, and how best to grow it. Then the person gives the recipe class. The food is about validating people's knowledge and having a shared space to build community so that the neighborhood is stronger.

Students at Central High School working in the community garden

The food justice work is also important because communities of color are disproportionately suffering from diabetes and obesity and heart disease. In the United States, all communities are suffering from processed foods. Government subsidies are going to foods that are turned into high fructose corn syrup. The government could be subsidizing fresh fruits and vegetables, but they aren’t. We feel that food is not just the problem but also the solution. Food is what brings people together and a way for people to create change in their communities.

GBR: Tell me about why Roots for Peace specifically focuses on cultivating critical consciousness with youth in the program. What programs have you recently used to develop this consciousness, and how has it affected youth in the program?

CG: It's really important, and it can be really uncomfortable for people. The youth are really hungry to understand why things are the way they are. With youth, we’ve taken the approach of understanding history by understanding our own experiences.

We had a two week Los Angeles Freedom School* over the summer. One day was on colonialism, racism, and slavery, which are huge topics. The conversation ended up being mostly about racism and how they see racism in their own families, or how they experienced racism from other people. They talked about understanding the hate towards darker skin in their own families and the fact that they validate lighter skin Latinos – it was a mix of Latino and African American in that Freedom School. But for the Latino students it was really a reflection on colorism. Like, “wow, no wonder,” since colonialism made everybody hate their blackness and indigenous looks. They were slaves, and if you were indigenous you were told you needed to go work in the mines. Of course they processed that for survival!

The students were the ones reflecting and sharing how painful it's been to experience this in their own families. When we work with youth there’s this combined approach where we’re posing these topics, but they’re sharing their experiences and teaching us and one another. It’s about understanding our own experiences and then tying those to some kind of historical root. It makes the invisible visible, these hegemonic things like patriarchy and racism. We don't like to look at them, but by talking about them we acknowledge and understand that they're here. History has to be tied to what they're feeling now and what they're seeing now.

Students at Mar Vista and their raised beds

GBR: I know Roots for Peace works in several different neighborhoods in Los Angeles, doing work that is specific to the students’ lives in that particular area. Tell me what youth have been doing recently at one of the sites, and how you’ve been engaging the issues that are relevant there.

CG: In Lincoln Heights in Northeast LA we've been addressing issues of gentrification. We had an action in front of an empty lot in Lincoln Heights and the youth had a big board and asked community members walking by to dream about what they'd like to see in the lot. The lot is currently being sold to the highest bidder. But the youth were saying, what do we want it for? What do we see in this empty lot?

Residents came by and students were approaching them on the street. The students gave the residents brochures about the Roots for Peace program, how they’ve been analyzing the community and see gentrification as an impending issue. Then they asked residents to write on the visioning board what they would like to see in the community. That was really fabulous. The local newspaper came and took photographs, and a piece came out called "Community Development, Not Displacement."

Crystal planning service with Roots for Peace students

Another action involved a mobile mural that the students painted. The mural depicted how we need to support each other to get free. It showed these scissors cutting the strings of oppression. It was a student design, and it was incredibly profound. Then we walked with that mural piece down the streets of Lincoln Heights and stood in front of a business. The business was a gentrifying business because that's where the local pollo rosticeria – the local chicken rotisserie – used to be. I knew people who for 15 years would go there to buy a whole chicken with a side of tortillas, and that's what they would have for meals. This one chicken spot was replaced by a craft beer shop. There's a moratorium on bars in that neighborhood, but for some reason a craft beer store was allowed into that community.

We staged an action in front of that business with the mural and the students read poetry. It's about students really speaking up about how these changes in their community are influencing them and their families personally. And also how we need to be aware and how the community needs to be mindful of what they would like to see in their community. Because if they don't make those decisions, if they're not thinking about it, then the real estate folks and the people with the deep pockets are the ones going to be making those decisions for that community.

Roots for Peace students at an action in front of a deli

GBR: Before coming to Roots for Peace, you worked for many years as an educator. I’ve read that you view education as "co-developing sacred spaces that support personal, communal and societal transformation." How in particular do you see those spaces as being scared, and why is this meaningful to you?

CG: The sacred is honoring each other and each other's value and each other's experiences. It’s valuing that at the heart of who we are, at the core of who we are, is love and Spirit. It's how to be in the kitchen with your husband, your wife, your child, your partner. It's practicing how we treat each other in a meeting as we're planning for something. Those are spaces where we're co-creating what love looks like, what a better world looks like. Those spaces are the example and the model that we carry with us when we leave.

I felt that way from the moment I went into a classroom as a student teacher. How can education be about anything but love and valuing each other and learning together and creating a better world? What is really at the core of all this is human relationships and supporting one another. I've always felt that holding that communal space of learning and valuing each other’s knowledge in order to reach new heights together is really where it's at.

Roots for Peace mural

GBR: How are Quaker values lived out in the work of the Roots for Peace program, and what effect have you seen those values have in the work?

CG: Two Quaker values that come to mind are integrity and stewardship.

To me, stewardship is co-creating and co-developing with community members. It’s honoring that they have the skills to make this happen, and that they know more than I do about the community and what needs to happen.

Staff of AFSC programs are always thinking, “How do we develop the leadership and capacity for community members to continue this work in their own lives and in their own community?” Integrity is definitely a part of the work that we do. One thing that I was told by organizers in LA when I joined AFSC was, "AFSC were always the folks who we could trust."

I feel responsible to be and act a certain way, because I think what AFSC has shown people through its history is that is it an organization with a lot of integrity. We've noticed how people really respect and value and trust us in these organizing scenes.

Roots for Peace demonstration by the Food Growers Network of South Los Angeles

GBR: What are your hopes and dreams for the future of Roots for Peace?

CG: I envision a strong cohort of youth in the future of the Roots for Peace program. We are trying to form a centralized group, but because we are working in three different communities it's been difficult. We want to form a strong cohort of youth who have a strong analysis and interest in impacting food justice and land use policies here is Los Angeles.

We envision that group of youth organizing a variety of events and really impacting the conversations around food justice in Los Angeles. Food justice can be one of those social justice areas that are dominated by folks with higher incomes. Sometimes the conversations become, “We need more Whole Foods or organic foods.” Often that just goes to people who have more money.

The food justice conversation needs a stronger presence of the communities most affected and of communities of color. I envision having a strong cohort of youth who are able to address those issues.

Roots for Peace participants and staff with their mobile mural

GBR: What else would you like people to know about the work AFSC has been doing in Los Angeles?

CG: Community members are really proud of themselves for the work they've been doing. This last weekend at our Food Growers meeting in South LA, a community member was reflecting on the past year. She said "I feel so proud of what we've done, because we built that small community garden three years ago. Now we have a community garden, we have a Food Growers Network, we have a seed library, and we have these monthly sharing recipes classes. We have so much, and it all started with that small action"

A lot of those women that built those garden beds three years ago are still involved in the Food Growers Network now. The fact that community members are seeing themselves as agents in creating these projects and making change in their community, that's the biggest testament for the success of the program.

* Freedom School is an intensive training designed to inspire a lifetime of community involvement. Youth get to analyze the systems that perpetuate violence, injustice, and racism, and learn about history and how to organize for change. Read more about AFSC’s Freedom Schools across the county here.

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