By Tony Wilkinson
The Eco Village Farm Learning Center is tucked into a semi urban section of farmland, a 5.6-acre oasis that holds an orchard of fruit trees, vegetable gardens, animal corrals and paths, bordered by San Pablo and the Wilkie creeks in Richmond.
During the school year the farm is host to young urban residents. Nearly 3,500 students a year, 8 years of age and older, visit the farm. They connect with nature, learning how bees make honey, shearing sheep, caring for small animals, chickens, ducks, goats and sheep. They plant, cultivate and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables.
During the summer, young interns repair fences, clear fallen trees, plant crops, care for animals and clean enclosures
At the center of all this activity is the Eco Village ‘s founder and executive director Shyaam Shabaka, whose vision is to create a healthy sustainable environment and a socially/economically just society.
He uses his years of experience to help young people learn through hands-on activities how to restore and protect mother earth and her people.
“I had been a public health professional working in Berkeley for 30 years,” Shabaka said. ” I worked in South and West Berkeley, primarily with low-income residents and primarily people of color. I worked days and nights on HIV-AIDS, substance abuse and cardiovascular diseases.”
In 2000, he retired, and he was faced with what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. “I decided I wanted to work with young adults, particularly Afro American youths,” he said. “I wanted to help them travel the journey of life better than I have.
“I knew from my own observation that working in gardens could change low-income lives. I had worked with high-risk youth in Berkeley starting a number of gardens including Strong Roots Garden (at Sacramento and Woolsey Streets).”
At Strong Roots, he worked with young people whose parents were addicted to drugs and faced other serious life challenges. “Out of all of those young people, not one was jailed or became an addict,” he said. “The work they were doing in the garden helped them achieve a more productive life.”
Shabaka decided to create an “eco village,” a farm learning center in Richmond
“I found this property and put $10,000 from my personal savings down with the promise to find the rest. It took a long time and a lot of work,” he said.
The work on the Richmond farm is interconnected with all the social issues that people in urban settings face, he said.
“It is essential to know that if you control your own destiny, you can make a difference – you work together to grow a more healthy society. It isn’t just about growing tomatoes, fruit trees, or organic produce,” he said. “ If you can’t walk down your street without getting shot, all that means nothing. You have to have a fair and just society. That takes working together across all lines for the common good.”
In the Eco Village classrooms, young people learn about a range of issues, from obesity and soft drinks to personal violence prevention work,” he said. “We also learn about our history and the history of the food we eat.”
“For us, Eco Village is a microcosm of the whole world. Richmond has lost homes, jobs and livelihoods. This creates major stress on working families. When you are talking to young people about how to grow corn, squash, you are talking about the same skills you need to grow a healthy society – and the same intent to grow a healthy world.”
For information go to http://ecovillagefarm.org/