Dear East Hollywood, Virgil Village and Neighboring Communities,
When a group of us started the Madison Ave Community Garden during the summer of 2019, our team had major challenges concerning soil quality for the garden, as well as several design and policy decisions to make for the space. As the lead gardener, I volunteered to cultivate over 700 square feet of soil in order to develop better planting and organizing space for the communal plot area, also known as the area for local residents to come and grow their own fruits and veggies. I also filmed and edited a bunch of videos about this process, which you can find at the Provost Kitchen on YouTube.
The Madison Ave Community Garden, like 42 other community gardens in the city of Los Angeles, is overseen by a board or group of three to five community members. As a board member, my primary focus was to make the Madison Ave Community Garden an accessible site for the working class Latinx, Asian, and other BIPOC communities that make up East Hollywood. This is why when I learned that of the available community plots for the garden, over 70% of them were taken by white residents, I sounded the bell and noted to fellow board members that it was important to be more inclusive.
I then submitted and ensured passage of a motion to include Spanish in all social media posts. Prior to this, all social media for the garden was published only in English. I also submitted and ensured passage of a motion seeing to it that the next chair/vice chair position be held by a Latinx person, in order to be more reflective of the Latinx residents who make up the East Hollywood and Virgil Village areas. Finally, I created a new position on the board known as the Community Outreach Coordinator, whose goal is to find local, long-time residents who may be interested in taking space at the garden. Thanks to these efforts, we now have more Latinx, Asian and other BIPOC community members at the garden.
In November of this year, I also organized and executed the first ever Dia de Los Muertos festivities at the garden. As a person of indigenous roots, it was very important for me to have the garden blessed with a ceremony.
“There is of course a lot more work that needs to be done.”
Motions currently being considered by the board are publishing social media biographies of the leadership team, making motions available to the public, allowing garden members to sit in on leadership team meetings, and creating a yearly diversity report, as well as Tongva land acknowledgement. All these motions are an effort to further increase diversity, transparency, and accountability at the garden, and I hope to see each of these motions pass by the end of the year.
To the recently-arrived white community in East Hollywood, I invite you to reflect on words such as community and food justice. What does community mean to you? I encourage you to use your privilege to create more access for communities and food justice for communities of color. You don’t need to go far to see racial disparity. According to some of the most recent figures, East Hollywood is comprised of 24% whites, yet they made up over 50% of the people assigned plots at the garden.
“These types of disparities don’t go away with a Biden win.”
After many conversations with the board at Madison Ave Community Garden, as well as with board members for other similar gardens across Los Angeles, I’ve realized that “food justice” is a term that is now widely tossed around in discussions about inclusivity. However, if the garden is not made accessible to BIPOC communities in Los Angeles, and if equity is not a part of the garden’s mission, then there can be no such justice.
To the Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian communities in East Hollywood and beyond, I invite you to reflect about the work that we do in Los Angeles. Do we work to keep building those same systems that favor the few, or do we to help build a new system, where all of us have access? Tongva land acknowledgement, for example, shouldn’t even have to be made into a motion. It should be a given. Yet when necessary, we ourselves must speak up about our work and our heritage so that others don’t take credit for our critical contributions to the communities we help make and cultivate.
Work has been hard. I put in over 2,000 volunteer hours at the garden, or the equivalent of $50,000 worth of work over a year and a half. My term isn’t officially over until July 2021, but I now believe it’s time for someone else to take on the role of Lead Community Gardener for the space. My hope is that the next board member in this role will also have diversity as a top priority.
It has been an honor to serve this community and watch it grow, and I now look forward to meeting again in the days ahead for more work in equity and inclusion in Los Angeles.
Heleo Levya is a leading community chef and gardener in East Hollywood. He holds a Bachelor of Science with a concentration in Finance from Cal State University, Long Beach. In his senior year, he was admitted to the Student Managed Investment Fund, a one-year finance honors like program in which he managed real portfolios consisting of over $750k. His work was recently covered by This Side of Hoover, Eater, and the L.A. Times.