Miles Gordon is the Founder and Project Coordinator for The Gardens Project of North Coast Opportunities which he started in 2007 in Ukiah, Mendocino County, California. His inspiration for The Gardens Project began 10 years ago as a result of a local hunger assessment. It revealed that Mendocino County needed more access to food which inspired Miles to help organize the Cleveland Community Garden – now Ukiah’s oldest and largest. As a former teacher who worked with school gardens, Miles noticed that some struggled, competing for resources. He saw a real need for two things: networking existing gardens so they could share resources and expertise while simultaneously, and rapidly, developing access to new gardens.
In the last three years, The Gardens Project has helped develop 16 new gardens and network over 65 in Mendocino County. These include gardens at schools, senior centers and those in the community at large. Miles and his wonderful Americorps VISTA volunteers also work on farmer development and rebuilding the food system on many levels.
CE: What issues have you been focused on?
MG: Empowerment. Empowering local communities through food. Access to land, organizing, facilitating community ownership of process, developing gardens, and empowering leadership by facilitation.
CE: What inspires you to do this work?
MG: Being in a community garden on a Sunday evening filled with families, tending gardens, talking story, sharing food, it’s beautiful. Whenever I need inspiration I go out the garden and I talk to people. It’s the community spirit and the feeling of joy that comes from connecting people back to the garden and their communities at the same time.
CE: What’s your overall vision?
MG: A community that has access on all levels, from backyards to neighborhood gardens to schools to cafeterias to farmers markets—that we’ve rebuilt the food system so people have control over their own food supply and therefore their own political system.
CE: What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?
MG: The lastest one is the Monthly Review Journal. Now it’s a great issue on 21st century socialism in Latin American and about organizing from the bottom up. It’s all about bottom up!
The last good novel I read for an escape was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and on, the whole series.
CE: Who’s in your community?
MG: There’s a strong, mostly Mexican migrant community here that really make up the backbone of the local food movement and the gardens, who bring a recent tradition of farming and community spaces. There’s a lot of back-to-the-landers and second generation of back-to-the-landers from the 70s, with those values too. We have a strong tradition of ranchers and farmers that have grown pears and cattle and now grow wine grapes. There’s a dying timber industry and lot of people trying to figure out what’s next. And, a lot of people in between.
CE: What are your commitments?
MG: My kids, they are my biggest commitment and my greatest joy of commitment. It’s cliché, but another one is making the world a better place—and not just in my image, but in helping others realize their vision. I’m at a place in life where I’ve chosen the work I do. I’ve gone from being a full-time public school and college teacher to working longer and harder for less money but greater joy.
CE: What are your goals?
MG: For myself, for my kids, for my community, for where I go, to bring joy to humans in all their interesting manifestations. And, have that joy connected to this world we’re in right now. I try to make things less bad and more loving and joyous when possible. It comes with a lot of hard work, but it wouldn’t be as satisfying if it didn’t.
Professionally, my goal is to make myself obsolete by facilitating the change.
CE: What does change look like to you?
MG: Change looks like a lot of people, a lot of new people, and a lot more people getting involved with their destiny than previously. The more involved people are in shaping their destiny is what change looks like to me. It’s people speaking up. When people are activated and involved in what’s happening in their world, then change is happening. Otherwise someone else is in charge.
CE: Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?
MG: A lot of listening and assessment. What do people want? If you ask the questions and open an opportunity, people have a good idea, in general, of what they want. So finding what the needs are. It’s connecting again to the resources. Community assessment. Knocking on doors, canvassing. And, facilitating the process to enact it. Connecting people to accessible land, figuring out legalities of land, who the players are, talking about the possibilities and setting a date to get to work and being committed to making those dates happen. Sometimes people just need an opportunity and a little cheerleading and off they go.
Then once they are started we can help facilitate leadership and organizational training too.
CE: What projects are affiliated with yours?
MG: Master Gardeners of the UC Cooperative Extension, School Nutrition Network, Network for a Healthy California, Head Start, the state pre-school system, local tribes, Family Resource Centers and gardens, local soup kitchens and their gardens, public health, all the cities in the county, lots of local businesses around materials and labor. And, the First 5 Commission, which focuses on children 0-5 and their health.
CE: What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?
MG: One of our issues is scale since we are small and rural compared to many great urban projects. But, I love Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco because they have successfully brought on neighborhoods that take responsibility for their change, while simultaneously working with the city to create a viable program for developing urban forests. There’s a lot of ownership and accountability for those who want the trees.
I love the CFSC. They are doing what we’re talking about. They are networking and providing a national forum. They are active and showing we can do this locally, regionally, and nationally.
CE: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
MG: I see us in a transition period and how long that lasts will be based on the global commodity system. We will gradually build because we reconnect people to their roots, and that’s too inspiring to let go. There are cracks in the global system and every disaster brings a window that we need to push through. And, it will require subsidies during the transition that support our work. I think we’ll always be in a process of struggle; that’s what makes life interesting.
CE: What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?
MG: It needs to focus as much as possible on connecting on a local and regional basis with as many partners, agencies, and people. We shouldn’t see ourselves as an isolated piece of our policy and economy, but as an integral piece, because food connects to everything. So the more we make the connections between health, self-sufficiency, economy, etc. the stronger it becomes. It’s really about re-building, not building the local food system.
CE: What would you want to be your last meal on earth?
MG: Hanging out in an apple orchard on a beautiful, sunny, Fall day eating crunchy apples out of a tree.