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Cultivating a community

Mar./Apr. 2015 California Bountiful magazine

Oakland native starts urban farm for a brighter future




Kelly Carlisle, founder and executive director of Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, is surrounded by East Oakland youth who participate in programs about gardening, nutrition, health and environmental education, among other topics.

Standing in the middle of a small but lush urban farm in East Oakland, all eyes are on Kelly Carlisle. She has captured the attention of a dozen excited children as she says, "Wherever you see a flower is where the peas are going to come." The children listen to every word, soaking up tidbits of knowledge about growing plants, the benefits of ladybugs and the importance of eating fruits and vegetables.

"It's all about the kids," said Carlisle, founder and executive director of Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, a nonprofit farm she started in 2010 that focuses on improving the standard of living for inner-city youth and their families.


Camp counselor Brian Zamora offers instruction on garden-tool safety with students participating in Acta Non Verba programs.

Carlisle operates the quarter-acre farm at Tassafaronga Park, in partnership with the city of Oakland Parks and Recreation Department, which provides the land. There, she tends to the garden and the young minds, overseeing various programs that comprise Acta Non Verba, including camps and nutrition workshops, as well as a seasonal farm stand and community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, which allow people to purchase direct-from-the-farm fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Carlisle serves as an example not only in founding and operating Acta Non Verba—which means "deeds not words"—but also in having lived a childhood in East Oakland that "wasn't safe," she said. "There wasn't anything to do, anything positive to get linked into, so I started (this) so I could address that as well as other things," such as nutrition, health and environmental education.

The garden-related programs of Acta Non Verba, whether one day or multiple weeks, provide opportunity for low-income youth ages 5 to 17. The ripple effect, Carlisle said, is a community of empowered, knowledgeable children and their families living in a safer place with healthy activities and long-term benefits. This includes the potential for the children to earn money for college from growing their own produce (see story below).

The magic of a garden

On this sunny morning, children take a break from arts and crafts and head outdoors for hands-on learning in the garden. They receive instructions on the proper use of gardening tools and examine their flourishing fruits, vegetables and flowers.


Camp participant Jame'Que LeBlanc investigates the Acta Non Verba garden.

"Once they come to the garden, the kids can relax," said Brian Zamora, an Acta Non Verba camp counselor. "At the garden, they get to enjoy and learn something new every day—about weeds, plants, fruits, vegetables."

"I love to plant stuff and see it grow," said 7-year-old Keimanee Fleming, who added that she enjoys eating strawberries and mint from the garden. Jame'Que LaBlanc, 6, also likes to eat strawberries as well as watch butterflies flutter from one plant to another, but adds, "I don't like worms." Tariyah Smith, 7, then points out, "The worms are good for the garden."

"For the kids, it is more of a magic for them," Carlisle said. "The strawberries popping out definitely turns the kids on and the fava beans growing within weeks of planting, the kids are like, 'That was mine!'"

Empowering a community

Before Carlisle realized she wanted to "create a healthier future for East Oakland youth" through farming, she served in the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserve. Inspired by her father and two grandfathers who were Navy veterans, and looking for a way to "serve the greater good," Carlisle enlisted in the Navy in 2001. She dedicated three-and-a-half years to serving as an operations specialist aboard the USS Essex, steering the ship and coordinating air and surface contact.

With her service concluded, Carlisle returned home to East Oakland, where she said she felt "rudderless"—until a series of alarming statistics grabbed her attention.

"A number of news stories came out about Oakland having a 40 percent dropout rate, teen prostitution being on the rise and Oakland listed as the fifth-most-dangerous city in the U.S," said Carlisle, mother to Kaiyah, now 10. "It struck me that there's a whole population of kids—of people—who don't have a say in how they live, where they live or the different things that go on in their community and its youth. This was the epiphany moment."


A bell pepper is ready to be picked in the Acta Non Verba garden.

Carlisle realized she could use her love for gardening to make a difference—and Acta Non Verba was created.

"It occurred to me that we could empower youth by growing their own food," Carlisle said. "We could give them a voice in how their community looks and is run. We could basically improve the quality of life here by having this program, having kids invest in themselves and their own future in addition to the adults in their life trying to help them in whatever ways that we can."

Donations, discounts and other community support boosted Acta Non Verba's start-up efforts, including the purchase of a heavy-duty pickup truck through a fellowship with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national organization that supports aspiring agriculturists who have served in the Armed Forces. The American Farm Bureau Federation is now working with the coalition to develop a mentorship network to pair returning veterans with Farm Bureau members.

Through Acta Non Verba, Carlisle said she teaches the children that it takes hard work to make money and that agriculture is a viable career choice with potential for jobs on or off a farm.

"I am trying to come up with a way to have kids invest in themselves regardless of what their parents' resources are," she said.


Carlisle spends time with a smiling Tariyah Smith and busy Serafina Mann as they ready the garden for spring planting.

'Just a stick and a bag of dirt'

Carlisle's own experience learning about and growing food serves as her inspiration. It started with a visit to a plant nursery with her daughter, who was a toddler at the time.  

"I was pushing the baby in the cart and I saw a tree that had lemons dangling off of it and I'm like, 'Look what they did to this little tree.' But it turns out that lemons grow on trees, so I was curious to see if I could grow lemons; would the tree grow lemons again?" Carlisle said.

She returned home with a young lemon tree and gardening supplies.

Now, that love has become gardening with a purpose—and her life passion."It was just a stick and a bag of dirt; it looked ridiculous. When the tree grew a second lemon, my jaw hit the floor. That turned into our love of growing things," Carlisle said.

"It's part of Kelly's nature to give and share; that's just her. It's lifting the whole community," said Regina Wallace, Acta Non Verba garden coordinator. "Our future stewards of the planet are the students. They are the most important and are eager to learn."

Christine Souza
csouza@californiabountiful.com 

Seed money

The quarter-acre farm in East Oakland's Tassafaronga Park, operated by the nonprofit Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, provides fresh and affordable produce to an underserved population—and also raises college seed money for local, low-income youth who plan, plant, harvest and sell what they grow.

"Kids are seven times more likely to attend college if they have a savings account," said Acta Non Verba Founder and Executive Director Kelly Carlisle, citing university studies. "It didn't seem to matter if it was a large account, like a trust fund, or small. What mattered was that somebody cared enough to invest in that child having a future and education."

Acta Non Verba's college accounts are fashioned after a similar program developed by former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, in which every child who enters kindergarten at one of the city's public schools receives his or her own city-funded college savings account.

"I decided to marry that idea with growing things," said Carlisle, explaining that 100 percent of the proceeds from produce sales are placed into individual college accounts for youth who participate in the garden programs for at least four weeks.


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