It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Monday at Castlemont High School in East Oakland. Teenagers sporting backpacks and colorful sneakers spill out into the yard and the street. They laugh and yell in groups, chase friends down the sidewalk and stand in line to buy ice cream and chips from the vendors who wait for them each day. The vibrant, noisy scene is a sharp contrast to the otherwise quiet sidewalk of MacArthur Boulevard.
But not everyone is packing up to go home. At the end of the long driveway, past the colorful murals and speed bumps, a crew of about a dozen students from Castlemont High and Leadership Public Schools, a local charter school network, are getting ready to get their hands dirty. Literally.
The students are part of Love Cultivating Schoolyards, a garden internship program that gives teens the opportunity to earn a stipend while learning about food cultivation and ecology. Organized by Oakland Leaf, a nonprofit that supports after-school programming for local students, the program employs more than 30 interns at six sites across Oakland.
Twice a week, students gather at the East Oakland garden to weed, plant, harvest and mix soil. They work on two different plots: the garden, run by Oakland Leaf, and the farm, primarily run by Phat Beets, an Oakland-based youth farming and food justice program. Together, the two plots make up over an acre of land hidden behind school walls, where students work together to grow fresh produce and build community.
“There’s a dominant narrative of Oakland being a really dangerous place, where, you know, nothing really good happens," said LCS director Matthew Linzner. "And here we are, working after school with our young folks, taking care of the green spaces on campus and helping beautify the school, helping provide more healthy food for the community.”
Students chat in English and Spanish as they change their shoes and wait for Linzner to assign daily tasks. Each day, the group begins by passing around a shell filled with lit frankincense while the students answer a prompt meant to set the tone for the day and encourage conversation.
“The most important thing is that people are comfortable. Comfortable to share, comfortable to explore, comfortable to take risks,” Linzner said.
The program welcomes students from every background, though it has a particularly high number of Latinx and newcomer participants.
For Alejandro Meteas, 16, gardening gives him the opportunity to relax and connect with other students. “We have to help those who are new and don’t know how to plant,” he said in Spanish.
According to Linzner, working in the garden gives many newcomer students a way to find community and stay connected to agricultural traditions back home.
Learning to garden is also a way for many of the students to prepare for the future.
For 15-year-old Quynhri Pham Nguyen, working in the garden is a way to spend time outside while boosting her college resume. “I did this program to get some credit for college,” she said.
In addition to running the LCS internship, Linzner also teaches a gardening class through Castlemont’s Sustainable Urban Design Academy, a program geared toward helping students gain real-world skills and college credit before graduating from high school.
“Oakland Leaf and Phat Beets, we’re like partnering organizations with SUDA, which is the school-based program," he said. "We’re trying to integrate everything."
Some students also see learning to garden as way to connect with their families.
Giovanna Mora, 14, said that learning about plants and gardening has allowed her to become closer to her father, a landscaper. “We used to not get along that much, so now we have something to agree on and talk about,” she said. “This knowledge can bring us together.”
Beyond skill-building, LCS aspires to instill fiscal responsibility and community engagement among its students. The interns earn a base pay of $500 per school year through incremental paychecks, and for each additional year they do the program they can earn a bit more.
“It benefits both me and the school garden,” said Giovanna. “If I’m not going to take care of it, who is?”
This fall, Oakland Leaf began a partnership with Hope Collaborative, a local food-centered youth and community equity organization, to purchase and distribute the produce grown in the garden. According to Linzner, despite having a bounty of high-quality produce, LCS has often struggled to get the food out to the community.
He said that it was "a really strange phenomenon where we had all this really high-quality produce and didn’t necessarily have a good way of getting it to the community.” Through the partnership, LCS began selling their produce at cost to local corner stores, as well as to Hope Collaborative’s own nutrition and cooking programs.
The corner store initiative wasn’t a complete success — the store they partnered with shut down — but they’ve since begun selling their produce to 7 Flavours Food For The Soul, a nearby restaurant.
“Our food is still being distributed in the community, which is ultimately the goal,” Linzner said.
The focus on food has trickled down to the students as well. Working in the garden and learning about new plants has helped Mariah Alvarez, 16, understand that food isn’t just something to make you feel full.
“It’s kind of like a medicine," she said, noting that the experience has made her “think differently through knowing what we put in our body."
At the end of each day, the students sit on benches in a circle with the sun setting behind them. Linzner makes announcements before closing with a game, chant or word of the day. The students then collect their backpacks, change back into their clean sneakers and walk together through campus.
The goal, Linzner said, is to build an “army of young folks, earth warriors, almost.” He’d like to see his students become a team “trying to create change in their community, more green space, more urban ecology, more native habitats, and reclaiming the brown and gray spaces in our city and in our communities.”