The VietLead garden at Furness has lead to social justice campaigns.
Long beds of soil lie in the shadow of Horace Howard Furness High School.
While, at first glance, it may seem the homemade harvest is an ornament to the recess yard, the sprouts’ roots — and leaves — reach beyond what merely meets the eye, stretching into emotional healing and social justice.
A home for various Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern herbs, the plantings serve as, quite literally, a melting pot with ancestral sources tracing across the world.
Tended by four high school and college students living in Whitman and Chinatown, a garden at Furness is the ongoing product of SumOurRoots — a collaboration of VietLead, an organization that focuses on the welfare of local Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities, the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia and the Bhutanese Organization of Philadelphia. The community garden also stems from Soil Generation, which is a local “Black and Brown-led coalition of gardeners, farmers, individuals and community-based organizations” aiming to sustain accessibility to land and food resources for people of color.
Last summer, after first joining SumOurRoots, the students began brainstorming ways to mend the generation gap between elders and the youth, specifically those who are considered to possess “limited English proficiency,” as nearly 50 percent of Furness students are enrolled in English as a second or foreign language programs, as reported by SPR in May 2018.
“It’s not necessarily about what we grow and the crops and how to take care of it,” said Tommy Ngeth, a junior at Mastery Charter School — Thomas Campus. “But, mainly the fact that gardening is just overall a way to heal — in my eyes. … The point is, (students) don’t speak English excellently, and moving to America, English is a huge part of lifestyle, and not knowing that — it has to be hard on them. They want to blend in with everybody, and that’s not always the case.”
“Some of them just wanted a place to feel like home,” added Nicholas Voeun, a junior at Furness. “Where they were from, where their parents were from, where they originated — something that could remind them of their homeland.”
After getting the Furness space approved by its principal, Ngeth and his team began hosting monthly meetings to inform the community on the new garden during the spring.
However, while planning the garden in its original location behind the building, the team tested lead levels in the paint of a staircase that overlooked the planting beds.
To their surprise, they discovered noxious amounts of the element. Although they were forced to move the plots underneath the school’s facade, the poisonous unmasking sparked a “toxic teachings” commission, encompassing programs to inform students, school-wide petitions and even testimony to Superintendent Dr. William Hite during city council budget hearings in the spring.
“As I was talking (to the School Reform Commission,) I got more comfortable with speaking because — what I was saying — I knew it was something I wanted to stop,” Voeun recalled.
“We start up with the message of teach out — it’s safer to be outside of school than inside because of the lead contamination,” said Minh Tran, who just finished his freshman year at Community College of Philadelphia.
Another major time to inform the community of the issue was in May when the team says close to 200 people came to Furness to help build the garden boxes. Elders from the neighborhood maintain half of them, while the rest are nurtured by the VietLead members.
The team explained that tending to the plants is merely one way to create harmony, as they really hope to sell the grown produce through a farmers market — something they do in a similar garden in Camden.
This satisfies their greater goal of establishing accessibility for healthy foods to lower-income demographics.
“It’s one of the ways to reduce poverty there. What we give them is a very fresh harvest,” said Kamal Kafley, who just finished his freshman year at Penn State Abington.
“For me, urban growing is a way for communities to have access to fresh food,” Tran said.
From food injustices to toxic school conditions, the Furness garden ignited a handful of communal campaigns, but for the four young adults, the greenery serves as a chance for personal growth.
“I feel as though the garden is just a huge way in allowing me to be my true self in a way,” Ngeth said. “The garden allowed me to be more open-minded. And like just to understand that there is not just one narrative to something.”